One thing is for certain about 2020, it has taken a huge part of football away: the crowd.
Although many factors have changed the psychology of footballers during the COVID-19 pandemic, empty stadiums must have some influence.
Often crucial games at the highest level can feel like training games to watch. The lack of an atmosphere in the stadium influences our viewing.
It also affects what is happening on the pitch. Dealing with no crowd changes the game from many angles.
While the advantages of playing in your own stadium like not travelling and feeling more familiar on your home pitch remain, this pandemic highlights the effect of fans.
So is playing at home still an advantage in 2020?
Research has shown that home support translates to an improvement in performance. One study from The University of Naples in 2014 predicted home teams have a 13% higher chance of winning than an away side due to crowd influence.
This study looked at sides playing an away fixture in their own stadium (such as the Rome or Milan derby), removing the possibility of other advantages of playing at home affecting the result.
Obviously, a home crowd affects some teams differently. Having a larger, more passionate fanbase like Leeds United do should help spur them on even more than most teams.
This advantage has been wiped out by empty stadiums. According to myfootballfacts.com, away teams in the Premier League have recorded 34 wins this season, compared to 29 wins for home sides.
The manner of which away teams have been winning has been unique this season. Results like Manchester United 1-6 Tottenham Hotspurs, and more recently Arsenal 0-3 Aston Villa seem unlikely to have happened with the crowd affecting the psychology of the players on both sides.
Home fans wouldn’t be putting up with this kind of play from their teams, surely?
The season has also seen an increase in goals being scored. A study published by David Harris in October this year found that more goals between the six and 18-yard box are being scored in the Premier League in particular.
The average goals scored so far this season is 3.14 per game. This is a jump on the previous four seasons, where the average was between 2.6 and 2.9.
The study found that more goals were not being scored because of players taking more risks without crowd pressure, but because the quality of defending has dropped across the league.
So players feel a lack of intensity without crowds the same way we do, and defenders struggle to keep the same concentration as they did with crowds.
When fans can return to stadiums, we have better defending to look forward to. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be waiting eagerly.
As many will have predicted, crowds influence the referee.
A study published in ‘Psychology of Sport and Exercise’ by A.M Nevill in 2002 found referees do not tend to punish away sides more due to the crowd, but give fewer decisions against a home side.
Another study at The University of Reading looked at the return of European football in June this year and found that away sides are given more decisions against them – fouls and yellow cards – across Europe when fans are present.
The current Premier League season reflects this change, with more penalties being awarded to away teams (22) when compared to home teams (19).
Clearly, VAR’s delivery of questionable handball penalties is playing a role in the increase in spot kicks being awarded. More penalties are being given overall, but it is extremely unusual that away teams are benefitting from this more than home sides.
Since the beginning of the Premier League, the ratio of penalties awarded has been 61.5% in favour of home teams.
Only in the 2001/02 season were more penalties awarded for away teams (by two) in Premier League history. This season looks set to have a record-breaking amount of penalties given to away sides.
This suggests that referees usually feel an unconscious bias against away teams. When fans return to stadiums, we won’t see more decisions given to home sides, but less given against their opposition.
This has been a good thing for fans. At least they know when they are handed an outrageous decision by VAR, the referee isn’t being biased against their team.
This season has already seen some results you would expect to see in Sunday league games rather than Premier League contests. After eight matchdays, we have seen more freak scorelines than in any other campaign in living memory.
Other factors will have affected results this season. A lack of a proper pre-season for many sides and players being missing due to COVID-19 infection have impacted games.
In games with shock results, one can only imagine a crowd would change the momentum of play. Fans can instil a belief and urgency needed to not finish with an embarrassing scoreline.
Although we all want to see fans back at games as soon as possible, these changes should be appreciated. Who hasn’t loved all of the extra goals, controversies, and shock results?
Home advantage is not what it once was. Managers now have an excuse for poor home form. Any team can go to any stadium and have a chance. It has made for box office viewing so far.
Let’s appreciate this while it lasts.