***Emergency Penalty Special***
For some, Sunday’s Premier League action was a bridge too far. Penalties, once a rare treat enjoyed by connoisseurs, are now being produced for the mass market, thousands of them rolling off a conveyer belt as stone-faced observers murmur “the game is gone”. But, really, is that an accurate reflection of what is actually happening? There’s only one way to decide this, VAR for words: an FAQ.
Q: There are more penalties, right? Please tell me I’m not imagining that…
A: Oh yeah, there are a lot more penalties. Although let’s not forget that we had two games on Monday and there was barely even a sniff of one. Even so, with 20 penalties in 28 games so far this season, we’re on track for 271 in the campaign as a whole, which, as discussed here last week would shatter the previous Premier League record of 112. At the end of the three-penalty Manchester City v. Leicester game on Sunday the projected season total was over 300 so while it’s going to fluctuate a fair bit over the next few matchweeks, 112 looks very beatable.
Q: And they’re all for handball, yeah?
A: No, but also yes. At this stage in the Premier League last season there hadn’t been a single penalty awarded for handball, and only eight awarded overall, whereas in 2020/21 30% of the spot-kicks awarded have been for handling offences.
On the other hand, 21% of the penalties in the Premier League last season were given for handball, and that’s a campaign in which a less stringent interpretation of the rule was followed. So that may mean that there could be an even higher rate of handball decisions in the coming weeks, or maybe the nature of some of the decisions so far (eg, the Eric Dier offence against Newcastle) has created a kind of footballing moral panic and a partial reversal.
Q: So this switch in interpretation this season to match other leagues… does that mean it was this extreme there last year?
A: Depends where you look. Let’s take Italy and Spain, which tend to have stricter/more energetic refereeing than some other leagues. Serie A had a monstrous 187 penalties in 2019/20, of which 30% were for handball, and it feels very much like this could be the trajectory the Premier League is currently on for 2020/21.
La Liga had “only” 149 penalties but a higher proportion of them were for handball (32%). Compare that to the Bundesliga which had 73 penalties (from fewer games of course) with a handball rate of 25%. This season there hasn’t even been a penalty given for handball in the Bundesliga, and all the other divisions trail the Premier League so far. Footballers assimilate new interpretations pretty quickly if it has a direct effect on the outcome of matches and their reputation: remember how VAR cracked down on grappling at corners and free-kicks during the 2018 World Cup? The group stage was awash with penalties, setting a tournament record before the first round had concluded, but by the knockout games players had learnt and adapted and the number of penalties fell considerably.
Q: Rule changes are killing the game, aren’t they?
A: Are they though? When the backpass law came into effect in 1992, goals per game increased exponentially, and people said it would kill defending. It did in a way, but the sort of bleak play where defenders would pass between themselves and then back to the goalkeeper when an attacker moved towards them. Similarly, when the offside law was significantly adjusted in 1925 there was a dramatic increase in goals in the English top-flight, from 2.58 per game in 1924/25 to 3.69 in 1925/26. Congratulations to Huddersfield Town who managed to win the division in both seasons, showing an excellent ability to adapt, but there’s also no doubt that had social media been around in the 20s it would have been full of complaints such as “sir, this is just not football” along with #announceDixieDean.
Q: So… you’re not a ‘RIP Football 1863-2020’ man then?
A: Football revels in its long history and rightly so, but it’s not one long unbroken era. In reality, it’s almost like four or five different sports welded together at different points. Who remembers to take into account that there were no penalties until 1891 (meaning that 100% of Preston’s league titles came before they existed), or that goalkeepers could handle up to the halfway line until 1912, or that players could be offside in their own half (including their own penalty area) until 1907?
The lack of goal-line technology relegated Bolton instead of Everton in the 1990s, the existence of goal-line technology probably gave the league title to Manchester City instead of Liverpool in 2018/19. Maybe the ultra-strict interpretation of handballs will be loosened in the coming weeks, maybe it won’t, but whatever remains is still football, it’s still the chase of that visceral sound of the ball hitting the back of the net, just as it has been since the very beginning. Or at least since 1891 when goal nets were introduced. “Stop messing around with our game Victorian net enthusiasts, you’re killing the sport”.
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