Since the most-watched league’s inception over 130 years ago, the home-field advantage suffered a steady decline. The phenomenon, even while waning, adds so much to the beautiful game’s magic. It possesses footballing underdogs with a force like divine intervention. However, since the premier league resumed with coronavirus restrictions, more and more industry professionals claim that home-field advantage is a thing of the past. This once-mythical force is now measurable, and every measurement is diminishing.
Only tatters remain of the home field advantage apparent in competitions like the FIFA World Cup. It facilitated England’s only world cup win in 1966, and spurred Russia to a memorable quarter finals in 2018. Under the watchful eyes of the motherland, the Russian side narrowly lost out to Croatia in extra time.
In a report on the home-field advantage, The Athletic divides the phenomenon into three factors: travel, familiarity and fans. These days, the private transport and luxury hotels of modern football put the “premier” into “Premier League” and generally negate the discomfort of game day travel. It’s not as if the English top-flight has any island teams to sail to, and the climate can only fluctuate so much between Newcastle and Southampton.
Meanwhile, the Coronavirus killed off physical fandom and player familiarity in one fell swoop. Under such circumstances, players, staff and fans alike have nothing akin to familiarity left. After the longest postponement since the Second World War, there certainly can’t be any home-field familiarity, especially since the only fans in attendance are cardboard cutouts and Zoom fan-cams.
The Premier league left familiarity behind in March 2020. In May, the Bundesliga became the first major European league to resume its fixtures, and the stats spelled the end for any home-field boost. From the first 16 games back, home wins dropped by 20 per cent compared with the rest of the season. As a similar drop plays out across English pitches, German sports science provides some evidence as to why.
In 2010, Christian Unkelbach and Daniel Memmert published a study called “Crowd Noise as a Cue in Referee Decisions Contributes to the Home Advantage”. In their experiment, the researchers split 20 refs into two groups. They played both groups the same footage of player collisions, but one with crowd noises and one without. The study showed that home crowd chants and jeers made the refs 10% more likely to give a foul. Tellingly, the crowd noise refs also gave out far more yellow cards. Unkelbach and Memmert concluded with confidence that crowd noises have a measurable influence on yellow card decisions. In light of this discovery, post-corona teams currently face a second leg on a completely different playing field.
As the premier league resumes, the underdogs are losing. United are unbeaten post-lockdown. The bottom four teams, Watford, Villa, Bournemouth and Norwich have only picked up three scant points between them. All three of those points came from three separate draws. Some of the results must be down to deeper, richer squads benefitting from the newly expanded substitution pool. However, the home-field advantage is undoubtedly still in lockdown.
Of course, in sport there are no absolutes, and not everything is going so predictably. Still, the only major upsets since the restart are Brighton’s late winner against Arsenal, West Ham’s against Chelsea, and now Southampton’s remarkable victory over Manchester City.
After the aforementioned win against Arteta’s Arsenal, Brighton and Hove Albion found themselves in an odd position. Back in November, the Seagulls travelled 250 miles up to Old Trafford to face Manchester United in their 76k capacity stadium. Those thousands of home fans cheered United to a 3-1 victory. During the match, Brighton players were stopped for 13 fouls. They received five yellow cards, while United received only two bookings.
Bearing the Unkelbach and Memmert study in mind, Brighton faced a severe disparity when hosting the Red Devils after facing Arsenal in June. The only packed place in Brighton’s 30k capacity Amex stadium was the dugout, from which Graham Potter saw his side lose three nil.
Fans make the Premier League, but at matches across England, they’re invisible. Post-lockdown, the already declining home-field advantage becomes similarly hard to see. In fairness, it may be the larger teams with bigger stadiums that lose out most, in terms of actual crowd decibels. Floundering at the bottom of the table, Norwich will be happy to take this silver lining to the Etihad to face Manchester City at the end of the season. It remains doubtful whether City will need any advantage at all when they host Norwich. The Premier League season that hosts the home-field advantage’s death throes may be the last Premier League match that Norwich City see for some time. Nowadays, the home-field advantage lives on in spirit, residing in supporters’ homes around the world.