Simon Smith bemoans the away goal, whose place in European football is fast becoming redundant…
We had some controversial European ties in the last round of games, and the Nani sending off aside it was the away goals rule that took the brunt of complains. With Champions League quarter finals just around the corner it’s time to answer the question of whether the same will happen again. Should we all just accept the rule as how even ties are decided or is this the time to question it? It’s certainly been a while since I came across a defender of the rule… The usual complaints surround its unfairness: that it unjustly punishes the home team in the second leg of a tie, or kills a match because a fluke keeper error can have the significance of conceding “effectively two goals”. Is that really such a disaster?
Although there is a degree of skill involved, and the battle of nerves involved is exciting for the supporters, it’s difficult to argue that penalties are a much fairer way of deciding a tie still level after 180 minutes – and yet even when the less proactive team over a match wins on penalties, people are slow to call it an injustice in the same way that they would if the away goals rule had created the same outcome. It is up there with red cards, dives for penalties and Sergio Busquets on the list of match-spoilers.
That’s enough devil’s advocate. Cards on the table: I hate the away goals rule, for so many more reasons than its unfairness. And yes, the premature spoiling of an exciting tie by creating a need for the other team to score several goals to equalize the effect of the away goal is one of them. But there are worse crimes the away goals rule is guilty of, so how about instead of convince you to cut it some slack, I persuade you to hate it for a host of different reasons. Sound good?
First, it’s a rule from a bygone era that doesn’t have any role in the modern game. The away goals rule is older than goalkeeper pass-backs being disallowed, and by some margin too. Away goals are from an era when not only was European football for genuine domestic champions but in fact for when away football was an ordeal, a struggle to reach the ground that had to be factored into the competition. In the years when players embarked on, if not a voyage, then at least what can be called a difficult experience on a trip to Germany or Span, let alone Eastern Europe. There was a time when even a three goal defeat was not necessarily a terrible away result in the European cup, so one sided in favour of the home teams did matches tend to be, and in light of a culture of extreme bus parking as a damage limitation measure the away goals rule was intended to convince coaches that a 3 – 1 defeat was better than a 2 – 0.
How absurd it is that such a rule still exists. The improvements in transport of all kinds, hospitality and the influx of wealth into the UEFA elite have created a level of comfort the players of yesteryear could only dream of. Availability of tickets to travelling fans have reduced the hostility of most grounds, and the increasingly globalized world of football has removed the major differences between European domestic leagues enough that the Champions League has arguably a more homogenous playing style than the Premier League. Essentially, power has shifted well out of the home team’s hand, and so a rule designed to handicap them no longer has a place.
A terrible consequence of this is the fear that by conceding one, or god forbid a second away goal, the tie will be decided without the second leg being necessary. Take Arsenal Bayern in the recent Champions League knockout tie. Those claiming that Arsenal were knocked out on away goals are mistaken: if there was no away goals rule Bayern would undoubtedly have been less complacent in the second leg knowing that a two goal lead could be overturned. The issue was that the first leg effectively ended the tie because Arsenal would go out even with a 2 – 0 victory away, and to all neutrals this was a major disappointment. Most predicted the fragile Arsenal defence might even concede again, raising the prospect of having to score four times to overhaul Bayern. Of course the cause of Arsenal’s elimination lies with the players themselves, but the away goals rule certainly prematurely decided the contest. It deprived us of an exciting spectacle.
When the home team keeps a clean sheet, the exact opposite is true: the reward is disproportionately massive. The away goals rule punishes conceding goals at home so severely that home clean sheets have become even more important than away goals, and this incentivises defensive play at home despite the away goals rule allegedly aiming to encourage attacking play. Tottenham’s home mauling over Internazionale can hardly be called a defensive stance, but keeping a clean sheet was infinitely more important than the third goal: a 4 – 1 victory would have been less beneficial over both legs, as Inter can attest to having won by this score line and been eliminated as a result in the return fixture. If the home team in the first match can keep a clean sheet regardless of whether or not they score, the away leg offers boundless possibilities because whether the team scores or not there is at least the safety of knowing that they cannot concede any away goals.
Perhaps the cruellest part of this match was the late away goal Spurs scored after Inter had briefly taken an aggregate lead, not only preventing them winning but denying penalties due to its status as an away goal. To say that Inter did not deserve even penalties after fighting so hardly for extra time and then drawing with Spurs in extra time seems cruel. Granted, those are the rules and whether they are “fair” or not is somewhat irrelevant.
But the huge advantage the away team has in aggregate extra time in European competitions seems counter intuitive to me. The extra time is being invoked because after both legs, 180 minutes, the sides cannot be separated and as such it should be seen as an extra time added to the tie, not extra time added to the second leg. As such, away goals should not apply to extra time even if they are used to decide the result before the 90 minute is up. The penalty shootout is an even contest after a second leg as there is no bonus awarded to the away team, no “away penalties” if you like, and this is rightly the result of the teams being inseparable over both legs: so why does extra time not receive this treatment?
Finally, the already deplorable standard of commentary and punditry (yes ITV this is specifically aimed at you! And by ITV I mean Andy Townsend) is made worse by the failure of presenters to grasp the mathematical implications of the away goals rule. Yes they understand how it works, but how many times have you seen a home team win by a score of 2 – 1 and heard the pundit say that they “might come to regret that away goal” despite the possibility of the tie being decided on away goals after this is extremely small. Don’t believe me? Think about all the possible scores for the second leg: obviously an away win, draw or defeat by two or more goals in the second leg would produce a scoreline that wasn’t level on aggregate and therefore not decided on away goals. If the score was a direct reversal of the first leg, a 2 – 1 home win again, then the away side would have forced extra time with the advantage in knowing a single goal will probably win the game for them since it would be a second away goal. Therefore only a 1 – 0 defeat for the away side would knock them out on away goals. In this instance we should really say that the tie has not been decided on away goals but on home clean sheets: it was the second leg shut out that really decided the match.
I suppose what really bugs me about the away goals rule is that the name is inaccurate. Everyone likes football to be decided by exciting goals, scintillating attacking play rather than scoreless bore draws. So I guess it’s only natural that they named the rule after this. But really it’s just a clever distraction from what the rule really is: the home lean sheet rule. How shit does that sound? You may not be as convinced by the heinous evil of the away goals rule as I am, and I will admit there is a definite tactical interest to the rule. But it must be acknowledged to be a failure in that it actually discourages, rather than incentivizes, attacking play. In the same way that the ridiculous idea Fifa banded about a few years ago that we might increase the size of goalmouths to combat defensive play would have resulted in more defensive play because the risk of conceding even bigger, the reward for scoring an away goal is has only increased the punishment for conceding one.
Much more than a means for deciding even games, the home clean sheet rule (yes I insist on calling it that now) annoyingly influences games by changing the way teams play. Next week we go into a set of enthralling Champions League quarter finals knowing that this is the manner ties will be decided if the scores are tied. And it isn’t the unfairness that bugs me, if anything the lack of English clubs means this has become less of a concern than ever before. But there are some brilliant fixtures for the neutral, and I would hate to see Bayern Juventus spoiled by too many away goals after the first leg or Malaga Dortmund deteriorate from what should be an exhilarating attacking contest into a dull and defensive slog. It probably won’t. But it could! So why do we have a rule that jeopardizes the entertainment value of Europe’s premier contest?