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Russell Berrisford

Russell Berrisford

Russell’s support of Derby County eventually led him to leave the country. He has lived in Canada since 2007 and currently writes about soccer for The Vancouver Sun.


Should The Away Goals Rule Be Abolished?

Written by on April 12, 2011 | 12 Comments »
Posted in General, UEFA Champions League

On a recent edition of The Guardian’s “Football Weekly” podcast Sid Lowe threw out the comment that the away goals rule in Europe should be abolished immediately on the grounds that in recent years, more often than not, it has produced a defensively minded first game, with the home team more concerned with not conceding than building a lead.

There was no further discussion on the subject (and it could be argued that the first set of Champions League quarter-finals blew the argument out of the water) but I knew that Arsene Wenger had made the same point in the past and one set of games certainly don’t prove a point, so I did at least wonder whether there was some merit in the idea of scrapping the rule entirely.

Purely from my own memory it did seem that the tactics of European games had changed over the years.

It used to be the common assumption that the team playing at home in the first leg needed to look for a good lead to defend in the away leg, whereas in today’s game the common thinking was that the home sides main priority needed to be to ensure that they didn’t concede an away goal with the hope that they could get one of their own in the return fixture.

Yet we all know that the mind plays tricks and so I decided to look back over the results of European Cup/Champions League matches, specifically  the 1980/81-1989/90 period compared to the  2000/01-2009/10 period.

The 90s had a time where group play decided the finalists so were less relevant, and anyway, if the recent tactical changes caused by the away goal theory was right then the disparity between goals scored should be even greater over a twenty year period.

The first thing I noticed was how simple the European Cup seemed to be back then compared to the seemingly never-ending behemoth we have now but, for simplicity’s sake, I compared the home team performances in the first leg of the quarter-final and semi-final stage for both periods.

Had the attacking instincts of the home team been reduced through the years? The unequivocal answer is “not really.”

Throughout the eighties the home team scored a total of 94 goals, and in the first decade of this century they scored 85. Nine goals over sixty games isn’t that significant a figure (and if we could replace this years quarter-finals for a low scoring year then the disparity would be even less).

So if the goals scored by the home team hadn’t changed that much over time did they at least seem less likely to be going for a win in the modern era? Well, in the 80s they won 36 games and in the 2000s they won 31.

Again there is a difference but it would be a stretch to call it any kind of a trend. The home team in the current games is just as keen to score goals and get a win in the first leg as its counterpart from times past.

There is one thing that has changed over the years though, and I would argue that what is different now is the way that coaches, and subsequently the media, talk about European fixtures.

The modern manager is much more reluctant to build up expectations than his eighties counterpart, who would often look to fire up the fans for a great night of European football, and over time we have all absorbed this cautious talk and taken it to be indicative of a cautious style of play, whereas the reality, as shown by the statistics, is that what happens on the pitch today isn’t all that different to what it was twenty years ago.

Not for the first time in soccer what people say and what they actually do are two very different things, and the away goal rule isn’t going “away” anytime soon.

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12 responses to “Should The Away Goals Rule Be Abolished?”

  1. thrill says:

    I think we need a first-to-score rule – first to score in a match gets an extra point – defensive play be gone, I say.

  2. Bryan says:

    No.If it aint broke…

    But I would make it like the League Cup semi’s,away goals come into it at the end of extra-time not 90 mins.

    I’d also bring it back in the promotion play-off’s ,where more ties now end up going to penalties without the away goals rule.

  3. Michael Sebold says:

    It’s an interesting analysis, but I suspect that the goal statistics don’t tell the whole story. The game itself has changed over the period considered, along with the players’ athleticism, as well as their workload. To get a real sense of any significant difference would likely require a systematic review of game footage to assess a number of factors – for example, some points to consider might be:

    How high are the respective defensive lines?
    Which team is pursuing a possession game vs. counter-attacking posture?
    Which team is dominating possession?
    Which team is dominating shots taken? Shots on goal?
    Which team is dominating offensive possession (i.e., possession in the opponent’s half)?
    How do each team’s tactics differ from their typical approach to a league match?

    And the best players hit dry spells, so goals scored actually might be misleading . . .

  4. Russell Berrisford says:

    Bryan- Totally agree about them only counting in extra time.

  5. Gus Keri says:

    Any reasonable method to delay the dreaded PKs is perfect for me. “Away goal” rule should stay.

    About its effect on the game, I see positive effects on both legs, not only the first leg.

    For example, let’s assume that a game will feature a fully attacking home team vs. fully defensive away team:

    Home team: 100% offense, 0% defense
    away team: 0% offense, 100% defense

    With the “away goal” rule, we might see these numbers:

    Home team: 80% offense, 20% defense
    Away team: 20% offense, 80% defense

    End result:
    Home team will do a little bit more defending and the away team will do a little bit more attacking.
    Not a huge difference but more interesting game to watch.

  6. houyhnhnm twit says:

    personally, it makes ties in favor of the side better away from home, which is good

  7. greg mclauchlin says:

    In the inaugural edition of The Blizzard magazine, Ian Hawkey outlines why he thinks the away goals rule should be abolished. It’s an excellent read and I won’t rehash it here but one of the key areas he looks at is why the rule was introduced in the first place and how in the modern game, those reasons are no longer valid. Reasons such as a lack of knowledge of the opposition leading to defensive play, vagaries of long distance travel, pitch conditions, hostile crowds, poor amenities for the away side etc.

    I think if we ask ‘should it be abolished’ we should also ask what is it accomplishing now?

    And the paucity of penalty shoot-outs I guess is one of them but is that sufficient?

  8. Russell Berrisford says:

    Greg- Thanks for that. I’ve been meaning to get The Blizzard so you finally persuaded me.

    I’d make two points about Ian Hawkey’s argument.

    Firstly he says that when the rule was introduced away goals were hard to come by whereas now they are not, so the rule is not as relevant.

    Could it not be the case the the rule is what made teams try to score rather than be so defensive, and if we reverted back then the away team would be much happier with a 0-0 again?

    Secondly his main argument is still that it makes the opening game much more cautious which, as I argue, isn’t really true. Only one of the first round games in this years CL finished goalless for example.

    What does it accomplish? I think it makes it more likely that one team has to score to avoid going out of the competition which makes for better games.

    Incidentally, when I started writing the piece I was in favour of abolishing the rule, but now I see it as a better option than any other I can think of.

  9. Michael Sebold says:

    Btw, I say keep the away-goals rule — here are my five reasons:
    1. Whatever the effect on the home side, it’s an incentive for the away side to be more offensive;
    2. Whatever the advances in amenities and travel, it is unquestionably still a daunting task to come into a Camp Nou (Nou Camp?) and score;
    3. However subtly, a roaring home crowd will still often affect officiating;
    4. An opening away goal, which essentially puts the visitors 2-0 up, would tend to compel the home team to go even more offensive;
    5. It just makes the math more interesting.

  10. John Bladen says:

    Russell: I agree w your 11:37 post. Having memory of European competition before the away goals rule (although perhaps faulty memory, as you note), I must say that I think that the away goals rule is one of the best additions in years (if not decades). It is also one of the easiest of methods to promote offense in the game. Defensive stalemates – particularly amongst the elite teams who can and should be exciting to watch – serve no-one’s interest, least of all the game itself.

    The away goals rule pushes the visiting team in the first leg to play a more offensive style, IMO. Anything that encourages offensive tactics is a plus. As discussed the other day, liberalizing the offside rule (somehow) would also be a benefit… but how that is accomplished is a thorny matter.

    I would argue that if the premise of Hawkey’s argument is true (that the away goals rule makes the first leg more conservative), then the visiting coach has badly misplayed the leg. A 0-0 draw away in the first leg is ‘less than a draw’ from where I sit.

  11. Rob says:

    How has no one brought up the most obvious reason for why the rule should be abolished? As much as everyone hates pk’s how could anyone want a winner to be decided on which ground a goal is scored?? It’s the second stupidest rule in sport, behind the BCS.

  12. Justin says:

    I’d like to see it abolished for no other reason than so many pundits don’t actually understand it. When the away side wins the first leg 1-0, as United did against Chelsea, the goal is always described as a “crucial away goal,” when in fact only Chelsea, not United, could have won the tie on away goals after that result. It is a crucial goal in aggregate terms, but not because of away goals.

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