Manchester City may have the edge in terms of superstars but today Manchester United will have the benefit of home-side advantage. But what difference does it actually make?
Speaking ahead of this season's North London derby, Arsène Wenger held up his hands and admitted to a room full of journalists that he was having some trouble getting his head around one of football’s oldest maxims. “I never in my life could understand the difference between home and away,” he confessed. “I never could understand why in people’s heads there is a difference… I just think whether it is away or home it’s an important game [and] if you play well, you win.”
Of course this could be dismissed as pre-match bravado or even just plain stupidity, but could the Frenchman be on to something here? Well, Gary Neville agrees and he’s won the premier league eight times, so who are we to argue? “I think he’s absolutely right,” he told Martin Tyler up in the commentary box as the first-half of the fiery derby drew to a close. “It’s mental, it’s not anything to do with football. It’s just something in your mind that can affect you on the pitch… but that mental part is such a big part of the game.”
That ‘mental part,’ as Neville would have it, must in fact, be pretty huge. Just look at Manchester United’s stats last season. Despite scooping yet another top-flight title thanks to a staggering total of 18 wins at Old Trafford, United managed to bag only 5 wins when out on the road. Similarly, Chelsea won twice as many home games than away ones, whilst Arsène Wenger was actually the most successful away manager (but then eight wins is hardly much to brag about).
So, there quite clearly is a difference between the way your team performs at home and the way they play away… but then you probably knew that already.
But what are the differences, because they clearly do exist? Is there a physical factor that we are able pin down or is Gary Neville right and it’s all in the mind?
Sports psychologist Martin Perry likens the difference to heading home after a hard day’s work versus sleeping in a hotel. “In your home, you have many things that you are comfortable and familiar with, whilst in a hotel you have little of that familiarity and so it takes time to adjust to the new surroundings,” he says. “It’s exactly the same in football. You’re not as at ease away from home, as you simply aren’t as familiar with the surroundings; the sounds, the people, the visual impressions.”
Perhaps it’s understandable then that your team might be a bit off the boil having traveled the length of the country in a coach the day before the match and then stayed overnight at a hotel. But what about the occasions that don’t merit such hassle - the North London derby, for example? In Spurs and Arsenal’s last 20 league clashes, there has only been two away wins compared to 10 games won at home. And what about Milan’s Derby della Madonnina, where the two teams share the very same turf throughout the whole season? Well, only six ‘away’ wins have been yielded from past 20 fixtures compared to 13 at home.
We’ve seen how Beckham uses visualisation to bend the ball around a wall from 30-yards out and crash it into the back of the net. Is it not possible for players to use similar methods in order to maximise their own focus?
The 12th man
What we’re left with is the impact of the crowd; the phenomenon that has seen Bayern Munich, Lazio and Red Star Belgrade all retire the number 12 shirt in their squad in honour of their diehard fans. It’s difficult to really know how much influence a crowd can have over the referee but what with the constant jeering, the booing and personal insults targeted at the opposition, not to mention the rousing chants and shouts of ‘man-on’ to help out the home side, it’s not hard to see how a crowd can influence a game to the extent where scraping a point away from home can feel like you’ve just won the league.
Louise Ellis, accredited sports psychologist and performance consultant says: “The majority of footballers love playing in front of a crowd whether home or away, but if a footballer is underperforming away from home, mistakes are often magnified by the input of the away crowd. This can quickly affect the player as well as the team dynamics if he does not have psychological techniques in place to deal with the anxiety.”
Moving the goalposts
But is it really OK that professional footballers are just as psychologically weak as we are? Should we not demand more from these astronomically paid athletes, especially when we consider the help now on hand from sports psychologists? We’ve seen how David Beckham uses visualisation to bend the ball around a wall from 30-yards out and crash it into the back of the net. Is it not possible for players to use similar methods in order to block out the noise of the crowd or at least to maximise their own focus?
“The subconscious mind likes repetition and patterns – that’s how we learn sports skills because we repeat them over and over,” says Louise Ellis. “If a negative mental pattern or statement is repeated enough, players can start to build individual belief patterns that they can’t win away from home and then it can create reality. So, it’s important to address any negative patterns as soon as they emerge.”
So, whilst Harry Redknapp spoke not long ago of getting “opened up” if you dared to play 4-4-2 away, it’s quite fitting that it was Arsène Wenger, the multi-lingual manager nicknamed 'Le Professeur', who challenged a preconception which has became so heavily engrained into the way football is played and thought about.
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before some super coach or manager and his highly skilled support team are able to employ psychological techniques that deliver the same level of success regardless of where their team is playing? Maybe then it will be the manager who will warrant the mega-salary previously enjoyed by the players, as unprecedented success in mirrored away from home.
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