By Andrew Beasley (with additional research by Daniel Rhodes)
(This is the start of week 2 of our Free Fortnight series, which will become a quarterly feature. Click on the link for an updated list of the articles that are not paywalled. It follows on from Paul Tomkins’ piece yesterday: Six Years Of Penalty Nonsense – How Liverpool’s Penalties Now Vanish Into Thin Air.)
Penalties are weird, aren’t they? Not the idea of them, but the way they seem to be randomly distributed. Liverpool won the league with the second highest points total ever and got five spot kicks, while Manchester United finished third with the lowest points tally for that position since 1997/98, and set a new Premier League record with 14. Even Watford, relegated with the third fewest goals scored in the division, had eight penalties.
And this isn’t just a Liverpool thing either. Fourteen months earlier, Manchester City pipped the Reds to the title despite only being awarded four pens, the same number as Cardiff City got. Who knew Pep Guardiola and Neil Warnock had anything in common?
Of course, some Liverpool supporters get disgruntled if United are awarded so much as a throw in, never mind a record busting number of penalties. But if you ask them in the cold light of day, most would concede that the majority of spot kicks which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were awarded were justified.
So here at TTT we thought it was worth reviewing a selection of the Reds’ penalty claims from this season to see if they were hard done by or not. After all, it can’t be sour grapes when you’ve battered the rest of the league into submission, can it?
Before we get to that, time for a little context. While it’s impossible to say definitively how many penalties a team should win, it stands to reason that the more time they spend in the opposition box, the more times the referee should be pointing to the spot in their favour.
Across the last nine seasons, a Premier League penalty was awarded on average for every 178 touches a team has in the penalty area. In that period, Liverpool have won 55, and if they were given one for every 178 penalty box touches they’d had, they’d have been awarded… 55.
So if we were to implement a hugely simplistic expected penalties model based on the time spent in the box, the Reds have been on par since Kenny Dalglish’s sole full campaign back at the helm. Here’s the club’s record by season.
It’s interesting to break it down further for the managers in this era. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool average just one penalty box touch every two matches more than Brendan Rodgers’ Reds did, but have won far fewer spot kicks on a pro rata basis.
The rounding errors don’t add up, but you get the idea. Indeed, Rodgers’ title challenging side sneaks into the Premier League’s top 10 teams from the last nine seasons for fewest box touches per penalty. Oh, and look who’s at the top.
The problem is not necessarily that United won too many this season, but rather that the other teams have been winning too few. Let’s bring in Peter Walton to see what he thinks.
Not really. He’d almost certainly agree with the on field officials. But it’s pointless to try to debate how many penalties Liverpool should’ve won in 2019/20 without acknowledging the existing of a different ref locked away in a cupboard somewhere.
The Video Assistant Referee amended 27 penalty decisions across the course of the season, giving 20 with one hand but cancelling seven with the other. Without that net gain of 13 spot kicks, there would have been the fewest awarded overall since 2005/06.
Which can’t help but make one wonder: were on-field referees, either consciously or subconsciously, not giving penalties on the assumption that the VAR would sort things out for them? Perhaps it’s just random variation equalling out; notice how there were lots of penalties in 2016/17 and 2018/19, but far fewer in the seasons which directly followed them. On average, the last four years even out pretty neatly (if we ignore VAR’s input for the sake of argument).
Let’s take a look at which teams gained or lost the most when it came to penalty overturns implemented by the VAR last season.
Liverpool were one of only five teams – two of whom were relegated – who did not get a penalty awarded to them by VAR, and two of that quintet did at least benefit by having a penalty which was given against them cancelled following review. But neither did VAR give anything which was to the Reds’ detriment; Liverpool were the only club who were not impacted at all by Stockley Park.
Except, of course, that they were. Failure to award a cast iron, stone wall, solid gold, gift wrapped, mixed metaphor penalty when one should’ve been given is a sizeable impact. And that must’ve happened quite a few times, right?
Let’s see. To get the sample of incidents for this article, I went through all 38 match threads on TTT, searching for mentions of penalties. By some strange quirk of fate, I found 38 penalty claims from the comments.
But let’s be clear. These incidents were viewed and then commented on by supporters in the heat of the moment (just as fans in the stadium shout “penalty!”). They were never all going to be given as penalties, it’s just not realistic, and in fact they probably weren’t even all legitimate claims.
Daniel Rhodes was in charge of tracking down the footage, and he couldn’t find penalty shouts for every mention that I found, which is odd but probably the reality of using adrenaline fuelled partisan supporters as your research base. Though it’s worth noting that three of the six games Liverpool failed to win did not feature any penalty claims, so it wasn’t simply a case of appealing through desperation.
Anyway, we have a decent assortment of clips to go through. I’ve tried to be as neutral as I can with these, and many of you will probably think I’ve gone too far the other way in my assessments. It should make for an interesting debate in the comments section, for the selection of penalty claims which I have grouped into four vaguely linked sets.
Liverpool were awarded one penalty for handball last season, with Leicester’s Çağlar Söyüncü penalised for handling a Trent Alexander-Arnold corner at the King Power Stadium. Before we view five further claims from 2019/20, here’s a reminder of the handball law, which was amended in June 2019.
And it’s important to consider the replays and not just your gut instinct where we have the footage, as that is what the VAR will have been doing.
The only one which I would say is a penalty is the final one, from the home win over Crystal Palace. I think the key line from the law regarding when it is not a handball is:
“the arm or hand is close to their body and “has not made their body unnaturally bigger””
I think that applies to the other clips – the players do have their arms at their sides, even if they are sticking out slightly at times – but Gary Cahill has blocked the ball with his arm at shoulder height. There’s also a case for the Aston Villa one to be given, while the other three are non-starters for me, Clive.
Blocking or holding by defender, open play
David Luiz was convicted for this crime, as you can see from the image at the top of the page. Here are some instances which weren’t given though, so see what you think.
As with the handballs, there’s only one which I’m certain should be a penalty. Roberto Firmino was hauled down when in front of an open Anfield Road end goal against Southampton, yet nothing was given. Liverpool should probably have conceded a penalty at the same end in the second half but didn’t; a subconscious evening up of the score? Regardless of that, holding an opponent is a direct free-kick (so penalty in the box) offence, so Firmino clearly earned a spot kick.
Regarding the other clips, the United one is a non-starter as the holding starts outside the box, (and the claims for handball seem to come off the point of the shoulder), and the Wolves one is hard to see from the available footage. For the two against Chelsea, Mohamed Salah is blocked off, but it’s hard to think of examples of penalties being awarded for that. However, the laws of the game state a direct free-kick is awarded if a player “impedes an opponent with contact”, and that is what appears to happen. At the very least there should have been an indirect free-kick for obstruction.
Blocking or holding by defender, set pieces
I’m going to be honest before you even see the clips: these should probably all be penalties. And this is the one category in which Liverpool were not awarded a spot kick all season.
It would be easy to think “if they gave penalties for that then there’d be ten every game” but that doesn’t mean they’re not fouls. Jamie Carragher mentions in commentary he can’t criticise Cahill for something he himself did at every corner, and we can all recall holding our breath for every opposition set piece when Martin”grappling” Skrtel was on the warpath.
But they’re fouls, pure and simple, and should be punished as such. The last Premier League penalty retaken for encroachment following a VAR review took place in December; if you start to penalise players for something, the evidence suggests they learn not to do it again because it isn’t worth the risk.
Having watched them back again after my initial assessment, I’d say the Sheffield United example is one where the contact isn’t huge and you’ll never get every claim you make. That’s a fact of life, be it for penalties or home insurance.
But the others all look like certain fouls. The Joël Matip clip from the Newcastle match is perhaps the best example, and one which Michael Owen and Ian Wright, on separate broadcasts, both said should’ve been a penalty. The Bournemouth claim is interesting too, as they appear to be checking for a foul on Wijnaldum when the greater offence was committed in the background, with two players combining to push Fabinho over.
Foul by a defender
This was the one area where Liverpool had some success. Sadio Mané was kicked by Marc Albrighton of Leicester and Serge Aurier of Tottenham, before Divock Origi was impeded by Issa Diop at the London Stadium.
However, the patrons of The Tomkins Times would’ve given their side many more, at least if their comments at the time are to be believed. See what you think.
This is the section I had the most trouble with. Andy Robertson against Burnley? Penalty all day long, even if the defender got the ball. It’s a foul.
But the others? Less clear, and some shouldn’t have even been included but I found them interesting examples of what fans will claim for in the heat of the moment. Our old friend Peter Walton reportedly said the Mané example at Villa Park should have been given, but I can’t help thinking the way he fell did him no favours. It shouldn’t matter in the least, yet it absolutely seems to.
So what do we think then? While trying my best to remain unbiased, I’d have probably given Liverpool an extra eight penalties (so, more than doubling the five they did get), which would’ve taken them to one behind United in the chart for 2019/20. There were certainly other borderline cases, but every team can play the “what if” game; we’re not looking for favouritism, just a fair shake, after all.
And researching this article has made me realise a couple of things:
- Only one of the penalty claims – Mané at Bramall Lane – was mentioned in the corresponding match report on the BBC website. This is not to accuse the national broadcaster of bias, but it is worth considering why the majority of the claims were not deemed blatant enough to warrant a mention. Which leads me to:
- When you picture a penalty being given, what do you see? Some obvious examples include a player running into the box at full pace and getting clipped, or a man being taken out by a foolish goalkeeper who has no realistic chance of winning the ball. And how many of those did you see in the above videos? Not many. Salah’s tricky footwork simply doesn’t seem as potent from a penalty perspective.
None of which is to say Liverpool shouldn’t have been given more spot kicks. But their style of play, combined with the way opposing teams choose to defend against them, seems to make them less likely to be given a penalty. It probably makes them more likely to score than if they simply barrelled into the area at speed hoping for contact does though. It’s an interesting issue to ponder anyway.
But what do I know? You probably thought they were all penalties or none were, depending on who you support.
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