APOEL v Lyon a good example of when the away goals rule creates a defensive game

March 8, 2012

The starting line-ups

Despite the ultimately exciting method of victory, and the novelty of having a Cypriot club in the final eight of the European Cup, the APOEL v Lyon game was actually a dull spectacle.

This was true in both technical and tactical terms. Technically, the sides finished with fairly low pass completion rates (71% and 74%), and tactically neither changed much throughout the game. Even when it did look as if the coaches might shake things up, when APOEL coach Ivan Jovanovic switched from two strikers to one striker, and Lyon boss Remi Garde did the opposite at the same time, the sides continued to play in much the same manner.

The game had actually started in an exciting fashion, because the home side, in front of a very noisy crowd, needed a goal. They trailed 1-0 from the first leg, and therefore went into the game knowing that if they didn’t score in 90 minutes, they would be eliminated. As a result, they changed their system. This wasn’t the usual counter-attacking 4-2-3-1, and certainly not the defensive 4-1-4-1 they tried in the first leg, but instead featured two strikers for the first time in the competition, with Ailton dropped back behind another forward, Esteban Solari.

APOEL therefore took charge of the game – they needed to attack, be in command, and take the game to the opposition. When they pushed men forward, they would leave spaces at the back for Lyon counter-attacks. It might sound simple, but football needs at least one side to attack for there to be goals in a game, and in the second leg when one side often starts the game needing to score to prevent defeat, the games are generally more open than in the first leg.

As a result of APOEL’s determination, they made a flying start to the game – they went ahead within ten minutes, through Brazilian winger Manduca. But while this was a fine start to the game, the goal arrived too early as far as the spectacle was concerned. It meant that APOEL now had their goal, and they no longer needed to attack.

In fact, their priority was now defence. The tie was evenly-balanced at 1-1, but Lyon now had 80 minutes to get an away goal, which would then leave APOEL having to score twice. Lyon also had the 30 minute extra-time period, where there was the same situation. In short, after scoring after 10 minutes, APOEL now had to face 110 minutes of play where the negative value of a goal conceded significantly outweighed the positive value of a goal scored.

Lyon, on the other hand, had arrived to be patient. They didn’t play for a 0-0, but equally a 0-0 would have been an excellent result for them. As a result, their initial line-up was cautious, with Bafetimbi Gomis on the bench. This wasn’t an XI built for goals.

When they went behind, they had the opposite situation to APOEL. Logically, they’d be the more attacking side – but then they were away from home, and they’d started the game cautiously, and it’s difficult to break out of the shell.

Lyon were slightly more adventurous (hence the opposing nature of the two aforementioned substitutions), but we were basically treated to a 110-minute stand-off, where neither side showed enough determination to score. This is an unintended but problematic aspect of the away goals rule.

Arsene Wenger believes the rule should be scrapped. “The rule was created in the 1950s when teams went away from home, with no television, played with 10 defenders and kicked every ball into the stand,” Wenger says. “Now I believe that the tactical weight of the away goal has become too important. Teams get a 0-0 draw at home and they’re happy. Instead of having a positive effect it has been pushed too far tactically in the modern game. It has the opposite effect than it was supposed to have at the start – it favours defending well when you play at home.”

Ian Hawkey has also written about the problems.

The importance of this one game shouldn’t be overstated, but had there not been the away goals rule in play here, APOEL would have felt freer to build on their momentum, continued to attack, and we would have had a much more entertaining match.

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