One leg is better than two: why we don’t need two-legged fixtures in the Champions League & Europa League

The times they are a-changing. The last fortnight has seen the return of knock-out European football. Last autumn it was announced that UEFA look set to change the format of the Champions League in favour of a ‘Swiss system’ with four more matches. This will be a mistake. This is not the change needed. We got an idea of the change needed last summer.

Out of the horror of the COVID-19 pandemic have been glimpses at something different. Some of this has been profound: pollution reduced or the daily commute eliminated. Another change, albeit meaningless in the grand scheme of things but significant in its own way was the single-legged format of the final stage of the Champions League and Europa League held in Portugal and Germany respectively. As Arrigo Sacchi put it: “football is the most important of the least important things in life”.

The first European Cup in 1955–56 consisted of 29 matches from start to finish. The following year’s edition contained a preliminary round and tiebreakers and so consisted of 44 matches from start to finish. The 2018–19 tournament, not including qualifiers, consisted of 125.

In the 2018–19 Champions League, the knockout phase began on February 12th and consisted of twenty-eight matches before the final on 1st June. In the 2019–20 season once the single-legged format began at the quarter-final stage there were only 7 matches including the final between 12th and 23rd August. That was it. None of the coaches or players with one eye on domestic football between two legs of continental football, this was distilled and focused. In a summer where the European Championship was cancelled this was tournament football which, although without fans, was compelling in a way that the traditional format couldn’t achieve.

It seems every season now fixture congestion raises its head. We debate the merits of the League Cup, the need for FA Cup replays and a winter break. Yet every season we continue to play 28 matches over 3 months in the Champions League without question. In an age of great awareness over travel and its environmental impact as well as ever-greater squeezing of the football fan’s wallet could the knockout stages we’ve just seen be a blueprint for the future?

The double-legged format of the knockout stages of European club football has been in place since inception. In many ways, it’s a vestige of the competitions at their genesis, before group stages became entrenched in the 1990s and beyond. Back then it was knockout football from the beginning. Without seeding. In 1978 Nottingham Forest were rewarded for their league win with a first-round draw against defending European champions Liverpool. They won. In 1960 defending European champions and five times consecutive winners Real Madrid were drawn against Spanish champions Barcelona. And lost. You played the team you were drawn against home and away. Add up the aggregate score and whoever has the most goals went through. Simple.

The worth of group stages, wherein the Champions League 96 matches are played so the top-seeded 16 clubs invariably go through and the bottom seeded 16 go out, can be debated but won’t change as it’s UEFA’s concession to their lower-ranked members. With a group stage, even the worst teams are guaranteed 6 matches with all the involved money. That won’t change. Now we have an idea of what is possible with the knockout rounds. UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has recently announced that the new format could be the future from the 2025 season. Should it be?

Of course, in order to change from two legs to one, we’d have to look at what we might lose. As a Manchester United fan, I think back to that second leg against Roma in 2007 turning a 2–1 first leg deficit around with a 7–1 win at home. Chelsea fans will point to Napoli in 2012 on their way to glory. Liverpool fans to Barcelona in 2019. The 2018–19 Champions League, in particular, was a season of great comebacks in the second leg for Manchester United, Ajax, Tottenham Hotspur and, of course, Liverpool. This is what romance in sport is made of: a team coming from behind to win against the odds.

But how often does it actually happen? The Champions League has been in its current format since 2003. The Europa League since 2009. In the 16 seasons between 2003 and 2019 that meant 448 knockout matches, not including finals for the Champions League. For the Europa League, that’s 600 from 2009 to 2019.

Let’s look at those matches and see which knockout fixtures ‘needed’ a second leg. To do that we’ll look at the number of knockout fixtures where a team lost the first leg but won the second. These are the only fixtures where the second leg ‘mattered’. We’ll then look at how many times that ‘changed’ the outcome of that particular fixture i.e. the team losing the first leg came from behind to go through. We won’t include ties where the first leg was drawn because in a single-leg fixture the match would just go to extra time. This is only the matches where a full second 90 minutes changed the outcome.

Champions League knockout fixtures 2003–2019.

In the Champions League, a team lost the first leg but won the second 42 times between 2003 and 2019. The peak was 7 times in 2011–12 and 2018–19. The lowest number was once in 2005–06 and 2008–09. There was no season where a team didn’t manage to go through despite losing the first leg. The peak of a team changing the outcome was in 2018–19 when the team winning the second leg after losing the first went through 86% of the time (6/7).

Europa League knockout fixtures 2009–2019.

In the Europa League, a team lost the first leg but won the second 76 times. The peak was 11 times in 2017–18. The lowest number was 6 times in 2013–14 and 2017–18. There was no season where a team didn’t manage to go through despite losing the first leg. The peak of a team changing the outcome was also in 2018–19 when the team winning the second leg after losing the first went through 83% of the time (5/6).

In the 64 times in the Champions League where a team won the second leg after losing the first, the outcome was changed 42 times (66%). In the Europa League, it mattered less: 40 times out of 76 (53%). So while it happened more often in the Europa League (not surprising given the greater number of matches played) the effect was larger in the Champions League. The pattern seems to be that if a team can win the second leg after losing the first they are more likely to go through than not, probably due to the psychological impact on their opponent.

In the 224 two-legged knockout Champions League fixtures between 2003 and 2019, a team losing the first leg but going through made up only 18.8% of fixtures.

If we include all the fixtures, however, the second leg makes much less sense. In the 224 two-legged knockout Champions League fixtures between 2003 and 2019, a team going through despite losing the first leg made up only 18.8% of the ties.

In the 300 two-legged knockout Europa League fixtures between 2009 and 2019 a team losing the first leg but still going through made up only 13.3% of fixtures.

In the Europa League, the point of second legs is even less clear. In the 300 two-legged knockout fixtures between 2009 and 2019, a team went through despite losing the first leg in only 13.3% of the total fixtures.

In all knockout fixtures in the Champions League between 2003 and 2019 and in the Europa League between 2009 and 2019 a team lost the first leg but managed to go through in 16% of two-legged fixtures.

If we add up the knockout matches for the Champions League since 2003 and the Europa League since 2009 that’s 1048 matches played when the second leg was actually needed only 16% of the time across the two competitions.

This is a decision of rationality vs romance. 2018 after a first-leg defeat to PSG Ole Gunnar Solskjær opined that “mountains are there to be climbed. You can’t lay down and say ‘this is over’.” We then know what followed. A team coming from behind is probably the most powerful image in any sport. That’s why they stick with us. These are moments that define a season. Without a second leg, Real Madrid would have been knocked out by Wolfsburg in 2016 and not won the competition. Same for Liverpool in 2019. But as we’ve seen, they are rare.

There’s also the factor of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. When Barcelona took to the field at Anfield in 2019 how much was the result against Roma in 2018 playing on their mind? How much was that Barcelona result playing on the minds of the PSG players when they faced Manchester United? Surely it isn’t a coincidence that PSG made the final the season when they only had one two-legged fixture? Having come from behind to beat Atalanta 2–1 in the quarter-finals, would the narrative of bottlers have remained if they’d had to play a second leg?

Another benefit of switching to single legs would be removing the away goals rule. No change since abolishing back passes could improve the game as much. Away goals skew football: I remember in 2011 listening to Radio 5 Live and a Spurs fan called in to say he was disappointed his team had ‘only’ won 1–0 away to AC Milan and not 2–1 because then they could lose 1–0 at home and still go through. Bizarre. The away goal rule punishes a home team for playing on the front foot: better to win 2–0 and stop than carry on attacking and win 3–1 or 4–2. This is insanity. Think of the cynicism we’d lose in one fell swoop.

Olympique Lyonnais played above and beyond against Manchester City last summer and won 3–1. Imagine the narrative under the traditional format. City would have another 90 minutes to come from behind. If their goal were an away goal City might even be favourites still. What if Bayern Munich and Barcelona had to play a second leg after the 8–2? A pointless 90 minutes which could only have threatened injury and suspension for Bayern Munich and embarrassment for Barcelona. As it was Bayern Munich and Lyon won and were through. Barcelona and Manchester City lost and were out. Done and finished after 90 minutes as codified in 1897.

The prestige of the Champions League is the jewel in UEFA’s crown. FIFA has looked enviously at Europe’s premier competition which is largely behind its decision to expand the FIFA World Club Cup. To reduce the number of matches would go against the general trend of football: more teams, more games, more money. Yet this summer we’ve had a glimpse of something else. Crisp and succinct. Rather than a bloated competition across countries and months, this was engrossing tournament football. The only thing it was missing was fans. Once they’re back UEFA could be onto something here. One leg is better than two.