Monday, 2 October 2017

Away daze

As we enter the second international break of the season, Watford are (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) still unbeaten away – as, indeed, are five other Premier League teams. So it seems like a good time to reprise an old post from 2010, in which I explain why no one should be particularly surprised by this. Enjoy…

There’s no such thing as home advantage.

There, I’ve said it, and now I feel like that kid in the fairy story who notices that the emperor is parading around in his birthday suit. But can I really be the only person to have questioned the assumption that it’s somehow easier for the home team to win a game of football than it is for the away team?

Let’s run through the factors generally viewed as contributing to the phenomenon of home advantage:

The pitch
I’m sure there are plenty of park pitches where there’s a genuine advantage to be gained by knowing, say, that there’s a large pothole over by the corner flag that’s never been properly filled in, or that one side of the pitch is liable to turn into the Somme after five minutes of light drizzle.

But at the professional level, pitches are much of a muchness, generally well tended and flat. Even where there are local variations, it’s hard to see how this gives an advantage to the home team. If you have to play on a boggy quagmire once a fortnight during the winter months, does that really help you?

The facilities
We’ve all heard about the dastardly ruses teams employ to cause their visitors maximum discomfort: ‘forgetting’ to turn the hot water on in the away dressing room, neglecting to mend the wonky leg on the massage table and so on.

Maybe this really does have an effect. But you’d have to hope that professional sportsmen, with all the expensive training and psychological conditioning they receive, can rise above the trauma of having to wait a bit longer than usual for their pre-match massage.

The travelling
On the face of it, this is more plausible. We all know what it’s like sitting on a coach for three hours, and it’s easy to imagine that by the time you get off, the last thing you feel like doing is playing a game of football against a bunch of players who’ve just strolled over to the ground from their nearby homes.

But that’s not how it works, is it? For one thing, players don’t live locally any more. To give just one example, during his playing days, Alec Chamberlain lived in Northampton – so when we played Luton at Vicarage Road, he had to travel further to get there than they did. Did he therefore forfeit home advantage on an individual basis? It’s nonsense.

The idea that travelling in itself puts you at a disadvantage would be more acceptable if it wasn’t assumed to apply equally across the board. When Liverpool play Everton, they can get there by ambling across Stanley Park if they want. Dundee and Dundee United are famously sited on the same street, and it’s not that long. So why is the away team at a disadvantage in that fixture?

The crowd
Ah yes, the famous ‘12th man’, the passionate home crowd that can spur on a team to great heights. And I don’t doubt that this is true, sometimes at least.

But shouldn’t that logically mean that the clubs with the loudest, most fanatical supporters ought to win everything? Clubs like Newcastle, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Wolves... By the same token, the grounds where the singing is occasional and tentative ought to offer easy points to the visitors – grounds like the Emirates and Old Trafford, for example. You see my point.

Above all, it’s hard to take the concept of home advantage seriously when it’s applied so indiscriminately. If someone came up with a formula that took into account the distance the away team had to travel, the average decibel level generated by the home crowd and other factors, and then calculated the home advantage as a percentage, say, then I might be prepared to accept it.

I know what you’re going to say: if there’s no such thing as home advantage, why are there more home wins than away wins most weeks? The answer brings us to the crux of the problem, and the reason that it matters: tactics.

The myth of home advantage relieves managers of the stress of having to think too much. If you’re at home, you know you’re expected to win, so you line up in an attacking formation and batter the opposition until they concede. If you’re away, you play defensively, avoid taking risks and hope you might snatch a goal on the break. The reason there are more home wins is that most away teams’ defences simply aren’t good enough to withstand the pressure they’re put under.

In an ideal world, I’d take one of those memory-wiping devices Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith had in Men In Black and use it on every footballer and every manager to rid them of the notion that there is any such thing as home advantage. Then they’d be forced to approach every match on its own merits – work out how to neutralise the opposition’s best players and devise a system that allowed their own to shine.

For proof of how this can work in practice, think back to the 2006 Championship Play-Off Final. On neutral territory in Cardiff, Aidy Boothroyd went toe-to-toe with Kevin Blackwell, and only one of them got their tactics right. Imagine how much more fun football would be if you could turn up every week and have no idea how each team was going to play.