In football, a win “on the street” is often more important than a comparable home win. Although the idea of home advantage has received some considerable research attention over the years, we still don’t know why this phenomenon can be seen in all of Europe’s top men’s football leagues.
The extent to which teams in a league benefit from home games varies. However, studies have shown that the number of points earned at home as a percentage of the total points available ranges from 49% to 79%. Leagues in the Andean and Balkan countries have the highest home advantage effects.
Typically, the reasons for explaining home advantage fall into four categories: crowd support, territoriality, familiarity, and travel fatigue.
Crowd support is based on the decisions that referees make on the field under pressure from the crowd and has proven to be the most likely source of home advantage effects. But what if you take the crowd away?
COVID-19 meant games had to take place in empty stadiums. Although the aired version of the sport is complemented by human noise, those noises were not played in the stadiums themselves.
This gave researchers an opportunity to test the effects of removing crowds from soccer games. In a new study that included ten years of data in six European men’s leagues in Europe, a team of researchers analyzed 40,000 games before and during the pandemic.
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The researchers found that despite the lack of crowds, the home teams still had an advantage. The benefit decreased approximately one-sixth when compared to attending games, but the decrease did not reach the threshold for statistical significance. This result shows that home advantage persists even when there are no crowds, suggesting that factors other than the supporters contribute to the home advantage effect.
The lack of spectators had an impact on the behavior of the referees. The number of fouls, red and yellow cards against the away team has been reduced. The researchers say this could be because there isn’t a lot of pressure on the referee.
Read more: As football returns in empty stadiums, four graphs show the home advantage disappearing
The research team found that the home team tried fewer hits on goal without the crowd watching. This realization has been interpreted as a preference to keep property and work for better opportunity by choosing quality over quantity. It is not known why this happened, but the research team suggests that without the demands of the audience, players seem to be more critical about when to attempt a shot on goal.
Other studies analyzing games played under the COVID-19 guidelines compared to the regular season have produced mixed results. For example, one study reported a home disadvantage as opposed to a lack of home advantage for the last nine rounds of the German Bundesliga season in 2020. Likewise for the top divisions in England, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Germany, another study found that the home advantage effect of gambling will be halved during the pandemic.
Overall, it appears that the home advantage effects in men’s football across Europe have diminished without disappearing entirely due to restrictions on spectator support during the pandemic. This seems to be due to a slight unconscious adjustment of the referee’s decisions.
The results of this study suggest that amount isn’t the only factor causing home advantage. Factors like coaches’ decisions about team formation (defensive versus more offensive formation) and the sheer folklore that it’s harder to win away from home may add more to this than we originally thought.
An extension of this work to shed light on home advantage in women’s football and second division competitions is an obvious and necessary next step.