In Defence of the Away Goals Rule

It seems each year as the European competitions reach their knockout stages, louder chime the cries of those who say we should dispose of the controversial ‘away goals rule’. The rule itself is a simple one. If the two teams in a cup tie finish level on aggregate after the two legs, the team who has scored the most away goals progress. If both teams are level on ‘away goals’, they then progress into extra time, and if needed, a penalty shootout.

The rule was introduced over 50 years ago, to replace the then current method of having neutral replays, or in some competitions, a coin toss. Clearly, since then, the game has moved on. The format of extra time and penalties have since been introduced, but the away goal rule is still prioritised, and in my mind rightly so.

Yes, I’m one of what seems to be a dwindling group of fans of the rule, a rule I believe is a great addition to the game. The rationale behind the rule nowadays is to avoid extra time and penalties deciding the ties, and to encourage the visiting teams to be more aggressive. Something you’d think that everyone wants to see.

One common argument is that the game is completely different to when the rule was introduced. Of course it is, no one is denying that. But that doesn’t mean the rule doesn’t have a place in today’s game. When the rule was introduced, getting an away victory in European competition was rare. Because of the difficulties of travel and conditions, home advantage was far greater. The percentage of away victories in European competitions has doubled since then, mainly because home advantage is less prominent, but also, I believe because of the away goals rule.

Away goals carrying more weight has definitely led to away sides becoming more attacking, but, it can lead to home teams being more cautious, especially when they are the weaker team in the tie. I do feel however, that this is an exaggerated rule. For me the big difference in team’s attacking attitudes each game is not home or away, but first leg or second leg.

Over the past 5 seasons there have been on average 0.5 more goals scored in the second legs of European ties, as teams are typically chasing a crucial goal. For me teams change their style of play more depending on which leg they are home or away respectively, rather than whether they are playing home or away.

So, what would the alternatives be? The logical option would be extra time and penalties straight away; but I don’t see why crashing out on penalties would feel any less gutting than going out on away goals. Another option is tweaking the away goals rule like the League Cup has, where the away goal only counts after the extra time has been played. But this is a terrible idea, as the team who is playing away in the second leg has 30 minutes extra to get a crucial away goal.

In my view, we should keep the rule. I think it encourages the away team to attack far more than it causes the home team to be overly cautious. It typically creates more open games for the viewers, and in my view, it’s a much better (possibly less entertaining) way of resolving a game than penalties. Another positive is that it adds another dimension and element to each match, as teams and managers must tweak their tactics, and think about the best way to play certain situations.

The Champions League and Europa League are about finding the best team in Europe, and the away goals rule is just another challenge that teams must face to earn the title. It might be gutting to go out on away goals, but it feels damn good to go through on them. There’s many aspects of the beautiful game that need to be refreshed and worked on, this rule is not one of them.

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