When Aston Villa take on Manchester United tonight, they will fight desperately for relegation. They are one of the teams that have struggled the most since the start, with two points in five games.
That’s exactly what Christian Purslow feared.
Two months ago, Aston Villas CEO was one of those who would stop Premier League’s plan to reboot.
The reason was that the Premier League would play matches on neutral ground. Purslow believed this would be unfair to Villa, which relies on its strong home form.
Finally, neutral paths were never used. But the new circumstances of football have nevertheless affected the results.
This has not been good news for the downtrodden Villa.
Have bet everything
One can understand Purslow if he feels the situation is unfair.
When Villa embarked on their first season in the Premier League in four years last year, no one had thought the rules would change. Villa was preparing for a tournament with full stands and three swaps per match, as it always is.
And now that they were finally back, they had plans to make their mark.
With the help of their owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, they spent £ 144.5 million on new players over the summer, according to Sky Sports.
That made them the club with the highest costs in the Premier League transition market, unheard of for a newly promoted team.
Villa put everything into making sure they kept the place. Even before the coronavirus came, a possible downturn appeared as an economic disaster.
Unfortunately for Villa, not all purchases have turned up. Under the team’s coach, Dean Smith, they have the defense that had scored the most goals in the Premier League before the current round.
But before the corona suspended the league in March, Villa was only two points away from the standings, with a match less played than the teams around it.
Much of the reason for that was the home game.
Before the break, Villa had scored 17 of their 25 points at home, the second highest percentage in the Premier League. No wonder Purslow was against neutral paths.
But since its inception, Villa has not won any of their home games. It turned out that it wasn’t the stadium itself that had helped them.
It was the fans.
The benefits erased
Because although the arenas are the same as before, the advantage of playing at home has been wiped out in practice.
In May, researchers from the University of Reading and the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management published a study based on 191 matches. They found that the share of home team wins fell from 45.8 to 36 percent when taking away the crowd.
Since then, the German Bundesliga has shown the same. After the break, the share of home victories there dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent without the audience.
Initially, this affects all teams, but it affects some more than others. Six of Villa’s ten games after the start were and are at Villa Park.
Another factor is more indirect. In the Premier League, the top teams are so superb that the bottom teams need fans to score. When Villa plays away, they can only rely on their own skills.
But with 42,000 fans in the back at Villa Park, they get help. The mood is picking up. The players feel the support. The away team can be stressed. Suddenly, the battle is not about technique and talent, but about running and dueling.
And there the bottom layers are strong.
This is not just sighting. Last weekend, Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta said his players were playing better in front of empty stands.
“When they play in front of 80,000 spectators, it’s much more difficult, especially when they have the ball,” Arteta said Daily Mail.
This is why the bottom floor needs the fans so desperately. The only team that had taken a higher percentage of points than Villa at home before the corona break was the last team on the table: Norwich.
This fall, they beat Manchester City 3–2, a football miracle that had never happened off Carrow Road.
Just before the break, Norwich had taken eight points in their last five league games at home. Their only loss in that period was against Liverpool, who had struggled to a 1-0 victory.
After the break, Norwich has lost all six games. The three on Carrow Road have ended 0–3, 0–1, 0–1.
Norwich is now ten points away from regular place with four games remaining.
Villa has also not benefited greatly from his home game after the break. At Villa Park, they have played draw against Sheffield United (0-0) and lost to Chelsea (2-1) and Wolves (1-0).
Had Villa only taken one point on those matches with 42,000 fans on his side?
Unfortunately for Villa this is not a rule change they can complain about. Both the health authorities and common sense say the stands must be empty now.
But another rule that is more difficult to accept for Villa is that of the five swaps.
At startup, it was decided that teams could make five exchanges per game, which would help them with the physical strain after such a long break.
But five exchanges is more beneficial if you actually have five good players to put in.
It has the very best teams, but not teams like Villa.
Smith, who has told the press about how unfair the rule is, has even seen what it means in practice.
When Villa met Chelsea at home nearly three weeks ago, they led 1-0 after 55 minutes.
Then Chelsea put in Ross Barkley, who has 33 internationals for England, and Christian Pulisic, who cost Chelsea £ 57 million.
Five minutes later, Pulisic scored.
Two minutes later Olivier Giroud gave the away team 2-1.
One could say that Chelsea coach Frank Lampard could have made two substitutions anyway. But he would hardly have made them so early in the match if he had only had three in total.
Something similar happened when Villa met Liverpool away last Sunday. After an hour it stood 0-0. Then Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp made a triple change: In came star trio Roberto Firmino, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson.
About ten minutes later Liverpool took the lead.
The nail in the coffin was set by Curtis Jones, Liverpool’s fourth substitute.
Thus, one can understand if Smith and Purslow have a somewhat bitter taste in their mouths. It is guaranteed to be even more bitter if Villa goes down.
Fortunately for them, they are only four points away from the fixed place with one game less played than the team just above them, Watford. Villa still has time to avert the £ 200m disaster.
But they will not receive as much help as they could have. Three of their last five games are at home. They will still face Arsenal. And on Thursday night they welcome Manchester United at Villa Park.
There, United will be able to take advantage of five of the stars they have sitting on the bench, while Villa will have to do without their best player: The Twelfth Man.