How fair are the finals?

The cut-throat aspect of the new finals system, and the removal of the preliminary final, should make the new play-off format a hit. But is it fair?

With just 10 weeks to go in the 2012/13 Hyundai A-League regular season, the race is on for the finals and ultimately, championship glory.

And just like last season, the sporting community won’t remember who finished on the top of the final ladder (sorry Mariners supporters) – they’ll only remember who wins the grand final (cue gloating Roar fans).

It was an inglorious exit for the 2011/12 table-topping Central Coast, who went down in the major semi against the Roar, then lost their second life after drawing at home to Perth – but losing in the football lottery known as the penalty shoot-out.

But by virtue of finishing at the head of the ladder, the Mariners had the double chance and at least had the opportunity to bounce back from their major semi final loss.

The new 2013 finals series however offers no such luxury to any team, even if the Mariners were to finish on top again and a dozen points in front of the second placed team this year.

Each match of the revamped finals series is a knock-out fixture, with extra time and penalties planned to find a winner if needed.

Week 1 has 3rd hosting 6th and 4th hosting 5th; the two winners then travel to take on the 1st and 2nd placed teams in week 2, with these two winners meeting in the grand final at the higher placed team’s venue. For any loser, its goodbye Charlie.

The shortened and unsparing finals format means it’s quite conceivable that 5th will play 6th in the new championship decider. Based on standings after Round 17 this would mean a Melbourne Heart v Newcastle Jets grand final.

Any one of the top four – and after Round 17 the Mariners, Adelaide, Victory and Wanderers are clearly a cut above the rest – will fall at the whim of a penalty shoot-out loss.

Each finals system has its pros and cons, and despite my initial comments here, I think I’m a fan of the new format.

For one, it gets rid of the dreaded preliminary final – the ugly duckling of the old finals system.

Whether because the preliminary final host was coming off a loss the week before, or whether it was due to no lure of hosting the grand final, the lack of interest in the preliminary final was obvious.

In most years, the preliminary final crowd was the lowest attended fixture of the finals series, and would generally attract less than the regular season average crowd for that club.

And a sparsely attended prelim final was not the best look at the start of what is supposed to be the most exciting week of the A-League season – grand final week.

It will be a whole new feel from the 2013 finals, with the two week 2 winners going straight to the grand final the following weekend.

The cut-throat aspect of the new finals system, and the removal of the preliminary final, should make the new play-off format a hit. But is it fair?

The fairest finals system gives teams that finish higher on the regular season ladder a real advantage.

The regular season should be a competition where every team strives to win every game. Where finishing first is a real advantage over finishing second. Where finishing third is a real advantage over finishing sixth.

But the new finals format, just like the old format, doesn’t really respect ladder standings as well as it could.

In week 1 of the new finals series, the 6th placed team has almost the same chance of progressing as the 5th, 4th and even the 3rd placed team.
Sure, there is that slight home ground advantage to the 3rd and 4th placed teams.

Based on all A-League games to date however, playing at your home ground isn’t of huge benefit.

OnIy 45 per cent of matches are won by the home team, with 25 per cent of matches drawn, and the remaining 30 percent won by the away team.

Based on these stats, an away team in a finals match has a 55 per cent chance of winning or taking the game to the penalty shoot-out lottery. It’s pretty good odds for the away team.

Surely the team that finishes the gruelling six month regular season in a better position deserves more in the hasty three week championship play-off series?

So when it comes to finals match day, when players will tell you that history and stats count for nothing anyway, what factor can give the higher placed team the real advantage they deserve?

The solution is simple: get rid of the penalty shoot-out. If a finals match is drawn, just consider the higher-placed team as the winner.

If a lower-ranked team isn’t good enough to score more goals in regulation time, then they don’t deserve to progress through the finals at the expense of the higher ranked opponent.

Under this tweak, lower-ranked teams need to go for goal from the start of the match, rather than try grinding out a nil-all stalemate, which then gives them a 50/50 chance of winning a shoot-out. We’ve seen this happen a few times in the past – maybe as recently as the 2012 grand final?

Some might say removing the penalty shoot-out takes a great spectacle away from the game. But really, if shoot-outs are what people really want, then why not just get rid of normal time and just make every match a penalty shoot-out?

Under this simple rule change of drawn finals matches going to the higher placed opponent, teams have much more incentive to finish higher on the A-League ladder, which is surely what teams should be striving for.

And drawn game losers can’t complain – they simply needed to finish higher on the ladder when they had the chance.

Let the real champions rise to the fore in the finals.

Follow Andrew Howe-s Aussie football stats updates on Twitter @AndyHowe_statto