When Real Madrid host Eibar on Sunday in their first fixture following the Covid-19 shutdown, the visitors will be spared the usual psychological hurdle of performing at the 81,404-capacity Santiago Bernabéu. Indeed, never mind the empty-stadium factor, they won’t actually be playing at the Bernabéu at all – but rather in front of 6,000 plastic seats at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano inside Madrid’s Valdebebas training complex.
Real will be playing their remaining home matches of this La Liga campaign there owing to scheduled renovation work on the Bernabéu and it will be fascinating to see how both they – and visiting teams – get on.
Sergio Ramos has said he would prefer to be playing at the Bernabéu yet the example of the German Bundesliga suggests home advantage has largely vanished, along with the spectators, since football’s restart there. In the first five rounds of matches there have been 22 away wins (compared to just 10 for home sides) from the 46 matches played. In other words, 47.8% of the games won by the away side; across the 2018/19 season, that figure was 27.8%
The cliché of a crowd sucking the ball into the net holds grains of essential truth. After the last match I attended live, the round of 16 first leg between Atlético de Madrid and Liverpool, Diego Simeone came to the press conference room and highlighted the impact of the raucous home supporters in his team’s 1-0 success. “My side started winning when we came into the road leading to the stadium,” he said.
It was ironic that Liverpool were the victims on that occasion. At the same stadium last June, on the night of the Reds’ Champions League final triumph, i heard a leading manager reflect on the Anfield effect that had propelled Liverpool past Barcelona on the night of that famous semi-final comeback.It was ironic that Liverpool were the victims on that occasion.
“You couldn’t begin to measure the importance of it,” he said. “As soon as they scored the first goal … people arrived with a bit of hope and then it was genuinely, ‘It’s on’. Plus, the way they play, if you’re a pressing team and the crowd react and respond to that it gives you more energy.”
Without these outside forces affecting the on-field mood it is tempting to foresee fewer surprises; indeed, in five rounds since the German resumption there has been only one defeat for one of the Bundesliga's top three, and that was when Borussia Dortmund lost to title rivals Bayern München.
A more recent reflection on the fan effect came my way this week from a source close to the dressing room of another Premier League club. As with the Anfield example, he spoke of “subconscious associations the players have with a positive home crowd” that foster belief, going so far as to say that a positive crowd could make a “25% to 50%” impact on a team’s performance. There was a caveat: he pointed out that it can work the other way, with some players struggling with the negativity from a crowd.
Dr Niels Wijne, the head of Ajax’s medical staff, acknowledges this double-edged sword too, suggesting some players may play with more freedom now. “There’s no pressure anymore from the crowd,” he says (and young players may be particular beneficiaries here).
There may be less pressure on the referees too – and not just from large crowds. Jan Ekstrand, lead expert for UEFA’s elite club injury study group, hopes that social-distancing impulses might even improve player conduct towards match officials. “Maybe if people keep at a distance it can reduce what I think is a big problem with modern football: all players questioning the decisions of the referees. They get very close to the referee and shout.”
As for fans, the downside does not need spelling out here. But in another conversation – this one with Paul Lake, a Manchester City cult hero of the 90s – one positive did emerge. He noted: “Not having the fans, and the background noise and distraction, you’ll be able to see the real leaders on the pitch.”