A lasting effect of the 2018 World Cup will be the introduction of the video assistant referee, or VAR, and its ramifications on a huge part of soccer — penalties. The most obvious consequence has been the spike in total penalties called: Through the first semifinal, 10 more penalties have been awarded at this World Cup than at any past tournament. Other effects, though, have been less apparent.
One unanticipated but logical repercussion is the increase in the amount of time between the moment of the penalty-drawing foul and the actual penalty kick. Does that matter? Ben Lyttleton, who wrote the seminal book on penalties, “Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick,” said he had not seen any research on the relationship between wait time and success. “But I do have (quite a lot of) anecdotal evidence saying that it’s more stressful the longer the wait,” he said. “The players have more time to overthink it!”
To research this issue, we at TruMedia Networks used the extensive event-level database of analytics firm Opta Sports to find the game clock for more than 17,000 penalties (not shootouts) dating as far back as the 1966 World Cup. This covered domestic and international competitions, men’s and women’s — from youth competitions such as the Asian U-23 Championship to top leagues like the Premier League. We also tagged the time of the related foul that led to the penalty kick, finding the time between the foul and the actual penalty kick — which we’ll call “wait time.”
The average wait time in the entire data set was 76 seconds, and the median was 67 seconds. Ninety-two percent of kicks happened between 40 and 150 seconds after the foul, and about 4 percent of kicks occurred after 150 seconds.
For the majority of penalties, wait time has no noticeable effect. The difference in success rate is generally negligible between waiting 40 seconds and 150 seconds. But once you start waiting longer than that, the likelihood of scoring starts to fall.
The success rate of penalties with a wait time of less than 150 seconds is 76 percent, while the success rate of penalties with a wait time of greater than 150 seconds is 73 percent. With the relatively large sample of penalties we have,1 the difference is statistically significant. This trend holds whether you look at the top leagues or lower leagues and whether you look at recent seasons or older seasons.
It even holds when you account for pressure. Obviously all penalties come with pressure on the shooter, given the low-score environment of soccer, but we looked at added pressure splits like penalties in the first half versus the second, penalties that could change game states versus those that couldn’t, plus several other clock-and-score combinations. None significantly changed the effect of longer wait times on success rate.
A few intriguing regional observations also surfaced in our research. Of the 38 competitions — leagues and tournaments — with at least 100 penalties called, the top five in average wait time were Brazil’s Serie A, Mexico’s Liga MX, South America’s Copa Libertadores, Chile’s Primera Division and Argentina’s Superliga. Colombia’s Primera A is seventh and Peru’s Primera Division was ninth, meaning seven of the nine competitions with an average time from foul to kick of more than 90 seconds were leagues in Latin America. None of these leagues use VAR, so this added time likely comes down to some combination of slow refereeing and complaining or delaying by the penalty-conceding team (or both). Conversely, Scandinavian leagues such as Norway’s Eliteserien, Denmark’s Superliga and Sweden’s Allsvenskan were all near the bottom of the list, taking fewer than 65 seconds on average to attempt the penalty.
|League/Tournament||Avg. Time From Foul To Kick in seconds|
|Brazil Serie A||102.1|
|Mexico Liga MX||99.9|
|South America Copa Libertadores||96.2|
|Chile Primera Division||95.1|
|Japan J1 League||93.4|
|Colombia Primera A||92.6|
|Portugal Primeira Liga||91.1|
|Peru Primera Division||90.5|
|Asia AFC Champions League||85.1|
|Turkey Super Lig||81.0|
|China PR CSL||79.3|
|France Ligue 2||76.7|
|Saudi Arabia Pro League||76.1|
|FIFA World Cup||75.7|
|France Ligue 1||75.4|
|Spain Primera Division||74.9|
|Spain Segunda Division||73.7|
|Italy Serie A||70.7|
|Belgium First Division A||68.7|
|UEFA Europa League||67.4|
|UEFA Champions League||66.0|
|Russia Premier League||65.8|
|World Cup Qualification Europe||64.1|
|Germany 2. Bundesliga||62.3|
|England Premier League||62.0|
|England FA Cup||59.8|
|Germany 3. Liga||57.1|
This year’s World Cup has seen a noticeable jump in penalty times. Entering this tournament, the highest average wait time in a single World Cup was 89 seconds in 2010. This year, the average time across the record-setting 28 penalties is 132 seconds — double the average of the previous 13 World Cups. Despite the slow uptick in wait times over the past several tournaments, VAR has certainly played a role in this spike by reviewing every penalty.
So, why does any of this matter?
For starters, this gives added incentive to the defensive team to complain and stall the penalty as much as possible — with or without VAR. Referees (including the video assistant) should make penalty decisions with as little delay as possible. In an obviously small sample size, this year’s World Cup has seen five of the eight VAR-given penalties converted (63 percent). Long-term, this rate likely will go up, but referees should be doing everything in their power to move the process along as quickly as possible, knowing that they are directly affecting the success rate of the penalty shot.
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