The inclusion of VAR in football this season has led to furore over the role of technology in the modern game. With the performance of referees debated on a near-weekly basis, it seemed logical to explore ways to reduce the number of incorrect decisions.
However, fans aren’t as keen as might have been expected with many believing the wait between a goal being scored and awarded is too long. It deprives them of the joy of scoring.
Those who oppose its use have, to an extent, a valid point. It’s difficult to get lost in the ecstasy of a last-minute winner with so much uncertainty surrounding the validity of the goal. Those moments can’t be re-lived.
However, football is a multi-million pound business and clubs want the right decision. Fans’ emotions come after that in their list of priorities.
VAR is far from the finished product and there’s a lot of refinement needed before it can be rolled out to the masses and accepted, though.
There are plenty of other issues in football which would be a quicker fix and an easier win for the rule-makers. The away goal rule is one such example.
When the rule was introduced in the 1960s it was viewed as a way to incentivise away teams and reward them for attacking. While initially it was a good idea, the game has evolved; the idea of away goals being an advantage is not only archaic: it’s a flawed ruling.
But that wasn’t always the case. To begin with it was beneficial.
In a feature in The Times it was revealed that, until 1980, home teams scored, on average, 1.06 goals per game more than their opponents. With hosts being so dominant, it made sense for UEFA to explore ways to level the playing field and attempt to make the matches more competitive.
That number slowly started to dwindle down and between 1980 and 2000 home teams had a 0.77 goal advantage. It’s decreased further since then, with the difference now standing at 0.51 goals per game.
So, the goalposts moved but UEFA didn’t recalibrate or react.
In the early days of the away goals rule, the new measure might have persuaded the away team to attack more. Yet, at the same time, the home side may have remained as positive, perhaps feeling the importance of trying to capitalise on their then-big advantage of playing on home soil outweighed the fear of conceding away goals.
Furthermore, as part of the away goals rule, the team playing away from home in the second leg have the possibility of an extra 30 minutes to score what could be a decisive away goal. The reasoning for this is that those playing at home in the return leg enjoy a bonus 30 minutes in front of their own fans if the match goes into extra time. But, as discussed, the benefits of playing host have shrunk meaning what was supposed to be an equaliser for away teams has turned into a bonus.
UEFA’s reluctance to react is peculiar. In the past they have been quick to act to rid the sport of failed experiments. Golden and Silver goals didn’t last long after it became clear they didn’t add to the entertainment on offer, due to teams being too scared to lose, and were quickly abolished.
The away goal ruling is no longer an incentive for visiting teams to open up. If anything it leads to home teams shutting up shop in the first leg and looking to capitalise when playing away from home in the return fixture.
In the past four seasons, dating back to the 2013/14 campaign, home team in the first leg in the knockout stages have scored, on average, a total of 20 goals. This figure is grossly inflated by the 32 from last season, before that the highest return was 17. Over the same time period away teams have scored 20.75 goals.
If last season’s totals are removed then home teams have averaged just 16 goals in the knockout matches between the round of 16 and the semi-final compared to the 21 goals away teams have scored. The stats suggest home advantage counts for very little and that managers, no matter whether they’re the hosts or the visitors, treat the first leg like a match they simply can’t lose and nothing more.
A heavy defeat in the first leg, especially away from home, all but brings the tie to a premature end.
Last season, Real Madrid took a 3-0 home advantage to neighbours Atlético Madrid. Diego Simeone’s men mounted a comeback and scored twice in the opening 20 minutes. It was primed to go down as an all-time classic but Isco’s goal just before half time killed it. Los Rojiblancos needed to score three goals in the second half to progress and Los Blancos knew they could sit back and play on the counter.
It was always a big ask but Isco’s goal just killed the tie despite there still being 45 minutes to play. Would Simeone’s men have given up if there was no away goal rule?
The away goal rule, just like the Golden and Silver goal rule, breeds fear. The Champions League is supposed to showcase the elite teams in Europe and allow them to do what they do best. But it’s near impossible in the current format.
Abolish the away goal ruling and there’d be much more variety to the matches on show. From tactical match-ups to two teams just going blow for blow like Liverpool and Manchester City did in the Premier League. The outdated rule is holding the competition back.