The 2020-2021 Premier League season is a proving a bumper campaign for penalties.
We’re not even at the half-way point yet but already there have been 69 spot-kicks awarded. Compare that to the 2019-2020 season when 92 penalties in total were given.
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has credited former manager Jose Mourinho for making his team more “savvy” when it comes to winning penalties suggesting, as many thought, that winning a spot-kick may be more complicated than you might first think.
Speaking to the Football Writers’ Association (FWA) on Thursday, Rashford said a conversation with Mourinho, who managed United between 2016-2018, changed the way he approached his behavior in the box.
“As a forward line, we want to go and score goals, when you are making runs in behind or dribbling with the ball and if you see a challenge coming, you don’t want to get tackled because you are looking at an opportunity to score a goal,” Rashford told the FWA.
“There is no way you are going to let somebody take the ball off you, so for me it is just a case of us wanting to score goals and the teams wanting to defend goals and penalties can happen.”
“I remember when Jose [Mourinho] was manager, there were five or six times where I should have had a penalty and Jose ended up saying to me: ‘If you are not savvy about the way you do it, then you are not going to be given it.’
“After that, we started to get a few penalties. It was something that in terms of development you have to learn that and understand it.”
‘I don’t think you can blame players’
Players from every team in the league have long been accused of diving or of going down too easily on occasion.
To some, it’s a blatant disregard for the credibility of the game whilst others see it as mastering a necessary dark art.
Former Premier League referee Mark Halsey says he doesn’t blame players who go down after contact in the box, admitting officials don’t tend to give fouls when players stay on their feet.
“I don’t think you can blame players for going down under contact because they are asking the question of the referee. They’re just doing their job,” Halsey told CNN Sport.
“Perhaps referees have been to blame partly because when there has been a clear penalty and the player hasn’t gone down, the referee hasn’t given it.
“When you’re going at pace into the box and there is slight contact, you will lose balance and you will go down […] it’s not easy for referees.”
Rashford’s comments come amid an increasingly heated debate over penalties being awarded in the Premier League, perhaps fueled by a potential title race not many had predicted at the start of the season: United versus fierce rivals Liverpool. The two teams meet on Sunday when first meets second in the table.
The spat started after Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp questioned United’s penalty record earlier this month, saying it had “more penalties in two years than I had in five-and-a-half years.”
Solskjaer initially brushed off Klopp’s comments, saying he doesn’t spend his time counting how many penalties Liverpool gets, but did suggest that such comments might influence decisions in the future.
United has been awarded 32 penalties since the start of the 2018/19 season compared to Liverpool’s 17. The Old Trafford club also set a new Premier League record after it was awarded 14 penalties last season.
After United beat Leicester City in the previous campaign — courtesy of a Rashford penalty — Solskjaer reflected on his team’s knack of winning spot-kicks: “I think it’s the type of players we’ve got. They’ve got quick feet, good skills and most of [the penalties] haven’t even been debatable.”
However, Manchester United (six) has only been awarded one more penalty than Liverpool in the league this season, while both teams have scored the same amount (five).
It’s true to say a number of these penalties have been controversial, even with VAR’s help.
Halsey says the introduction of multiple replays has actually made the referee’s job harder, by slowing down the incident too much and showing countless different angles.
“If you slow it [footage] down and watch it enough times, you can make an argument for any decision,” he says.
But Halsey, who officiated in the Premier League for 14 years, says any suggestion that United is treated more favorably than other teams is “nonsense.”
He also says the concept of managers getting into the referee’s head is overplayed.
“All the managers do it [compain about decisions.] It’s just part of the course of managers playing mind games with the opposition and maybe with referees,” he said.
“When I was doing these games, I never watched the press conferences, you just go and referee what’s in front of you.
“You sometimes had managers waiting for you at halftime, having a right go at you and trying to get into your head but you’ve got to be mentally tough and that’s why you’re refereeing at the top level.”
‘We want something they have’
Such discourse has laid the foundations for Sunday’s tantalizing fixture as United travel to face Liverpool at Anfield.
Solskjaer’s side is currently three points ahead of the reigning champion which has struggled for form in recent weeks.
Another win over its rivals could see the Old Trafford side stake a real claim for this season’s title — an achievement which might well surprise even the strongest of United’s supporters.
“Being where we are in the league just gives us more confidence and it’s a sign of where we are at,” said Solskjaer in his pre-match press conference.
“The game against the champions, who have an amazing record at Anfield, is a great test for us.
“Can we go there and cause an upset? We are the challengers and they have earned the right to be champions. We want something they have.”