What has happened to ground advantage without fans in Premier League and beyond?
Figures vary across the divisions
Cast your mind back to the days before coronavirus. There were spectators in football grounds. For many games the impact on the win/draw/loss odds of the difference in ability between the teams should have been smaller than the impact of the venue.
How many games? It varied from competition to competition and from season to season. Typically? Maybe a third of games. So the venue should have been a significant consideration for football bettors.
Then coronavirus came along. Fans were banned. How has playing games in empty stadiums affected ground advantage? It is not a simple question to answer.
Let us start with the Premier League.
This season there have been 103 home wins and 108 away wins. Home teams have scored 366 goals, away teams have scored 357 goals. Ground advantage seems to have disappeared.
Last season, though, the relationship between home and away wins and the relationship between home and away goals was the same without fans as it had been with fans.
How can we explain this? You might say that playing without spectators was a novelty last season and teams did not know what to make of it but this season they have got used to it. You might be right. But then, how can we reconcile the stats from the Premier League with the completely opposite stats from the Championship?
There are different ways of contrasting scores by venue. Nearly always they tell a similar story. I am going to use home goals percentage – home goals as a percentage of all goals. And I am going to round it to the nearest whole number.
In the Premier League this season home teams have scored 51 per cent of all goals. Without fans last season home teams scored 57 per cent of all goals, the same as in the previous ten seasons.
In the Championship this season home teams have scored 55 per cent of all goals. Without fans last season they scored 51 per cent. Across the previous ten seasons they scored 56 per cent.
So the evidence from the Championship is the other way round to the evidence from the Premier League.
What has happened elsewhere in the EFL? League One and League Two did not finish last season. They stopped before the first lockdown and did not resume. In the ten seasons before last season home teams scored 55 per cent of all goals in League One and in League Two. This season they have scored 51 per cent in League One and 54 per cent in League Two.
So the Premier League has been different from the Championship, which has been different from League One, which has been different from League Two.
This is why science is so often wrong, especially social science. Drawing right conclusions about human behaviour is not easy. A social scientist can ask a question and try to answer it by gathering data on a group of people. Their research methods might conform to current best practice. Their maths might be flawless. But if they had studied another group of people they could have found something else.
You might point out that League Two is a lower level than League One, which is a lower level than the Championship, which is a lower level than the Premier League. The Premier League, you might think, is better compared with the top division in other big countries in western Europe. You might be right.
What has happened in Spain in La Liga, in Italy in Serie A, in Germany in the Bundesliga and in France in Ligue 1?
In La Liga in the ten seasons from 2009-10 to 2018-19 the home goals percentage was 58 per cent. Without fans last season it was 54 per cent and this season it has been 54 per cent. So this season has been the same as last season. Ground advantage seems to have halved.
In Serie A in the ten seasons 2009-10 to 2018-19 home goals percentage was 57 per cent. Without fans last season it was 54 per cent and this season it has been 54 per cent. Again this season has been the same as last season. Ground advantage seems to have almost halved.
Ligue 1 did not finish last season. Like the bottom two divisions of the EFL in England, it stopped and did not return. In the ten seasons before last season home goals percentage was 58 per cent. This season it has been 51 per cent. There ground advantage seems to have all but disappeared.
The Bundesliga was the first major league to restart last season. In the ten seasons 2009-10 to 2018-19 home goals percentage was 56 per cent. Without fans last season it was 46 per cent. Away teams scored more goals than home teams. This season home goals percentage has been 53 per cent. Home teams have scored more goals than away teams, though not as many more as they did before.
Why has the experience of playing in empty stadiums differed from time to time, from competition to competition and from country to country?
This is my best guess. It is only a guess. Anyone who tells you they know is deceiving themselves or you, maybe both. My best guess is that when football at a high level has been played without fans ground advantage has been reduced but not eliminated – reduced by an amount we cannot quantify accurately, around which there has been a lot of noisesome variation.
To be safe, I suggest you still make some allowance for ground advantage if you are thinking of backing an away team, but not if you are thinking of backing a home team.
Crowds cannot influence results directly. Only players and officials can do this. Crowds probably can influence results indirectly by encouraging or intimidating players and officials.
Players were conditioned into performing differently home and away. They may still be doing so to a smaller extent, in some places getting less than they deserve and in other places more. Whether they would carry on doing so if stadiums remained empty for a really long time we do not know. Hopefully we will not have to find out. Let us cast our minds forward now to better days that may lie ahead.
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