While discussing Monday night’s loss to Southampton, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp added another subplot to an already intriguing Premier League season. “I hear now that Manchester United had more penalties in two years than I had in five-and-a-half years,” the German told reporters at St Mary’s. “I’ve no idea if that’s my fault, or how that can happen.”
Cue uproar. Football fans love a good conspiracy theory. They always have.
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VAR, of course, was meant to level the playing field, remove all doubt over refereeing decisions but, as Monday’s game underlined, it has only muddied the waters.
Allegations of favouritism remain rampant and many calls remain maddeningly subjective, with the interpretations seeming to change on a game-by-game basis. But was Klopp correct? Is United receiving a disproportionate amount of penalties? And, if so, is there a potential explanation for that? Like former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez 12 years ago, let us deal only in facts.
Since Klopp arrived at Anfield on October 8, 2015, the Reds have been awarded 30 penalties in the Premier League. Leicester have won the most during that period (45), with Manchester City second (43) and United third (41). Interestingly, though, 32 of the latter’s spot-kicks have arrived since the start of the 2018-19 season, meaning Klopp is technically correct.
To be precise, United have won two more penalties over the past two-and-a-half seasons than Liverpool have during Klopp’s entire reign. It is also worth noting that no other side in Europe’s Big Five leagues has been awarded more than United in all competitions since 2018-19. Only perennial Serie A champions Juventus (37) come close. What, then, are the possible reasons for this? Of course, it was once argued that officials favoured the bigger and, perhaps more significantly, richer clubs.
The theory put forward in Italy to explain the number of big calls that seemed to go Juve’s way was ‘psychological conditioning’, the argument that referees had been subconsciously trained to side with the ‘Grand Old Lady of Italian football’. Of course, the ‘Calciopoli’ scandal cast that claim in a whole other light, allowing the conspiracy theorists to run riot.
On a more general level, it was quite reasonably argued that the top teams would win more penalties because they dominated more games, enjoyed more possession, applied more attacking pressure and spent more time in opposition areas. However, United’s tally of spot-kicks over the past two-and-a-half seasons would appear to fly in the face of that hypothesis.
Since the start of 2018-19, United have won 48 penalties in all competitions – 11 more than second-placed Juve. Ball-hogs Man City sit 10th on that particular list, with 30 spot-kicks, while the last two champions of Europe, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, rank joint-24th (24) and joint-18th (25), respectively.
All three sides are renowned for their pressing games and winning the ball high up the pitch. They have also had more touches in the opposition area than any other teams in Europe over the past two-and-a-half seasons. Yet that pressure in the final third isn’t translating into a United-like rate of penalties – or even fouls.
Bayern is merely the 27th most-fouled team in Europe since 2018-19. Liverpool is 46th, with City all the way down in 57th. The natural assumption would be that United are among those that draw the most fouls but they are only 10th in the standings. Even for fouls in the final third, United are joint-fifth.
It’s difficult, then, to explain precisely why they have such a healthy lead at the top of the penalty standings. They do not spend more time in the opposition box than their rivals and nor do they win more fouls in general. It has been suggested that United, who last season broke the Premier League record for penalties won (14) across a single campaign, are simply an excellent counterattacking team featuring direct attackers blessed with blistering pace, making them more likely to draw fouls as they punish opponents on the break.
This is a particularly interesting aspect of the argument, for two reasons. Firstly, United are undoubtedly an excellent counterattacking side but they rank below Paris Saint-Germain, City, Liverpool and even Wolves for ‘Fast Breaks’ in all competitions since 2018-19.
PSG, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, two of the quickest and trickiest forwards in world football, are the kings of counterattacking goals (38), yet even they have 15 fewer penalties than United over the same time period. Secondly, United don’t have a single representative among the 20 most fouled players in Europe since August 2018 yet they’re winning a penalty every 2.9 games – the best ratio in Europe by far.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are part of the reason why. They have won 18 penalties (nine apiece) over the past two-and-a-half seasons – no other club has such a prolific duo. Neither PSG, with Neymar and Mbappe (15) nor Liverpool, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (14).
There may be no precise reason for their success in that regard, though. Certainly, neither United player has been regularly accused of simulation. It may just be a case of defences struggling to cope with two jeet-heeled attackers playing for a team that thrives on the break. Manchester United have had more penalties in two years than Liverpool in five-and-a-half – Klopp
Of course, that doesn’t explain why other players and sides haven’t won anything like as many penalties overall. United’s staggering spot-kick tally can’t just be attributed to two forwards. We may merely be looking at a statistical anomaly that may even itself out over five years.
For now, though, it’s simply a fact that United are winning an unusually high amount of penalties. And Klopp is just going to have to deal with it. And, for Liverpool’s sake, hopefully, a lot better than Benitez…