Arsenal crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday after a 2-1 loss in extra time to Olympiakos. The Greek side overcame a 1-0 deficit from the first leg to prevail on a 119th minute goal to seal their passage to the Round of 16. The loss echoed a theme of the Gunners’ travails in Europe, being tied on aggregate but losing on away goals. Their loss has sparked fresh debate about whether the away goals rule needs updating or if it creates exciting situations where a team can go from winning to losing with a single goal.
The away goals rule was first introduced by UEFA in the 1965 European Cup Winners’ Cup in an effort to expedite the resolution of two-legged ties. The governing body was worried that if the two teams were evenly matched there would be no way to resolve the outcome without endless playoff games. This was also before the institution of penalty kick shootouts, which could have been an option at the time.
Nowadays, the rationale for the away goals rule is that it encourages more attacking play from the away teams who otherwise would be incentivized to sit back and defend while on the road, saving their attacking flair for the home leg of the matchup.
It has indisputably led to some of the more memorable moments in Champions League history including Tottenham’s upset of Manchester City last year where the London team scored 2 early away goals, forcing City to mount a furious comeback to go up 4-3 on aggregate before a late goal tied the aggregate score sending Tottenham onto the quarterfinals.
But a common critique is that the away goals rule gives an advantage to the team playing away first since the home team will be overly concerned about surrendering an away goal and give up their home field advantage. This is often borne out in cagey, low scoring first leg matchups that can explode into fireworks in the second leg.
I believe that the rule adds extra drama to the games. The thrill of watching your team score a goal that takes them from losing to winning is indescribable as is the agony of watching your team falter on away goals. There is also not a good alternative to the rule as there will always be a somewhat arbitrary rule to break ties. The original format of ties being decided by a playoff game at a neutral sight would inevitable lead to more fixture congestion and injuries as players are forced to play in more and more high stakes games.
The away goals rule has led to memorable moments and has become embedded into the fabric of knockout competitions. The tension it creates by forcing teams to go from defending to all out attack with one kick of the ball leads to a better experience for fans. And who can argue with a rule that generated the greatest comeback in Champions League history, Barcelona’s 6-1 toppling of Paris Saint-Germain to win 6-5 on aggregate.
In fact the best argument for the away goals rule is simply to watch the highlights from that game.