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Trying to make sense of away goals
by Paul Gardner, October 2nd, 2008 7AM
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Admittedly, there was reason to wonder whether Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger was in full possession of his faculties this past weekend. His team had been sensationally upended by Hull City -- at home, in Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, no less. A result that ought to have been impossible, but there it was -- Hull City, a newly promoted club, playing its first-ever season in the top league, with a bunch of players who can be politely described as non-household names -- and they'd got the better of mighty Arsenal.

So perplexed by the whole business was Wenger that he couldn't remember Hull City's name at the post-game press conference, referring to them as West Brom -- another newly promoted team.

So when Wenger, the following day, came up with an unusual suggestion about goalscoring in European competitions, it seemed quite possible that maybe he was still suffering from post-Hull trauma. Apparently not. His idea is a serious one, even though it contradicts one of the few attempts that have been made over the past decades with the specific aim of countering defensive play.

Wenger thinks it would be a good idea to drop the rule that uses goals scored away from home as a tiebreaker. At the moment, Champions League and UEFA Cup games at the knockout stage are home-and-home matchups which, if tied on aggregate score, are decided by giving away goals "double" value. Meaning that whichever team scores more away goals is the winner.

The regulation has most effect in the first leg of the series, with both teams knowing that a goal scored by the away team could end up deciding the tie.

This is Wenger's reasoning: "I personally feel the weight of the away goal is too heavy now tactically -- it was created at a stage when the teams that went abroad just defended. But now when you play in your own stadium without conceding you have a good chance to go through. So it has reversed the situation."

I don't find that too clear an exposition -- but what I think Wenger is saying is this: that it now makes sense for the home team in the first leg to play cautiously and make sure that it does not get scored on. Which could encourage 1-0 scorelines, I suppose.

Wenger cites no evidence, no stats, to back that up -- I'll confess that I haven't noticed the trend he is identifying. What I have noticed, as recently as two days ago, is that teams do still go abroad and "just defend." Not that they're about to admit it. I'm thinking of the way Glasgow Celtic played against Villarreal on Tuesday; rarely fewer than eight players defending, looking to snatch a goal with a quick counterattack.

Yes, such tactics can make life very difficult for the home team -- Villarreal, despite having the lion's share of the play, managed only one goal, from a free kick -- and they do absolutely nothing to make the game worth watching. Unless you're the coach employing such tactics, of course -- coaches can always find something rosy to say about even the most dismal performance. Celtic's Gordon Strachan felt "that was the best we have played away from home since I have been here."

OK -- this was not a knockout game. But it sure felt like one -- and the inevitably defensive attitude of the away team was there for all to see. In other words, if the away-goal rule has had any effect, it has been a rather limited one.



That may be the best we can get. If a handful of teams are willing to go for goal in their away games, that is an improvement. Wenger's suggestion would certainly entail abandoning that modest advantage.

Claiming that his idea received support from other European coaches at a recent gathering in Vienna, Wenger said he found support for his further idea that the away-goal rule should apply only in overtime.

I cannot see that this improves anything at all. It would mean that the rule would apply only in the second leg of each series -- the only time overtime is played. It would thus give a big advantage to the away team in that game, exaggerating what critics feel is already a problem with the rule as it stands.

There may be other ways of encouraging teams not to play defensively, as yet undiscovered. But over all, it's a pretty poor reflection on the state of the game when we have to devise special rules to encourage goalscoring, no? And even worse when the coaches then find ways to get around those rules!



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