Have we cheapened the penalty kick?

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of penalties awarded in the Premier League this season. Many journalists and analysts have raised the issue, arguing that a combination of the revisions to the handball law and the introduction of VAR have caused this spike. While I agree that they have contributed to the increase, I believe the biggest factor is how referees have to interpret fouls in the box under the IFAB Laws of the Game. As our perception of what constitutes a foul gets broader, the standard for awarding a penalty becomes lower, culminating in an increase in the number of penalties awarded per season.

THE NUMBER OF PENALTIES GIVEN IS INCREASING

It is an undisputed fact that the number of penalties given in the Premier League this season has increased significantly. In 183 matches (up to 22nd January), 73 penalties have been given, which works out as an average of 0.4 per game, meaning we are on course for 152 penalties across the whole 380-game season. This represents a 66.7% increase on the 92 penalties given last season and a 42.9% increase on the Premier League record of 106 penalties given in both the 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons. Below is a chart showing the spike in penalties:

Credit: Anna Woodberry / Data taken from: https://www.myfootballfacts.com/premier-league/all-time-premier-league/premier-league-penalty-statistics/ (accurate to 22nd January – 183 matches played in 2020-21 season)

WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED?

Possible reasons:

  1. Revisions to the handball law?
  2. Introduction of VAR?
  3. The criteria for giving penalties under the IFAB Laws of the Game?

REVISIONS TO THE HANDBALL LAW

Dale Johnson, ESPN’s expert on regulations and VAR, has argued that “a small number of the penalties in England can be put down to the handball law in the early months, but it certainly doesn’t account for the number of penalties we now see”.

At the start of the 2020-21 season, Premier League referees were ordered to implement a strict interpretation of the handball laws, which led to a spate of generous handball decisions. These included Eric Dier’s against Newcastle, Joel Ward’s against Everton and Victor Lindelof’s against Crystal Palace. However, since the Premier League decided to relax this strict interpretation at the end of September, the average of penalties per game this season has reduced from 0.46 to 0.4, indicating that while revisions to the handball law have played some part in the increase, as Dale rightly points out, this alone cannot explain the increase.

INTRODUCTION OF VAR

Another possible factor is the introduction of VAR, which has led to nine more penalties awarded in the Premier League this season (18 given and 9 rescinded). Although it is worth pointing out that five of those were due to the strict interpretation of handball. This suggests that VAR is having a minimal impact on the increase of penalties.

However, analysis into the role of VAR has only focused on its direct impact: the number of penalties it has awarded or rescinded. Its mere existence also provides an indirect impact – a safety net for referees. The on-field referee can be less concerned about giving “howlers” because VAR is there to correct “clear and obvious” errors, such as (1) overturning a decision if there is NO contact and the referee thought there was; and (2) overturning a decision if there IS contact and the referee thought there was not. To investigate the indirect impact of VAR, we would need to examine whether the on-field referees are giving more penalties than they were in previous seasons. If they are, it would support the argument that the introduction of VAR had indirectly led to the increase in penalties by creating an environment where referees feel more confident awarding penalties. But is this the only reason that could explain the rise?

DEFINITION OF PENALTY KICK OFFENCES IN THE IFAB LAWS OF THE GAME

On any given matchday you will hear pundits, players and fans complaining that the game has gone “soft”. Nowadays, it seems that if a player goes down with minimal contact, they have a good chance of winning a penalty. This is supported in the data. The number of penalties had increased from an average of 0.18 during the first 14 years of the Premier League to 0.25 during the second 14 years of the Premier League, equalling a 38.9% increase. This indicates that there has been a general trend towards more penalties given even before the dramatic increase this season. Could this be due to changing attitudes towards what constitutes a foul?

Credit: Anna Woodberry / Data taken from: https://www.myfootballfacts.com/premier-league/all-time-premier-league/premier-league-penalty-statistics/ (accurate to 17th January – 177 matches played in 2020-21 season)

I believe an important factor that has received barely any mention from pundits and journalists is how penalty kick offences are defined in the IFAB Laws of the Game. Under their interpretation, “a penalty kick is awarded if a player commits a direct free kick offence inside their penalty area or off the field as part of play as outlined in Laws 12 and 13”. A direct free kick offence is when “a player commits any of the following offences against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless [a foul that requires no further disciplinary action], reckless [a yellow card offence] or using excessive force [a red card offence]:

  • Charges
  • Jumps at
  • Kicks or attempts to kick
  • Pushes
  • Strikes or attempts to strike (including head-butt)
  • Tackles or challenges
  • Trips or attempts to trip

This means that any incident that occurs in the box, which would be given as a foul outside of the box, is a justifiable penalty under the Laws of the Game. This applies even for the lowest level of fouls where a direct free kick is given but it does not warrant a yellow or a red card, deemed “careless” play – “when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution”. The penalty given against Andy Robertson for Brighton would fall under this category. This means the criteria for awarding a penalty is now extremely wide.

WHY IS THIS NOW A PROBLEM?

Earlier I argued that the introduction of VAR has indirectly led to the increase in penalties as it has created an environment for on-field referees to feel more confident about giving penalties. This is especially true for penalties people would argue are “soft” – ones that fit that careless category and result in a foul but no further disciplinary action. Thus, referees now give more “soft” penalties for two reasons: (1) under the Laws of the Game it is a legitimate decision – whether we agree or not; and (2) because they now know VAR will correct the few occasions they do get it wrong.

What we are left with then are more penalties being awarded for minimal contact and when the referee does give it, VAR cannot overturn the on-field decision unless they show that (1) there was NO contact when the referee thought there was; or (2) that the offender TOUCHED the ball when the referee thought they had not. So, although VAR gets a lot of criticism when “soft” penalties are awarded (or not), it is actually the on-field referee’s interpretation that has the biggest influence on a decision standing or being overturn, and the majority of the time they are simply implementing what the Laws of the Game wants them to do.

ARE THE LAWS OF THE GAME TOO GENEROUS?

What the introduction of VAR has done then is highlight how broad the standard for awarding a penalty is. Any incident that occurs in the box, which would be given as a foul outside of the box, is a justifiable penalty under the IFAB Laws of the Game. Therefore, even if VAR was scrapped – which many have called for – on-field referees should still be awarding the penalties they are because they are deemed direct free kick offences. Therefore, the question we should be asking ourselves is do we want THAT many penalties given per season?

My problem with penalties is that they basically give the attacking team a goal due to their high conversion rate. 83.1% of penalties have been scored this season (just over 4 in 5). It is no wonder teams and players are more likely to go down in the box if it means they have a direct shot at goal with only the goalkeeper to beat. Given the reward for winning a penalty is so high, shouldn’t the criteria for winning a penalty also be higher? Having a higher standard for awarding a penalty, such as for clear goal-scoring opportunities or yellow- and red-card offences, could reduce the incentive for attackers to go down easily when minimal contact is made. Instead, indirect free kicks could be given in the box for the lowest category of fouls, those deemed “careless” under the Laws of the Game. These changes would involve a radical rewording of how penalties are defined in the Laws of the Game, but I believe it would be a worthwhile one to halt the growing trend towards more penalties.

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