WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 22, 2017
 
Blog EGOS & ICONS
BEMOANING THE AWAY GOALS RULE
Arsenal_Bayern.jpg

As a lifelong fan of soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, I don't ever tend to feel too sorry about what happens to Arsenal, their neighbourhood rivals in North London. But even ardent Spurs supporters like me might just be able to summon up the smallest pang of sympathy after recent events.

Following Arsenal's 2-0 victory at German giants Bayern Munich, which knotted the score of their two-leg series at three goals apiece, the Gunners were eliminated from the Champions League.

Given that Bayern had lost just twice all season and were unbeaten in their past 11 coming into the game, you might say Arsenal were as "brave" and "heroic" in their exit as some in the media proclaimed. Mind you, given that the Londoners were outshot 23-5 and seldom had the upper hand in possession, you could just as easily say they were opportunistic and fortunate. No matter what your opinion, the fact is they leveled the aggregate score but didn't get a chance to keep playing.

The reason, of course, is the away goals rule that's applied in such soccer encounters, giving greater weight to the trio of scores Bayern brought home from their 3-1 triumph in the British capital last month. It meant the Germans moved on, while the Gunners were goners.

Unfair? That's what The Guardian's Jonathan Wilson had written earlier that very day, arguing that the capricious nature of the oft-debated and often influential rule rewards teams too much for where rather than how many goals are scored, and even subverts the tactical style of the game itself.

Arsenal's undoing was the result of each team winning one game by different scorelines. But the away goals rule can also punish teams who don't even lose a game at all. Battle to a scoreless draw on the road for example, then fail to keep a clean sheet in a 1-1 home tie, and you'll be packing your bags from whatever competition you were once involved in.

Introduced by European soccer officials in the mid 1960s, the rule's original aim was to avoid arduous, costly, time-consuming replays between squads from far flung locations, and encourage traveling teams to take a bit more risk on the road, rather than just battening down the hatches in hostile, alien environments.

In the almost five decades since, as ease of travel has improved and leagues, teams and even different cities have all lost a great deal of their distinctiveness, the success rate of visitors has virtually doubled, rising from 16% to a consistent range of 30-35% over the past five years.

Circumstances have changed, too, in the sense that the original creators likely didn't anticipate a world where Champions League matches would be played in two stadiums on different sides of London, or between two teams from the same city (AC Milan and Inter), which actually share a stadium.

Five years ago, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger bemoaned the tactical impact of the rule, which puts the home team under acute pressure not to concede, never more so when they are trying to protect whatever advantage they may have gained by scoring on the road in an opening leg.

No matter how well intentioned, that's the best indicator to me that the rule isn't quite right, because its heavy emphasis on home defending creates the opposite outcome of its original design.

Not that Tottenham fans are bound to complain. The day after Arsenal's demise, Spurs were on the road in the Europa League, taking a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 home lead over Inter Milan to Northern Italy. Needless to say, Inter made it dramatic, scoring three times to force the game to extra time. But when Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor (a former Arsenal player) poked home a rebound, the vital away goal meant Inter needed two more to win. They got one more but couldn't complete the job, and Tottenham advanced on the strength (if you will) of a 4-1 defeat.

Whether it giveth or taketh away from your team, the away goals rule is a flawed, illogical tiebreaking system that doesn't always do what it's supposed to. Everyone in soccer, even Arsenal, deserves something better.


Related: Wenger's Darkest Hour?

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