How Much Does Home-Field Advantage Matter in Soccer?

Christopher Atkins@@chris_elasticoContributor IApril 15, 2013

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03:  Borussia Dortmund fans show their support during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund at the Etihad Stadium on October 3, 2012 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

How important is home advantage in football? It is a question that has been discussed in pubs and bars down the years to great lengths, while also providing the basis for entire fields of academic research.

It's importance is factored into draws for competitions, for example, with the Champions League deciding that a second leg at home is favourable to playing away with the result still in the balance. Just a quick look at a detailed table of league results, meanwhile, will show clearly the disparity of performance.

Whether it be the familiar surroundings, the backing of a vociferous home crowd or the lack of traveling involved, there is a clear benefit to hosting a football match. Indeed, it is an advantage that can be seen from the relative success of host nations at major tournaments over the years.

But, just how important is it? To what extent are the odds of victory improved by playing at home? To examine such a subject, the only way to proceed is to look at past results.

To start with, let us take a look at the current 2012-13 Premier League table and examine some of the visible trends.

Of the 20 sides in the league, only one has won more away games than games at home—Andre Villas Boas' Tottenham Hotspur. Near the bottom of the table, meanwhile, Sunderland, Aston Villa, Wigan and QPR have close to identical records both home and away, but perhaps that can be linked to the pressures of playing in front of home fans when struggling to gain results.

As an overall picture, though, it is clear to see that 15 of the league's 20 sides have better records at home than away. In some cases, such as Newcastle—nine home wins, one away win—and Norwich—six home wins, one away win—it is a difference in form that would see them rank at opposite ends of the table if separated.

It is a situation repeated across the European spectrum. In Spain, 17 of the 20 sides have better home records than away records, while Italy has just one side—Inter Milan—who have performed better when on the road. Ligue 1 and Eredivisie football continue the trend, while only Portugal's Liga Sagres approaches anywhere near parity—7 of 16 sides have better or equivalent away win records.

Returning to the Premier League—which is second only to Portugal in terms of home and away record balance—we are able to see statistics for the past five years. (Betting Expert, March 1 2013)

The results are no anomaly. MLS, for example, reports a home win ratio of 49.4 percent over a 15 year period, compared to just 26.5 percent away wins. In the crucial end-of-season playoff encounters, that home win percentage rises to a remarkable 59.4 percent, compared to just 19.8 percent away side victories. (MLSsoccer.com)

Could it be that the increased attendances and crowd fervour of the playoffs make home sides' chances of victory increase?

Using Jim Albert and Ruud H. Koning's book, Statistical Thinking in Sports, we can also see that the figures also equate well to those of international football. Analysing nearly 9000 matches between 1993 and 2004, they report that international sides won 50.3 percent of home games, while losing just 25.1 percent. Brazil, Spain and France, meanwhile, all won over 60 percent of home fixtures.

There is clearly a greatly increased chance of success for the home side in any footballing competition, as shown by the above long-term analysis of both English, American and international football.

There are anomalies to the rule, such as the Nigerian Premier League, where just 4 percent of away fixtures were won last season. However, the general trend visible in the major European leagues, MLS and international football is that the home side can expect to win somewhere in the region of half their fixtures, with the away side victorious just one quarter of the time.

It is a pattern repeated right across world football and can be backed up by current trends in leagues worldwide.

There are also other factors that should be remembered when looking at the statistics shown. China and Brazil, for example, offer large travelling distances and different climates for visiting teams—perhaps explaining a lower away win percentage.

They are, though, more balanced leagues than Spain, for example, whose home win percentage is dragged up by the dominance of their top sides in domestic competition. In general, though, the figures are close enough to the long-term trends noted above to be considered to be part of the same general trend.

While there are sometimes differences in the sizes of pitch within competitions, with some sides preferring to narrow the game, the results show the importance of psychology on the outcome of a football match.

The traveling distances within most European countries, for example, are unlikely to cause anything more than negligible fatigue, and it is for this reason that most sides choose to travel on the day of matches. The decisive factors, therefore, are driven by the mind.

Referees have been proven to subconsciously favour the home side (Bath University), while there have been numerous players down the years who are accused of "not fancying it" away from home.

The atmosphere can be hostile, while you may be away from your close family and, both on-and-off the field, may be unable to partake in the familiar routines that settle nerves and focus minds ahead of important fixtures. It is easy to comprehend where the difficulties may arise.

Taking the example of Newcastle from above, their inability to win more than one away fixture this campaign is clearly not based on a lack of talent, but more a loss of belief outside of St. James's Park. The same could be said for Sevilla in La Liga, for example, who boast a similarly abysmal away record.

There is much more to football than pure psychology, that goes without saying, but to dismiss its impact on results would be naive. If players were machines, immune to the changes in their surroundings, then football, and all sport, would be much duller for it.

Winning your home games and picking up points away from home has long been quoted as the route to success in football. It would appear, then, that it is an argument very much backed up by statistics.

A side's home fixtures are there to be won and, if they are not managing to achieve even that, chances of any success at all are very slim indeed.