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Are footballers playing to win or performing to the crowd?

We have now had a few months of sporting action since the suspension of professional sport in the UK. This action has taken the form of the completion of pre-existing competitions that needed to be completed and new competitive seasons and tournaments.

In this time it has been very interesting to watch performances on the pitches and courts unfold. A few months ago, prior to the return to play, following the first lockdown in the UK in the Spring I boldly predicted that without crowds the better teams (on paper) would perform better. This claim that I made was based upon the idea that the removal of home advantage for smaller teams (that existed prior to lockdown) would resulted in matches looking more like they do on paper, with the stronger teams winning more frequently.

However, it has been very interesting to note that this has not been the case, and the ‘bigger’ teams don’t appear to be winning more of the time. Indeed, while home advantage appears to have disappeared (as predicted) the other really interesting outcome has been the disappearance of the advantage held by the bigger more successful clubs.

There have been some very interesting results, particularly in the English Premier League, a phenomenon that appears to be impacting upon the bigger teams more so than their smaller counterparts. Indeed, the teams with the greater number of star players appear to be struggling more than their fellow clubs in playing to their potential. This outcome appears to suggest that professional footballers at the highest level might well need a vocal and energetic audience to perform, and this crowd serves to drive them to even greater levels of performance.

There also appears to be a second mechanism at work that is impacting upon the outcome of football fixtures. It also seems that the less highly rated teams appear to be performing better without the close scrutiny that comes with playing in front of crowds, and the added pressure of playing at home in front of a crowd. Both of these two phenomena, at least from the touchline, appear to be combining to produce very interesting results and a much leveller playing field, an outcome which is very welcome to the neutral spectator.

In the future it might be that instead of a packed home crowd giving the lesser ranked teams an advantage it might be that locking out the fans and planning in front of an empty stadium might be the way to go!

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