Why are there so many penalties in the Premier League this season?

It’s penalties galore in the Premier League this season. We’re into matchday 17 of the 2020/21 campaign and, on average, we’re seeing four penalties every weekend in the English top flight. Prior to this, the highest was 2.76 during 2016/17. Previously, seeing multiple penalty awards in a single match was a rarity, yet it’s happened on multiple occasions this term. 

Many cite VAR as the reason for the increase. Close calls now get a second viewing and dubious decisions get micro analysed for what feels like an eternity. However, there are other possible reasons for the rise. 

In general, there seem to be more counterattacking opportunities. 

Some teams have adopted more of a possession-based approach and this results in them leaving spaces in behind their defence when the ball is lost. Everton, for example, average 100 more passes under Carlo Ancelotti than they did under Marco Silva. 

Aston Villa averaged a little more than ten shots per 90 last season, this time around they’re ranked first in the Premier League with 15.47 shots. They’re also seeing over half of the possession in a match now, 53% to be exact, whereas last season that figure was 46%. The difference may appear to be minimal, but over an entire season, it’s not insignificant. 

Other teams, such as Southampton, are looking to press higher up the pitch and if they get that wrong, they’re exposed. 

The Saints beat Liverpool recently, going toe-to-toe with the champions in a way few teams are able to. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s 4-2-2-2 shape, which morphs into a 2-4-4 shape when they’re attacking, is risky. Yet the risk has been rewarded this season and they find themselves challenging for the top four. 

Rivalling them for the passes per defensive action (PPDA) crown are Leeds United.

Their game is built on taking chances and committing men forward and Marcelo Bielsa isn’t likely going to change it anytime soon. It does, however, leave them exposed to potential counterattacks. 

You also need to factor in the impact Covid has had on the scheduling. More games in a shorter period of time leads to fatigue. This then leads to sloppiness, both in and out of possession.

Combined, it’s the perfect storm for those who play on the break. Especially those who have players deemed to be superior.

This is why those who play that sort of way top the lists for penalties won and expected goals from counterattacks. Since the start of 2019/20, Manchester United have been awarded 20 penalties. They also rank in the top five for xG from counterattacks. 

Leicester City rank first for xG from counterattacks and second for penalties awarded, with ten of their 17 coming this season. 

Both teams see more of the ball in their games but less when compared to Liverpool and Manchester City. The latter two have a rehearsed, almost robotic style, whereas the Foxes and the Red Devils rely on individuals. It makes them more unpredictable and that is why they’re doing so well in these particular metrics. The quicker the ball is moved forward, the more stretched the opposition are. This leads to clumsiness and if in the area, it’s a penalty.

Man United and Leicester have found a way to be the better team, yet still be able to break with regularity.

A graphic showing penalties and touches in the opposition box in the Premier League.

It used to be that the more time spent in the opposition’s penalty area, the more likely a team was to shoot or earn a penalty. That, to an extent, is still true, as you can see above.

There’s a general pattern with two outliers. They happen to be two of the better sides in the Premier League who play, primarily, on the break and that isn’t a coincidence. Due to having better players at their disposal, they’re more dangerous than others who play that sort of style.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Toolbox.

If you’d like to learn more about our products or services, and how they might be able to help you, don’t hesitate to get in touch.