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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

Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by David Ramirez via Imago

FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era. 

The shape of the team

The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):

As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.

The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.

Offence

Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:

Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.

All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.

This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.

The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.

The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:

And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.

While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.

Passing

As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:

Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):

The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.

Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.

Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.

Defence

As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:

Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.

For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.

Issues

Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.

The substitutes

Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.

Conclusion

There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.

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