By Julian Ryan
When soccer was invented, all goals were created equal, with the team that scores more goals being declared the victor. However, the UEFA rulebook strays a bit from this basic guideline by implementing the well-known “Away Goals” rule, whereby over two legs, if the total number of goals is level, the team with more away goals is victorious. The rationale behind this is to try to avoid extra time if possible and ultimately avoid penalties – which we can all agree is a cruel way to exit a competition.
This occasionally results in particularly bizarre incidents, such as when AC Milan beat Inter Milan on “away goals” despite playing both games at the San Siro. In general, the system can sometimes seem kind of silly.
I wondered what would happen if the Premier League, for no apparent reason, adopted this strange two-legged, away-goals-tiebreaker format.
Rather than using the standard thirty-eight game format with equal weighting on home and away results, I have recalculated the 2012-13 season league table by the following system: Each team’s two games against each other team is considered as one complete fixture with a home and away leg so that each team plays a total of nineteen “games”. A win is awarded for beating the other team over the two legs, including the “away goals” rule as a tiebreaker. (But ties do occur if the score was identical both home and away). Ties were considered a half-win, and then if overall score at the end of the season was the same, head-to-head results were used. This produced the following new league table:
|1. Man U||18-1-0||89||1st|
|4. Man City||14-4-1||73||
|8. West Ham||10-9-0||46||10th|
|10. Aston Villa||8-11-0||41||15th|
|18. West Brom||6-13-0||49||
The gulf between the top seven and the rest of the league remained, with no changes at the top and another runaway league title in Fergie’s final season. However, despite a very credible 8th finish in reality, under this system the poor Baggies end up getting relegated. Their formula of close home wins and poor away performance saw them come up short. Stoke, traditionally thought of as very strong at home, hold the dubious record of most ties for the season with a very impressive four. Finally, QPR’s strategy of only winning four very carefully chosen actual games but ending up with five victories pulled them above Reading but not out of relegation.
There is still a 0.82 correlation between rankings under the two systems and their outcomes are not particularly dissimilar, though the away goals system does seem to keep the fight to avoid relegation very close, with four teams within half a game of the drop.
In the end, any set of rules for determining order of finish is arbitrary to some degree. When we go back and evaluate the success of teams at the end of each season, we often forget to account for this fact. The format that a league chooses for scoring, seeding, elimination, etc. can randomly elevate or depress the fortunes of any given team. At least that’s what I think the takeaway is from this. It’s either that, or the fact that a kid stuck in Thanksgiving traffic with a spotty WiFi connection will do anything to entertain himself. But mostly the first thing.