The home advantage of the 12th man is a well-established element of football success throughout the world. Whether teams are at the top or bottom of their league table, pundits and fans alike will point out the number of home fixtures and away fixtures they have remaining as a factor in deciding their fate. When cup draws are made, underdogs are rarely given a chance as the away side but hosting the big teams on your own turf always increases the possibility of an upset. According to the bookmakers, Newcastle United’s chances of beating Manchester City in the FA Cup Quarter Final plummeted once it was confirmed there would not be a full St. James’ Park cheering on their team.
There is also the counter-argument to the 12th man theory when home crowds become restless, as Newcastle United fans often have throughout this season while watching one of the worst performing teams in the league on a backdrop of Mike Ashley ineptitude. You will often hear talk of teams expressing themselves and playing with greater freedom away from the pressure of their packed stadium, where the atmosphere can quickly turn negative after years of disappointment and frustration. This can be enhanced further when teams enjoy the kind of vocal, passionate away support that Newcastle United do. Anyone who watches games away from SJP will know that away fans create an entirely different atmosphere to home fans, which has earned the Toon Army the reputation of one of the loudest and best away supports in the country.
So how will no fans influence the team’s performance? Over the years, there have been players who underwhelm every Saturday despite the manager and teammates insisting that they have been on fire all week in training. The sports psychology factor of additional pressure on match day is a cruel mistress that preys on those with a fragile self-confidence. So perhaps now is the time for players like Joelinton to shine as the sterile environment of training is replicated on match day. Conversely, without the crowd reacting to tackles and visible demonstrations of effort and commitment, how will those players who thrive on that perform? The motivation and desire from all players will have to come from within as their external stimulation is removed.
What can the Bundesliga tell us?
The Bundesliga was the first major European league to resume games on 16 May after a nine week hiatus. As pretty much the only live football available, a lot of us have seen more of Germany’s top division than ever before. At first the behind-closed-door games were a shock to the system but we’re slowly getting used to it thanks in part to the fake crowd noise (a discussion for another day!).
The results so far have been interesting, and we’ve seen the collapse of the home advantage. Out of the 39 games played since the re-start, over half of them have been won by the away team. The percentage of home wins has more than halved compared to the games played before the enforced break.
Now, of course, playing with no crowds isn’t the only factor here – there’s also the two month break and lack of match fitness that causes – but it’s certainly an interesting dynamic and one that almost definitely has had an impact on results.
Let’s take the example of FC Köln who, before the break, had won three games out of their last five and were looking comfortable in 10th place; 10 points clear of the relegation play-offs. Since the season restarted, they have only won three points from five games. This run has included three home games with a return of just 0.6 points per game, down considerably from their season average of 1.4 points per home game. This has left Koln just 7 points clear of the relegation play-off with 12 points left to play.
On the flip side Hertha BSC seem to have benefited from playing without a crowd. In the five games leading up to the break they had won only 5 points from 5 games. Since the restart, they have won 10 points in the same amount of games. Hertha’s home form has drastically improved without the crowds – they had only won 1 point from the last four home games before the break with a goal difference of -11. They have since played twice at home and won both games with a goal difference of +6. Without this up-turn in form Hertha would have been deep in a relegation battle.
The Magpies will restart the season in 14th place with 35 points and 8 points clear of the relegation zone. This sounds like a healthy cushion but, with 27 points still left to play for, there is still some work to do. How will the break have affected the team? How will playing in front of an empty stadium impact results? It’s impossible to say but five of our remaining nine league games are at home, where we’ve picked up 1.5 points per games this season (compared to 0.93 away from home). So let’s hope we’re more of a Hertha than a FC Köln!
It will certainly be an interesting football experiment when the season restarts, as nine rounds of fixtures should provide sufficient evidence to analyse any changes to performances and results. Removing the X factor of supporters from the game should theoretically benefit the technically superior teams whose skill and ability are sometimes negated by the energy levels, organisation and determination of an opponent whose tempo feeds off their supporters’ encouragement. Similarly, technically gifted individuals whose skill and ability are sometimes hampered by hostile crowds ought to benefit from the absence of jeers, boos and abuse from the stands. Although these are uncharted territories for everyone in football and the initial games will also be a test of mental and physical preparation, if we see the sort of substantial drop in home advantage as we have so far seen in Germany then it would suggest that the 12th man could well be as important as the eleven on the field.