The winds of change continue to be felt in football.
After the rise of technology – previously rejected by autocrats of the previous generation, such as Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter – was formalised by the use of video assistant referees at World Cup 2018, now comes attempts to dismiss the away-goals rule.
UEFA last week acquiesced to wishes voiced by elite coaches to reevaluate its use in continental competition.
“The coaches think that scoring goals away is not as difficult as it was in the past,” said deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti after the meeting in Switzerland.
“They think the rule should be reviewed and that’s what we will do.”
This concept of bestowing an advantage upon goals scored on the road in the event of a tie has been enshrined in European football since the former European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965.
Is this an antiquated check on the flow of the modern game, or a necessary way to incentivise attacking football? Sport360 looks into the issue recently debated by the likes of Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho and Arsenal’s Unai Emery.
AGAINST AWAY GOALS
The away-goals rule is a product from another time.
When established in 1965, it was a necessary alternative to tossing a coin or staging a replay on a neutral ground when the aggregate score in a two-legged tie ended level.
Travel abroad was a concern back then. Long distances, uncomfortable accommodation and unfamiliar food.
Clubs in elite European competition now often fly by private jet, plus bring their own beds and chefs.
These were also genuine trips into the unknown.
European heavyweights knew relatively little about their contemporaries. No internet, no Wyscout, no Opta and little to no broadcasts of foreign club competitions.
Information now moves just as freely as people.
Kostas Manolas and Stadio Olimpico were not relative strangers to Barcelona when the former’s epic late header sent Roma through on away goals in last season’s Champions League quarter-finals.
The away-goals rule can also work counterproductive. Rather than purely encouraging away teams to attack, home teams will defend more than usual as the cost of concession is too high.
Mourinho has regularly extolled the virtues of keeping a clean sheet in a home first leg, before nicking a goal on the road in the decider.
The logic that away sides need encouragement to score is antiquated. Holders Real Madrid notched 17 times during six trips last term.
There is also the anomaly of away goals still counting when the second leg goes to extra time. This gives the visitors a 30-minute advantage for the clincher.
Both Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain struck in extra time of 2014/15’s round of 16, second leg. But rather than go to penalties, the latter went straight through.
FOR AWAY GOALS
The rules of football appear static.
But the environment changes, often dramatically, from ground to ground. Pitch dimensions alter, the ball behaves differently on an alien surface and temperatures drop or rise.
Mastering these conditions and persevering regardless deserves reward. This is where the away-goals rule comes in.
A 2017 study titled ‘Modelling home advantage for individual teams in UEFA Champions League football’ extrapolated this to differences in style of play and tactical approaches. When teams were grouped by country, significant between-country variation in both home advantage and away disadvantage was observed.
Furthermore, University of Bath academics analysed more than 2,500 Premier League games and found in 2006 that referees were statistically more likely to award yellow and red cards against the away team.
The psychological element is even more pronounced. Ryan Boyko, a research assistant in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, viewed more than 5,000 Premier League games between 1992-2006.
His data, published in October 2007’s Journal of Sports Sciences, suggested that for every additional 10,000 people in attendance, the home-team advantage increased by 0.1 goals.
Boyko also showed that baying, partisan crowds caused referees to award home teams more penalty kicks. Although an important caveat comes in the fact this became less pronounced with experienced referees – such as those eligible for European duty.
Goals are becoming ever plentiful in European football.
In this century, the last two Champions Leagues have averaged more than three goals per game (3.21 for 2017/18 and 3.04 for 2016/17). The last time the average crept that high was in 1990/91 for the European Cup (3.22).
Encouragement for attacking coaches is clearly not required.
The away goal now inhibits home sides rather than boosts the visitors. It also provides a 30-minute advantage in extra time that must be erased, at a minimum.
Managers know the nuances of football better than most. UEFA should listen to them.
The three-man shortlist for the gong was announced last week with Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah making the final three.
Naturally, the decision to omit Messi has raised more than a few eyebrows with the Argentine in sparkling form last season as he inspired Barca to a stunning La Liga triumph with the Copa del Rey also captured.
Ronaldo and Modric were chosen thanks to their exploits during Madrid’s Champions League triumph with the Croatian also claiming the Golden Ball at the World Cup after guiding his nation to the final.
Salah enjoyed a memorable first season with Liverpool, breaking the the Premier League 38-game season goalscoring record as his strikes also inspired the Reds’ march to the Champions League final.
Despite his trophy double and tally of 48 goals for club and country, Messi was left out of the final trio and speaking ahead of Spain’s Nations League meeting with Croatia, Enrique offered his opinion on the decision to leave out his former charge.
“If I talk about Croatia [players], I would talk about Modric and [Ivan] Rakitic,” the Spain coach said on Monday. “They both deserve individual prizes.
“But if I have to talk about the best in the world, the prize of the best player would be given to Leo Messi, who is one step above the rest.”
The midfield maestro was in sparkling form for both club and country last season, inspiring Croatia’s remarkable run to the World Cup final and playing a key role in Madrid’s historic third consecutive Champions League triumph.
However, his UEFA Player of the Year victory was called into question by those in the Ronaldo camp with his agent Jorge Mendes slamming the “ridiculous and shameful” decision to award Modric over the Portuguese superstar.
Ramos offered a stern riposte to that criticism as he told ESPN: “There are few players that I am as proud of having in my team as [Modric].
“He is a great friend and a great player. He is one of the few players who [if he wins] would make me as happy as if they had given it to me.”
The Spain centre-back then appeared to take a slight swipe at Juventus forward Ronaldo.
He continued: “Maybe there are players with more marketing, with a bigger name but Modric deserves that award.”