VAR, penalties and empty stadia

Is it easier to convert penalties without fans watching?

There have been two huge changes to football as we know it in recent years.

The first has been the introduction of video assistant referees, VAR, to ‘help’ referees with big decisions. More recently, since the Covid-19 global pandemic, matches have been played in empty stadia.

I want to explore the impact of these two factors on penalty-kicks. One of the reasons for starting this newsletter has been the increase in penalties awarded every week. So I am asking two questions today: are there more penalties because of VAR? And are penalty conversion rates different in empty stadia?

VAR and penalty awards

Thanks to the lovely people at Opta Sports, I thought we might be able to actually find out. The table below shows the number of penalties awarded per game in five of Europe’s top leagues and how they compare (these numbers are up to Jan 12; and in future editions, I promise to expand the data-set):

The first thing we can see is that in almost all the leagues, the numbers of penalties has had a major increase this season. In the Premier League and the Bundesliga, penalty awards have leaped from 0.24 per game to 0.41; in France, 0.37 to 0.47 and Spain, slightly up from 0.39 to 0.41. The exception is in Italy, where they changed the handball rule after 57 penalties (out of 187) were awarded for handball offences last season.

“Some penalties were too soft,” said Italian referees’ boss Nicola Rizzoli, as reported by Football Italia. “We can’t take away the instinct of a defender’s movements…. The objective is allowing defenders to play football without having their arms clamped to their side like penguins. I hope there will be fewer penalties this season, so that we interpret contact more accurately. At the same time, I hope players realise that not every contact equals a penalty.”

Still, the increase in penalty numbers is clear. The obvious conclusion to draw is that’s down to VAR. Well, not necessarily, according to Dale Johnson, ESPN editor and VAR expert. The numbers is some leagues is hard to access, but Dale told me that VAR has led to only two more penalties in Germany (five given and three rescinded).

The Premier League numbers are higher, with nine more penalties awarded (18 given and nine rescinded), although five of those came back in September during a spate of generous handball decisions: remember Eric Dier against Newcastle, Joel Ward against Everton, and Victor Lindelof against Crystal Palace.

“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,” Dale says. “Whatever the reason, it certainly isn't down to VAR.”

I recommend Dale’s forensic piece on how VAR has affected every Premier League team this season. (TLDR: We all think our team is being robbed, but it turns out Liverpool are five goals short and Everton three goals up thanks to VAR.) And it turns out that maybe VAR is not the reason for all these extra penalties after all.

Conversion rates in empty stadia

In the first Premier League match played behind closed doors because of the Covid-19 global pandemic, back in June 2020, Bruno Fernandes scored a late penalty. He was asked if it was easier to take the penalty without fans there to watch him. “I like the pressure,” he said. “With the crowd, it would be better.”

Augsburg’s Florian Niederlechner would agree. In the same month, he blamed the empty stadium for his penalty miss against Cologne. “Usually, I hit it to the right corner but I heard a comment [from an opponent] because of those damn ghost games,” he explained, as reported by ESPN. "He shouted to the keeper to remember where I always aim at. And that led to me changing my mind. That was a huge mistake. I let myself be influenced by it.” His penalty was saved.

I explored the affect of crowd sizes on penalties in my book, and found that the home teams’ conversion records were highest in front of the largest crowds (possibly because the home teams had big crowds and therefore better players) and that away teams’ conversion dropped in front of big crowds. The current situation, with zero fans in stadia, allows us to come at this from a different angle.

The table below from Opta Sports shows current conversion rates across the leagues:

Again, the numbers are pretty convincing: in four of the leagues, penalty conversion rates this season are higher than previous seasons – particularly in France, where the scoring rate has increased by 10 per cent.

It turns out that Fernandes and Niederlechner might be in the minority. These numbers suggest that taking penalties in empty stadia actually improves penalty conversion rates (although penalty-takers in Spain might be missing the fans: it’s only in La Liga where the rate has dropped).

For some reason, this reminded me of a story from Brazil last August, when the Palmeiras stadium DJ Marcos Costi blasted out some music to distract their opponents, Corinthians, during a penalty shoot-out. “I cranked up the volume to try to disturb them somehow," he said, as reported by France24. Did it work? Well, Palmeiras won the shoot-out 4-3.

Pen pals

This is the bit where I ask you to send me your thoughts and ideas about the above or anything else penalty-related that you want to get off your chest. Eddie has asked about conversion rates in women’s football, SpooksDad about rebound conversion rates and Erik about what numbers the best penalty-takers should kick in a shoot-out. Thank you, I will explore all of these in future newsletters!

I am keen to expand the reach of this newsletter to focus on penalties outside of Europe and the big leagues, so feel free to suggest future ideas to explore or simply share your penalty stories, whether they are glorious or traumatic. We’re all pen pals here!

Thanks also to Sergio, for sending me a video of Tondela centre-back Enzo Martinez slipping just at the point of contact for his penalty against Boavista last weekend. This is the moment of double-contact:

As Martinez’s standing foot hit the ball before his striking foot, it was deemed as a double-touch: the penalty was ruled out, and an indirect free-kick given to the defending team. It was an Enzo no-no - and another reminder that VAR takes no prisoners!

Feel free to comment below or fire over any thoughts or further questions to me at @benlyt.

If you enjoyed this post please help spread the word about Twelve Yards. And if you’re new to this community, check out last week’s analysis of Barcelona’s first penalty shoot-out success for 23 years. Thank you!

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