There are few sweeter things in football than an away win. Anyone who has followed a team knows that they feel so much more thrilling, more daring, more rewarding, harder-earned, than almost any victory at home.
This is largely a function of numbers: away fans are often out-numbered roughly 10 to one in any stadium, and so the sense of being besieged enhances the glee of any victory. But it's also to do with probabilities. The rarity of away wins provides much of their thrill.
But that imbalance of probabilities might be starting to level. Traditionally in the top flight, the percentage of games which were won by the away team hovered just over 25 per cent. It had touched 30 per cent only once in the last 15 years, when it was 30 per cent precisely in 2001-02. For the last two seasons it was just under 24 per cent. This year, though, it has leapt to 34 per cent, the highest in the history of the English top flight.
It is a remarkable statistic. For more than one third of top-flight games now to end with an away victory is a new departure in English football. Home advantage has long been one of the fundamental facts of club football, but it is losing its grip: why?
The knack to winning away has always been simple: defend well against the hosts' attacks, and then hit them on the break. Manchester United have the league's best away record this season, with seven wins and only one defeat from their 10 away games. They are on course to take their number of away victories into double figures.
Paddy Crerand, who played more than 300 games for United, believes that twin mastery has been the key to United's form. "Everybody knows that defence is always very, very important," he told The Independent. "And away from home you've got to defend: you expect to get attacked. You expect the home team to do a bit more attacking than they would do coming to Manchester United, as they're being pushed by their own fans. But when you attack United it's a big help for United,because they can counter-attack that quickly."
Years of experience in the Champions League has taught United to defend with the necessary resistance. "The experience of playing Europe away from home is a big, big factor," Crerand said. "You learn how to defend because you're playing against the top teams. If you don't defend well you get punished for it. When you come to the knockout stage you can't lose goals away from home."
This explains the travelling success of the top teams: it is no surprise the sides with a tradition of European football record the most away wins (although playing in Europe and winning away are themselves both functions of being good). There may, though, be some permeation through the division of this European-taught style of play.
Tactical development is, then, another plausible explanation of the trend. Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, and founder of The Blizzard suggests that evolution might undermine home advantage. "If two teams are playing bog-standard 4-4-2 against each other, both battering each other, playing exactly the same way, then playing at home gives you an advantage," he said. "Whereas if you start to change those parameters, you start to be tactically more astute, then possibly that begins to negate the advantage of a home crowd."
Also, some of the bigger stadiums seem to have lost their intimidating aura this year, and visiting clubs now know that they can win more than just a polite pat on the back if they play well. "Whereas in the past you'd go to Old Trafford or Anfield or Stamford Bridge or the Emirates and expect to get beaten," Wilson suggests, "maybe teams now aren't going with the same fear factor. What this means is that when Blackburn go to Old Trafford or Aston Villa go to Chelsea, they go there thinking 'actually, they're not that good.'"
The answer, then, might well not be found on the pitch but in the stands. Premier League grounds are not as intimidating as they once were. The average attendance this year in the Premier League – 34,515 – is the second lowest it has been in the last five years, and there has been a steady decline from 2007-08's peak of 36,076.
This has diminished atmospheres, as has the gradual proliferation of modern stadiums, which are all less intimidating than what they replaced. "Some of the new grounds, the pitches are a bit further away from the crowds, it tends to be a bit less intimidating than it once was," said Malcolm Clarke, chair of the Football Supporters' Federation. Wilson agrees: "They've become homogeneous," he said of modern stadia. "Everybody now has undersoil heating, everybody has proper drainage. So you don't play on mudbaths, you don't play on pitches covered in sand. So I suspect the conditions are more similar now."
If stadiums are the same across the country, there is less for visiting players to have to adjust to. "At the Emirates the pitch is essentially the same as the Etihad, is the same as Stadium of Light is the same as St James' Park and is the same as Craven Cottage," Wilson said, "which, 20 years ago, certainly wouldn't have been the case."
While the pitches are generally more welcoming, so, sometimes, are the home crowds, as traditional fans are priced out. "Generally there has been a trend for a number of years for atmospheres to be declining," Clarke said. "Many of us think that the place where you go for atmosphere now is the local pub, where people can stand up while they're watching the game, have a beer while they're watching the game. And some of the people who do go seem to think you behave in the same way as you do in the theatre: you wait for the curtain to go up and sit there quietly and watch the stage."
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