In football, a win “on the road” often takes on a greater significance than a comparative win at home. Although the idea of a home advantage has received some considerable research attention over the years, we still don’t know why this phenomenon is witnessed across all of the top European men’s football leagues.
The extent to which teams in a league benefit from playing at home varies, but studies have shown an uplift of between 49% and 79% with respect to the number of points won at home as a percentage of the total points available. Leagues in Andean and Balkan countries show the highest home advantage effects.
Typically, the reasons suggested to explain the home advantage can be broken down into four categories – crowd support, territoriality, familiarity and travel fatigue.
Crowd support works through the decisions that referees make on the field of play, under pressure from the crowd, and it has emerged as the most likely source of home advantage effects. But what happens if you take the crowds away?
COVID-19 meant games had to be held in empty stadiums. Although crowd noise is added into the broadcast version of sports, these noises have not been played in the stadiums themselves.
This provided an opportunity for researchers to test the effects of removing crowds from football matches. In a new study, including data from ten years across six domestic European men’s leagues, a team of researchers analysed 40,000 games before and during the pandemic.
The researchers found home teams still had an advantage, despite there being no crowds. The advantage decreased by approximately one-sixth compared to games played with supporters present, but the reduction did not reach the threshold for statistical significance. This result shows that home advantage remains even when there are no crowds present, suggesting that other factors apart from supporters are contributing to the home advantage effect.
The lack of crowds did have an impact on the behaviour of referees. There was a reduction in the number of fouls, red and yellow cards awarded against the away team. The researchers say this could be because there is no crowd putting pressure on the referee.
The research team found the home side attempted fewer strikes at the goal without the crowds watching. This finding was interpreted as a preference to keep possession and work for a better chance, choosing quality over quantity. It’s not known why this happened, but the research team propose that without the demands of the crowd, the players appear to be more discerning in their judgement of when to attempt a shot at goal.
Other studies that analysed matches played under COVID-19 guidelines compared to the regular season have seen different outcomes. For example, one study reported a home disadvantage, as opposed to a lack of home advantage, for the final nine rounds of the German Bundesliga season in 2020. Similarly, across the top divisions in England, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Germany, another study found the home advantage effect halved when playing during the pandemic.
Overall, it would appear that home advantage effects in men’s football across Europe have reduced as a result of the restrictions on spectators supporting during the pandemic, without disappearing completely. This appears to be because of a slight unconscious adjustment in the decisions being made by referees.
The results of this study suggest the crowd is not the only factor causing the home advantage. Factors such as decisions made by coaches in how they set teams up (defensive vs more attacking formation) and the mere folklore of it being harder to win away from home may be contributing more than we originally thought.
An extension of this work to shine a light on the home advantage in women’s football and second-tier contests is an obvious and necessary next step.