Midway through the second half of the second leg of Chelsea’s defeat to Paris Saint Germain in the UEFA Champions League this year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored to make it 4-2 on aggregate. The tie was over. There was no way Chelsea were going to score three in 23 minutes. The game petered out, dully.
Just before half-time in the second leg of Manchester United’s win over Liverpool this season, Philippe Coutinho scored to make it 1-1 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. The second half was a non-event. Again, there was no way United were going to score three. The away-goals rule, in both cases, killed the ties. Two goals were unlikely but attainable; three goals impossible.
Champions League knock out games will become more and more boring and dull until UEFA do away with the away goals rule. It's anti football— #BanterEra (@whatgap) April 27, 2016
The two examples involve English clubs because they’re games I happen to have been at. I’ve felt the energy leave the stadium. But there are countless examples from across Europe in the past decades. The away-goals rule was introduced to try to make football more entertaining, more attacking. It has ended up, by making some goals carry more weight than others, rendering long sections of second legs pointless.
That’s the practical effect—and we’ll come back to whether the away-goals rule ever achieved its stated aim of preventing away sides shutting up shop and playing for a draw—but let’s deal first with its basic absurdity.
It’s simply not fair. You’re a defender for an away side in the first leg and you make a mistake in the final minute that costs your side a goal. You lose 1-0, but in the home leg your side equalises and the tie goes to extra time. But suppose you make that mistake in the first minute of the home game—your team loses on away goals.
Or you draw the first leg 1-1 away. In the second leg you draw 0-0. You’re through: congratulations. Or you draw 2-2. You’re out: bad luck. All draws but some draws are more equal than others. How does that make any sense?
Apologists for the away goals rule say that scoring goals away from home is harder than scoring them at home and that that should be rewarded. Let’s imagine that’s true—although the case is far from clear—why should you not similarly be punished for failing to do the supposedly easier thing of scoring at home? When two golfers finish a tournament level, nobody would dream of separating them by seeing who had the lower scores on the hardest hole on the course.
So it leads to meaningless football and is conceptually nonsensical. But what about the other practicalities? If you take it away, the rule’s proponents say, you’d just get the away side packing men behind the ball, scrapping it out for a 0-0 draw.
It was to put an end to that sort of play that the rule was introduced, initially in the Cup Winners Cup in 1965-66. It was then phased into the European Cup, for first-round ties from 1967-68, for second-round ties from 1968-69 and for the whole competition from 1970-71.
Looking at the average goals per game from the last 16 onwards, it’s a little surprising there was felt any need to tinker with the format. Other than in 1958-59, there was an average of at least three goals per game in the European Cup every season from its inauguration in 1955-56 to 1965-66. There was a decline in the early 60s—and 1964-65 saw the first goalless two-legged tie as Liverpool drew with FC Cologne—but figures were still high by modern standards.
But this was the age when Internazionale and Milan were developing "catenaccio" and Liverpool and Leeds were adopting what was known as “method football.” To modern eyes, the 1965 FA Cup final between Liverpool and Leeds looks unremarkable; at the time it provoked howls of outrage at the idea that teams may look to conserve possession rather than bombing forward at every opportunity; the future seemed clear.
Between 1955-56 and 1961-62 there were 3.71 goals per game in the European Cup from the round of 16 onwards. From 1962-63 to 1969-70, the last season before complete adoption of the away-goals rule, there were 2.94.
But what’s striking is what followed. In the 21 seasons before the change of format and the introduction of group stages, there were just 2.53 goals per game. In other words, the introduction of the away-goals rule coincided with a fall in the number of goals per game.
Now, of course, it is possible that the situation would have been even worse without the away-goals rule, but what is clear is that the rule was never an effective solution to the problem of away teams, in modern parlance, parking the bus.
Since 2003-04, the Champions League has returned to a format with a last 16, so it’s possible to compare figures again. Between 2003-04 and 2007-08 (an admittedly small sample size), the average goals per game was 2.35. Since then it has been 2.85.
That mirrors a more general trend across football, in leagues as well as two-legged knockout ties, and seems largely to be the result of tinkering with the offside law, which, by making it harder for defences to play an offside trap, has increased the effective playing area.
Those changes have had a far greater positive impact than the away-goals rule ever did. Besides which, it’s simply not possible now to defend in the way sides defended in the 70s and 80s. Referees now are far more willing to show yellow and red cards, which cuts down on systematic fouling. The abolition of the backpass law in 1992, similarly, makes it far harder for a team to stifle a game.
There’s some evidence, in fact, that the away-goals rule is having a negative impact in the other direction. In the final 10 minutes on Tuesday for instance, were Manchester City really looking to score, or were they hoping to run the clock down, keep Real Madrid out and ensure that if they score an away goal in the Santiago Bernabeu it will be a huge advantage?
Surprised at negativity towards City getting 0-0 draw. No away goal conceded, so it's a great scoreline ahead of second leg.— Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) April 26, 2016
"I believe the tactical weight of the away goal has become too important," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said at a conference in 2008. "Teams get a 0-0 draw at home and they're happy. Instead of having a positive effect it has been pushed too far tactically in the modern game. It has the opposite effect than it was supposed to have at the start. It favours defending well when you play at home."
The away-goals rule is illogical and arbitrary, it kills ties in which life should still linger, it prompts caution among home sides and it never worked in the first place. There are bigger problems in football, but perhaps none so mystifying as why we continue to put up with this silliness from half a century ago.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated