You’d be amazed at the influence fans can have on a game of football
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press ©2004
Norwich City are gearing up for a return to playing football, but not as we know it - CHRIS LAKEY considers some of the side-effects of playing in front of empty stands
As soon as the first whistle went on the resumed Bundesliga campaign, you could have heard a pin drop - had it not been for the whingeing football fans from all points of the compass who felt it necessary to comment on the lack of atmosphere at games without a crowd in attendance.
There is a phrase not suitable for a family publication which suggests you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that.
It is unavoidable. So suck it up.
Time would be better spent looking at how the lack of a crowd affects things on the pitch, not on the comfort of your des res in Footballburbia.
My colleague, David Freezer, wrote an excellent piece last week on how teams playing at home behind closed doors had lost the traditional advantage. It’s okay if you are Bayern (top) thrashing visiting Dusseldorf (16th) 5-0 because that’s not a massive shock, or even second-placed Borussia Dortmund winning 6-1 at bottom side Paderborn. It’s the other, more marginal games, that have seen home away advantage swept away.
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What may become an illustrative moment when home advantage didn’t work was when Borussia were denied what looked like a penalty at home to Bayern, a game they were losing 1-0 at the time. On a normal match day, the yellow wall would have screamed the place down and the home players would have responded with their own shrieking and wailing. Neither happened, play carried on, and Bayern won.
That lack of a noisy crowd effect had something to answer for: they are not there now as the cattle prod to the players. Usually, you can rely on fans to be signal men as well: players don’t see everything, but crowds will claim they do. In a stadium of silence, who’s going to appeal for the fouls, offsides, throw ins, corner and handballs? Who’s going to influence the officials and try and find that little space in their brain that is susceptible to their influence?
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And when the visiting version of Joey Barton gets the ball, whose going to chant the abuse in an attempt to put him off his game?
You’re on your own, chaps.
Some of the stats are interesting: most important you’d say are goals... and in the first 50 Bundesliga games, pre-Covid-19, there were 3.25 a per game, which has gone down to 3.1, due entirely to home teams struggling to find the net as often. The 1.75 goals per home side has dropped to 1.30. Away teams goals has gone from 1.50 to 1.81 per game.
And it seems that more goals are being scored from set-pieces - perhaps this is where we get to the argument about where the skill lies in football. Ask a thinking football manager and he will tell you that football’s is a game largely played between the ears. Mentality is everything, almost. You got it, you’ll do well. You haven’t, then forget it.
So if you are lining up to take a free-kick or a corner and behind the goal are 10,000 fans screaming for your head, it might be off-putting. If those stands are empty, there’s no distraction and the chances of you being put off your stride are reduced.
For an amateur psychologist, that’s why set-pieces are working better - because the white noise has gone. It doesn’t help Norwich City’s frame of mind: of the 52 goals they have conceded this season, 11 have been from set-pieces – only three teams fare worse. But on the bright side, they’ve scored only three from set-pieces - only Watford, with two, have been worse - so there’s room for improvement.
So what can we expect when it comes to player discipline? There’s no crowd to either convince, encourage or play up to, no audience for the drama queens.
Playing to the crowd has a lot to answer for, but if their absence cuts out the play-acting, we could see more football played. There is usually around an hour off actual play time during a game - no playing to the crowd could easily add five minutes.
And what about the odd step-overs and the like? Bundesliga observers reckon there has been less reluctance to try the odd trick - the assumption being that there is no crowd to laugh at you when it doesn’t come off.
There is little doubt that the decision to play behind closed doors is the right one, and little doubt it will have an effect on games. It’s human nature.
We have all witnessed the effects a crowd can have on players and officials and, therefore, games - sometimes it is not immediately obvious. Sometimes you can’t fail to spot it... cast your minds back to February, 2004. It’s Carrow Road, and in front of the Snakepit, West Ham’s Matthew Etherington is about to take a corner. He’s getting dog’s abuse. And then the fans spot that the ball isn’t in the quadrant. Referee Ray Oliver can’t see from where he is but the noise from the corner suggests something is amiss. He realises what it is, twice orders Etherington to move the ball, Etherington ridiculously, ignores the official, who then produces a second yellow card.
That’s what a crowd can do.