MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Small numbers of fans will be allowed to return to select Premier League matches this weekend with home clubs hoping some of the advantage that supporters traditionally give them will return.
A new study by Nielsen's Gracenote, released on Wednesday, shows beyond doubt that games in empty stadiums have resulted in the home advantage significantly declining in importance.
The company analysed last season's 288 Premier League matches with crowds and the 190 played since June with no spectators to see how the lack of spectators has impacted football in the Premier League.
"With no crowds in the stadium, away teams are scoring 12% more goals than they did last season with crowds," Simon Gleave, the company's head of sports analysis, said.
"Visiting sides are being awarded more free kicks than home teams. The number of yellow cards shown to the away teams is down by 27% and it is players from the home sides who now receive the most bookings," he added.
In matches with no crowds, visiting teams are no longer penalised more by referees than home sides and are scoring more goals. There is now only 3.7% difference between the number of home and away wins compared to 14.6% for last season's matches with crowds.
The percentage of home wins has dropped from last season's 44.8% with a crowd to 41.6% for the matches played this campaign and last with no spectators.
Away wins have increased from 30.2% of last season's 288 matches with spectators to 37.9% of the 190 to be played without an attendance.
In those 190 matches, there have been only seven more home wins than away victories.
Goalscoring has increased from 2.72 per match in last season's Premier League games with a crowd to 2.84 per match with no fans in stadiums.
The increase is entirely due to more goals being scored by the away teams. Visiting sides have scored 1.36 goals per match in empty stadiums compared to 1.22 in last season's games with crowds.
Fans long suspected that referees were influenced by home supporters and the data suggests that may have been the case.
Referees are now awarding more free kicks to away teams than the home teams. With crowds last season, home teams were awarded 0.6 free kicks per match more than away teams. Now, away teams are awarded 0.34 free kicks per match more than home sides.
The first Premier League fixture to welcome fans will be West Ham v Manchester United on Saturday, before Chelsea face Leeds United later that day.
The North London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal will also see fans present.
All games will have a maximum 2,000 supporters in venues in line with 'tier two' COVID restrictions. Clubs who are in England's 'tier three', including the two Manchester clubs, remain without fans present.
Any teams whose areas are moved into the lowest risk tier one will be allowed 4,000 fans.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond)