The sneakiness of diving and the chaos of goalmouth messiness means that it is time to give penalties the red card and rethink the beautiful game
Just as Jurgen Klopp bleeds triple espresso, if you cut Sean Dyche he bleeds pure Lancashire hotpot. As the spiritual heir to Sam Allardyce it’s tempting to dismiss the Burnley manager’s comments about the epidemic of diving in English football as the desperate rearguard action of a man about to get fired, but the events of Boxing Day suggest that he may actually have a point.
Early in the second half of their game with Chelsea, Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu broke into the penalty area, grabbed David Luiz’s arm and dived to the floor, with the specific intention of convincing the referee he’d been fouled.
The short explanation for why Deulofeu did this is easy: he’s a cheat. The longer explanation is that Deulofeu is a professional who did what 90 percent of his fellow professionals would have done in that situation: he calculated that his team was more likely to score if he could dupe the referee into giving a penalty than by staying on his feet and trying to win the ball.
This same calculation was made by Mo Salah at Anfield, when he collapsed like Willem Dafoe in the film Platoon after minimal contact from Newcastle’s Paul Dummett. At Watford the referee, Martin Atkinson, waved play on. At Anfield, Graham Scott awarded a penalty, which Salah himself scored to make it 2-0.
Karma believers will have noticed that Watford almost immediately conceded a penalty at the other end, when Eden Hazard was mullered by Ben Foster, but the risk-to-reward ratio is usually stacked in favour of the attacker.
Fair play pays the penalty
Of 52 penalties awarded in the Premier League so far this season, 11 have been missed, meaning there’s a roughly four in five chance that a successful dive will lead to a goal. The chances of a player getting retrospectively penalised for a dive are close to zero. An FA panel subsequently ruled in the absence of “clear and overwhelming evidence that the player intentionally deceived the match officials” Salah would not be banned, a decision that brought to mind Paolo di Canio’s remark: “To get a penalty at Old Trafford, Jaap Stam needs to take out a machine gun and riddle you with bullets.”
— The Sun Football ⚽ (@TheSunFootball) December 27, 2018
It’s time, as the Guardian suggested in 2011, to abandon the penalty kick as we know it. Penalties should only be awarded for absolute stonewallers* including fouls which take place outside the area. When a foul is an obviously cynical attempt to deny a player a goalscoring opportunity like this one on David Platt, by Ronald Koeman, a penalty is a proportionate punishment.
Too often however, the cynicism belongs to the attacker, as typified by Michael Owen drawing a foul from Mauricio Pochettino here.
Under the existing rules, if a referee thinks that’s a foul, he has to give a penalty, even though there are two additional defenders between Owen and the goal.
Allowing a referee to award a direct free-kick inside the area wouldn’t eradicate diving, but it would be a start. And if Salah and Deulofeu knew there was a serious risk of a two-game ban for simulation it might just encourage them to stay on their feet.
As it is, the penalty is a punishment that rarely fits the crime. It actively encourages foul play, it reduces refereeing to honest guesswork and it even makes people feel sorry for Sean Dyche.