Fans could be back at Premier League stadiums as early as next weekend. Well, some stadiums, and only 2,000 fans, but it’s better than nothing.
Under the UK government’s new three-tier system, stadiums in tier 2, which includes London and Liverpool, can have 2,000 fans. That means there could be supporters at Stamford Bridge, Anfield, West Ham’s Olympic Stadium, and Tottenham Hotspur and Brighton and Hove Albion’s stadiums next weekend.
How long these measures will last is anyone’s guess though, as a spike in COVID-19 cases could see those regions downgraded to tier 3. And from a financial point of view, the cost of stewarding means that clubs will actually lose more money than if they had kept stadiums closed. But even having some kind of a real atmosphere in England’s stadiums feels like a win at the moment.
Some people, including Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa have complained that these clubs who can have fans would have an unfair advantage. Playing in front of 2,000 fans is nothing like playing in front of a packed Kop at Anfield, but the differences between tiers mean that some fans will have the benefit of home support while others will not.
How much of a difference could this make? In the Bundesliga, the lack of fans initially made home advantage disappear, with a huge number of away wins recorded once soccer restarted in Germany back in May.
But in the Premier League, it has been a different story altogether. The 17 sides that have been continuously in the Premier League since the restart of soccer in June have played 151 home games during that time, picking up 244 points. In the 2019/20 Premier League season, the home sides won 410 points from 246 games before the league was paused in spring. That works out at roughly 1.667 points per home game with fans in the stadium compared to 1.616 points without fans, or put another way, roughly one point per season difference.
Fans can completely change the atmosphere and feel of a game, but at the top level, their impact on performance might be overstated.
Or perhaps the pumped in fake crowd noises are really effective.
Some people have claimed that certain clubs benefit more from having fans in the stadiums than others, pointing to the closeness of fans to the pitch at Bramall Lane and Turf Moor to explain why Sheffield United and Burnley have struggled this season in the absence of fans.
There are plenty of other reasons why these clubs could be struggling though, not least the lack of investment in Burnley’s playing squad compared to teams around them like Aston Villa, Brighton and Newcastle United. With tiny budgets compared to the rest of the league, Burnley and Sheffield United have less margin for error than other clubs.
Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur saw a dramatic change in their fortunes last season, starting the season poorly, but ending it in form. And Tottenham have continued that strong form this season. But that improvement is more likely down to Tottenham benefiting from a change in manager and new players. Likewise, Manchester United’s improvement in form is more likely down to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes than the lack of fans to cheer on their opponents.
That said, Manchester United’s away form drastically improved without any fans in the stadiums. They actually picked up less points per game at Old Trafford without any fans, but their away form has been a revelation, with United picking up 22 points from eight away games at empty stadiums. They have gone from being the ninth best team on the road before June to being the top team away from home since June, but they’ve gone from being the fourth best to the eleventh best team at home. If the old cliché that teams treat the visit of Manchester United like a cup final is true, then perhaps the lack of fans makes it difficult for teams to get pumped up to play United.
Some teams might play better with a home crowd cheering them on, but others, set up on the counter-attack, could benefit in away matches where a tight scoreline sees the home fans jeering their own team.
Looking at the differences in home form and away form before and after the pause in the 2019/20 season gives a clearer picture of how much fans have affected home advantage for each team.
Sheffield United’s bad form doesn’t have much to do with an empty Bramall Lane. Rather it is their away form which is the problem. Before June, Sheffield United were sixth best in the league on the road, but since then, they have picked up just two points from ten away matches.
Burnley on the other hand have seen their away form stay relatively constant but have suffered a dip in home form since June, so perhaps Sean Dyche could benefit from having some home support behind him.
But either way, 2,000 fans who are not supposed to sing will struggle to create a cauldron of noise that strikes fear into the visiting team.