Wembley Stadium

Home Form in Our National Sports – Essential, Or Just Overrated?

The roar of the home crowd, the familiarity of the dressing room, subconsciously knowing the nuances of your playing surface and (in some cases) the lack of jet lag or travel fatigue; all of these are generally accepted as key elements of home advantage. However, they are but abstract concepts, and it is argued by some that they cannot directly impact on a professional game.

In most cases, the home team should have every chance of a good result – whatever that may constitute – but it is not always thus. Nobody, for instance, will ever forget England’s 5-1 revenge thrashing of Germany in Munich, just eleven months after losing 1-0 at Wembley in a qualifier for the 2002 World Cup.

Steven Gerrard

Very recently, Chelsea’s hosting of Burnley on the opening day of the new season was widely considered to be the biggest ‘home banker’ of the weekend, but ended with a 3-2 victory for the visitors. Away from football, Britons celebrated a moral victory in the Rio Olympics only last year, with ‘Team GB’ finishing second in the final medals table ahead of China, in a hugely unfamiliar climate.

 

Football – The Prime Example of Home Advantage?

The idea of teams benefitting from home advantage has peer-reviewed backing. Several studies, spanning four decades, note that athletes have greater levels of self-confidence when gifted home advantage, and show lower levels of anxiety. This somewhat inflates the importance of home form, giving way to counter arguments.

The studies to back these counter arguments not only directly contradicted, by measuring equal levels of self-confidence in athletes ahead of home games in comparison to away games, but also disputed the accuracy of the tests. The reasoning behind this dispute was due to the fact that the studies which championed the idea of ‘home advantage’ could not empirically monitor athletes during the game with a crowd present.

Other factors which might affect confidence or nerves, such as the presence of local opposition, silverware and promotion or relegation, are also variables that can prevent any sports psychologist from performing a truly fair test.

Though the importance of good home form will always be open to dispute, it is no coincidence that a clearly inferior team draws shorter odds in its home encounter with a better side, compared to those available for the reverse fixture. As the oft-proclaimed ‘national sport’, it could be argued that football teams undergo the greatest scrutiny where home form is concerned, especially in Europe where every minute at home must apparently be made to count.

For instance, Slovakian side Ruzomberok were priced at a high of 40/1 to beat Everton at Goodison Park in the first leg of their Europa League qualifier. For the return leg, Ruzomberok were priced to win at an average of just 9/1, even though Everton were all but through to the next round.

 

Home Form Recognised by UEFA’s Away Goals Rule

The perceived importance of home advantage, and the anticipation of better home form than away, is reflected most prominently by UEFA’s ‘away goals’ rule. This rule is the continuous subject of opposition, which only becomes more vocal in the later stages of the European cup competitions. Once faced with more equal opposition, and having brushed aside group teams drawn from a lower pot, home teams are eager to avoid conceding an away goal.

Subsequently, they can sometimes feel inclined to play in a more reserved style if drawing first blood at home, affecting the entertainment factor but still cranking up the tension amongst the home crowd all the same.

In that respect, teams finding themselves at the knockout stage, but without a solid history of winning European silverware, generally find themselves to be the subject of a ‘home disadvantage’ for their home legs. This is especially true if the visiting team is efficient at pressing.

For those reasons, it is generally agreed that being at home in the second leg of any tie is the preferable scenario. This is reflected in the fact that the current formats of both UEFA club competitions ‘reward’ group winners with home advantage in the second leg in their first knockout tie.

The idea of home advantage being more useful in the second leg of a knockout tie is lent further credence by an observation of the results from the knockout phases of Champions League ties where a seeding system is not in place – i.e the quarter-finals onwards. The quarter finals of the 2009/10 edition of the Champions League were the last to see more first leg hosts progress than second leg hosts.

In 2011/12, every quarter-finalist that hosted the second leg progressed, with a 75% survival rate for second leg-hosts being the average since. Since changing its official name from the UEFA Cup in 2009, the Europa League has shown a more even distribution of first and second leg hosts progressing beyond the round of 16 – the first instance at which no seeding system is used for draws.

 

Does the Same Hold True in Cricket and Rugby?

Where football is concerned, the overall conclusion about home advantage will vary from person to person, but the frequency of progression for second leg hosts in recent editions of the Champions League speaks volumes. Although one must never ignore the form of two teams, whether meeting domestically or otherwise, some form of insurance should ideally be sought if backing an away side as part of an accumulator.

Along with football, rugby and cricket are also seen as cornerstones of national identity, yet away teams are not rewarded in any obvious way for scoring away tries or runs. Ultimately, home advantage then becomes a true privilege with no additional stipulations for a team to consider under this format.

England’s good home ODI form throughout 2016/17 is an example of just how empowering the theory of home form can be in cricket under certain circumstances. Without the luxury of an overnight revision of strategy, the away team is under vastly increased pressure to have a good day.

That noted, betting on a ‘whitewash’ for anyone in test cricket appears unwise at present, especially with the ever-growing presence of ‘smart technology’ in the sport. Meanwhile, in rugby union’s Champions Cup (formerly known as the Heineken Cup), a single knockout match determines which team progresses, with the top four quarter-finalists playing at home.

In the three editions since its rebrand ahead of the 2014/15 season, only one of the twelve quarter-final ties played in the knockout phase has ended in victory for the away side. The match in question was Saracen’s surprise 12-11 win at Racing Metro in April 2015, with the vanquished home side being top ranked out of all the clubs that progressed from the group stage.

Saracens, by contrast, were seeded eighth (and lowest) of the quarter finalists. That match can only be described as an aberration from the norm, and the smart money remains firmly on the home sides under the competition’s current format.

As far as international rugby and the English Premiership is concerned, there is a distinct clique of teams that appear to be unfazed by travelling. New Zealand remain the team to beat on the international scene, and rank alongside South Africa and Australia as front runners for triumph at the 2019 World Cup – even though it is being held in Japan.

Beauden Barrett

Ultimately, the form of a team in any sport, its financial and playing resources and its rapport with the head coach or manager are just three factors which can nullify whatever perceived advantages can come from playing at home. Such factors also dictate how the crowd reacts to its so-called ‘heroes’ and their every move, and with these variables brought into play, the traditional theory of ‘home advantage’ appears thoroughly flimsy.