The prospect of the 2020/21 football season commencing on time around the world was under a serious cloud of doubt until late on in the summer, with the very real possibility of many lower league clubs going into administration.
However a range of significant operations by various governing bodies across the world to get the sport back underway, coupled with unprecedented government funding in some countries resulted in the sport starting its new season in mid-September at the elite level, and early October in some semi-professional spheres.
There is one significant catch, though: no fans allowed into grounds. The bedrock of the game, the heart of what makes this game we love so much so great, has been ruthlessly and suddenly stripped out of what was the routine prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.
This article will talk through whether games being played behind closed doors is affecting the football results we have seen since the game resumed. There will be a particular focus on the English Premier League, however the rest of the English Football League as well as various competitions across Europe will also be taken into account.
English Premier League
With the English Premier League starting the 29th edition of the competition on 12th September 2020, elements of the season have already been etched into the history books for eternity – with only seven rounds of fixtures having been played so far.
For the first time in living memory, fans have been banned from attending any professional football matches for over six months – and this is not only in the English Premier League, but throughout the professional game in England and indeed the wider western world.
This has had various impacts on what football has looked like in the English Premier League both in terms of during games and in terms of what the score lines look like at the end of games.
It is something of an understatement to say that it has been surreal for fans to have been forced to watch the Premier League from home – especially when season ticket holders are having to see their team play in a completely empty stadium which the television producers are trying to fill with pre-recorded ‘pretend’ fan noise to replace the effect which real fans would otherwise have had.
Having witnessed many many minutes of Premier League Football not only in the first seven rounds of the 2020/21 season but also since the resumption of the 2019/20 season (which saw the last nine rounds of the league played behind completely closed doors) there has been a noticeable difference in the quality and style of play by some teams in the league.
Teams such as Leeds United, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Everton have for the most part been playing incredibly free football in the 2020/21 season so far. But it is important to ask: firstly, what is ‘free football’? And secondly does this style of football come about directly as a result of playing behind closed doors? Or could there be a culmination of different factors which is responsible for this?
Free football can be described as an open style of playing the game – moving the ball quickly in order to create gaps in the opponent’s defence, and playing the ball into space. It is a style of football that uses every part of the pitch, as opposed to playing through the middle or using the ‘long ball’ strategy which relies on consistently launching the football up the pitch by 40 to 50 yards in the hope that the pass finds one of the strikers.
This free style of football relies on a strong level of chemistry in the team, good vision, anticipation by all players, and clear communication – not to mention a wealth of technical ability.
Now, there are variables outlined which will be relatively unchanged in this season such as the vision, chemistry and technical ability of players – these factors change slightly over time but only in ebbs and flows; they rarely experience a sudden and major overhaul.
However, this is where the factor of clear communication is different: teams at this level are usually playing in front of 30,000 to 60,000 fans who have parted with a fair bit of money and dedicated a large part of their day to watching their team play: they are there because of their passion for the game and as such they create a lot of noise in cheering their team on.
And for obvious reasons, fans make a lot of noise which can result in making it difficult for players to communicate, especially when they are needing to bark out instructions to other players who are 20, 30, 40 or 50 metres away. The following table shows some interesting statistics from teams which (as outlined earlier) have played the most free flowing football so far in the 2020/21 Premier League season:
|Average home attendance 2019/20||41661||39150||35320||32061||59384|
|Goals scored per game 2019/20||1.07||1.15||1.75||1.76||1.6|
|Goals scored per game 2020/21||2.5||2.14||1.71||2.42||2.57|
|Fans noise level (decibels)||89||81||74||78||75|
 As of 05/11/2020
Now, take into account that the most obvious difference in the stadiums between 2019/20 and 2020/21 is that there are no crowds. Zero. This translates to absolutely no crowd noise – despite the fact that viewers at home are hearing crowd noise, this is because the games are dubbed over by TV producers at Sky and BT.
On a typical matchday during the 2019/20 season players from the above clubs were having to communicate through average sound levels of over 70 decibels, which is comparable to trying to talk to someone while operating a standard household vacuum cleaner.
In the current season so far they have had no such noise to contend with and as a result, players can hear each other far more clearly – and more importantly managers can give out tactical instructions with much more ease.
This means communications such as a player calling for a particular pass, or alerting a fellow player to an opponent imminently launching a challenge from a blindspot, or even the manager insisting on a particular style of play is all heard with near-perfect clarity in comparison to previous seasons.
As a result these teams are able to play their expansive football to a better level – take the figures outlined in the table above regarding goals scored per game in the last two seasons. Each team apart from Leeds United has seen a significant increase in the average amount of goals they are scoring per game – and this is largely down to their ability to play free-flowing football.
Leeds’ slight dip in goals scored per game record can be expected however, as they were promoted from a gruelling Championship season at the end of 2019/20 and as a result are facing much tougher opposition than last season, playing against tougher defences and naturally having less chances to score goals.
Introducing a wider scope into the equation, it is important to take into account what is happening across the rest of the English Premier League in its current season, and compare it to previous years in order to assess how – and to what extent – the lack of crowds at games might or might not be affecting the results.
As such, the following table provides plenty of statistics spanning several categories in strong depth:
|Goals per game||3.25||2.72||2.82||2.68||2.8|
|Games Where Both Teams Score||37||194||195||186||193|
|Percentage Games Where Both Teams Score||0.5441||0.5105||0.5131||0.4894||0.5079|
|Penalties Awarded (per game)||36 (0.53)||92 (0.24)||103 (0.27)||80 (0.21)||106 (0.28)|
|Biggest Home Win||Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool||Man City 8-0 Watford||Man City 6-0 Chelsea||Man City 5-0 Liverpool||Bournemouth 6-1 Hull City|
|Biggest Away Win||Man Utd 1-6 Spurs||Southampton 0-9 Leicester City||Cardiff City 0-6 Man City||Watford 0-6 Man City||Hull City 1-7 Spurs|
 As of 05/11/2020
 Shared with nine other five-goal home victories this season. Of these nine extra five-goal victories, three belonged to Manchester City.
 Shared with four other five-goal home victories this season.
The most glaring statistic which draws the eye at first glance from the table above is the sheer hike in goals per game in the current 2020/21 season compared to each of the previous four seasons.
While only 18% of the scheduled 380 games have been played so far, these games have seen an average of 20% more goals across the games. In conjunction with this, it can be seen that there is an increase in the percentage of games so far where both teams have scored – this indicates an increase in balance between teams, which perhaps the lack of a home advantage could be responsible for.
This is a perfect example of where playing behind closed doors could be affecting the results of games – if both teams score in a higher proportion of matches, then one would imagine that maybe a higher proportion of fixtures are resulting in a draw or an away win.
The table below shows the total away wins out of games played in the current season compared to the previous Premier League season of 2019/20:
|Away wins||31/68 – 45.6%||116/380 – 30.5%|
|Away draws||13/68 – 19.1%||93/380 – 24.5%|
While there has been a slight drop off in the amount of draws, there has been a 50% increase in away teams winning so far in 2020/21, which is a significant increase.
The most obvious and significant contributing factor with regards to this is the fact that with games being played behind closed doors, the home advantage has been removed and it is clearly having an impact on results so far.
As to whether the amount of teams winning away from home levels off as the season goes on however, remains to be seen.
Spanish La Liga
The return of the Spanish La Liga – starting the new season on the same day as the English Premier League (12th September 2020) has also seen the same restrictions implemented when it comes to games being played behind closed doors.
The Spanish fans have a reputation similar to the English fans in terms of the passion they have for the game, but football is far more accessible for committed fans in Spain. Average season ticket prices across La Liga were £205 prior to games being played behind closed doors, in comparison to £516 being the average price for an English Premier League season ticket – more than double the Spanish prices.
The following table depicts a similar range of statistics as the table for the Premier League, with a noticeable difference in the amount of goals scored per game in the Spanish La Liga:
|Goals Per Game||2.3||2.48||2.59||2.69||2.94|
|Amount Games Where Both Teams Score||31||189||197||177||213|
|Percentage Games Where Both Teams Score||0.4247||0.4974||0.5184||0.4658||0.5605|
|Biggest Home Win||Atlético Madrid 6-1 Granada||Celta Vigo 6-0 Alavés||Barcelona 8-2 Huesca||Girona 6-0 Las Palmas||Atlético Madrid 7-1 Granada|
|Biggest Away Win||Celta Vigo 1-4 Real Sociedad||Osasuna 0-5 Atlético Madrid||Levante 0-5 Barcelona||Levante 0-5 Atlético Madrid||Alavés 0-6 Barcelona|
 As of 05/11/2020
 Also shared with: Real Madrid 7-1 Deportivo La Coruña, Real Madrid 6-0 Celta Vigo
 Also shared with: Barcelona 7-1 Osasuna
 Also shared with: Real Betis 0-5 Barcelona
While the ‘extreme results’ – i.e. the ‘biggest home win’ and the ‘biggest away win’ categories being fairly similar in La Liga to those which are seen in the Premier League, one thing that does really stand out is that the goals per game figure is currently significantly lower in La Liga compared to the Premier League, with La Liga’s 2.30 being shadowed by the 3.25 for the current Premier League season.
If you go back five seasons to 2016/17 however, you will see that La Liga had more goals per game than the Premier League did (2.94 compared to 2.80). What can be seen in La Liga is a consistent trend developing where season by season fewer and fewer goals are being scored per game, with the average change across the last four seasons being 0.16 fewer goals per game when compared to the season before.
Another notable change in trends with La Liga is the percentage of games in which both teams score. The current rate is 42.47% which is a fair bit lower than any of the previous four seasons, and is 7.27% lower than 2019/20 – a significant drop.
This would indicate that La Liga games are slightly more one-sided than in previous seasons, but it is unclear whether this advantage benefits home teams over away teams and vice versa, or whether it is evenly balanced.
It seems, therefore, that the removal of crowds is having something of the opposite effect in La Liga compared to the Premier League – far fewer goals are being scored. Perhaps it could be suggested that the lack of atmosphere is killing the intensity of La Liga games? Maybe if players are not playing in front of their passionate fans, they don’t feel as much inspiration and drive to give everything they have to win a match.
It is fair to say, as a result, that the lack of crowds is definitely affecting La Liga results to a certain extent in some ways, however it seems to be quite a different effect to what is being seen in the English Premier League.
The English Football League Championship (henceforth EFL Championship) started its season on Friday 11th September with the season opener being Watford v Middlesborough. In line with both the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga, the EFL Championship is being played behind closed doors – as indeed are most European football leagues.
The EFL Championship has a certain reputation, especially among a lot of English football fans, as one of the most brutally competitive, exciting and unpredictable football leagues in the world. Fans of EFL Championship clubs have a lot of passion and a burning desire to see their club do well in this league, with the promised land of the English Premier League awaiting the top two teams in the league as well as the winners of the elusive play-offs.
How is the league faring without these incredibly loyal and energetic fans being allowed into stadiums to watch games? The following table outlines some of the current season’s key statistics:
|Goals Per Game||2.17||2.64||2.67||2.55||2.61|
|Amount Games Where Both Teams Score||52||293||298||276||291|
|Percentage Games Where Both Teams Score||0.4333||0.5308||0.5399||0.5||0.5272|
|Biggest Home Win||Blackburn Rovers 5-0 Wycombe Wanderers||Wigan Athletic 8-0 Hull City||West Brom 7-1 QPR||Fulham 6-0 Burton Albion||Norwich City 7-1 Reading|
|Biggest Away Win||Derby County 0-4 Blackburn Rovers||Sheffield Wednesday 0-5 Blackburn Rovers||Sheffield Wednesday 0-4 Norwich City||Burton Albion 0-5 Hull City||QPR 0-6 Newcastle United|
 As of 05/11/2020
 Also shared with: Coventry City 0-4 Blackburn Rovers
 Also shared with: Luton Town 0-5 Reading
 Also shared with: Rotherham United 0-4 West Brom, Bolton Wanderers 0-4 Norwich City
As you can see, as it currently stands in the 2020/21 EFL Championship, there has been a significant drop in goals scored per game when compared to each of the previous four seasons. Standing at 2.17 goals per game, this is 0.38 fewer goals per game than the next-nearest of the previous four seasons.
The effect of games being played behind closed doors on the EFL Championship could be quite similar to what is being seen in the Spanish La Liga: maybe it is the case that a lack of atmosphere being provided by the fans is leading to games which are flat and relatively uninteresting.
It could be that players do not get as pumped up for games now that they are playing in empty stadiums, and this would have an affect on how many goals are being scored when you have a big enough sample size.
Also taking into account the clear and obvious drop in the percentage of games in which both teams score, it seems the case that more games are one-sided affairs this year in the EFL Championship. As things stand, 43.33% of games so far have resulted in both teams scoring. This is nearly a 10% drop on last season, when prior to this season the figure had been quite consistent having not changed by more than 4% year-on-year.
Again, similarly to La Liga, it is not clear whether the shift to more one-sided affairs in the EFL Championship is benefitting home teams, away teams or a mixture of both, but it is clear that this effect is related to games being played behind closed doors.
What Can We Take From This?
In summary, there are many factors which can determine the outcomes of football results for example weather patterns, player signings, changes in managers, changes in rulings etc – and these factors usually apply to varying extents year on year, but the key fact is that they apply every year. What has never been applied before is a complete blanket ban on fans attending football matches – at least not in the western world.
This undoubtedly is having an effect on football results in general as we have seen significant changes in scoring patterns on top of unprecedented extreme results such as Aston Villa beating reigning Premier League Champions Liverpool by a margin of 7-2, coincidentally on the same day that Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester United 6-1 in what looked like it was going to be a well balanced match-up.
The problem is that these changes are not necessarily good for the game, and only time will tell if these trends continue as fans are kept out of football grounds.