As European football tentatively plans its restart, discussions surrounding safe and sensible competition protocols have moved to what inhibits and facilitates the game. The Bundesliga has set the precedent for playing matches behind closed doors, one which both English and Spanish top-tier football will follow in the coming weeks. The lack of spectators has itself spurred curiosity about the status of ‘home advantage’, and the Premier League’s proposal to complete the 2019/20 season in neutral venues has spawned a nuanced analysis of the phenomenon.
Earlier in the month English league officials were moving towards a system of neutral venues for remaining Premier League matches, which has since been dropped. Chief executive Richard Masters has admitted that the abandoning of the idea was due to all clubs being in opposition. The original motivation had been to prevent spectators from gathering outside their home stadiums, even if entry was impossible, thus violating social distancing guidelines.
Opposition to neutral venues came most vehemently from clubs on the relegation line, who place great stock in any version of home advantage that might exist. Brighton, Watford, and Aston Villa have been the most vocal in this respect.
But the fight for their home advantage has given rise to questions of whether home advantage exists when there is no audience. A recent study has shown that it does not.
The primary reason for the study’s conclusion is that without an audience, referees are not subject to the influence of the audience, resulting in a half a yellow card less issued on average. Hence, they are neither more lenient on the home team or more harsh on those visiting. Because professional football has exerted great efforts to universalize playing conditions, familiarity with a home pitch no longer plays a significant factor in player performance. According to the study, besides the lack of supporting audience there are no additional disadvantages to playing away.
Dr. James Reade, the study’s co-author and associate professor at the University of Reading, as stated, “What we found was that home advantage essentially disappears.”
In an analysis of 191 matches played behind closed doors since World War II, it was shown that thirty-six percent of matches were won by home teams. This is in contrast to the forty-six percent won in front of supporters. Away teams saw their win rate increase from twenty-six percent to thirty-four percent when spectators were removed. Important to note is that the analysis was conducted with a mind paid to the overall strengths of the teams in comparison to ensure the reliability of these figures.
Other interesting facts include a greater likelihood of missed penalty kicks by home teams and of being made by away teams, and less injury time is given during behind closed door matches.
As it stands now, the only matches to be played in neutral venues will be those deemed particularly high risk, with the remaining following the home and away style. If the recent study is true, the only home advantage to be had is in the minds of the players, if the psychology of superstition and suggestion embolden players on their home pitch.