Chris Hatherall: Home alone during Covid-19

P laying at home is one of the cornerstones of football and entrenched in our language. Such is the universal acceptance of home advantage that managers talk of making their home ground a fortress, whilst critics of referees describe those who are unduly influenced by the crowd as being ‘homers’.
Chris Hatherall: Home alone during Covid-19
Friendly match between Arsenal and Brentford this week ahead of the Premier League's return. Picture: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Friendly match between Arsenal and Brentford this week ahead of the Premier League's return. Picture: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Friendly match between Arsenal and Brentford this week ahead of the Premier League's return. Picture: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Playing at home is one of the cornerstones of football and entrenched in our language. Such is the universal acceptance of home advantage that managers talk of making their home ground a fortress, whilst critics of referees describe those who are unduly influenced by the crowd as being ‘homers’.

Betting odds are statistically based around the undisputed assumption that teams playing at home are more likely to win, and Premier League history shows home form is key to both survival and title success – just look at Liverpool who haven’t lost at Anfield in the league since April 2017.

But what happens when, thanks to a global pandemic, teams are left ‘home alone’?

No fans, no energy from the crowd, no atmosphere. A fortress protected only by cardboard cut-outs. That’s what we’re about to find out, and already it has the statisticians and the mathematical modellers in a quandary.

As the Premier League prepares to complete Project Re-Start, there’s confusion over whether home advantage still counts for anything when fans are not in the stadium; and the panic has been exacerbated by some remarkable results in the Bundesliga, where the power of home advantage has not just been blunted but fully undermined since the league returned last month.

Take a look at a summary of the results so far: 46 games played, 10 home wins, 22 away wins, 14 draws.

Those results are hard to explain. You can understand how home advantage could be lessened by the absence of fans, but for the away team to win on 47.8% of occasions and come away with at least a point in 78% of fixtures is remarkable.

A previous study of the 2016-17 Premier League season by scholars Jim Albert and Ruud H. Koning, found home teams won 49.2% of the time — with away teams winning 28.7% of games and 22.1% drawn.

They found a similar pattern had occurred every season since 1888 in England’s top flight and was replicated at international level where home sides won 50.5% of fixtures.

Perhaps this latest twist in Germany is because the home team, normally energised by noise from home fans, has the biggest adjustment to make in the ‘new normal’.

So often an away team’s purpose is to ‘quieten the home crowd’.

Some statisticians expect the results from Germany to level out over time, and there are plenty who still believe in home advantage even without supporters in the ground. Brighton owner Tony Bloom is one.

The entrepreneur and poker player made his fortune from sports betting and online gambling, so has a deep understanding of the mathematical modelling behind modern betting.

“My view is that if you’re playing in your home stadium, even without fans, there has to be an advantage in that you’re more familiar with the dressing room, the playing surface and so on,” he said.

“But the level of the advantage certainly comes down quite significantly. In that sense we’re still at a slight disadvantage because we’ve got five of our last nine at home without a home crowd as opposed to the others who have four.”

For Brighton, who face Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City during a terrifying run-in, the hope is that bigger clubs will find it even tougher.

“It’s certainly going to be a different type of game,” Bloom said. “It’s up to us as a club to get that adrenalin going, to get the players up for the game. But I could certainly see players at some big clubs, especially if they’ve got nothing to play for in the last one or two games, finding it difficult to be as motivated as if there was a full crowd there.”

Brighton believe that home advantage will count in the relegation battle.

They have built pitches and dressing rooms at their training ground to replicate conditions at the Amex and insist there is an advantage in players sleeping in their own beds the night before a big kick-off and not having to travel.

Technical director Dan Ashworth said: “For me, the competitive advantage of playing at home is proven. The stats are out there. If you look at the last six years of the Premier League, there’s a half a point advantage of playing at home every game.”

If you split the current Premier League table into two — one for home results and one for away — there is evidence to support Ashworth’s claim (see table).

Liverpool top both, which is no surprise, but Manchester United prove his point.

With the Stretford End behind them they are in the Champions League places in fourth spot — but away from home they are down as far as ninth.

The opposite, however, is true for Chelsea. Frank Lampard’s men are third in the away chart but only eighth when it comes to home form — which just goes to show that mathematics cannot predict every scenario.

Football, thank goodness, is full of anomalies. Could the results in the Bundesliga so far be just such an anomaly? Or is home advantage on its way out?

The mystery will begin to unravel at Villa Park and at the Etihad on Wednesday when Aston Villa face Sheffield United and Manchester City host Arsenal.

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