Will VAR Clamp Down on Players ‘Buying’ Penalties Mean Fewer Premier League Goals?

VAR White Screen IconThe use of VAR in Premier League matches will be changed from the 2021/22 season onwards to ensure it has less of an impact on the outcome of games.

As part of a raft of changes in how the video tech is implemented, the fourth official and the on-field referee will be tasked with deciding whether the attacking player has ‘bought’ a penalty by going down in the box under the lightest of contact.

Penalty shouts that are checked by VAR will now be subject to three criteria:

  • The extent of the physical contact with the attacking player
  • Whether said contact would be enough to fell the player
  • The ‘motivation’ of the attacking player, i.e. is he buying a penalty because there’s no clear goalscoring opportunity?

The move comes after a consultation between the head of refereeing, Mike Riley, and numerous officials of Premier League outfits. The takeaway point is that all involved only want a penalty given when a ‘proper’ infraction has occurred.

“Referees will look for contact and establish clear contact, then ask themselves the question: does that contact have a consequence?”

Riley has confirmed. “They will then ask themselves a question: has the player used that contact to actually try and win a foul penalty? So it’s not sufficient just to say: ‘Yes, there’s contact.’

“I think that the feedback we’ve had from players, both attackers and defenders, you want it to be a proper foul that has a consequence, not something that somebody has used slight to contact to go over, and we’ve given the penalty to reward it.”

On the Spot

Football Penalty Spot

Both the 2020/21 Premier League season and Euro 2020 saw record numbers of penalties awarded…. aided and abetted by VAR.

Some 125 spot kicks were given in the top flight wither directly by the referee or after video consultation, dwarfing the 92 awarded during the 2019/20 campaign.

And at Euro 2020, a total of 17 penalties were given – the highest tally at any European Championship ever, and that – according to UEFA’s chief refereeing officer Robert Rosetti – was a success of the VAR age.

We might assume that the glut of spot kicks has contributed to more goals per game in the competitions that use VAR, although in the Premier League a surprising anomaly was noted.

In 2020/21, exactly 50% of matches saw three or more goals, with an average goal-per-game ratio of 2.69. Compared to years gone by, you can notice the shock difference:

Season Over 2.5 Goals Goals per Game
2020/21 50% 2.69
2019/20 52% 2.72
2018/19 54% 2.84
2017/18 51% 2.68
2016/17 54% 2.8
2015/16 53% 2.7
2014/15 48% 2.57
2013/14 52% 2.77

The 2020/21 campaign was, relatively speaking, a low scoring one – despite record numbers of penalties being awarded.

There were 33 more spot kicks given last season compared to 2019/20, and yet that previous campaign saw plenty more goals netted.

A lack of fans in the ground could be one contributory factor, but another has certainly been how VAR wipes out ‘goals’ where the player’s nostril hair is in an offside position.

That could be rectified in 2021/22, with thicker lines ready to be used that would tip the balance of marginal calls in favour of the attacking side.

And with supporters also expected to be back inside the ground, there’s no reason why we can’t expect a goal glut in the Premier League this term.