Crowds affect football matches. That has always been obvious but the truth of this statement has been underlined by events in the behind-closed-doors Bundesliga games. Home advantage has been less of an edge in Germany’s resumed fixtures.
A similar situation will probably unfold in the Premier League when it restarts on Wednesday. It seems to be harder to win at home in front of empty stands.
Before the pandemic, German sides were victorious in 43.3 per cent of matches in their own stadium. After the break that figure has fallen to 21.7 per cent. This is a very small sample but similar figures have been recorded in other European leagues.
Statistics endorse what instinct suggests. A hostile atmosphere has an impact on both sides. Players often play down the influence of supporters. As professionals they do not like to admit in public during their careers that any arena unnerves them. In private and when they retire they are more forthcoming.
John Terry wrote about going to Anfield for the 2005 Champions League semi-final second leg against Liverpool in his autobiography, saying: “When the teams walked up on to the pitch, I have never heard anything like it before, and I don’t think I ever will again.” Terry’s mental toughness is unquestionable. Some of his team-mates that night were even more rattled.
The frantic ferocity of the Kop on a big European night is an extreme example. Even at relatively sedate, run-of-the-mill league games, the influence of a few thousand, like-minded supporters screaming for decisions colours the viewpoint of even the most objective referee. Deniz Aytekin, who took charge of the Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke derby last month told a television interviewer about the difference officiating behind closed doors. “I have to admit that I had pulse rates that were extremely low compared to games with spectators,” he said. “Suddenly, these emotions are missing, which is just as elementary for us because ultimately we, too, live this passion.”
So far, so obvious. Yet experience suggests that fans act as a leveller for a lesser side or provide an advantage when the contestants are of a similar standard. Anfield’s most legendary nights occurred when Liverpool were the underdogs: Chelsea 15 years ago, Manchester City in 2018 and Barcelona last season. Even in the fabled European Cup quarter-final of 1977 against Saint-Etienne, the French side were marginal favourites, having reached the final the previous year.
Empty grounds favour good teams. Take the emotion out of football and it becomes easier to predict. The finest talent is spread less widely than ever in the age of the superclub and the best players are clustered around fewer teams than before.
This makes it hard to see Watford taking points off City when the teams meet in July at Vicarage Road in the same way the Hornets toppled Liverpool in February. Once Jurgen Klopp’s team began to show signs of weakness, the crowd became animated and that vigour was transferred to the Watford side. The excitement of supporters inspires players, making them run harder, tackle stronger and summon up energy they did not know they had. At the time when teams in danger of relegation need an injection of that intangible spirit, it will not be available to them.
Clubs in the drop zone tend to get better in the final few weeks of the season. A study conducted by the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective looked at Premier League teams over a 20-season period ending in 2017 and found that sides threatened by relegation average 0.22 more points per game in the last five weeks of the campaign than previously. There are a few of factors involved: players focusing harder as fear of demotion gets stronger and mid-table sides switching off. Atmosphere, again, is likely to play a huge part.
In the grim depths of winter, supporters of struggling clubs get worn down by constant setbacks and defeats. In the spring, defiance and panic set in. The intensity in the stands becomes sharper. Leicester City’s miraculous comeback from bottom of the table in mid-April to safety in 2014-15 was driven by a manic King Power stadium. Nigel Pearson’s team were victorious in five out of their last six home matches in a cauldron of noise. Would Leicester have been so successful in an empty ground? It is doubtful.
Home advantage is about more than the crowd. There is no travel involved and the feeling of familiarity is reassuring. Nevertheless, fans make a huge difference – even if is merely because of their assault on the opposition’s and referee’s senses rather than constructive backing for the team they support.
Klopp has spoken about the challenges of playing in isolation. “Yes, it’s different,” he said. “You need to get used to it, but I like it. After three times, it is completely OK.”
The German is undoubtedly right but he can afford to like it. In a sterile atmosphere, good sides will get more room to play away from home. The lesser sides, who need every ounce of help they can get, will find things more difficult against classier visitors. The only team in relegation trouble that might express some relief are West Ham United. The London Stadium is rarely a positive place and the mood is often toxic. For David Moyes and his squad the atmosphere could be appreciably better without any supporters present.
The likes of West Ham and Aston Villa who wanted the season voided are right in one way: conditions will be materially different in the next few weeks to the part of the campaign that took place before the suspension. It is hard to feel too much sympathy, though: everyone had 28 or 29 games to make use of home advantage and ride the swell of support to safety. Now players and managers are on their own. It will be fascinating to see who stands out from the crowd at the bottom of the table.