Talking Tactics

Season trends: Free-kicks fall and penalties rise

By Adrian Clarke 4 Jun 2021
Kevin De Bruyne, Man City

Adrian Clarke reveals the reasons behind a change in how goals were scored in 2020/21

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Adrian Clarke identifies tactical trends from the 2020/21 Premier League season.

Fewer set-piece successes

To achieve consistent end product from set-pieces, practice on the training ground is vital.

It should come as no surprise that their success rate suffered in 2020/21.

A congested fixture schedule dramatically reduced the amount of time available to work on dead-ball situations.

Repetition is fundamental, especially for set-piece takers, and they had far less time than usual to rehearse their routines.

Indeed, only 19.2 per cent of Premier League goals stemmed from set-pieces this term, a record low.

That share is down from 22 per cent in 2019/20, which is around the average across the last 10 seasons of top-flight football.

Indirect free-kick goals
Season 10/11 16/17 17/18 18/19 19/20 20/21
Total 99* 78 67 64 62 49

* Record high

The quality of indirect free-kicks proved especially poor.

For the first time since such statistics were recorded in 2004/05, the total number of these goals dipped below 60, with only 49 finding the back of the net this way.

Direct free-kick goals
Season 07/08 18/19 19/20 20/21
Total 41* 23 25 13

* Record high

Direct free-kick takers also suffered from less time on the training ground.

Across the last 17 top-flight seasons there have been an average of 27.4 goals per campaign registered from free-kick strikes.

In 2020/21 there was an all-time low of only 13.

It did not affect Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, who scored four goals direct from free-kicks, but he was the only player to find the back of the net multiple times this way.

It was the first season in which only one individual scored more than once from a direct free-kick.

Ward-Prowse nets two free-kicks

The use of Video Assistant Referees to highlight infringements inside the penalty area led to a major increase in penalty goals.

For the first time there were more than 100 spot-kicks scored, with the total of 102 a 41.6 per cent increase on the 72 total of the previous campaign.

It meant that one in 10 PL goals came via the penalty spot in 2020/21.

Indirect free-kick goals
Season 16/17 17/18 18/19 19/20 20/21
Pens saved 16% 26% 16% 18% 10%
Pens missed 7.5% 3.8% 2.9% 3.2% 8.0%

Only 23 of the 125 penalties awarded were missed, which is an indication that empty stadiums made it slightly easier to convert from 12 yards.

But did the absence of supporters lower concentration levels?

This may be true as an unusually large share of those misses were from penalty takers who failed to hit the target.

This led to actual penalty saves being rarer than normal, with just over 10 per cent repelled by a goalkeeper.

Fewer cautions

Referees showed 186 fewer yellow cards in 2020/21 than they did in the previous term.

The 2004/05 campaign was the only one in the previous 18 seasons to have a lower yellow card count, with an average 2.88 per 90 minutes.

The league's year-on-year decrease in tackling is also a factor to consider.

Over the course of 380 matches there were 602 fewer tackles made than there were in 2019/20.

Interestingly though, 135 extra fouls were penalised this year.

Again, this could be because the lack of crowds made it easier for referees to hear the contact between the players.

Also in this series

Part 1: Patient passing produces record figures
Part 2: Headed goals back in fashion
Part 4: Away success rises as top sides falter
Part 5: Busy schedule not reflected in rotation
Part 6: Season trends: Managers changing shape more often

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