Away Goals, League Stages and Coefficients: Simplifying the Changes to the UEFA Champions League
For the last several years there has been substantial debate and speculation regarding possible alterations to the format of UEFA’s club competitions; the Champions League, the Europa League and, as a consequence of these discussions, the Europa Conference League that has reached its very first conclusion in the 2021-22 season on Wednesday with Roma emerging as champions in the inaugural competition.
The Champions League (1955) and the Europa League (1971) were both founded over fifty years ago and are historically iconic football competitions. Although their names have been changed over time, they have been mainstayers as highly regarded, top level competitions between the best teams across Europe’s most competitive football leagues. They provide an opportunity for European clubs and domestic champions to showcase their strength against clubs of a similar standard from around the continent. The footballing spectacle of European competition is an enormously attractive entity to football fans, broadcasters and to commercial opportunities.
In this blog I will lend more of a focus specifically to the UEFA Champions League (UCL) and the format changes that have occurred so far and that are also set to be implemented in the 2022-23 season. I will delve into the main topics of discussion, the motivations for the changes and the impacts that they might have upon the game. However, I will also touch upon the similarities and differences in the changes that are set to be made to the Europa League and the Conference League as well.
The Away Goals Rule
A sensible place to begin is the alterations that have already been made to UEFA’s competitions. The newly adapted format for the away goals rule has been in place for the 2021-22 UCL, Europa League and Conference League competitions. Since its introduction in 1965 as a method of removing the need for a ‘tiebreaker’ or ‘replay’ game and to encourage teams to attack away from home, the away goals rule has been an integral part of European football competitions.
For those that are unaware, the away goals rule fundamentally doubles the value of scoring against an opponent away from home in a European competition. For example, two teams whose aggregate scores are tied over two legs are differentiated based on the number of away goals scored. The team with the most away goals qualifies for the next round ahead of their opponent.
In recent years, many have argued that this rule has become outdated. The UEFA President, Aleksander Ceferin, conceded that the rule was now contradicting its original aim of increasing attacking-minded sides and was instead dissuading home sides from attacking. This was due to the fear of conceding a goal at home which was a valuable advantage to the away side under the away goals rule. This is evident in the statistics in European competition since the mid-1970’s. Since this time, the average number of goals scored by the home side has fallen from 2.02 per game to just 1.58. Furthermore, the win percentage has similarly dropped from 61% to 47% whilst winning away from home has increased in likelihood. It is an unusual statistic for home sides to be less than 50% likely to achieve a victory. This is the result of the away goal rule creating more defensive minded home teams whilst away teams are more attacking and try to capitalise on the possibility of scoring a valuable away goal.
After lengthy consultations and on the recommendation of the UEFA Club Competitions Committee and the UEFA Women’s Football Committee, the ‘outdated’ rule was confirmed to be changed for the 2021-22 European football season. Under the new alterations, away goals no longer carried more value than goals scored at home. The aim, as was originally the intention of the away goals rule, is to reopen up the games and to reintroduce attacking tactics. It was hoped that for the 2021-22 season and beyond that home sides would once again become more attack-minded and the opposition would treat scoring in the away leg with equal regard to scoring at home. The aims of the new changes have been reflected in its first season with the average goals per game rising to over 3 and a majority of open, attacking games in the knockout stages. So far, it seems to have had a positive impact on European football competition.
The New Format: One-Legged Semi-Finals and League Stages
UEFA Club Competitions have a historic importance in European football. They attract large, global audiences and showcases the best that European football has to offer. The European Clubs Association (ECA) have called upon this significance of the competitions and have urged UEFA to continue with a balanced and progressive evolution that ensures sustainability, inclusivity and success of the competitions. As a result, over the last few years, UEFA have been exploring options to ‘progress’, ‘evolve’, modernise and rejuvenate its competitions. The process has reached its pinnacle and whilst there still may be further changes and adaptations in future, the 2022-23 European football competitions will adopt new formats.
For the Champions League, the conclusions of the consultations have leaned towards the Swiss model. For the first time, the preliminary stages of the UCL will take the structure of a league phase rather than a group stage. The number of teams participating in the competition will grow from 32 to 36 teams. All 36 teams are guaranteed 8 games, 4 home and 4 away against 8 different opponents, during the league stage. Originally this was proposed as 10 games but this was overruled as it was deemed unreasonable to expect such a high volume of games to take place and it has been reduced to just 8. This differs from the traditional group stage which involves a draw for clubs to be placed into groups of 4 followed by 6 fixtures against the three other teams in the group, an away and a return fixture.
Once the league phase has concluded, the top 8 teams will automatically qualify for the knockout stages whilst the teams that finish between the ranks of 9th and 24th will compete in a two legged play off process for the final 8 places in the last 16. The format will be the same in the Europa League with 8 league games and 36 teams whilst the Europa Conference League will only consist of 6 games in the league stage and 34 teams. However, despite some concerns previously, UEFA have confirmed that all matches apart from the UCL final will occur on weekdays as they historically have done and will not interfere with domestic league schedules.
Importantly for the Champions League, the new structure widens the outreach of the competition by opening up four additional spaces in its increase from 32 to 36 teams. These four teams will be decided based upon three distinct criteria:
- One spot for the club that finishes third in the top division of the nation that is ranked in fifth position in the National Association rankings. This could possibly be between Ligue. 1 or the Portuguese Primeira Liga.
- Another place for the domestic champion of another qualifying country via the Champions path qualifying process.
- Two additional positions for the clubs that are part of the two countries that perform best collectively over the previous season. This is calculated by dividing the total number of points for a team in a league by the number of participating clubs. If this rule was to be in place this season, the two clubs would have been admitted from Holland and from England, from the next position outside of the originally allocated Champions League places. The second significant difference is the abolishment of two-legged semi-finals.
This will now be replaced by a single fixture to decide who progresses into the final. This was an idea that materialised following the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown which prevented fans and players from travelling abroad. Whilst the rest of the knockout stages will continue to adopt a two-legged format, the semi-finals are now set to be decided based upon one match played at a neutral venue, with the final taking place the following week at the same venue. The aim of this is to reduce the volume of travelling supporters across a more widespread period of time and to different locations.
There will be several substantial impacts that a single-legged semi-final will have on the UCL, some arguably positive and others that will be of detriment to the competition. For broadcasters and for fans, the new change will mean there are less high quality matches to watch. Furthermore, the historical tradition of fans travelling around Europe to follow their team across the continent in the semi-final of the biggest competition available to them is one that is treasured by many and will be missed as a result of the loss of an away leg in the semi-finals. For clubs and cities, this also means a significant loss of matchday revenue and tourism to the home club’s city, damaging the financial benefits of a club reaching the semi-final.
An argument in response to this is that the increased volume of games during the preliminary league stage will counteract the losses made at the semi-final phase. However, arguably it is far more attractive to broadcast games of higher quality and at a more critical period of a competition such as the semifinal. Broadcasters will continue to lose out on being able to show higher numbers of higher standard games.
One outcome that may be seen as a result of one-legged semi-finals is an increased unpredictability of which clubs make the final. This may be seen as enhancing the uncertainty of competition and lessening the advantage to major clubs. For example, it is more likely for an underdog to overcome a European giant in a one-off game rather than having to consistently produce an aggregate victory over two legs. An increased number of upsets and uncertainty could act to benefit the attractiveness and diversity of the competition. However, for broadcasters and for commercial opportunities this may have a negative consequence in that their top earners and attractions to viewers such as Real Madrid, may miss out on a final due to a one-off upset. The worry is that this might also be seen as undermining the historic tradition of the competition as a fair assessment of the best clubs on the European continent.
Abandoning the Club Coefficient Idea
The reform that attracted the most media focus, discussion and opinions was the suggestion of using a club coefficient system in order to fill the additional four places available in the Champions League. I have explained how these positions will now be filled but it is worth explaining and understanding this alternative alteration that seemed possible for a significant amount of time.
It was proposed and seriously considered that a possible method of determining the four additional teams participating in the UCL next year would be selected based upon a club coefficient system. The system formulated those that were “most deserving” of the extra available Champions League places based upon historic success, particularly over the previous five years. This raised concerns from many European leagues as it seemed to hold connotations of the discarded European Super League. The strategy seemed to be purposefully designed to ensure that European giants such as Manchester United or Arsenal would be able to meet the criteria required to qualify for the competition under the coefficient system despite not making the top four ‘Champions League places’ in the English League.
This is because of the historical significance of clubs such as these and the commercial and broadcasting value and attraction of having them as part of Europe’s major competition rather than the Europa League or below. However, the system would have had many consequences beyond simply belittling the importance of the ‘race for top four’ in the English Premier League. It undermined the value and growth of clubs such as Atalanta or Leicester City and was more concerned with financial benefit rather than footballing merit. The system becomes particularly complicated when having to consider factors such as a club’s commercial status, business appeal, fanbases and broadcasting statistics in combination with the strength of the league they are a part of.
The coefficient approach would also have been a problematic and unfair system for other, arguably more deserving clubs around Europe that the places could have gone to. Before the final decision on how the additional four places would be allocated as I have outlined above, there were other suggestions that were made that were far better and positive for European football than the coefficient system. For example, the places could have been given to the next best countries that are not currently included in automatic qualification such as Serbia, Ukraine or Belgium. Despite the far lesser commercial and financial attractiveness of this suggestion, it would have enhanced the distribution of the Champions League across more of Europe and encapsulated a wider footballing variety.
Eventually, UEFA decided to abandon the coefficient idea and publicly announced their reasons for doing so. They had seen the issues that would have arisen as a result of such a system and agreed instead to commit to principles of open competition and sporting merit. Furthermore, it is hoped that the final system for allocating the four additional places will help to protect and promote domestic leagues and will judge clubs on no more than their short-term history from the single previous year of competition. Fortunately, this seems to have overcome the politically-charged and financially-motivated motivations behind a suggestion such as the coefficient system.
There is a significant volume of competing interests within UEFA and underlying factors and considerations that govern the European football competitions. The interests and desires of fans, broadcasters, brands and other commercial entities are taken into account. Often this results in an oversight of what is most beneficial for the game of football, sporting merit and fair competition. It is hopeful that next year’s adaptation of the UCL, Europa League and Europa Conference League, coupled with this year’s abandonment of the away goals rule will enhance the standard and competition across Europe and improve the spectacle of European competitions for all concerned parties. This does not mean that further adaptations cannot be made. UEFA will most likely always be planning and evolving in order to ‘perfect’ their competitions and adapt to an ever changing society and footballing fanbase and this is hopefully a healthy attitude for European football to continue to flourish.