In football, winning a penalty kick is a big step towards winning a match. Around 75% of penalties are successful. Teams that are awarded them go on to win or draw in more than 80% of matches, according to an analysis of World Cup and European Championship matches published in 2015. In the Premier League, the top tier of English football, penalties are on the rise. The highest number awarded in a season is 106, in 2009-10; this tally was matched in 2016-17. It is sure to be surpassed in 2020-21 which, though only halfway through, has already notched up 71 spot-kicks.
There are three reasons for the increase. First, the rules that most often result in penalties are being more strictly enforced. Tackling from behind was outlawed in the 1990s. In 2019 the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which oversees the rules of the game, ruled that touching the ball with an arm or hand, even if accidentally, is a foul. Second, the introduction of the video-assistant referee (VAR), which allows on-field referees to consult replays of incidents, has also helped officials spot penalty-worthy offences. Third, cultural perceptions have changed. The act of “diving”—falling to the ground to create the appearance of a foul—was once almost universally frowned on. Today TV pundits routinely question players who choose to stay on their feet after getting roughed up, when they could hit the deck and earn a free-kick or penalty instead. Persuading referees to award fouls for marginal decisions has become an art in itself. Marcus Rashford, a striker at Manchester United, recently spoke of how José Mourinho, a former manager of the club, taught his players how to become more “savvy” in winning penalties.
More teams may catch on to the benefits of such tactics. In the Premier League’s 28 years, 11 teams have been awarded more than ten penalties in a season; eight of these occurrences have come in the past ten seasons. So far this year, Leicester City are winning penalties at a rate of one every two games. In many ways, the team’s strategy—which uses lots of through-balls to strikers that can cause goalkeepers to concede penalties—resembles that of Crystal Palace in the mid-2000s and Leicester ten years later, two teams which rank among the sport’s most prolific winners of penalties.
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