The Premier League hasn’t been short of big stories this season.
The arrival of super-managers Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho to Manchester City and United respectively have grabbed the headlines, as have the attacking football of Liverpool, the hard-work of Tottenham, and the hopelessness of Sunderland.
One trend that has slipped under the radar, but has been just as pivotal this season, has been the surprising amount of penalty kicks being awarded, and the equally unusual amount of them being missed.
In the first 11 games of the season, referees have pointed to the spot 36 times – just 16 occasions fewer than the entirety of the 2001/02 campaign.
Over-zealous officiating in the early weeks of the season after regulations on defending set pieces were changed saw a spate of spot-kicks awarded. Stoke’s game against Guardiola’s City in the second match of the season included two contentious penalties given by referee Mike Dean, with plenty more appeals rejected.
While the grappling at corners and free-kicks seems to have calmed down, officials have still been finding plenty more infringements inside the box, and this season is set to smash all records.
The current high, of 106 in 2009/10, will be comfortably beaten should penalties continue at the same rate, which would be around the 124 mark.
What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that while players are getting more and more practice at taking kicks from 12 yards, they’re not getting any better at scoring them. In fact, they’re markedly getting worse.
Nine of the 36 pens this term in the Premier League have been missed – including two in a match from Man City against Everton.
Alexis Sanchez, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Riyad Mahrez are all guilty of missing spot-kicks, with the penalty success rate a lowly 75% - a far cry from the near perfect conversion rates of the early years of the league.
Only two penalties out of 82 weren’t scored in the 1993/94 season – 97.56%, with Matt Le Tissier in particular (who scored six out of six penalties for Southampton) unstoppable from the spot.
With data becoming much more available for goalkeepers and coaches to study the habits of kick takers, the spot-kick specialists are finding it far harder to find the back of the net.
It could also be argued that goalkeepers themselves are far fitter, well trained, and athletic than the likes of Steve Ogrizovic and Neville Southall, and it is only natural that more saves are being made.
With the influx of money into the league now, every single point could mean millions to teams and players, and that added pressure could be causing players to misstep from 12 paces.
The trend of missed penalties hasn’t just been in England, however.
The Bundesliga (72%, down from an average over the past five seasons of 83%), Serie A (72%, down from 81%), La Liga (76%, down from 82%) and Ligue 1 (80%, down from 85%) are all experiencing their lowest success rates in recent years, with goalies across the continent denying penalty takers.
And that figure is even lower in the Champions League, with Europe’s elite only managing a paltry 63.40%.
Interestingly, the number of penalties awarded this term is up, in line with the increase in the Premier League, with 0.34 spot-kicks per match being given – a high since the competition was expanded in 1992.
The 18 given in the first three gameweeks of this season is already higher than the entirety of the 2006/07, 2008/09 and 2009/10 campaigns.
Harsher application of grappling rules from set-pieces could be to blame, but the introduction of additional assistants next to the touchline could also be playing a part.
Since they were brought in for the 2011/12 Champions League season, the number of penalties per match has gone up to 0.25 – compared to 0.13 in the ten seasons previous.
So, in short – this season has seen more penalties being awarded, but a lower percentage of those kicks going in.
As the referees have been penalising infringements more and more in the box, the onus has been on goalkeepers to improve, and they’ve been taking advantage of this extra practice to become the hero when facing spot-kicks.
Given the trends of this season, when looking to bet on the action it’s worth backing penalties to be given – though don’t be so sure that the ball will hit the net.