Why Are Away Wins So Important?

MUCH of the increased attention garnered by the Nigerian Professional Football League this season owes to unpredictability. This, according to respondents, is a key factor—and it is undeniable that uncertain outcomes make for better spectacle.
This centres on the increased number of away wins, up to about one per matchday. All of last season, 13 teams won at least one game away from home; this season, after 17 matchdays, 11 teams have garnered at least one win on their travels already. In a league where home advantage is still a major force, this has the potential to be a major decider. It is no surprise then that the current top four includes the three sides with the best away records in the league this term.
However, it is worth considering why this single factor is enough to skew the table so markedly, and consequently, create buzz around the league. In terms of quality of players, the NPFL suffered a haemorrhage in the off-season, losing the likes of Peter Ebimobowei, Emem Eduok and Osaguona Ighodaro, all of whom hit double figures last term. In the same vein, the reigning league top goalscorer Mfon Udoh has struggled for fitness for much of this season.
The quality of actual play has also not significantly improved: the goal average per game (an admittedly reductive metric for judging, but all others are subjective) is down from 2.2 last year to 2.12 in this. This is partly explained by the player drain, but also sharply throws into contrast just how crucial a factor the concept of wins on the road has become.
League titles, accounting for the truism that luck (an often underappreciated factor in football) evens itself out over 38 games, often resolve in favour of the best team. How this is discovered might differ—whether by virtue of having the best players (financial), the best unit (mental), or the more coherent playing style (tactical).
However, there is no real gradient in quality in the league between the best and worst teams. This, apart from the issue of officiating – which is being addressed a lot better than in previous seasons – explains why even the away grounds of struggling teams come with no guarantee for visitors, and consequently, why an away win causes such a ripple in the league.
Kano Pillars have won the league three years on the bounce, and have as their foundation a formidable home record going back 12 years. This has earned them the tag of poor travellers, but in truth, it is not altogether accurate. Last year, for example, only two teams had a better away record in the league than Pillars: Enyimba and Heartland; the year before that, only three—one of them was relegated Kwara United!
The financial situation of most clubs are also basically the same: most run as extensions of state governments, and receive their funding from this source. As a result, a true superpower is yet to emerge and accumulate the sort of quality needed to dictate terms in the league.
Pillars are again the closest, but have failed to address some glaring flaws in their team. An administrative faux pas robbed them of Christian Obiozor, who has been a revelation since joining Enyimba, and they have struggled for goals in the continued absence of star striker Gambo Mohammed.
It becomes apparent then that, with the same broad level of mental and financial input, the only other means of gaining comparative advantage is in terms of tactics. Sadly, this remains a largely under-explored avenue. There have been very few instances of the sort of input from the dugouts that decide games, and when they have come, they have been so basic as to be almost derisive. Abia Warriors and Pillars have utterly dominated Enyimba in midfield in the league this season, and it was painful to see Kadiri Ikhana, a former CAF Champions League winning coach, struggle to come to terms with the concept of numerical superiority.
The deficit of these factors perfectly sets up the league; with few comparative advantages, the importance of rare away wins is inflated beyond a mere three points. As a result, it is very likely that whoever wins the title come November will have to discover the greatest consistency on the road.