A Brief Analysis of Penalties in the Premier League

Michael Cong

Soccer is a dynamic yet low-scoring sport – opportunities don’t come along very often, and as such teams seek to create and finish as many chances as they can. Out of all types of chances and plays – free kicks, crosses, long shots, breakaways, just to name a few- none of them can compare to the penalty kick in terms of how favorable it is for the shooter. In fact, according to data collected by Opta, a sports analytics company, a penalty is the only type of chance in which the attacker has a conversion rate of more than 50%; statistically, the goalkeeper has the upper hand in every other scenario, including one on ones.

A penalty is given to the attacking team, at the discretion of the referee, when one of their players is fouled by the opposition inside the 18-yard box. The ball is then placed down on a marked spot 12 yards from the goal line, usually to be taken by a designated player. It’s an extremely nerve-racking affair for sure. The goalkeeper would try to play mind games to the best of his abilities; but the same can be said of his adversary, as he’d look to outsmart the keeper, and send him flying the wrong way. There is massive pressure and responsibility placed  on the shoulders of both parties. If the keeper succeeds, he is hailed as a hero: on the other hand, the taker will hang his head in shame – and the miss would be talked about for weeks, even years if he is particularly unfortunate.

The English Premier League is probably the most high-profile soccer league in the world, and in the 26 full seasons played out since its foundation in 1992/93, many a penalty has been given – 2016, to be exact. Some of them were all but inconsequential considering the grand scheme of things; however, some others may well have been the equalizer or even the goal that grabbed all three points for the beneficiary team.

A total of 2016 penalties over the course of 26 seasons averages out to about 77.5 per season. 83.43% of those penalties were scored, (a stark contrast to the 75% conversion rate in World Cup shootouts) 12.60% saved by the goalkeeper, and the remaining 3.97% missed. Meanwhile, 62.75% of the penalties have been given to the home side, and the other 37.25% going in favor of the away team. Given the sample size, there is too much of a difference between the two figures for this to be written off as a simple statistical abnormality. This proves that referees are indeed subject to having their calls and decisions affected by the home crowd whistling and jeering, perhaps on a subconscious level they’d be naturally inclined to do what the majority wants. 

Funnily enough, six teams have gone a whole season without getting a single penalty, including the West Bromwich Albion in 2002/03, Blackburn Rovers in 2003/04, and Swansea City in 2012/13. On the other end of the spectrum, Leicester City are the team that have won the most penalties in a single season- a whopping 13 in their fairytale title winning 2015/16 run. Surprisingly, defensive forward Jamie Vardy, a key part in Leicester’s title triumph, has won more penalties than any other player since making his Premier League debut in 2014. His fantastic pace, threatening runs, and relentless closing down of the ball are the most likely reasons of that.

Of course, seeing how we’re on the subject of penalties, it’d be unimaginable to not mention Matthew Le Tissier: an extremely creative and technical attacking midfielder, he is considered as one of the best players of his generation, and possibly the greatest ever from the 12-yard spot, scoring all but one of his 48 penalty attempts. Despite interest from Chelsea, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur, he remained a one club man, spending his entire 16-year professional career playing for Southampton, amassing 540 appearances and 209 goals in the process. Nicknamed “Le God” by Southampton fans, the former “Saint” was the quickest midfielder to reach 100 goals in the Premier League, as well as the PFA Young Player of the Year winner in 1990, the second highest top scorer in the history of the club, and had a knack of scoring truly spectacular goals.

Since its introduction in 1891, the taking of penalty kick has always been a tense event, more often than not setting into motion a battle of wits and mental strength between the shooter and the keeper and generating a huge amount of uproar from the fans. Sometimes, it decides the outcome of a game, sometimes, not so much. However, there is no doubt that its unpredictability contributed to the emergence of tricks such as the “paneka”, the exhilaration one feels when watching such occurrences, and the overall appeal of the beautiful game. It would only be fitting to end this with a quote from Lionel Messi: “You have to fight to reach your dream. You have to sacrifice and work hard for it.” Much like taking penalties, the differences between success and failure in our day-to-day lives can often be some determination, and telling yourself “I can do this.”