Mythbuster: Is there any advantage hosting the 2nd game in knockout play?

Ever heard something like this?

“Man, it’s great that we get the return leg at home!”

Or this? “We won the group so we can clinch in front of our own crowd!”

Or this? “They still have to play us at home!”

These soundbites are truisms you hear every time a two-leg knockout matchup is announced or drawn. The conventional view is that it’s a big advantage to play away first, then take care of business at home in the 2nd match.

Is there any truth to this conventional view?

Well, Manuel Eugster, Jan Gertheiss, and Sebastian Kaiser from the statistical institute at the University of Munich concluded this about the common belief: “Our analysis showed that there is no statistical evidence for the common belief that the chance of winning is higher if a team is playing away in the first leg and having the second leg at home” (emphasis mine). You can read the whole article here – it’s in English.

A key bar graph from Eugster, Gertheiss, and Kaiser (2010).
A key bar graph from Eugster, Gertheiss, and Kaiser (2010).

Indeed, there is actually a slight disadvantage when playing at home nobody’s talking about: Extra time.

The away-goal rule is only applied as a tiebreaker if the total number of goals is even on aggregate. In some of these matchups, extra time & penalties are needed because the two games ended with an even number of home & away goals.

In case of extra time, the away team has a huge advantage during the 30 extra minutes, because a single away goal has to be countered by two or more home team goals. On the other hand, the away team can afford to concede a goal and still win the tie with a single score in ET.

For example, look at Schalke in the Euro League, who drew Shaktar 0-0 in the Ukraine and will not have the advantage of playing at home since every potential Shaktar goal would need to be answered by two goals of Schalke.

So it’s actually an advantage to host the first game in order to gain a possible advantage in extra time during the 2nd (away) match. At the end of the day though, the better or luckier team will advance no matter where the games are played and in what order.

So why is every GM and coach so happy when they get that home 2nd leg game?

It’s pretty simple: money and psychology.

TV Ratings and attention are always higher when an event ultimately decides who goes through. Just like Game 7 is more exciting than Game 1 in the Basketball playoff format.

So of course any GM loves to host the deciding match to grab extra media exposure.

Even if your team lost the away leg by 3 goals, then you can still sell to fans who hope for a miracle. Or if the first leg was a win, then you can sell the clinching party.

Players and staff obviously prefer to celebrate advancing to the next round with their 50k fans in the arena and later in their hometown clubs and bars instead of having a dinner at the hotel and catching an early flight the next morning.

However, you might object that Eugster, Gertheiss, and Kaiser’s study is from 2010 – six years ago – so let’s look at last couple of Champions League finals to test their findings.

In 2015, both Barcelona and Juventus had the 2nd leg away from home and (still) won their matchups. In 2014, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid clinched their ties outside of Madrid. What about Bayern and Dortmund in 2013 you might ask?

Same story.

Our perception of this effect is skewed because in the Round of 16, group winners automatically get the home leg second, and usually go though, but this is mainly because group winners are simply better football teams. To illustrate this skew another way, imagine if Barca, Real and Bayern would play every match in Tokyo. You would then say that “playing in Japan” is a huge advantage and that it would be better for Benfica, Gent or Wolfsburg to play in Japan, too.

Nonsense right?

In the later stages, where home & away games are drawn randomly no trend or advantage was showing up in the study.

So let’s keep in mind that “home and away advantages” are a myth when the next stages are drawn and the media goes crazy about it.

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