At home with a Premier advantage?
So, football is back: did it ever really go away? Throughout the summer we’ve had the Euros, the Olympics, pre-season friendlies, and the return of the Scottish leagues and English lower divisions. But Brentford v Arsenal this Friday, the first Premier League fixture, remains different. Games in the Premier League attract an average TV audience of over 11 million viewers, and the typical attendance is more than 35,000 people. And those fans will be back, in full voice.
Covid-19 forced football at all levels to a shuddering and unexpected halt just a quarter of the way through the 2019/2020 season. When it returned, the remainder of the games took place behind closed doors with no fans (with the exception of a reduced capacity final day). Clubs covered empty seats with banners, flags, advertising and slogans, and in some cases cut-out faces of fans. Broadcasters gave viewers the option of simulated crowd noise. An eerie silence fell across the land… the words once uttered by Sir Matt Busby, that ‘football without fans is nothing’, couldn’t have rung more true.
However, the removal of fans from stadia due to the pandemic restrictions did provide an unintentional, and unique, opportunity to examine one of the most talked about and empirically studied phenomena in professional team sport: the Home Advantage.
In football, the Home Advantage is a longstanding and robust finding that the home team is more successful than the away team. In line with Émile Durkheim’s theory of Social Community and Coherence (see Durkheim 1974) – which posits social and group coherence as the core alignment among individuals who share common interests and goals – it is thought that supportive crowds are social representatives of their players and thus exert an invigorating and motivational influence, encouraging their side to perform well and influencing the referee to make decisions in their favour.
This meant that, for the first time, we could assess this theoretical explanation for the Home Advantage in the absence of these social representatives; in other words, with fans not present. It was almost the perfect naturalist experimental design. (In an ideal world we’d have liked to examine 50% of the games with and without fans, but given these circumstances were way beyond anyone’s control, an average split of 25% (with fans) 75% (without fans), wasn’t a bad compromise.) With this in mind, we began to question: Do home teams still accrue significantly more points and score more goals than away sides? Would refereeing decisions (in the form of fouls, yellow cards and red cards) still favour the home team during the games played without a crowd?
The results come in
One of the first countries to ban mass public gatherings at football matches, Germany, provided the earliest insight. Despite some debate around how severely the Home Advantage influenced each division – for example Fisher and Haucap (2020) argued it only emerged in the top divisions of German football – the general consensus was clear. The Home Advantage was significantly reduced in games played without fans, and referees treated home teams significantly less favourably in terms of fouls and cards awarded (e.g., Endrich & Gesche, 2020; Dilger & Vischer, 2020).
Soon after, as countries emerged from lockdowns across Europe, reports from other countries were quickly published. Bryson et al. (2021) and Reade et al. (2020) delivered the most comprehensive empirical summaries, examining over 16 countries across 23 leagues throughout Europe. Crucially, both studies reported large-sized effects for the absence of crowds on referee decisions, with significantly fewer cards being awarded against the away teams; the opposite pattern to what was seen just months prior with fans present. There was also a small (but significant) decrease in the number of red cards shown to away teams in these studies.
However, subtle differences did emerge when considering team performance. For instance, while Reade et al. (2020) reported a significant reduction in the percentage of home wins (43.8% with fans to 41.2% without fans), Bryson et al. (2021) did not find such significant effects. It soon became evident this was perhaps down to the sample choice and variable selection of these studies, as Sanchez and Lavin (2020) later revealed that home teams picked up fewer points and scored less goals in Germany and Spain without fans, but that such trends were not emerging from the Italian, Austrian and English leagues that were beginning to resume play.
Extra time required
At this stage several scholars began to question, is the Home Advantage geographically sensitive? Is this phenomenon, a staple in almost every Sport Psychology course and textbook across the world, beginning to unravel? We wanted to delve deeper into its robustness, and due to the vast amount of data available on professional football games we could do just that.
We turned our empirical lens on some key within-game game dynamics we thought may be associated to team success and refereeing outcomes. Firstly, we know a team's playing style is likely to determine their chances of scoring goals and thus their probability of winning the game. This is noteworthy considering that Schwartz and Barsky (1977) noted a team’s offensive play is intrinsically related to performances by the home side; thus, a team’s ‘Dominance’ over a game, through its playing style, is a likely determinant of winning a match. Equally, in relation to the referee outcomes, ‘defence minded’ teams should inevitably concede more fouls and pick up more cards in their attempts to deter their opponent from scoring. After all, if you can’t catch your opponent, football tactics dictate that you’re more likely to foul them! Second, little was known on how the home team’s strength, relative to the opposition and within-league merit positions, and the difficulty of their fixture schedule in terms of the opposition they face, might influence both the team performance and referee-related outcomes. This is significant because the quality of opposition a team faces is proportional to their likelihood of winning the game (Peeters & van Ours, 2020); and because it is likely less skilled sides rely more on their crowd’s support than do their more-skilled counterparts.
Hence, as the 2019/2020 season concluded, we analysed 4,844 individual games from 15 different leagues spanning 11 different countries. In total, 3,515 games (72.56%) were played with the presence of the audience (pre-Covid) and 1,329 (27.44%) in the Covid period without an audience.
As expected, we found that the crowd has a huge effect on the Home Advantage. With fans present, teams won on average 0.39 points per game more at home than away, but this Home Advantage was almost halved in the period without the audience; teams then won only 0.22 points more at home than away. The same pattern emerged with goals scored. With fans present, home teams scored on average 0.29 goals more per game than away team, compared with just 0.15 goals more than the visitors with fans absent.
Importantly, our analysis on within-game variables showed this was based on the inferior performance of the home teams, not on the improvement of away teams (as measured by corners, shots, and shots on target). Of equal importance, all of these effects remained significant when controlling for the quality of opposition teams faced (which we called ‘rating difference’) and the team’s position within its league (that we coined ‘importance difference’). This suggests that the Home Advantage functions as a separate entity to these previously unexamined factors.
Dominance, too, played a hugely significant role. A team’s Dominance during games – measured via number of corners, shots, shots on target, and a standardised latent factor of these three indicators combined – was significantly implicated in all markers of team performance. Home teams were less dominant without their supportive fans. Home teams won on average per game 0.7 fewer corners, had 1.3 fewer shot attempts, and 0.4 fewer of their shots were on target in games played without their faithful crowd. Overall, home team dominance (as measured by the standardised latent) was some 0.24 standard deviations smaller. For away teams, however, it appears the lack of crowds made very little difference to their attacking hold on games – winning only 0.10 more corners, 0.17 more shots, and 0.20 more shots on target. The overall dominance of away teams improved for only 0.05 standard deviation. Such is the effect of fans, the extent of the decrease in home team performance for some of these parameters is more than tenfold that of the away team improvement.
The biggest surprise was yet to come. Initially, our data followed a similar trend to previous studies: that referees give more fouls against the home team without their fans, while the number of fouls against the away side remains similar. However, the yellow card data shows that these fouls were judged differently by referees depending on the presence of an audience; far less fouls were given against away teams without the home crowds present, whereas the home team, although fouling more, received similar amounts of yellow cards. The most drastic punishment, a red card, followed the same pattern, but the differences were less pronounced (but still significant).
Based on this alone, it would be sensible to conclude that away teams are punished less often by referees when the loyal home fans are not present. However, crucially, when we include a team’s Dominance over any given game into the analysis, these associations are much weakened for fouls and yellow cards and, remarkably, become non-significant for red cards. This shows, for the first time, that the influence of home fans on referees mostly disappears when we account for the attacking/dominance tendencies of any given team.
In other words, a less-dominant home team playing without their fans is more likely to be penalised by the referee than if they employed a more attack-minded approach; suggesting that it is the inferior performance of home teams without their fans, and not the punitive action of referees against away teams, that has diluted this aspect of the Home Advantage in the 2019/2020 season across Europe.
Looking forward, this means a team’s attacking style of play (irrespective of playing home or away) is a significant factor in determining its success; not least only in terms of its performance outcomes (e.g. goals scored, points gained) as previously thought, but also in regard to the extent to which it is punished by the referee. Ultimately, this is critical given teams that actively avoid punishment by referees win more games and are thus more successful (c.f., Dohmen & Sauermann; Erikstad & Johansen, 2020).
So, where are we now? And what does this new information mean for teams gearing up for the 30th season of Premier League football? Teams are likely to be aware of these global trends in the football data and may well be pondering how their attacking mindset and tactics can be vital both for winning the game, but also in terms of how many refereeing decisions will go against them. This new information may see new increasingly attack-minded styles employed by teams across the land. If they wish to evade punishment from referees, perhaps that old football saying ‘attack is the best form of defence’ holds true in an unexpected way.
If nothing else, this coronavirus-inflicted change to our national sport has taught us one thing: fans matter. Packing out your local team’s stadium really does improve its chance of winning and, remarkably, it doesn’t matter whether you are up against the previous season’s champions or the leagues newbie minnows for your voice to make a difference. So, if you’re pondering over whether to turn up and support your team this season, you really could make the difference.
- Dane McCarrick is a postgraduate researcher at The University of Leeds whose interests include the psychosocial factors underpinning sporting excellence in association football, with a particular focus on how psychological stress influences performance.
This piece has been closely informed by his article with Professor Nick Neave, Dr Sandy Wolfson and Professor Merim Bilalic, Home advantage during the COVID-19 pandemic: Analyses of European football leagues, published in Psychology of Sport & Exercise, a peer-reviewed academic journal specialising in sport and performance psychology.
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