FOOTBALL being played behind closed doors is likely to see home advantage almost completely wiped out.
And referees will be freed from subconscious bias towards the hosts.
Those are among the findings of a timely new study analysing how the absence of supporters influences the action on the pitch.
James Reade, associate professor and head of the Department of Economics at the University of Reading, teamed up with fellow academics Dominik Schreyer and Carl Singleton to produce a research paper titled ‘Echoes: what happens when football is played behind closed doors?’
The work analyses 195 games played in empty grounds from the top three tiers of Italian football, France’s Ligue 1 and the Champions League since 2002/03, comparing them with more than 33,000 fixtures in front of fans.
It represents the largest sample size of any study of its type and the data paints a stark picture for any Scottish sides who expect to retain an advantage on their own patch when football initially resumes.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: THE FINDINGS
• Home wins plummet by 10 per cent (46 per cent to 36 per cent), with away victories rising from just 26 per cent to 34 per cent.
• The hosts score fewer goals per match (1.45 to 1.23), while the visitors rippled the net with more regularity (1.05 to 1.13).
• The away side misses fewer penalties per match (0.20 to 0.09) while the hosts are more errant from the spot (0.21 to 0.27)
• The referee dishes out substantially fewer yellow cards (2.28 to 1.90) to the away team per match.
• The officials will award significantly less injury time per match when the hosts are chasing a goal in the dying embers (3.68 to 2.82).
“There is evidence that the mechanism for home advantage is fans affecting the referee, rather than the players,” explains Reade. “It’s important to say this a totally subconscious thing – we’re not saying all referees are homers.
“However, when you have a referee under serious pressure, from players and fans, it is natural that their split-second decision-making is affected.
“We have also seen that if the home team is losing, then larger the crowd, the more injury time is awarded at the end of the game.
“These things combine to suggest much of the home advantage is unintentionally caused by officials.
“The data is robust and has a knock-on effect. You have an away team less inhibited by yellow cards – they can defend more forcefully, make more challenges. That would factor into the fewer home goals finding and, in turn, fewer home wins.”
Although yet to factor in the games behind closed doors in the Covid-19 era, Reade concedes that even he has been surprised at the extent to which the initial findings (it is an ongoing project) have been backed up in the Bundesliga.
Of 46 matches played in the German top-flight since it resumed on May 16, there have only been 10 home victories, with 14 draws and a remarkable 22 away triumphs.
“We weren’t quite expecting the Bundesliga to bear out the results as strongly as it has,” continued Reade. “We found that the home sides do win less often behind closed doors, to the point where the home advantage is almost wiped out.
“However, results in Germany have been extreme.
“Maybe some of those players in Germany have started to feel pressure in their empty stadiums. They have the onus to win the match but without the inherent advantages.
“I look at a team like Aston Villa – their players have spoken about how having six of their final 10 Premier League matches at home could help them survive. That may not be the case.
“Likewise in any other division, whether Scotland or elsewhere, teams who traditionally expect to win at home could be in for a shock.”
As such, Reade believes it will only be a matter of time before data analysts take note of the numbers and begin to consider new ways to unnerve their visitors.
“Do we pipe crowd noise in? Do we have cardboard cut-outs of fans?” added Reade. “Perhaps a digital wall of fans watching on Zoom, like Aarhus did recently in Denmark.
“I suspect clubs will be racking their brains for any way to make sure the away team doesn’t feel comfortable, even without fans.
“Otherwise results could be very different from what we are used to in the coming months.”