The term ‘home advantage’ is thrown around rather haphazardly by football commentators without little analysis – so what precisely is it? Well, it’s a heady cocktail of two ingredients: the finite features of home the home turf; and the metaphysical and psychological impact that a bout of homesickness can have. The dimensions of the pitch are the only dynamics that clubs can influence, but the hosts can cut their coat (or mow their lawn) to suit their style.
In two-legged cup ties, a superior away-goals tally often acts as a trump card in the event of the teams being inseparable on aggregate. The subjective theory behind the away-goals rule, therefore, is that the visitors need baiting into trying to score goals on unfamiliar terrain. The reasoning must lie both on the pitch and in the mind, but I will first investigate the issue of size.
The Laws of the Game have clumsily struggled to accommodate the decimalisation process. Originally drafted in England in 1863, the Laws still currently use the imperial measurements that continue to befuddle the rest of the world. IFAB, the body that oversee the Laws, now also express compulsory pitch dimensions according to the rough metric equivalent too. Consequently the required proportions of pitch length and breadth are somewhat vague.
(There is no room for discretion with some measurements though – the underside of the crossbar, for example, has to be 8 yards (7.32 metres) from the ground. The linguistics are unlikely to change in England though – it’s difficult to imagine a Sunday League referee demanding the wall to “get your 9.15 metres!” as the freekick taker hovers impatiently over the ball.)
One of the main reasons that the basic dimensions are so vaguely defined is because they aren’t ever blatantly abused. The leeway of the playing area is very broad – it needs to be between 100-130 yards long and 50-100 yards wide, but few clubs deviate too far from the midpoint. Technically the length:width ratio could be anywhere between 1:1 to 1:2.6, but a combination of practicality and decency means that clubs tend to be a little more subtle with their preferences. For reasons unspecified, international matches are deemed worthy of more stringent rulings and must measure precisely 115 × 74 yards.
The difference between the biggest Premier League pitch (Eastlands, 116 × 77 yards) and the smallest (Britannia Stadium, 110 × 70 yards) looks negligible on face value. But that translates to a substantial difference – 8932 yards² at Man City compared to 7700 yards² at Stoke. Professional clubs tend to have a rather specific logic in their mind regarding how big a playing surface to employ.
Smaller pitches, obviously, afford each player less space and less time on the ball. There are two contrasting reasons why that might be an advantage: 1) making it easier to close down your opponents and denying them the space they want, or 2) because you don’t need space, as your team is superior at shifting the ball around. Stoke keep things tight at the Britannia to disrupt the best of opponents; Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ used to ping the ball around in close-quarters on the tiny Highbury pitch as if they were playing 5-a-side.
Fitness becomes an issue with bigger pitches too, and a willing striker can run a defender ragged by using large channels to good effect. At 78 yards wide, Goodison Park is the broadest Premier League pitch and this offers little surprise given their playing style under David Moyes – lots of bodies across the midfield and attacking full-backs, with the onus being shifting the ball wide before whipping in the final ball for [insert: aerially-threatening Everton forward] to nod the ball into the net.
One of Stoke’s most overly-discussed tactics since their promotion in 2008 is the usage of Rory Delap’s trebuchet-like throw-ins as a means of scoring goals. A narrow pitch and a range of trajectories made the weapon incredibly potent, and typified how it is possible to exploit the realities of home advantage. Similarly, when the Potters visited St Andrew’s earlier this month, Birmingham pulled their advertising boards close enough to the pitch to impede Delap’s run-ups, making him resort to an awkward-looking crescent-shaped approach. Blues utilised their territory for their own ends, just as Stoke do every time they play at home.
The condition of the pitch can be an issue too. In FA Cup ties that are billed as ‘David-v-Goliath’, the torn-up non-league pitch and treacherous weather conditions are said to favour the underdogs, who are presumably more accustomed to head-tennis than keeping the ball on the deck. There is a reason why Arsenal keep the Emirates looking so pristine. Conversely, Charlton lost to Chelsea on a sand-laden Stamford Bridge in 2003, though the conditions could hardly be argued to have suited either side.
FIFA imposed an altitude ban in 2007, stating World Cup qualifiers couldn’t be played on pitches over 8,200 feet above sea level – shortly after the South American superpowers struggled when visiting Bolivia’s Estadio Hernando Siles stadium in La Paz. The ruling was widely criticised for discriminating against Andean nations, ruling their home advantage obsolete. The limitations were eventually slackened, but not totally overturned.
So how much of it is in the mind? We have been assured that the Barcelona team that lost to Arsenal at the Emirates last week will be a different animal at the Camp Nou – but there is no reason why that should be the case. The pitches are the same dimensions and beautifully maintained, suitable for both sides. Yet the reality often fares differently – Real Madrid manager José Mourinho hasn’t lost a home league game since SC Beira-Mar beat his FC Porto side nine years ago. Mourinho turned Stamford Bridge, the San Siro and now the Santiago Bernabéu into a fortress.
To my knowledge – and you will excuse my unwillingness to trawl the archives – no professional league has ever finished with more away wins than home. In the 2007/8 season, the England’s League Two came close with 216 home wins compared to 208 away (and 128 draws), but expectations to win at home are always rife. Playing in front of home fans isn’t always beneficial though – with an expectant stadium full of cynical season-ticket holders, pressure can mount on players. Some teams look better on the road, where they can play with freedom of expression without being scrutinised by their misanthropic fans.
Home advantage is a bizarre phenomenon – but it surely exists beyond the parameters of the pitch, and the proof is in the pudding. As Coventry manager Aidy Boothroyd once said, “the most important space on the pitch is between the ears.” Certainly that seems to be true – it is incredible to what extent agoraphobia seems to grip footballers. The media-perpetuation of home comforts seems to have embedded itself into players’ minds, and the value has transcended the calculable aspects of the playing surface.