Explained: How scrapping of away-goal rule will encourage attacking football

There were two basic ideas behind the introduction of this rule during the 1965-66 Cup Winners Cup: to encourage teams to play attacking football away from home; and to abolish playoff matches at a neutral venue, which led to logistical and scheduling problems.

In an attempt to liven up the two-legged playoff matches, especially the first of the two matches, the knockout rounds of the Champions League, considered to be the toughest club competition in the world, and other Cup tournaments in Europe will no longer have the controversial away goals rule.

On Thursday, European football’s governing body UEFA announced it will abolish the much-debated rule starting the 2021-2022 season. Instead, the matches that are level on scores after two legs will now be decided via 30 minutes of extra time.

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What is the away goals rule?

In a two-legged knockout-round match, if the aggregate scores are level after 180 minutes of regulation time, then the team that has scored more goals away from home advance to the next round.

For instance, in the 2019 Champions League semifinals, Tottenham Hotspur lost the first leg at their home 1-0. However, they won the away match in Amsterdam 3-2. The tie was level at 3-3 but since Tottenham scored more goals away from home, they were declared winners.

In case both teams have scored the same number of goals at home and away at the end of both legs, then the standard tie-break rules prevail: 30 minutes of extra time followed by penalties, if necessary.

Why was this rule introduced?

There were two basic ideas behind the introduction of this rule during the 1965-66 Cup Winners Cup: to encourage teams to play attacking football away from home; and to abolish playoff matches at a neutral venue, which led to logistical and scheduling problems.

The rule was first put into use during the second-round match of the Cup Winners Cup in November 1965 between Czech club Dukla Prague and Hungary’s Budapest Honved. The tie finished 4-4 and Honved advanced because they scored three goals away from home, one more than Dukla, who scored just two at Budapest.

The rule was enforced in the European Cup, now Champions League, in 1967 and has since then been applied at almost all football tournaments across the world.

Why has the rule been scrapped?

UEFA provided statistical evidence that there has been a reduction in home wins and goals in the club competitions they conduct over the last four decades. The body said in a statement: “Statistics from the mid-1970s until now show a clear trend of continuous reduction in the gap between the number of home/away wins (from 61%/19% to 47%/30%) and the average number of goals per match scored at home/away (from 2.02/0.95 to 1.58/1.15) in men’s competitions.”

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin was quoted as saying: “The impact of the rule now runs counter to its original purpose as, in fact, it now dissuades home teams – especially in first legs – from attacking, because they fear conceding a goal that would give their opponents a crucial advantage.”

How did the rule impact strategies?

It often led to cagey first-leg games, in which the home team has been reluctant to commit many men forward to avoid conceding goals while hoping they would nick a goal away from home in the second leg. If the scoreline at the end of the first leg remained close, it would lead to an open second leg, with both teams standing a chance to win.

Why was the rule criticised?

Many coaches have flogged the rule, especially in the Champions League. In 2015, after Arsenal were knocked out by French side Monaco (tie ended 3-3 on aggregate but Monaco advanced because they had scored three away goals compared to Arsenal’s two), the English side’s then-manager Arsene Wenger called the rule ‘outdated’.

“It should count, maybe, after extra time,” Wenger told reporters. “This rule was created in the 60s to encourage teams to attack away from home, but football has changed since the 1960s and the weight of the away goal is too big today.”

Wenger wasn’t the only one to believe this. Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has pointed to strategic disadvantages for the team playing the second leg of a knockout tie at home, especially when the tie goes into extra time. Simeone said in May 2018: “UEFA needs to have a look at how difficult it is to play a second leg at home, with your opponent having 30 extra minutes in which one of their goals counts double, when as the home side you don’t have this advantage.”

Did UEFA act on any of those criticisms?

Yes. In September 2018, UEFA started discussions with coaches and the rule was under review since then. The coaches they spoke to included: Massimiliano Allegri, Carlos Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Paulo Fonseca, Julen Lopetegui, Jose Mourinho, Thomas Tuchel and Wenger.

UEFA’s deputy secretary-general Giorgio Marchetti was quoted as saying by Reuters: “The coaches think that scoring goals away is not as difficult as it was in the past. They think the rule should be reviewed and that’s what we will do.”

During the pandemic, when a lot of matches were played at neutral venues, was the away goal rule still applied?

Yes. In fact, Juventus and Bayern Munich were knocked out of last season’s Champions League because of this rule. Bayern drew 3-3 on aggregate with Paris St-Germain in the quarterfinals but lost on away goals; so did Juventus, who lost to Porto despite scores being level at 4-4 after two legs.

Which tournaments will be impacted because of the new rule?

Champions League, Europa League, Women’s Champions League, UEFA Youth League, UEFA Super Cup and the newly-formed Europa Conference League will all be affected.

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