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October 2020
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Penalties: are they fairly distributed among the clubs or is there a bias?

By Tony Attwood

As a prelude to this season we have been looking at a few strange issues that arose last season, and have been trying to make sense of the resultant statistics.

Following this, the suggestion has been made that one area we’ve not touch on at all is penalties, with a view to seeing who got the most for and against.

The issue of penalties gained obviously relates to the amount of attacking a team does.  A team that is always attacking is likely to get more penalties; a team that is always defending is likely to give away more penalties.  So very crudely the number of penalties ought to relate to the number of goals scored.

There is also the issue of home and away bias.  We know from earlier statistics discussed this past summer that referees are biased by the crowd, and serious scientific research in this field has proven the level of this bias once and for all.  So it is worth adding this dimension into the penalty analysis.

We also have the research already undertaken on the special case of Leicester, whose level of tackling was way above that of other teams, while their punishment in terms of free kicks and yellow cards against them was much lower than might be expected… until the issue started being highlighted.  At which point the figures changed dramatically.

You’ll also know if you have been following us through this series that the allegation made by a Leicester supporter that this was due to a player’s injury has been shown to be untrue.  The sudden and dramatic change in Leicester’s fortunes did not in the least coincide with a change to the squad.

So the first point of interest was Leicester, and yes, they got ten penalties against them – more than any other club last season.   Now the figures we revealed before for the number of tackles they committed last season would suggest we might expect a large number of penalties against them.  The number of yellow cards they got however suggests that referees were exceptionally lenient with them – which would lead us to expect fewer penalties.

In fact that turn around in fortunes seems to be reflected here again – they got ten penalties against them.  More than any other team.   So a very low number of yellow cards against them, a very high number of penalties against them.  Again and incredibly odd set of figures for Leicester.

This table records penalties given to a team (“for”) and those it conceded (against), and looks at whether they got the penalties they were awarded at home or away.

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Club Goals Pens For Pens Against Pens For Home Pens For Away
Manchester United 66 14 3 7 7
Manchester City 102 11 3 5 6
Watford 36 8 9 7 1
Leicester City 67 7 10 3 4
Chelsea 69 7 2 5 2
Southampton 51 5 4 2 3
Liverpool 85 5 1 3 2
AFC Bournemouth 40 4 6 1 3
West Ham United 49 4 6 1 3
Wolverhampton Wanderers 51 4 3 3 1
Arsenal 56 3 8 2 1
Tottenham Hotspur 61 3 7 0 3
Aston Villa 41 3 5 1 2
Burnley 43 3 5 2 1
Crystal Palace 31 3 1 1 2
Norwich City 26 2 7 1 1
Brighton & Hove Albion 39 2 2 1 1
Everton 44 1 4 1 0
Sheffield United 39 1 3 1 0
Newcastle United 38 1 2 0 1
Totals 47 44

The first thing to notice is the incredible range of penalties given: 15% of all penalties in the season were given in favour of Manchester United.  That is more than Burnley, Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Everton, Sheffield United, and Newcastle added together!

The fact that Manchester United get so many, and the fact that they are spread equally between home and away matches would suggest that either they have super fast forwards, and the only way to stop them is to bring them down, or else they have a policy of playing for penalties all the time in every game.

Watford’s penalties are odd.  Nine percent of all penalties were awarded in their favour – and of the eight penalties involved seven were at home and only one away.  That suggests an extraordinary bias, with players falling over in the area all the time at Vicarage Road and the referees falling for the ploy.

And when we add in the fact that Watford only scored 36 goals all season that also suggests that upon reaching the penalty area they sometimes simply fell over.

But of course all such figures can be explained away – Watford might well have had a policy of simply hardly bothering to reach the opposition penalty area away from home, for example.  But it is suggestive that something odd might have been happening.

Tottenham did not get any penalties at home, which is odd for a team challenging in the top six.  But having swapped grounds maybe they got confused or maybe the crowd has less influence on the referee now, than might have been the case in the old more compact stadium.

But now here is something strange.  Man U, Leicester and Chelsea all scored a similar number of goals, suggesting a similar desire to go forward.  But Man U got twice as many penalties as Leicester and Chelsea each got.  That suggests a deliberate tactic of going down.  Or a conspiracy by other clubs to tackle Man U in the area – but that seems unlikely.

Arsenal got three penalties all season, two at home, one away.  But we conceded eight penalties.  Only Watford and Leicester conceded more.  Leicester’s approach was probably because of their sudden change of tactics once publicity had been given to their previous ploy of an incredibly high level of tackling without conceding even a free kick.  With their prime tactic gone they seemingly resorted to more desperate measures.  Watford as we have seen based survival on getting penalties at home… away they got caught for their “desperate measures”.

It would be nice to think referees might note all this and would watch Manchester United and Watford next season in terms of their penalty appeals.  I am not sure they will, but the refereeing approach to Leicester after the details of their statistics for tackles and the lack of yellow cards that followed were revealed, gives me hope that we might be having a spot of influence after all.

We now have all the evidence we need from the refereeing without crowds data to show that referees are influenced by the crowds, and are not in the 98%+ level of perfection PGMO claims.  And the Leicester figures this past season suggest maybe someone in the PGMO bunkers is actually saying, “what out guys, we’ve been rumbled on this one.”

It would be nice to think they’ll now clean up their act, but I am not holding my breath for a microsecond.

1 comment to Penalties: are they fairly distributed among the clubs or is there a bias?

  • Laos Gooner

    If VAR were working properly how much different would it have been? I am sure that would change what seems to be some very strange statistics in this case. That said if we had real referees I am sure the statistics would have been very different.

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