Handball penalties have become too soft – but there are solutions

Harry Maguire (left) - Harry Maguire: Premier League must take lead and change rules over ‘soft’ penalty decisions
Harry Maguire (left) had a penalty awarded against him for handball in United’s defeat by FC Copenhagen this month - Getty Images/James Gill

Does football have a penalty problem? Harry Maguire is not alone in thinking they are being awarded too liberally (see below) with the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee system radically altering how the sport’s subjective laws are interpreted.

Penalties are successfully converted at a rate of around 78 per cent, making them very high-probability chances in a low-scoring sport. Given the transgressions being penalised are often minor or inadvertent, such as Rico Lewis’ handball against North Macedonia, there is a sense of the punishment not fitting the crime.

There have been 35 penalties awarded in the Premier League this season, 0.29 per game, putting the campaign on course to produce the second or third-most penalties of any season since 1992-93. There have been four full seasons since Var was introduced, and three of them feature in the top 10 for penalties awarded. The 2020-21 season produced the most of any with 125.

The same is true in the Champions League, in which three of the top four seasons for penalties awarded have come since 2019-20 when Var was fully operational. In last season’s Champions League 49 penalties were given, compared to the historic low of 17 in 2006-07.

A key reason for this increase has been the enforcement of the handball law in the age of Var, something which exasperates fans, players and coaches.

In the 2001-02 Premier League season there were just five penalties awarded for handball in the entire campaign. Last season, the tally was 24. The three seasons to produce the most handball penalties are the most recent three, which speaks to Var’s influence.

As Maguire discovered to his cost in Manchester United’s Champions League defeat in Copenhagen, officials in Uefa competitions work to a strict, literalist interpretation of the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) handball law. Last season there was a 50 per cent increase in handball penalties awarded in the Champions League, the most of any campaign at 18. There have already been nine handball penalties in this season’s competition, and we are two games away from the end of the group stage.

Football’s laws were drafted to help guide referees making decisions at full speed on the pitch. Given intent can never truly be judged, handball incidents would come down to gut feel. Predictably, the search for more objective definitions to judge incidents in slow motion has caused problems and the lack of uniformity across competitions adds to the frustration.

IFAB says a handball offence occurs when a player “deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm” or “touches the ball with their hand/arm when it is in a position that makes their body unnaturally bigger.” This remains open to interpretation, with Premier League referees taking greater account of proximity to the ball than their Uefa counterparts.

One could argue that more goals mean greater entertainment, but watching the biggest matches shaped by such innocuous incidents feels unsatisfactory.

What can be done? Drafting a universally accepted and easily applied concept of handball appears impossible, but the law could be enforced purely for goal-bound shots. This means a player making themselves “unnaturally bigger” to stop a shot on target with their arm will be penalised, but defenders in non-threatening situations (such as Lewis, or Arsenal’s William Saliba at Chelsea this season) would not be.

Another interesting theory is to change the shape of the penalty area from a rectangle to a curved zone closer to goal, or the addition of such an area within the box. Infringements closer to the goal would be penalties, with the rest indirect free-kicks. The aim would be to make penalty kicks compensation for denial of truly dangerous goalscoring opportunities.

Harry Maguire: Premier League must change rules over ‘soft’ penalties

Manchester United and England defender Harry Maguire has called on the Premier League to take a stand against “soft” penalties and raise the threshold for what spot-kicks are awarded for.

Maguire survived a penalty appeal against him while playing for England against North Macedonia this week, but debutant Rico Lewis conceded a harsh spot-kick in the same game following a Var check.

“Penalties in the last six months, a year or so, especially in the Premier League, all over the world really, the Champions League, they are given for anything. They are so soft,” said Maguire. “They are making life so hard for defenders to defend the way it should be.

“You should be able to defend, you should be able to move your arm, you should be able to move your body, you should be able to make contact, you should be able to move your hands and get there.

“Nowadays, penalties are given for everything. Absolutely for everything. It’s such an important part of the game. I understand it’s an important part of the game, what should be a penalty, what shouldn’t be a penalty but there’s far too many soft penalties given at the moment.”

United have conceded six penalties this season in all competitions. Since the start of last season Brighton’s Lewis Dunk has conceded the most Premier League spot-kicks, having seen five given against him.

“I think the threshold of giving penalties definitely needs to change,” said Maguire. “And I think the Premier League, the biggest league in the world, needs to start it. I need to come up with something because I’ve seen some penalties in the Premier League since the start of this season which, for me, are just ridiculous.

“It’s not just at my club, watching them each weekend, I see them given for handballs where I don’t know where lads are supposed to put their arms, minimal contact, it’s a contact sport. Starting with the biggest league in the world, which is the Premier League, they need to set the standard and the threshold needs to be a little bit higher than it is at the moment.”

‘I know I’m appreciated in the football world’

Maguire’s performances against Malta and North Macedonia prompted more debate over his inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s England team, but the 30-year-old is only concerned about what his manager, team-mates, family and England fans think about him.

“Listen, playing for my country means everything, it’s a huge honour and playing for my country is such a big privilege for me,” said Maguire. “It’s what I dreamed of as a kid, so every time there’s a game I want to be available, I want to play every minute, start every game and help the lads.

“It’s been a really successful six years for me since I made my debut, also for the team as well but now we just need to get over the line.

“Listen, I know I’m appreciated in the dressing room. I know I’m appreciated in the football world, coaches, players, the support I have from ex-players, managers and I know I’m really appreciated in the world of football.

“I know I’m appreciated by the England fans who I have made many memories with over the years and that’s the most important thing for me.”

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