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Analysis

How will empty stands impact the players’​ performances?

Abhishek Khurana

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Header Image by Imago

Fans represent a big part of a club’s culture, but also of the team’s performances, so how will these cope with the empty stands due to the precautions taken for the coronavirus pandemic?


Fans have always painted the game in their way. With their emotions and passion, they have shaped and reshaped history. Be it the birth of Vikings thunderclap in Euro 2016 by Iceland fans, or Hong Kong fans showing solidarity with anti-government protests during World Cup qualifier. Fans have introduced us to new cultures and much need whereabouts around the world. They can also be a harsh critic of their team, but what has always stood out is their unwavering loyalty and support, refusing to abandon their team even when the odds are heavily stacked against them. Much like the famous anthem of Barcelona, Més Que Un Club, meaning more than a club.

Fans in the history of sports have proved to be a double-edged sword. When Brazil lost to Germany by 7–1 in the World Cup semi-final of 2014, supporters took it not for a defeat but humiliation for the whole nation. On the other hand, when Spain won the World Cup final in 2010, fans’ outlook towards Andrés Iniesta completely turned Spain around. No single rivalry club, bar Athletic Club, ever jeered him again in La Liga until the last day he played in a blaugrana shirt.

Despite the notable flaws, fans have been responsible for injecting the necessary whirlwind of emotions that makes the game beautiful. Former Bayern Munich and Germany midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger were once asked what he was most afraid of. He replied: “The Yellow Wall”, Borussia Dortmund’s raging stadium and atmosphere. Imagine what the club, Dortmund, has lost with the stands now lying silent.

❛ Of course, the result is important, but the most important things are the fans; the people who feel the club flowing in their blood. You’ve got to give them the good feeling too ❜

Johan Cruyff

Reality check

As the stats from Bundesliga since its return suggest, playing behind closed doors is undoubtedly having a big influence on football, and possibly on results too. In the Bundesliga games played since the break, there have only been 18.5% of home wins.

This 18.5% is compared to around 43.3% of success on home games when there were fans in this Bundesliga campaign. A huge slump highlights how supporters generally represent a big home advantage. But it’s not only results that may change with the empty stands.

Bundesliga empty stands performances

Graph from Sky Sports

It will also have a big influence on the footballers’ performances. For instance, some players can’t cope up with the pressure of cheers and jeers of fans. But some others rely on their supporters’ drive and momentum. Now, with the absence of external stimulation during match time, some players we have never heard of will come into the light. All of a sudden we will see footballers who had never existed before. Some certain types of personalities will get benefitted, while others will be negatively affected.

Inverted U Theory

We can try to understand the relationship between the performance of the players and the pressure from external environments, one of them being fans.

Inverted U Theory pressure empty stands performances

Research from: The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit‐formation by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson

In the Inverted U hypothesis model, the vertical axis represents someone’s degree of performance, while the horizontal axis represents the pressure the person is under. As indicated by the model, there’s an impeccable medium of pressure where individuals perform at their best.

The left-hand side of the chart, above, shows the circumstance where individuals aren’t being challenged. Here, they see no motivation to work hard at a task.

❛ He told me that I wasn’t going to play much football there. I told him that I didn’t care, I knew that now I was really going to be a millionaire ❜

Alex Song
former Barcelona and Arsenal midfielder on his reply to Barça’s sporting director in 2012

Certainly, players with such personalities feel no pressure of performing because their motivation is tied to money.

The centre of the graph shows where individuals work at peak effectiveness. They are adequately motivated to work hard, but they are not so over-burden that they begin to struggle. This is the place individuals encounter flow state, an enjoyable and highly productive state in which they can showcase their best work.

Lionel Messi Barcelona PSG 2017 Champions League empty stands performances

Fans push the footballers to their limit | Photo by Imago

The best athletes from the sports industry fall in this section of the graph. But with no fans, will it cause under-arousal or boredom? Will we see many players shifting to the left-hand side of the graph or the matches will be just like training sessions which players are accustomed to?

Many athletes from different sports with no hesitation have spoken out, what it means for them to play in empty stadiums.

Lewis Hamilton Lebron James Rafael Nadal empty stands performances

Image from Dribbble.com

Clearly, sports without fans is nothing, even for the best of the best.

The right-hand side of the graph shows where players start to fall apart under pressure. They are overwhelmed by the volume and scale of competing demands on their attention, and feeling a serious lack of control over their situation. They may exhibit signs of stress or out-and-out panic.

Look what happened with Philippe Coutinho, a star brought in to the Camp Nou to fill in the shoes of Andrés Iniesta and Neymar Júnior. Manager Ernesto Valverde experimented with him both on wings and midfield, but his offensive output speaks that he could only deliver half of his capability. One of the reasons was definitely the pressure of living up to the price tag and huge expectations from fans. The situation worsened when he was jeered away by the home fans. Without proper scanning his surroundings and with his poor reading of the game, he showed signs of making wrong decisions, forcing himself out of Barcelona finally.

Philippe Coutinho Barcelona

Comparison of Philippe Coutinho’s 16/17 and 17/18 seasons to his one-year-and-a-half spell at Barcelona

However, now, with no fans, will we see many players shifting back to the curve? Look at Bundesliga, where 20-year-old Christoph Baumgartner has emerged as an important player in TSG 1899 Hoffenheim’s drive for a European place.

Throughout sports history, there have many examples where players could not cope up with the pressure. The Inverted-U Theory shows that pressure can be positive – to a limited extent. Stress, in any case, is rarely positive, and it’s important not to confuse the two ideas. It is about using pressure wisely, being always aware of where the benefits end and stress begins.

No quick fix

La Liga and the Danish Super Liga have come up with a digital initiative of putting up several screens in the stands, letting fans watch from their virtual grandstand section. But how effective can it be for players?

Players would need to train themselves just not physically, but mentally as well.

❛ Playing behind closed doors with no one to cheer implies a series of challenges. The preparation at squad level is the same as for any other match, but it is true that individually you have to train and get mentally prepared to play without people because it is very weird ❜

Lionel Messi

Footballers need to train themselves mentally to maintain a high level of cognitive skills. These skills can be enhanced by ensuring training sessions contain not just the physical components, but also challenge and train the neural pathways.

Even during the absence of games, clubs gave psychological support to their players. There are many reports that these have been provided with mental health advice.

With the lack of atmosphere and ghost games into play, performances of players and decisions of the referees also change. Ultimately, stats from Bundesliga suggest that professional football over the coming months is likely to be substantially different – not just the echoes of empty stands but in measurable outcomes as well.

We can expect home teams to win less often than they usually do. Teams with more home matches than away matches remaining in the current season might not do as well as they otherwise would have done, affecting championships, promotion and relegation. Let us see how things unfold in La Liga and Premier League in the upcoming days.


See also

How could life in stadiums change after the coronavirus?

50 years of Barça B: Quique Costas, the modest mentor

What can Barça learn from the return of La Liga with the Seville derby?

• La Liga preview: The five best games from matchday 28

Five days shalt thou labor, as the bible says. In my life, The seventh day is the Lord thy God’s. The sixth day is for Football. That pretty much describes my life when not working. I am here to share my ineffable love for this game among other football enthusiasts. | Contact: [email protected]

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Analysis

Opponent Analysis: Real Madrid; La Liga Matchday 7

Michael Gathige

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

The first El Clasico of the 2020/21 La Liga season is upon us and Real Madrid head into the clash just a point behind leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand. Despite a hat trick of victories just before the international break, Los Blancos now find themselves on the brink of three defeats in seven days. Several reports have emerged that head coach Zinedine Zidane could be facing the sack if his side head home with anything less than a point from this encounter. But, what it is that has gone wrong for the defending champions this season, and how can Barcelona counter these to the best of their ability?

A Dysfunctional Attack

The capital outfit has shown an evident inability to make fair use of the high possession they have in games of late. They’ve been consistent with two formations: a 4-3-3 that morphs into a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond as well. In and of themselves, these tactical setups aren’t by any means inadequate; however, the players deployed in these systems have been unable to make the best use of them thus far.

1. Wasteful strikers

With a striking duo of Luka Jovic and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid reasonably should be able to do more than score just over a goal a game as they have done this season. They’ve thus far scored 6 in five of their outings, with five of those coming against two teams, Real Betis – who were on a red card for around 30 minutes – and Levante away from home.

We are yet to see the best of Luka Jovic in the Spanish capital. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Taking a look at their xG (expected goals) of 10.29 in all competitions, we see that they also reasonably should have scored four more goals than they actually have – in theory. This kind of underperformance can be attributed to the likes of Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema for their wastefulness in front of goal, both of them underperforming their xG by 0.71 and 1.47 respectively. Additionally, the former has also missed several opportunities to shoot, which cannot be attested to ‘expected goals’.

Specific examples of these are when Vinicius found himself in a one on one situation with the keeper against Real Valladolid and spent a chance worth 0.48xG and Luka Jovic somehow failed to put away one worth 0.66xG against Levante. To put this into context, Opta deems shots over 0.38xG as big chances and for them to have squandered two such significant opportunities and to do it so often that they find themselves four goals behind their expected goals, is worrying.

In their league winning season, Real Madrid scored 70 goals at an xG of 72.93. Of this, 52.83 came from chances they created in open play, while the rest was distributed across corners, direct free kicks, set-piece opportunities and the infamous penalties they scored all across the campaign. For a club the size of Real Madrid, racking up such a relatively low xG from open play should have been big enough a red flag to push Zidane and club President Florentino Perez into investing in some forwards to bolster their attack. The lack of expenditure in this past window meant that Zidane had to tweak his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal, something we are yet to see consistently this season.

2. Poor Positioning from Forwards

While the forwards can be criticised for their inefficiency in attack from clear cut chances, their positioning to make use of said chances that come to them has been wanting. Karim Benzema isn’t your typical striker. He, in some ways like Messi, is a player that prefers to drop deep to create chances for his teammates and surge forward whenever the opportunity presented itself. Such can be seen in his stats last season: 21.25xG and 8.15xA (expected assists).

Someone needs to shoulder creative responsibilities from Benzema to bring the best out of him in the attack. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

For this to be a successful tactic, he needs players – like Jovic – to occupy the spaces he vacates in attack to be an ever-present threat for when a chance is created. Instead, his teammates find themselves lost amid their oppositions’ backlines and even if a through ball were to be played, there simply wouldn’t be anyone there to cease it.

This dreadful running off the ball leads to many of their attacks breaking down before they even begin. On several occasions, despite finding themselves in some auspicious positions, the attackers, be it from the wings or down centrally, simply don’t place themselves in places that would grant them good enough chances to score regularly. It stands to reason that scoring goals from high-quality opportunities requires players to be active in the penalty box.

3. A Pungent lack of creativity from the Wing

Football in the modern era is dominated by two kinds of fullbacks: inverted and offensive. Real Madrid via Marcelo have spearheaded the revolution of a traditionally defensive position of the pitch and transformed it into yet another offensive outlet to benefit from.

While the fullbacks and central midfielders can make a convincing case against their forwards for their inadequate positioning, they don’t help their cause either with their consistently inaccurate deliveries are.

Mendy and Barcelona need to improve their supply quality. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

As per Whoscored, Real Madrid has attempted a total of 93 crosses into the opposition penalty box in their six games this season. While this is a good aggregate number, only 17 of these have actually met their targets at a measly 18% success rate.

This inefficiency can undoubtedly be blamed on them, given the aforementioned problems when it comes to positioning. Still, the onus is on Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy, and Marcelo to do better than just 18%.

A Maladjusted Backline

Last season, in Europe’s top 5 leagues, Real Madrid had the second-best performing defence of teams that had completed their domestic campaigns. While the metric for ‘goals conceded’ places them right at the top, a better representation of their proper defensive rigidity can be evaluated by use of xGA (expected goals against). Despite conceding just six goals in all competitions so far, Real Madrid overperformed by 8.15 goals.

Clearly, such a level of overperformance isn’t by any means sustainable as somewhere down the line; a team is going to pick their pockets and make a mauling out of them. We saw bits of this against Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek and could easily see the same this evening. Thus far in La Liga, despite conceding just three goals, Los Blancos have an xGA of 5.02 and can attribute that majorly to the phenomenal saves made by Thibaut Courtois.

There is only so much that Thibaut Courtois can do alone. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

The positioning of their defenders is as inefficient and as inconsistent as that of their attack. In the build-up leading to Cadiz’s only goal of the game, we saw a pattern that we know all too well from Real Madrid and one that repeated itself on several occasions in that game. They failed to track their markers, left gaping holes in their defence and were punished accordingly.

They can, of course, rely on their Belgian shot-stopper to continue making insane saves – which is precisely why they bought him – but it merely isn’t an expendable tactic. Again, their lack of investment has come to bite them in the back. While the backline consists of dominant individuals, there is a clear communication gap between then, which often leads to poor marking and tracking.

How can Barcelona exploit these Weaknesses

The Catalans can easily counter Real Madrid by adjusting the line up in several ways to hurt their opponents. Firstly, Ronald Koeman could start by playing two pacey fullbacks in Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba; though the fitness level of the latter is still in question.

Why do this? As mentioned before, there’s an apparent problem when it comes to the positioning and movements of the Real Madrid attackers.

Dest’s blistering pace may help combat Madrid’s ability to counter quickly. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Following Luka Jovic’s performance in midweek, there’s a meagre chance of him making it into the starting XI for the El Clasico. Therefore there’s a high chance that Real will deploy a 433 with Vinicius and Rodrygo in the wider areas. To mitigate their impact, Barcelona will need to use two fullbacks that have enough pace to make ball recoveries if ever their visitors are successful in making overlapping runs into the byline. While not an airtight solution, it does substantially aid the Catalans’ case.

What about Benzema himself? Assuming Zidane will grant him the freedom to float around the box rather than stay within it, the best counter to this would be to partner Frenkie de Jong with Sergio Busquets rather than Miralem Pjanic. The Spaniard is far more defensively stable than the Bosnia,n and his interpretation of spaces is a notch higher. His defensive attitude will help him alleviate a large chunk of what the Frenchman has to offer

Moving on to their midfield, Cadiz did an excellent job at shutting their creative players down by use of one block of five in defence layered by a midfield block of four on some occasions.

The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 that Ronald Koeman is keen on using is that it can be switched to cater to several situations. By taking advantage of the fitness levels of most of our squad right now, Koeman could use a 4-5-1 when defending and instantly transition to a 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 when the team advances.

Here there is one major thing that Barca could do to punish their visitors, and that is by using Francisco Trincao in the wider areas. The Portuguese did an excellent job at two things against Ferencvarosi: staying close to the touchline and taking on opposing defenders. He completed five take ons against the Hungarians, and most inspiringly, most of these were near the touchline.

Starting Trincão over Griezmann will be beneficial for the team tomorrow. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Against Marcelo, a player infamous for his defensive work, having his profile on one end can do wonders for the team. Adding Dembele late on, preferably in the final 30 minutes to take advantage of the waney legs of the Madrid defence, could prove to be a blessing for the hosts.

Should all these come in play, we can expect Barcelona to finish the El Clasico the way they started the new season against Villarreal – with a bang.

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