Jonathan Wilson’s Question columns on the Guardian are always thought-provoking and worth reading, even when I disagree with them, as was the case today. Wilson’s latest bugbear is the notorious away goals rule. He carefully lays out his case:
…circumstances have changed. In each of the last five years, between 30 and 35% and matches in European competition have been won by the away side [as opposed to 16% in the mid 1960s when the rule was first introduced]: even if you wanted to make the argument that the away goals rule has worked, the original rationale for its introduction has gone.
Transport is better now, there is a great homogeneity of conditions while the differences between a German side and a Spanish idea, say, or a Russian side and a French side, are far less than they were.
Teams are cosmopolitan, national styles less distinct than they once were. Away trips simply aren’t as frightening as they once were and so the away goal becomes a weird distorter.
A 20% change in away success rates is significant, but there is still a critical disadvantage in football in playing away from home. But Wilson neglects to consider the negative consequences that might come about should the rule be scrapped altogether.
For one, with the slim but still meaningful home team advantage, there would be an increased incentive for home teams to rack up the score hammer and tongs, and for away sides to focus on defending. At the Champions League level, with a few exceptions, most teams are close to being on par in terms of skill, so home-and-away legs risk falling into a predictable pattern of attack-then-defend.
From a neutral’s perspective, the away goal rule offers a complex, ever-shifting dynamic how teams approach play over two fixtures. There is a built-in disincentive to run at goal for the full ninety minutes at home and then park the bus away from home.
Someone in the comments mentioned the unfairness of away goals counting in extra time, and there is something to be said against it. But that is far less of a total change than scrapping the away goal rule altogether.
The critical factor here is both teams enter these ties knowing exactly what’s at stake. There is a good incentive for away teams to attack and for home teams to balance both attack and defence. This shifting dynamic has produced some incredible football over the years in the Champions League.
Contrary to Wilson’s complaint about AC Milan nearly putting Barcelona out with a late away goal, he forgets that Barca conceded two unanswered goals in Milan, fully aware of the permutations and consequences. Had Barca put together a competent attack in the first leg, the second leg might have been a dead rubber. They didn’t, and as such the point that a single goal would have put Barcelona out was moot. It’s called an aggregate score.
As ever in football, if it ain’t broke…