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Home and Away

Here's a question for you: Why do some teams pick up more points away from home? It doesn't happen very often and in La Liga it's not very common at all, but Deportivo de La Coruña seem to be specialising in the art.

Having lost lamely at home to Real Sociedad last week, thereby completing a third month of suffering for their home supporters by starving them of the sweet smell of victory, Depor travelled to Getafe and won 2-1, in a tough-looking game. The win on the outskirts of Madrid gave the Galician side their 27th point of the season from away games, as opposed to a measly sixteen at home. That's quite a difference.

There's a classic sort of situation loosely related to this phenomenon, where during a season in which no side runs away with the league, the eventual victors are the side who win most of their games at fortress home, grinding out enough away wins and draws to take the title. On the other hand, in a season such as this one where the leader is well ahead of the chasing pack, logic suggests that their home-away record will be more or less indistinguishable.

Barça have won eleven at home and nine away, the obvious explanation being that their confidence in their own winning formula means that their tactical approach to each game hardly varies. Since they know they can beat anyone, they'll attack anywhere, even at Stamford Bridge and the Bernabéu.

But this isn't that classic kind of season. The only way to keep up with Barça is to try and emulate them, and indeed, both Real Madrid and Valencia have similar records, proportionally speaking. Only Osasuna of the Champions League aspirants have the 'classic' profile, with a decent away record but an excellent home one. Despite this fact, this weekend's splendid 2-4 win at Espanyol was the Pamplona side's sixteenth win of the season and a club record for victories in a season in the top flight. But let's not digress. What's going on at Depor?

The easy explanation is that they've taken on a manager (Joaquín Caparrós) who is a believer in the old adage that a successful team is a team based on a solid defence. The Seville teams over which he presided were certainly famous for taking no prisoners, and it was interesting that in the summer he chose to replace the departed elegance of Mauro Silva with the rather more basic approach of Juanma, a centre-back from Racing Santander who looks (and plays) like a dispensable bad guy from Miami Vice.

Aldo Duscher, Beckham's old sparring partner, is also playing in every game now, whereas under Jabo Irureta he was a bit-part performer. Priorities? They seem fairly obvious. There are more things you can kick than merely the ball, but was Seville's record a similar one last season?

Well, they finished a respectable sixth and qualified for the UEFA Cup, a competition in which they're still going strong, and picked up twenty-five points away from a total haul of sixty, but it's nothing like this season's figure for Deportivo.

The most obvious explanation therefore, is that a defensively-minded team will always struggle at home, where they are obliged to open up the play and take the initiative. Possibly. But Depor have conceded a total of thirty-two goals this season, a figure which hardly suggests that they are over-defensive, or successfully over-defensive.

Valencia, as has often been the case in the past few seasons, boast the best numbers in goals conceded (21), but have scored the same amount of goals as Depor (38). It's not a net-bulging figure, but it's hardly one that reflects a crisis either.

Where Depor's record is most extraordinary is in the amount of goals scored at home - a paltry fourteen, to the rather more decent twenty-four they've scored away. Only Barça have managed better. The Galicians have not been grinding out a series of 0-1 wins, which suggests that they are capable of attacking play. So what's the problem at home?

It remains the only occasion in my life when a football manager has asked me for a light whilst having a pee. Beat that one.
There are two other sides in the league whose away records are better - Racing Santander and Cádiz. It may be possible to suggest that Racing (10 home points to 19 away) are a very similar side to Depor. Their manager, Manuel Preciado is a lovely bloke.

I once had a great chat with him in the urinals at Depors' ground, funnily enough, after the pre-Piterman Racing had beaten them there a couple of seasons back. It remains the only occasion in my life when a football manager has asked me for a light whilst having a pee. Beat that one. But he also likes his sides to be a little physical, let us say. They're never going to come top of the fair play league, and neither is it their ambition.

Perhaps more significantly, their ground used to be full of hollering scarf-wielding Cantabrians in the good old days before the seats were installed, but now the place seems anodyne somehow, devoid of atmosphere.

Interesting too that their figures for the season 2003-2004 were also negative ones, in the home-away sense (19 to 24). Similarly the Riazor - beautifully situated at the end of the prom in Coruña - seems a bit quieter than it used to be, when they had that big wall at one end that used to keep out the fierce Atlantic winds.

And indeed, Spanish supporters often talk to you all misty-eyed about how they love the look of the classic English stadium, with a tiny gravel running-track and the stands close to the pitch - everything packed in dense and deafening, hostile to visiting teams who just want to get the game over as quickly as possible.

During the recent Arsenal v Real Madrid game, the Spanish pre-match chit-chat was all about Highbury, its traditions and its aesthetic, but the talk mostly centred on the fact that it was an intimidating arena, with the supporters (as in the Bernabéu) very close to the pitch. The problem now in the Bernabéu is that the supporters (with some shaven-headed exceptions) are mostly of the prawn-sandwich variety - to quote Roy Keane - and too much shouting and hollering is just not really good form, old boy.

It's much the same in Barcelona. Despite the beauty and size of the Camp Nou, and the fact that an enormous amount of people pack into it every fortnight, some of the players have been known to remark on its lack of real atmosphere.

John Toshack once famously remarked that the Gallegos were more interested in eating fish than supporting the team.

The theory is tipped on its head, however, when one considers Cádiz. If there is one ground where the atmosphere and support would be likely to tip the balance in favour of the home statistics, it would surely be the yellow inferno of the Ramón Carranza, but it doesn't seem to be helping them much this season.

They've only scored twelve times there all season so far, a measly figure equalled by Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés, traditionally Spain's most hostile and atmospheric ground. But neither of these sides is scoring many away either, whereas Deportivo are.

If you read Spanish, a glance at some of Depor's blog sites reveals a variety of agonised discussions on this topic, ranging from the decline in the numbers of the club's 'ultra' supporters (the Riazor Blues) to the fact that Caparrós simply doesn't have the tactical wherewithal to shuffle his pack when it comes to home games. Others simply see it as a 'mala racha' (bad spell) in which the team has clearly become more and more neurotic as the weeks have gone by.

John Toshack in his time there once famously remarked that the Gallegos were more interested in eating fish than supporting the team, and that he had never come across such a lot of moaners. Certainly his successor, Jabo Irureta, was constantly given a hard time there, despite bringing them success formerly undreamt of.

Anyway, I don't claim to have the answer. Caparrós is probably saying the same every fortnight too. But this is all a roundabout way of telling you that next weekend I'm going down to Madrid to see the phenomenon for myself, in the flesh at the Bernabéu.

Deportivo play there on Sunday, and need to win if they want to keep their UEFA Cup hopes alive. Real Madrid need to win to preserve some dignity from a rapidly deteriorating season.

There's a whole league programme in midweek too, and they've got a nasty-looking game at Zaragoza to contend with before the Depor game. I shall be sitting with a well-known American comic, to whom I will be expected to explain the finer points of soccer in Spain, as well as the fact that the visiting team tends to win away from home.

Anything for a freebie. So watch this space. All will be revealed.

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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