It’s raining penalties in the Champions League – but what’s behind the increase?

The Guardian Sports 9 months ago

The number of penalties awarded in the Champions League has more than trebled in the past 10 seasons, according to research by Simon Gleave, head of analysis at Gracenote Sports. Only 17 were awarded during the group and knockout stages of the competition won by Milan in 2006-07, compared with a record 53 when Real Madrid retained their title last June. Although the introduction of goalline officials in 2010-11 almost certainly accounts for a spike from 18 to 30 spot-kicks in that particular season, it does not tell the full story of a curious statistic that on close inspection seems entirely arbitrary.

The Champions League has been running in its current format since 2003-04, when Uefa did away with the second group stage and went to straight knockout over two legs once the field had been reduced to the last 16. From the beginning of the group stages to the end of the final, each Champions League takes 125 matches to complete and 21 penalties were awarded in the first to be staged in this format. The number awarded in subsequent tournaments yo-yoed from 30 to 25 to 17 to 24 to 19 to 18 until 2009-2010 and it was following that tournament, won by José Mourinho’s Internazionale, that goalline officials were introduced.

There in an advisory role, these much-maligned, wand-carrying assistants whose presence continues to baffle pundits too incurious or lazy to find out what exactly they do and how they do it, were almost certainly responsible for the spike in spot-kicks awarded from 18 to 30 in 2010-11. “I would imagine,” says the former Premier League and Fifa-listed referee Dermot Gallagher. “I go back home [to Ireland] a lot and I speak to the referees there and they’ve told me how it works and how they’re designated certain areas of the penalty area at corners and free-kicks and such like. It’s a lot more scrutinised these days.”


Although the presence of four additional officials may account for the spike in the number of penalties awarded in the season they took up their positions behind or adjacent to the goals, there is no obvious explanation for the subsequent increase from 29 to 46 penalties awarded in the 2013-14 Champions League. A Uefa diktat on manhandling in the box, perhaps? “None of the referees I’ve talked to have ever mentioned that,” says Gallagher.

One possible explanation for the extraordinary rise in the number of spot-kicks awarded in the Champions League is the increasing gulf in class between those sides who tend to advance from the group stages and the comparative church mice who do not, but does it stand up to scrutiny? On the first night of action in this season’s competition, five of the eight matches ended in shellackings of 3-0 or worse, although it should be noted that the Italian champions and last year’s finalists Juventus were on the wrong end of one of those hidings and can hardly be considered cannon fodder.

While the concession of penalties by Celtic against PSG and Anderlecht against Bayern Munich suggests there may be an understandable propensity for weaker teams to buckle under extreme pressure from much stronger opponents and foul inside their own penalty areas, it’s worth noting that of the 25 scored in last year’s group stages, 12 were conceded by sides who ended up advancing to the knockout stages.


One statistic that appears to render the recent surge in Champions League penalties seem even more quirky and anomalous is that the number awarded in the Premier League over the same period has remained more or less the same. Since 2010-11 the number in Europe’s blue riband competition has gradually fluctuated from 30 to 53 across 125 matches each season. Opta stats reveal that in England’s top flight it’s gone from 105 to 106 across 380 games over the same period. That’s one penalty awarded for every 3.30 matches in the Champions League compared with one every 4.08 in the Premier League; not too dissimilar when you factor in the number of European knockout games that go to extra time.

While the number of penalties being awarded in the Champions League is up, the amount being scored is down. “In recent years there has also been a decrease in the conversion rate,” says Gleave. “The percentage of penalties scored in the last two seasons were 58% and 62% respectively, the lowest and second lowest conversion rates recorded over the last 14 seasons. The average across all 14 seasons of the current Champions League format is 70%.” By contrast in the Premier League, it’s been 76% to 81%, with an average across the same period of 77.12%.

Referees may be increasingly generous when it comes to awarding penalties in Europe, but players seem strangely reluctant to take advantage of their benevolence.

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