Home Time For Home Advantage?
I sit and write this as the Aladdin film rambles on in the background. The good cartoon one, not the recent Will Smith tear-up. As Aladdin and Jasmine stare into each other’s eyes on a magic carpet ride and sing, they may as well be singing to every football fan on the planet as we experience this whole new world.
But while your questions as to why a grown man in his 30’s is watching a kids film are valid, the point remains. Football has returned. But not as we know it. This version of matchday is not something the majority of us have endured before. It’s like that first rebound date after a break-up. You look forward to it happening. You convince yourself this is what you want. You force yourself to enjoy it. But in the end, you end up pining after the past and the way it was before the break. Or is that just me?
The German Bundesliga started back nearly a month before the rest of the European continent on May 16 and the big draw for the Germans in the last ten years has been the guaranteed atmosphere you get at every game. The constant noise. The brazen colour. The consuming energy. The tribal passion. Germany’s football fans pride themselves on being that ‘12th man’ for their team. But has the COVID pandemic levelled the playing field back to 11 v 11?
What was it Sir Matt Busby said? “Football is nothing without fans” or was that big Jock Stein – that’s another debate for another time!
The importance of being the home team
Throughout football, home advantage has always been taken into account when two teams square up. But why is this? Some factors that spring to mind are:
The home team has the majority of fans. These fans drive their team through passion and support and give their players an extra boost to their level of performance. Fans can also put pressure on referees so that decisions go in their teams’ favour
The home team plays at the same stadium and on the same pitch every other week. They are used to the surroundings and the playing surface and use this to gain an advantage over their opponents
The away team have had to travel to the match from afar. This could lead to tiredness and a lack of energy compared with their less travelled opponents
Think about your betting slip. Since the days of the Littlewoods Pools Panel, your home odds are going to be considerably shorter than your away odds, unless you have the Old Firm or the top six in England as the away team for example. And even then, home advantage is considered when these numbers are compiled.
Ahead of last weekend’s fixtures, the Bundesliga stats support a stark change in match dynamic. Home teams had won 21.7% of matches (10 from 46 games), down from 43.3% before the shutdown of play in March. Home teams have also scored fewer goals — the pre-lockdown rate of 1.75 goals per game is now down to 1.28 — while the away teams’ winning ratio has risen from 34.83% to 47.8%. One weekend saw only one team in Germany win on their own patch – champions Bayern Munich.
The same trends have been seen in Estonia (after 29 games there were just 11 home wins) and Czech Republic (after 32 games, just 10 home wins) since their leagues resumed when behind closed doors.
The strength of home advantage pre-shutdown cannot be underestimated. Liverpool haven’t lost at home in the league since April 2017. If we forget their last fixture against Atletico Madrid just before football stopped, this home form was arguably the biggest contributor to Jurgen Klopp’s men reaching the Champions League final on the last two occasions it was played, including that remarkable turnaround against Barcelona last year and Man City getting a scudding in 2018.
Norwich City, deep in the relegation dog doo-doo, have won five games all season. Four of these have been at home.
In 2018, data compiled by matched betting service OddsMonkey looked at teams in the English Premier League that had been awarded 50 or more penalties and whether or not home advantage was a factor.
The results are pretty conclusive. Maybe the naysayers were right all along about Sir Alex and him putting the fear in referees!
Now, some may argue that these figures are only natural, as the onus is on the home team to attack and because of this they are more likely to win spot kicks. Whilst this argument has merit, is it not the fans who demand that style of play from their team? Will the players still feel the pressure and demands posed by snarling local fans at a packed venue when said venue is empty?
Let’s look at things from a fans point of view. As a Scotland fan, there’s no doubt who our biggest rivals are (it’s not Peru). The Tartan Army watched with one eye open and recoiled behind the sofa two years ago as England were scoring last minute winners and winning penalty shootouts to reach the World Cup semi-finals. It’s a throwaway point to remember that Scotland competed in the same qualifying group as the English. Upon our first meeting at Wembley in November 2016, you’d be hard pressed to find an optimistic (and sober) Scotsman who truly believed that anything other than an England win was coming. The prospect of facing the ‘auld enemy’ on their own patch backed by over 85,000 fans is enough to have all of those in blue looking at the glass half empty – and these fellas were indeed proven correct.
Flip that to Hampden in June 2017, and you go into that match as a Scotland fan with that added thought of ‘we can do this’. But why? It’s pretty much the same squads facing each other as seven months earlier. But that added factor of the crowd on your side, willing the team on, screaming for every decision, that factor just lingers in the air like a fart in the cinema.
Of course, in these two games, as they were group fixtures one twist of the home vs away tussle was missing – the away goal rule.
The away goal was introduced initially to do away with having to play a third game when two ties couldn’t separate teams. Now it is used to encourage away teams to be more aggressive away from home. But, to simplify, FIFA thought it harder for the away team to score than the hosts, so much so that they effectively gave teams double when they did.
One thing is for sure. With this new form off football without fans, a position not likely to change any time soon, it has further shown that fans are vital to teams and moreover, fans backing to teams playing at home have a substantial effect on results. Players feed of the fans and without them home teams certainly lose any sort of edge they may have held over opponents.
We’ve all spent more time at home than ever before in the last few months, many of us with family. But there are those people who – like that blond kid out of that Christmas film– have been home alone. And for now, football teams are going to have to find a way to do the same. Minus the paint cans and blowtorches.