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Talking Tactics

Tactical review: Fouls drop as penalties rise

Adrian Clarke 26 May 2019
Ben Mee challenges Dominic Calvert-Lewin

Adrian Clarke investigates the fact that in 2018/19 tackling seemed to improve but more spot-kicks were awarded

Adrian Clarke takes a look at the tactical trends of the 2018/19 Premier League.


The art of tackling improved this season, with players becoming wiser in their decision-making and picking the right moment rather than flying in recklessly.

There were 459 more challenges made in 2018/19 than in the previous campaign, with a total of 12,927, but 101 fewer fouls.

It was the second season running that we saw a decline as the tally dropped to 7,768.

Indeed, there were just 20.44 fouls per match this term, the lowest average in top-flight history. In 2016/17 it was close to 23.

Most/fewest fouls in PL history
Fewest fouls Most fouls
Season Per 90 Season Per 90
2018/19 20.44 2005/06 28.65
2017/18 20.71 2004/05 28.42
2013/14 21.65 2003/04 28.19

As a by-product of this downturn in fouls, dead-ball situations have become less significant and influential in results.

In 2018/19 there was a record low number of strikes from indirect free-kicks, and the second-lowest total of goals from indirect and direct free-kicks combined.

Just 8.2 per cent of goals were scored from free-kicks last term, the lowest figure since such data has been measured.

In 2007/08 they were worth a 13.5 per cent share of all goals scored.

Spike in spot-kicks

There is a strange contradiction in this season’s stats, however.

While all the evidence above points towards better tackling, there was a steep increase in the number of penalties.

After a record low in 2017/18, when there were only 56 spot-kicks, referees awarded 84 penalties in 2018/19, the third-highest total of the last 15 years.

The division’s two best dribblers, Wilfried Zaha and Eden Hazard, earned the most, with six and five respectively. But overall it is hard to explain the phenomenon.

My conclusion would simply be that officials were much stricter on fouls made inside the box.

Arsenal infringements

All three relegated sides suffered badly in the concession of penalties, as did Brighton & Hove Albion, who finished fourth from bottom.

But it is Arsenal who have been most reckless with infringements close to their own goal in recent years.

For the third season running they were among the top teams for the most penalties conceded.

Most penalties conceded
2016/17 2017/18 2018/19
Club Total Club Total Club Total

With Video Assistant Referees (VAR) being introduced in the 2019/20 Premier League season, penalty decisions will be reviewed.

While there was a large uplift in penalty kicks during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Finals, VAR has the power to cancel decisions as well as award them.

In theory, then, there should not be a significant difference.

And during the first season that VAR was used in the Italian, German and Portuguese leagues, there was no increase in the number of penalties.

Also in this series

Part 1: Tactical review: Strike pairings back in fashion
Part 2: Tactical review: Full-backs taking over from wingers 
Part 3: Tactical review: Defenders the new pass masters
Part 5: Tactical review: Goals galore in most prolific campaign

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