The aggregate system is beautiful. I’d venture to say it’s perfect. And while it often tears the beating heart from your chest, that’s the very thing that makes it so wonderfully thrilling.
Let’s travel back to a year ago next Tuesday. Liverpool and Chelsea played one of the most electric Champions League fixtures in recent memory. The Blues advanced to the final match that night on the back of a 4-4 draw at home that was filled with drama, shocks and thousands of fans for each side holding their breath for the better part of the 90 minutes.
Any 4-4 game is going to be exciting, I’ll grant you, but what made this one particularly special was the beauty of the aggregate system.
In a snow ball’s chance that someone is reading this who isn’t familiar with the aggregate (or that anyone is reading this, for that matter), I’ll detour to explain. Many tournaments at the professional level use the aggregate system once the tournament progresses out of the group stage. The two teams paired up play each other twice – once home and once away. The composite score between the two teams at the end of both games decides who advances, with most away goals being used as the marker to break ties. Got it? Admittedly, I still have some trouble calculating it out at times.
Let’s jump back to that game. The aggregate system had everything to do with its brilliance. Liverpool lost 1-3 at home in the first leg against Chelsea, so when they traveled away to Stanford Bridge that night, they knew they needed a 3-0 win to advance without going into extra time or penalties.
When Liverpool found themselves up 2-0, they were “in heaven,” as the announcers put it. They were en route to pull off the least likely of results, and the crowd was getting a thrilling game. Of course, the game ends up 4-4, but the breakneck-pace, sense of urgency and high-score were all because of the aggregate.
‘Pool knew the score they had to achieve and knew that wasn’t going to happen if they came out with their usual, methodical style. From the whistle, they were throwing men forward.
Imagine the likely alternative, where the two teams would play one game on a most-likely neutral site. You’d lose those second legs that almost always promise to be exciting.
In this scenario, the two teams would play their respective games, but keep it conservative. The aggregate forces initiative and demands consistence and quality.
Versus a one-fixture system, the aggregate doesn’t allow teams to get complacent. It’d be easy for teams to get sloppy with a 2-0 lead in the dying minutes of a game. Sure, they might concede a goal, but there’s no way they’ll let in two during stoppage time.
Nope, they can’t think that way, not even for a second, in the aggregate system. Conceding that crucial moment and giving the opposition an away goal in the final minutes is often the difference in who advances. Teams have to be crisp and unwavering.
And imagine the excitement this brings to spectators – we can’t get complacent either.
We have to stare, sitting on a fragile lead praying that each time the opposition comes into possession that they’re not mounting that attack that ties the game and crushes our dreams at hoisting the cup overhead.
I learned that lesson the difficult way. Yet another Liverpool-Chelsea fixture on a night of European cup football, and Liverpool lead 1-0 in stoppage time. As the final minute ticked away, I felt comfortable enough to take a breath, stop gnawing away my finger nails and chit-chat with my roommate and kinda-sorta girlfriend.
What’d I get for my complacency? A John Arne Riise own-goal in the 95th minute that ultimately proved to be the undoing difference for Liverpool as they lost the second leg 3-2 (‘Pool would have advanced on a 3-3 aggregate score with more away goals).
So, you see, the immense importance of away goals is probably the most special part of the aggregate system. It puts you on the tremendous highs of Cloud 10, and then rips you down to the darkest chasms of football despair… all over a two week period!
Anyone hung up on the system? Well, you’re probably just bitter you’ve caught its harsher side more times than not.
“But away goals or not, they composite score is still even! Let them play overtime!”
Weh. While overtime is exciting, I’d rather have the system in effect that rewards teams for their performance on the road. Entering a packed opposing stadium on a night of European glory and not sitting back? That’s ballsy and is commendable. And what’s the aggregate do for teams with such gusto? It commends them.
Teams should be rewarded for not packing it in and hoping for a 0-0 draw on the road. For those managers who have the confidence in their boys to not play the 4-5-1 on the road, me and my friend Aggregate salute you.
The aggregate promotes attacking because the away goals are so vital. And what’s more exciting – the prospect of overtime if the teams are level after two but have different away goal tallies, or the constant incentive for teams to play more daring, aggressive football? Yeah, it’s certainly the latter.
While there probably aren’t many people who know the system well and still dislike it, I thought I’d write this piece anyway because it’s not an attempt to convince (although I do try it at times), rather, it’s a declaration of my love.
It’s like your girlfriend. She wants to hear nice things said about her from time to time, even if she knows you feel that way. Today, I’m merely voicing my love for this brilliant cup format.
Here’s to you, Aggregate! *toasts with Carlsberg*