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Handball – after matchday three of the 2020-21 Premier League season, that seems to be all anyone is talking about.

It proved decisive in three different games over the weekend, with Brighton and Hove Albion, Tottenham and Crystal Palace all on the receiving end of controversial decisions – the latter’s manager, Roy Hodgson, went on a tirade regarding the “nonsense” rule change.

But arguably the most vociferous of the hot takes regarding handball – see Jamie Carragher deriding the decision as “an absolute disgrace” – focused on the events at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where in the seventh minute of added time, Eric Dier was penalised via VAR for handball despite having his back to the ball.

Although Mourinho refused to criticise the decision, in his own unique Jose way he left no uncertainty as to his feelings on the matter – “If I want to give money away, I’ll give to charities, not the FA,” he told Sky Sports.

Steve Bruce, whose Newcastle United profited from the decision to clinch a 1-1 draw, gave the impression of being almost embarrassed at having been a beneficiary, effectively suggesting some form of football managers’ mutiny against the sport’s rule-makers.

But are they exaggerating the changes? Is handball proving more prevalent? We looked at the Opta data and, as the old adage says, there’s no smoke without fire…

Premier League on course for avalanche of penalties

Before delving into the data, we have to understand what specifically has changed with respect to handball in the Premier League. Technically, the idea that it is a “new rule” this season is a red herring – instead, the law has been altered in England to bring it into line with those adopted across Europe last season.

It’s a stricter approach that basically means a player will be penalised for handball – in a defensive context – if the struck hand/arm is away from the body or raised, or if the player leans into the path of the ball.

On top of those points, the International Football Association Board (IFAB, the body in charge of the rules) tightened up the boundaries involved, meaning handball should be given – regardless of intent – if the ball strikes the arm below the bottom of the armpit unless it has come off another part of the player’s body first or they have fallen on to the ball.

The numbers do IFAB and FIFA no favours.

After 28 matches in the new Premier League season, 20 penalties have been given and six of them awarded for handball.

That means there has been an average of 0.71 penalties per match this term, a huge increase on the averages from the previous four seasons.

Last term it was at 0.24 per game – prior to that it stood at 0.27 (2018-19), 0.21 (2017-18) and 0.28 (2016-17).

“But those figures could be down to an increase in bad tackling!” – don’t worry, we thought of that.

While that stat of six handballs may not sound huge, it’s actually the same figure for the entirety of the 2017-18 season, while it also equates to 30 per cent of all penalties this term – in 2019-20, 20.7 per cent of penalties were awarded for handball, 13.6 per cent the year before and 7.5 per cent before that.

Put into a ‘per game’ context, penalties for handball are being given every 0.21 matches – almost one in four. The most it reached in the preceding four seasons was 0.05 in both 2019-20 and 2016-17.

While it is unlikely that penalties will be given at such a frequency throughout the season, it’s not impossible.

If it does carry on, we are on course for 271 in 2020-21, just four fewer than the totals for 2019-20 (92), 2018-19 (103) and 2017-18 (80) combined. Similarly, we would expect 81 of those to have been caused by handball.

That’s 24 more than were given in total across the previous four years.

How do the figures compare to European leagues?

Clearly, the change that has been effected in the Premier League is significant, but compared to the other top five leagues, the differences are a little less stark… in most cases.

Even though the rules are now supposed to be consistent across the top five leagues, we are still seeing a lot more penalties in general.

Last season, Serie A recorded the highest frequency of penalties at 0.49 per game, with that figure dropping to 0.15 specifically for handball.

LaLiga was next with 0.39 penalties each match and 0.13 for handball. The Bundesliga’s respective figures were 0.24 and 0.06, and for Ligue 1 they were 0.32 and 0.08.

But specifically relating to handball, the percentages are much closer. In fact, LaLiga (32.2 per cent) and the Bundesliga (30.5 per cent) saw a greater share of spot-kicks awarded for such offences than the Premier League is in 2020-21.

Ligue 1 (25.8 per cent) and the Bundesliga (24.7 per cent) aren’t far behind, either.

So, while the data would seemingly prove the points of Bruce and Hodgson, IFAB might argue the consistency and black-and-white nature of the law make it better – football managers and players, on the other hand, disagree.

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September 29, 2020
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