“I have always thought the difference between home and away shouldn’t be that big when you’re a good side, which we are” – Jurgen Klopp, September 20.
The principle of home form exceeding away form is one of football’s basic truths. Pitch size, environment, crowd involvement and travel are all noted as factors. Speaking to When Saturday Comes magazine, Barry Richards – psychology lecturer at the University of East London – even touted separation anxiety.
“This affects young children when separated from their mother and continues to affect us into adulthood whenever we perceive a loss of a solid base to our existence,” Richards said. A penny for Harry Redknapp’s thoughts on that.
Still, there’s no doubting the basic truth. With thanks to Opta’s Duncan Alexander for the statistics, teams have recorded better away records than home records over the course of a season 31 times in Premier League history, or 6.5% of the time. Yet that’s often more indicative of dire home form than vice versa; Everton under Roberto Martinez last season is the most recent example. At the top end of the table, Chelsea during Jose Mourinho’s first season in 2004/05 and Arsenal in 2001/02 are the only title winners with a higher points total in their away games than at home.
In fact, the move has been skewed further towards home comforts. The point difference between home and away games was 11 for Chelsea in 2014/15, 18 for Manchester the season before and seven during Manchester United’s last title-winning season. In 2011/12, Manchester City took 57 points at home but only 34 away. The previous season, Manchester United set a record with a 30-point difference (55 vs 25).
The insinuation from this is clear: This goes far beyond environmental and geographical factors, particularly given the general homogenisation of football stadia and the increased comfort elite players are afforded when travelling to matches. It’s actually the managers themselves who are responsible for the performance gap.
With the Premier League stuffed full of “difficult places to go”, a cliché assisted by the increase in revenues and thus transfer budgets down the league, managers regularly change their tactics for away matches, operating with a more reserved, safety-first strategy. ‘Win your home games and draw on the road’ is a fairly watertight approach to achieving ‘success’.
And so back to that Jurgen Klopp quote, and one from the previous weekend after his side had beaten Chelsea: “I would love to win a game like this at Anfield. That’s the next challenge. We have Swansea coming up, but I don’t know that much about them yet. We lost to Palace, so we have to find a solution and we will.”
Liverpool’s away performances have been one of the most striking aspects of this Premier League season so far. The construction work at Anfield has forced Klopp’s team to play four of their five games away from home, but a potential negative has been turned on its head.
Not only have Liverpool taken seven points and scored seven goals from trips to Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea, they have played exactly the brand of expansive football that Klopp promised he would deliver. “Football from hell,” was the manager’s post-Chelsea take.
Even their only defeat, at Burnley in August, was suffered despite taking 26 shots to their opponents’ three, and with 80.4% possession. Klopp can reasonably label that as the exception, not rule.
Of the top 40 chance creators in the Premier League this season, six (Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, Roberto Firmino, Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana) are from Liverpool. No other team can match that: Everton have five, Tottenham four, Manchester City three, Arsenal two and Manchester United just one. For a team that has played 80% of its football away from home, that’s mightily impressive.
Yet, as Klopp says himself, there is no reason for Liverpool to alter their style away from home. Both Chelsea 2004/05 and Arsenal 2001/02, those title-winning sides with performance skewed to playing away, played with a verve that Klopp would like to replicate, dynamism and fluidity in attacking areas adding an attractive facade to the hard work done off the ball. Both actually found it harder at home, where teams sat back and defended their position.
Liverpool are far away from serious title challengers, but last season’s concerns are quickly being eroded away. No side has covered more ground, no side has made more sprints and no side has created more chances; the three pillars of Klopp’s ideal style are not dependent on where they play, just how they play. When something is working so emphatically, why would you ever change?