Switching ends at kick-off: Does it make a difference? And why does Sean Dyche love it?

Thom Harris

The coin toss: performative pre-match bureaucracy, or a chance to land an early psychological blow?

For most football fans, the 60 seconds leading up to kick-off is a vague time of excitement and contemplation only interrupted by two things; the referee’s whistle or the dreaded, for the match-goer, sight of the goalkeeper picking up his water bottle and trotting to the opposite end of the pitch.

Crowds groan as one when the away side (and it is almost always the visiting team who do this) opt to change ends, daring to challenge the unwritten rule that a team must attack their preferred stand in the second half. But it matters, instinctively.

When so much of watching your team is about routine and familiarity, change is jarring. Shooting the “wrong way” in the second half is a particularly uneasy experience, bringing a lingering paranoia that somehow, the direction of play will throw the entire game plan off-course.

It might cause distress for supporters, but does changing ends like this actually influence the players? The Athletic ran the numbers to find out…

Since the start of the 2016-17 season, seven Premier League away days have been tougher to crack than the rest, but surprisingly few visiting clubs have tried to unsettle the home support at those grounds early doors with an end change.

There have been 898 Premier League games played at Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United across the past seven seasons, but only 110 have seen the sides swapped. It should also be noted here that although the process is sponsored in the Premier League (say hello to the ‘The Hublot Coin Toss’), no specific data is collected on it — so instead we are using first-half directional data.

There might be very rare occasions, perhaps weather-related, when a home side choose to switch ends at the start of a game, but it seems safe to assume it’s an away team decision nearly all of the time.

Either way, Arsenal and City are the two clubs most immune to an end change, having suffered just nine each, while Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur — the latter at their new stadium only — have also been able to regularly maintain order at home.

On the flip side, one manager seems to believe in the disruptive psychological power of changing ends more than any other: Sean Dyche.

Not only were his Burnley the only side to turn around each of the seven teams above — doing so twice to Arsenal at the Emirates, three times to City at the Etihad, and four times to Manchester United at Old Trafford — but his apparent obsession for the pre-match mind-games has continued at Everton, where he has turned around 10 of the 15 teams he has faced away from home in the Premier League since joining them in January.

Aston Villa have faced his end-changing meddling twice this season alone, while a 5-1 win at Brighton and a tight 1-0 victory at West Ham United both followed his favourite party trick.

Dyche on manoeuvres at Brighton last season (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

His admirable commitment to the cause aside, it also begs the question: just how good is James Tarkowski at guessing which side of a coin will land face up?

Anyway, let’s see if there is a method to the madness.


Record when turned around: Six wins, two draws, one defeat

More than 600 days have passed since Arsenal were last made to shoot towards the North Bank at the Emirates in the first half of a Premier League game, when Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers took a leaf out of Dyche’s book and turned them around in March last year. A 2-0 defeat for Leicester followed, in a match where Alexandre Lacazette ended a nine-game personal goal drought from the penalty spot midway through the second half.

Two months earlier, however, Dyche’s Burnley (of course) ground out a goalless draw there after an end change, in just one example of his directional power play having the intended effect.

Otherwise, Arsenal have largely coped with the switch of direction, dispatching West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle (twice) and Stoke City with a minimum of fuss, while also beating visitors Burnley 5-0 in May 2018, an emphatic reminder that psychological strategy can only get you so far.

Their remaining slip-ups were both against Manchester United — a drab 0-0 draw in January 2021, and the famous 3-1 defeat three seasons before when David de Gea made a Premier League record 14 saves, many of which came in the second half right in front of the travelling United supporters.

Such a memorable display might have been used as a case study for changing ends, but a strong overall record against the switch has largely weakened the myth in Arsenal’s case.

Manchester City

Record when turned around: seven wins, two draws, zero defeats

The results look great — this is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, after all — but the Etihad Stadium provides some of the better examples of shakier-than-usual performances after an end-change has been enforced.

It has been an incredibly long time since any visiting side have dared — or remembered — to turn City around, with just one such case in the last 94 games, a period spanning over five years. But that team were Aston Villa on the final day of the 2021-22 Premier League season, who almost denied City their sixth Premier League title that afternoon, with Philippe Coutinho making it 2-0 to Steven Gerrard’s side with 20 minutes to go at the same end where Sergio Aguero secured their first a decade before.

The ensuing comeback — as the hosts scored three times in five minutes from the 76th to win 3-2 and pip Liverpool by a point — consigned a jittery first-half performance, in which City managed just one shot on target, to history.

Ilkay Gundogan about to score a title-winning goal at the… wrong end? (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Three of City’s wins while shooting the ‘wrong’ way came against Dyche’s Burnley, who could not work his magic in 5-0 and 3-0 defeats, although a 2-1 loss at the Etihad in January 2017 was a close one, with Gael Clichy scoring — to our knowledge — the only right-footed goal from outside the box of his career to grind out the result as City overcame a first-half red card for Fernandinho.

“I am so happy, more than you believe,” seethed Guardiola afterwards, head clearly still spinning from seeing Ben Mee score in front of the Family Stand in the second half.

There was also an uncomfortable win later that season over Leicester, when Riyad Mahrez slipped as he tucked away a second-half penalty to make it 2-2 against his next club, ultimately seeing the goal ruled out for a double touch.

On top of that, both Manchester United and Southampton have claimed draws at the Etihad after winning the toss, the latter seeing John Stones misplace a back pass for Nathan Redmond to open the scoring in October 2016.

So it is not often plain sailing when City are made to change.

Maybe visiting teams should try it a bit more often.


Record when turned around: nine wins, four draws, two defeats

Stamford Bridge has a strange recent history when it comes to end changes. After happening just once between December 2016 and May 2021, visiting sides have turned Chelsea around nine times since the start of last season, including twice already in three months under Mauricio Pochettino.

Interestingly, both have ended in Chelsea defeats, as Nottingham Forest and Brentford sealed famous victories in the second half, the latter for their third consecutive win away to their west London neighbours.

Bryan Mbeumo scores at the Matthew Harding end (Jacques Feeney/Offside via Getty Images)

Stretching into last season, Dyche’s Everton picked up a late point with an 89th-minute equaliser while shooting towards the Matthew Harding Stand, and Fulham popped down the road from Craven Cottage and ground out a 0-0 draw for their first point at Stamford Bridge since 2012.

In fact, the last four times Chelsea have attacked their favourite end in the first half of a game rather than the second, they have lost twice, drawn twice, and failed to score a goal in front of the Matthew Harding stand, despite 36 shots amounting to a 3.6 expected goals (xG) figure at that end of the pitch.

Other slip-ups include a 1-1 draw against Leicester, in addition to a same-score draw with… you guessed it, Burnley. Dyche’s mind games come for us all.

Like at the Etihad, maybe more visiting teams should test the waters in the coming weeks.

Tottenham Hotspur

Record when turned around: seven wins, one draw, one defeat

We have a shorter history to work with when it comes to Spurs but there is already an understandable preference when it comes to kick-off direction at their new home: second half, South Stand.

Seating 17,500 fans, it is the biggest single-tier stand in the UK, boasting a higher capacity on its own than the whole of three current Premier League stadiums. And it has already showcased its grandstand finish credentials, seeing three game-changing goals scored in its shadow after the 95th minute this season alone.

Again, visiting sides seem reluctant to mess with Tottenham at their stadium since it opened in April 2019, with no team having turned them around there since February last year. The two most recent occasions have seen results, however, as Raul Jimenez and Leandro Dendoncker starred in a shock 2-0 win for Wolverhampton Wanderers, just two months after Liverpool had snatched a 2-2 draw.

Other than that, Spurs have been near-flawless while shooting the wrong way, beating Manchester City, Arsenal, and — of course — Dyche’s Burnley along the way.


Record when turned around: 15 wins, seven draws, zero defeats

Bill Shankly once said that the Kop at Anfield can suck the ball into the back of the net. But can that happen in the first half?

Plenty of teams seem to have identified the end change as a chance to ruffle feathers when they play Liverpool away, but none of the last 22 visiting teams to have attacked the Kop in the second half have come away with a victory, with just seven — Brighton (twice), Manchester City, Tottenham, Burnley (of course), Chelsea and West Ham — nicking a point.

In all but three of those 22 games, Jurgen Klopp’s side have still scored in front of the Kop. Even in unusual circumstances, Shankly’s theory seems to hold up.

More generally, switching ends at Anfield tends to lead to entertaining contests for the neutrals, with an average of 3.6 goals scored in those games.

Brighton’s last two games there to see a turnaround have both seen them claim a point. The most recent finished 3-3 in Roberto De Zerbi’s very first game as their coach in October last year, with Leandro Trossard sealing a hat-trick in front of the Kop, 11 months after he had rifled home at the near post at that end to secure a 2-2 draw.

Trossard completes his 2022 hat-trick in front of the Kop (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There have been some unforgettable turned-around contests with Manchester City too, including a 2-2 draw in October 2021 that saw Mohamed Salah score a sublime solo goal at the Anfield Road end. The Egyptian also scored from 40 yards in that direction in a 4-3 win in January 2018, after Guardiola — a student of English football culture —  had dabbled in the Dychean art of the end change.

A 98th-minute Fabio Carvalho winner against Newcastle, a thunderous David Luiz free kick for Chelsea, and one of the greatest visiting goals the Kop has witnessed (by Victor Wanyama)… regardless of fixture, an Anfield end change throws everything into chaos, but it’s chaos that Liverpool seem able to control these days.

Manchester United

Record when turned around: 17 wins, five draws, two defeats

Old Trafford might not be the impenetrable fortress it was, but forcing Manchester United to attack the Stretford End in the first half has been in fashion recently, albeit it has met with mixed success.

It is a ploy Scott McTominay has almost single-handedly battled himself, rescuing a scarcely believable win against Brentford with two stoppage-time goals a couple of months ago, having also scored to help swat away another Dyche attempt in a 2-0 win over Everton last season.

The current campaign has seen two further end-change attempts against United — a 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, and a 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest, the latter a game where Steve Cooper’s side raced into a two-goal lead after just four minutes.

Things have not been straightforward for Erik ten Hag at home in his season and (almost) a half as their manager; the psychological games have been another challenge that United have sometimes struggled to overcome.

Strangely, teams seem to go through phases when turning United around.

The visit of West Ham in August 2017 started a four-game streak of switches at Old Trafford, after which it did not happen for over a year. Then, they were turned around four times in five games in the middle of 2018-19, a run ended by Dyche’s Burnley letting a two-goal lead slip in the final 10 minutes to draw 2-2.

It is hard to pick out patterns at Old Trafford, but with multiple close shaves after a change of direction this season, it might simply be a case of “Why not?” if the toss goes your way.

Newcastle United

Record when turned around: 11 wins, six draws, five defeats

And finally, to the north east, where there is a fascinating added variable at play.

Not only does St James’ Park house the iconic Gallowgate End, but it also has a slope leading down to that stand’s goal.

Geordie royalty Alan Shearer told his The Athletic colleague George Caulkin that Newcastle captains must “ALWAYS” opt to shoot downhill in the second halves of matches, while opposing sides who know about that incline will look to change ends wherever possible.

An ongoing bone of contention on our Pod On The Tyne podcast, here are the turnaround results under head coach Eddie Howe.

Despite their penchant for a fast start, Newcastle have only led at half-time in two of their eight end-change games during Howe’s two years in charge, including the unassailable 3-0 lead they took into the break against Palace earlier this season.

Flying out of the blocks, Howe’s side coasted through the second half, even as their opponents had that gravitational advantage, with four-goal cushion intact.

But the team’s overall record suggests they are not consistently able to make the most of shooting downhill in the first half — at least not as effectively as they tend to do when up against tired legs in the second.

Looking further back, Newcastle have twice been held by Dyche’s Burnley, and beaten by Wolves, Brighton, Everton and Leicester.

A colossal 1-0 win over Manchester United was the highlight of the Rafa Benitez era of end changes, as Matt Ritchie slammed home in front of the Leazes Stand in the second half in February 2018, but the numbers make things fairly clear.

Newcastle have a long-standing tradition of attacking the Gallowgate End in the second half, and for psychological and topographic reasons, it makes perfect sense.

(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

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