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A record breaking season for Europa League goals

Did the new goal-kick rule lead to players taking more risks or the absence of fans cause an increase in goals from away teams?

Stephan El Shaarawy enjoys scoring for Roma in the round of 16
Stephan El Shaarawy enjoys scoring for Roma in the round of 16 UEFA via Getty Images

From the impact of five substitutes to changes in defending in the penalty area, we examine some of the main talking points from the 2020/21 UEFA Europa League technical report.

The 50th edition of the competition was the highest scoring to date with a total of 618 goals at a rate of 3.03 per match. Possible reasons discussed in the report include the introduction of the new goal kick rule which may lead to teams taking more risks playing out from the back and the lack of home advantage without the presence of fans leading to more goals scored by away teams.

Countering caution with class

There was a goal every half an hour across the 204 matches, most of which were played behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Was that a reason teams were finding the back of the net with such regularity? UEFA's technical observers agreed it was likely a contributing factor, but not the only one.

In 2019, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) introduced a new rule allowing goalkeepers to pass the ball to a team-mate within their own penalty area, rather than the ball having to leave the box before another player could touch it. As a consequence, it was evident in 2019/20 that many clubs were adapting their build-up play and increasing the interaction between their goalkeepers and their defenders.

With this rule now established, it is becoming common for teams to use their entire back line in constructing an attack, though this comes with risk attached. "With the change of profile of defenders and the rules of the game, teams are playing up more from their own penalty area and you could see a lot of mistakes in this," UEFA Technical Observer Ghenadie Scurtul said. "They were taking a risk."

Salzburg's Mergim Berisha after scoring against Villarreal
Salzburg's Mergim Berisha after scoring against VillarrealGetty Images

Was the risk worth it? While a total of 35 goals were scored when a goalkeeper was involved in the build-up, there were countless examples of how this also went wrong, and teams paid a heavy price. Villarreal goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli made a costly mistake in gifting Patson Daka the ball in his side's evenly matched last-32 tie with Salzburg. Daka cut the ball back for Mergim Berisha to give the Austrian visitors the lead, and although two Gerard Moreno goals ensured Villarreal made it through anyway, it could have been consequential for the eventual champions. "The goalkeepers are searching for the best way to build up play, but some are not ready," Technical Observer Frans Hoek said. "This is why mistakes are happening."

On the flip side, are goalkeepers now focusing too much on their footwork and neglecting the essence of their role – making saves? "Many goalkeepers are getting better in building up play, but they are getting worse in stopping shots," continued Hoek, who has over 35 years of experience as a goalkeeper coach at Ajax, Barcelona, Manchester United, and with the Polish and Dutch national teams, among others. "We see times when they overdo it, and that also has an influence on goals against." With many teams also operating a high press, arguably in view of the potential to take advantage of such mistakes in building out from the back, this forced even more errors and, consequently, more goalscoring opportunities.

Other reasons put forward for the glut of goals include the lower levels of pressure without the presence of fans, particularly for visiting teams who feel less intimidated. Away teams scored 277 goals – accounting for 44.8% of the total. Home advantage seems to have diminished during the pandemic, and it is no coincidence that UEFA decided to abolish the away goals rule in all UEFA club competitions from 2021/22.

President Aleksander Čeferin said: "The impact of the rule now runs counter to its original purpose as, in fact, it now dissuades home teams – especially in first legs – from attacking, because they fear conceding a goal that would give their opponents a crucial advantage. There is also criticism of the unfairness, especially in extra time, of obliging the home team to score twice when the away team has scored."

Indeed, it was observed once again this past season how the home teams often appear to be waiting for their chance to score when they hit the road. "I think the players, especially the visiting teams, are playing with more freedom, with more goals being scored away from home now," Technical Observer Savvas Constantinou said. "You see this in most European leagues, with an increase in goals scored."

Italy's Serie A has just had two of its most prolific seasons on record, with averages almost identical to those in the Europa League of just over three goals per game. In Germany, Bayern München's Robert Lewandowski broke a record which had stood for four decades, netting 41 goals in one Bundesliga season – one more than Gerd Müller managed in 1971/72. Both domestically and in Europe, total goals are on the rise.

How the goals were scored

Direct free-kicks: 11
From a corner: 62
Penalties: 60
Following a free-kick: 26
Following throw-in: 11
Combinations: 228
Counterattacks: 26
Defensive errors: 58
Direct attacks: 126
Other: 10

Total: 618

Direct attacks reflect attacks with a clear intent to get the ball to the opposition goal quickly, though not necessarily on a transition, such as a long ball from the goalkeeper or out of defence, or several quick forward passes.