Two-legged knockout isn't soccer
The principle that you can lose a match and be happy is alien to sports
With away goals worth double, road teams that score first usually go through
Strategy becomes predictable and Champions League play is less exciting
Half an hour after going down to a 1-0 defeat by Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in the Champions League, Roma's Philippe Mexes stopped on his way to the team bus to chat with the media.
"It could have been better, but it's not a bad result," he said. "It's manageable, we'll sort it out in the return leg."
Around the same time, over in Milan, Manchester United players were expressing concern after holding Inter to a scoreless draw. The thinking was that United could have done more to put the game away and that it would have been better if it had managed a 1-1 draw.
Ah, the vagaries of two-legged knockout competition and that thing we call the "away-goals rule." We probably don't think about it because we're so used to it, but when you break it down, competitions like the Champions League might as well be a different sport from domestic leagues.
The basic principle that you can lose and be happy (especially when you lose 3-2, the "dream defeat") seems alien not just to soccer, but to sports in general. Equally, the fact that drawing 0-0 on the road is somehow worse than drawing 1-1 or 2-2 also feels wrong.
Isn't the point of the game to go and win? And what difference does it really make if you and your opponent both fail to score or notch two goals apiece?
Relax. It's a rhetorical question. I'm familiar with the fact that if aggregate goals are level, then away goals count double. And I know all too well that, because the ties are over two legs, losing 1-0 in the first leg is like being a goal down at half-time. And yet, somehow, it doesn't feel right. Or, at least, it feels radically different from what we see week in, week out in a league format.
Teams don't play football, they play two-legged football. Which follows a fairly obvious ebb-and-flow. At the start of the game, both sides will generally try to attack. The home side needs to score because it will be away from home in the return (and thus at a disadvantage). The away side tries to get a goal, because, if you score first away from home, you're almost guaranteed to go through.
Since 2003-04, the away side has scored first 18 times in the knockout phase of the Champions League: in 83 percent of cases, the side that played the first leg away and scored first went through to the next round.
The theory behind it is simple. Score first on the road and you force the opposition to throw everything at you, which, in turn, creates chances on the counterattack. If the home team doesn't beat you by a two-goal margin (which means they would need to score three, which is far from simple), all you need to do is win 1-0 at home in the return leg. And if the home team manages to equalize, you've got the luxury of a 0-0 draw on your side as well. Which, again, means that the side that played at home in the first leg has to come out and attack you away from home. And that's both risky and difficult.
If the game remains scoreless by half-time, a different phenomenon emerges. The away team doubles back and tries to preserve the scoreless draw (which, by the way, is what happened to Manchester United at the San Siro). The attitude is, "We've tried to go and score, now let's just sit back and take the draw, knowing we can beat these guys at home."
But what if the home team scores first? Simple. The away team sits back and preserves the single-goal deficit. It's a form of game theory: if you concede a second away-from-home in the first leg, you're pretty much toast. If you can limit the deficit to a single goal, then you're in with a great chance in the return leg.
This kind of script plays itself out with alarming regularity. Even attack-minded teams fall into this trap. Everyone can count and everyone knows the away goals rule.
Does it make things less exciting? In many ways, yes. You don't have the urgency of straight one-and-done knockouts like in the World Cup. Nor do you have the aggressive "let's get something out of this game" ethos you might find in league football, where a 5-0 loss is equivalent to a 1-0 loss -- i.e. you get zero points for it.
Is it fair? Yes and no. It is fair because both clubs obviously know the rules beforehand and try to play within that framework. But whether it actually helps determine who the better team is remains to be seen. If you're not trying to win, and if you're trying to "manage the situation," are you still playing soccer the way it's meant to be played?
Don't get me wrong. There is no perfect alternative to the away-goals rule and two-legged football. Until the early 1970s, if two teams won a game each, you'd simply go on to a replay on neutral ground. That's a much more fair way of settling things, but with the fixture calendar as congested as it is today, it's hardly practical.
So for now, until some genius comes up with a viable solution, we'll just need to live with it. Which is fine, as long as we bear in mind that we're not really watching the game the way it was meant to be played.
We're witnessing something else.