Do away teams have the advantage in Scotland?

Home advantage is generally taken for granted in football. In most cases no matter where they are in the table the home team will always feel they have a chance, even in a top vs. bottom scenario.

However, during this season the home advantage of some leagues seems to have experienced a significant drop.

As a result of this I decided to look at all the leagues that StrataBet cover, paying particularly close attention to the Scottish Premiership.

To begin with, the graph below shows the % of points won at home vs. % of points won away (data correct up to 04/01/16):

Graph 1 update

I principally cover the Scottish Premiership and it appeared to me that many of the teams seemed to do better when away.

St. Johnstone lost against Motherwell at the end of December but it was the first time they had not won away since the end of September (winning five in a row, though they did lose four in a row before that).

Inverness Caledonian Thistle picked up a significant away point at Aberdeen (only drawing due to conceding a controversial 90th minute penalty) and won at Hamilton.

Partick Thistle have been in great form and, after also drawing at Aberdeen, they were only denied another excellent point by a 90th minute winner from ten-man Celtic on Saturday.

So is the decrease in home advantage significant in Scotland? The answer is actually no:

Table-2-Update1

There has only been a marginal increase in the number of away points won in 2015/16 compared to 2014/15 (0.33%). As we are only halfway through the season this is likely to change and could go either way compared to last year.

While there are some teams who appear to favour playing at home and some that favour playing away this is no different to any other league in the world.

Anecdotally I would have expected more teams to have stronger home records but this does not appear to be the case, with only Ross County & Motherwell picking up significantly more points at home:

Table 3 update

Table 4 update

Despite St. Johnstone’s fantastic recent away run they do not even rank in the top four teams in the league in terms of picking up a higher % of points away from home. This could suggest that they are just doing well generally. Indeed, in the midst of that five game away winning streak they only played three home games (1/1/1). It was their home record before they started to win away that was better.

Kilmarnock have a terrible home record, having lost 4-0 on three separate occasions as well as suffering heavy 5-2 defeat. It seems that when they lose they tend to lose big.

What is interesting is that of the two sides with artificial pitches in the SPFL (Hamilton and Kilmarnock) neither has won a significant number of their points at home, something that might be expected due to the unfamiliarity of their opposition to playing on such surfaces.

Given that home advantage seems to be fairly insignificant in Scotland we would then expect this to be reflected by the bookmakers’ Asian Handicap lines:

Table 5

The number of times the bookmakers have given the home team a supremacy (an AH line of -0.25 or greater) is roughly in conjunction with the % of points picked up by the home teams.

There is still a slight tendency to give supremacy to the home side, but not by much. However, there were a slightly higher number of games they could not call than those where the away team was considered favourite (22.4% DNB). In fact, of the teams given away supremacy, the current top three of Aberdeen, Celtic and Hearts accounted for over 80% of such occasions.

Looking for reasons why all of the above is happening and teams are becoming stronger away from home is tougher and many of the old reasons given are unlikely to hold up today.

Firstly, having to travel and stay in poor accommodation is no longer a big issue, with road travel improved and hotel conditions generally quite good. In Scotland only Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County are a significant distance from the rest, with most other teams within ninety minutes.

Officials are a notorious source of consternation for fans and some believe a referee always has it in for their team. However, referee bias has been shown to be less evident, with only a slightly higher number of fouls and penalties given to home sides. When looking deeper into this, an easy explanation could be that home sides tend to have more possession and therefore a higher chance of being in positions to win free kicks and penalties.

Another point previously put forward was that home teams tended to put more effort in to impress the fans, as that was where they saw them more often. The amount of live football and highlight shows on television makes this extremely unlikely now and there is no longer a place to hide for most players.

That leaves me with one final theory: tactics.

In recent seasons many teams have stopped playing with two strikers. Indeed, in the SPFL only Hearts, Ross County and St. Johnstone set up this way, though County could be argued as playing 4-4-1-1.

Many teams now favour 4-2-3-1, a tactic known for stifling the midfield and counter-attacking quickly rather than playing an open game. Essentially ten of the teams play with five midfielders, if we include Ross County.

When you are the home side having to break down considerable numbers of players makes it difficult. As such, while the home side will still see a lot of possession it can tend to be in harmless areas with a mass of bodies between the ball and the goal.

The away team can then break and have fewer defenders to get beyond in order to create chances of their own. They may have less chances overall but could they expect the chances they do get to be of better quality? Using Stratagem’s definitions of Great Chances, Good Chances and Attempts I investigated further:

Table-6-update1

Aberdeen are the outliers here as the only side to create more Great Chances when away and they are also one of only four teams to create more Good Chances when away too.

More significantly though, eight teams are better at converting Great Chances and Attempts away from home, while Good Chances are split perfectly down the middle.

It seems to make sense that it would be easier to make more of chance situations when facing fewer defenders and playing more on the break as an away team.

TABLE 7 update

This final table shows that the average conversion of each chance level is better when away from home than when at home. In the case of Attempts it is actually more than double.

This appears to be playing the biggest part in why teams are faring better on the road than previously.

Home advantage may not be the force it was previously, but it seems that potentially unsustainable conversion rates are driving this, in the Scottish Premiership at least. Over time the expectation could be that these rates will regress to more usual levels, which may see an increase in the number of points picked up at home over the second half of the season.

I will keep track on how this progresses and update you throughout 2016.

Dave Willoughby