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Soccer in silence: how do ghost games impact the players?

The players are back on the pitch, but the fans are nowhere near coming back to the arenas. How have ghost games affected the play on the pitch?

FC Bayern Muenchen v Fortuna Duesseldorf - Bundesliga Photo by M. Donato/FC Bayern via Getty Images

The saying “football is nothing without fans” is being put to the test during the pandemic through the imposition of “ghost games” in the Bundesliga and elsewhere. While the game atmosphere is decidedly less lively, these eerie matches are giving coaches, fans, psychologists, and sports performance experts a rare chance to study and understand the impact of crowd noise on player and team performance. What have we learned and what do we stand to learn?

No place like home

There is a long connection between home field advantage and good results. Now we are beginning to learn just how much of that correlation belongs to fans urging their lads on and intimidating their opponents, rather than just familiarity of surroundings, lack of travel, etc. The statistical website 538 applied a somewhat arbitrary 10% reduction in home field advantage due to the fanless atmosphere. At first glance this looks like an underestimation.

DW Sports has sorted the numbers up until May 30 and concluded:

So far since the Bundesliga restart, the numbers support the theory. Only seven home games have been won from 33 since the Bundesliga returned two weeks ago - a phenomenal number that puts the home win ratio at just 21%, almost half the season average of 40%. The post-hiatus away win ratio is 48%, up 11% on the season average.

While the sample size is small so far, the impact seems significant. With the playing of more games, and the return of a number of leagues in June we will have large enough sample sizes to begin to draw some preliminary conclusions.

Differential impact on teams and individual players

Some clubs were concerned about the psycho-emotional impact of the sterile atmosphere on the players and took pro-active steps to combat it. Most obviously, this group includes Dortmund, who hired sports psychologist and former keeper Philip Laux to conduct counselling sessions with the players to get them ready for the change. It seems to have paid off, since Dortmund has not missed a beat since the return to play. Dortmund’s management identified that players would need to find more motivation within themselves without fans and brought in Laux to help them do just that. One cannot help but wonder if Laux could have helped prevent their troubles in the second half of last season if he had been brought in a year sooner.

Freiburg head coach Christian Streich feels that the burden of ghost games falls unfairly on struggling and smaller sides, ”For us [smaller teams] the absence of fans hurts us more than it does the top teams.” Results may bear him out.

Different players also react differently to the deadened in stadium atmosphere.

Bayern star Joshua Kimmich was very clear in how he felt the lack of the Yellow Wall helped Bayern get a win at Signal Iduna Park. He clearly stated that not having their die-hard fans urging them forward hurt Dortmund, and the lack of crowd noise made it easier for him to concentrate and react less to mistakes.

Other Bayern players don’t seem to enjoy the clarity and focus Kimmich talks about once the crowd noise is removed. They seem to thrive on it, needing the energy of the fans to produce their best product.

Think that gave Phonzie a bit of a buzz?

Speed merchant Alphonso Davies thrives on the positive feedback of making a good defensive play, “That’s what it’s all about. For example, when I take the ball off an opposing striker after a sprint and a murmur like that goes around the stadium, that inspires me. Magic moments.”

Javi Martinez feels similarly, like he is lost without the fans urging him on. He said,

“I don’t like it. I’m very passionate. I need to be shouted at. Arriving at Real Betis’ stadium or the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and there are thousands of people telling you everything. That motivates me,” Javi said. “My heart sank when we got to Dortmund and saw five people on their bikes.”

Backup keep Sven Ulreich believes that player need extra energy and encouragement during a match and tries to deliver it himself. He told Sport1:

“I always try to take part in the game, including when I sit on the bench. I want to fire up and push my team,” he said. That has proven especially important in recent games played in largely empty arenas: “Especially in ghost games, it’s important that input comes in from outside...You can hear us from outside now much better on account of the ghost-game backdrop.”

Philippe Coutinho Rehab Training
Would Coutinho thrive in the ghost game world?
Photo by M. Donato/FC Bayern via Getty Images

Some players, although they are unlikely to admit it themselves, struggle when fan reaction does not go well for them, creating a negative cycle that can be heard to break. Luis Suarez recounts some of the problems Phillipe Coutinho struggle with when the game was not breaking his way in an interview with ESPN,

“The smallest thing you do — the smallest little thing, like Philippe did the other day, which was tiny — [brings repercussions] and everything is made bigger [than it really is],” Suárez said. “[A player] hears it when he loses a ball, and there’s this zzzzzhhhhhiiii, he hears that buzzing, that murmur there is, and that affects him, and he thinks, ‘Ay, the fans, ay, if I lose another ball.’”

Augsburg’s Florian Niederlechner blamed the quietness of the arena for a crucial missed penalty against FC Köln. He told Sky after the game (Bild):

A comment came from behind that I heard because of the goddamn ghost games. He yelled, “You know where he always shoots!” That made me change my mind.

Niederlechner shot the other way and Timo Horn saved it.

So each player and team reacts individually to crowd noise, for good or ill. But according to an analysis in the Athletic there is one particular group of players that sport psychologists and performance coaches are monitoring closely to see how they react to the empty stands.

In English football they are referred to as “Monday to Friday” players. These are the guys who test out great, have all the physical attributes to succeed and look like world beaters in practice (Monday to Friday) but just can’t seem to produce on match day. Ghost games offer sport scientists an opportunity to better understand just what it is about match day that causes these players to underperform in the hope of correcting those issues.

So while football without fans is clearly an inferior project there are legions of sport scientists rubbing their hands together in glee at the largest sporting experiment ever launched. We all might as well just sit back and learn a little something from it as well.

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