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Was the sight of the Chelsea players squabbling like a disorganised under-12s team over who would take their penalty against Everton on Monday night entertaining, or undignified?

The answer is probably ‘both’. In some respects it was understandable: Chelsea were 4-0 up at the time, the game was won and their regular taker Cole Palmer already had his hat-trick, so, in a season when moments of genuine joy have been vanishingly few for anyone but Palmer, here was an opportunity for someone else to get their flowers.

(Viewers in the UK can watch the squabble above, those in the U.S. can see it below)

In the end, Palmer took over and scored as usual, but it does raise one of those questions that always buzz in the background about the little tweaks we could make to football, and what football could take from other sports.

Should penalties be taken by the player who was fouled?

This already happens in basketball, for free throws. For those unfamiliar with how the sport works, they are much like penalties: when a player is fouled, they are awarded between one and three free throws (depending on various factors), taken from a line five yards from the basket.

As with a football penalty, the shooter cannot be challenged, but the fouled player has to take the shot, unless they are injured or have somehow managed to get themselves sent off between the free throw being awarded and taking it. In those scenarios, the opposition chooses who takes the shot.

This can result in some wildly fluctuating results. The best free throwers rarely miss: this season’s best performer in the NBA is Klay Thomson, with a 93 per cent success rate. However, the worst almost turns it into a coin toss: according to Basketball Reference, of the players to have taken at least 100 free throws this season, the worst is Chicago Bulls centre Andre Drummond, who scores a shade over 59 per cent of the time.

So what if we were to introduce this to football? What if only the player who was fouled was allowed to take penalties?

Eliminating childish arguments like we saw at Stamford Bridge would be one, minor consequence of this, but there are others.

It would introduce an element of peril, for a start. For all that we imbue penalties with a sense of drama, their outcome is one of the more predictable parts of football. As a rule, penalties are converted around 75 per cent of the time, and it’s even higher in the Premier League this season, at a little over 90 per cent.

It’s not really a fair fight. Regular takers are becoming increasingly skilful and prepared for penalties, and even the best goalkeepers are relying on educated guesses about where to dive — they essentially don’t stand a chance if the taker gets things right.

Even the mind games are weighted in favour of the attackers: the old trick of someone standing on the spot with the ball to absorb the pressure and distraction tactics from the opposition, before handing it over to the real taker, would be out the window. Here, it would just be attacker vs goalkeeper.

At the top level, designated penalty takers have almost become too good — but if we were to throw in an element of randomness to things, there would be more jeopardy.

Take Chelsea in this season’s Premier League. They have been awarded 12 penalties: Palmer has taken and scored nine of them, but they’ve only scored one of the other three, with Enzo Fernandez and Raheem Sterling missing one each. Nicolas Jackson, the man most aggrieved that the kick against Everton wasn’t handed to him, has never taken a penalty in professional football, as far as we can tell. Had he taken it, the outcome would have been much less of a foregone conclusion than with Palmer.

This wouldn’t be a major change, in that it might not make a huge difference to who takes penalties. The graph above shows the players who have been fouled the most for penalties in the Premier League over the last 10 seasons. Most of those near the top of the list are penalty-takers anyway, which makes sense. Penalty-takers tend to be attackers and attackers are most frequently in the position to be impeded for a penalty.

But it also shows that this could make a bit of a difference. Of the names on this list, Jamie Vardy’s Premier League conversion rate is 81 per cent, Harry Kane’s is 89 per cent and, despite a couple of recent wobbles, Mohamed Salah’s is still at a perfectly predictable 81 per cent.

Then there is Wilfried Zaha, who only really became a penalty taker in his last few seasons at Palace — and not a particularly good one, with a below-average conversion rate of 64 per cent. Anthony Martial has only taken a handful of Premier League penalties, scoring three and missing one; a small sample size, but maybe there’s a reason he’s not a regular. The biggest one is Sterling, who has missed more penalties than he’s scored: seven taken in the Premier League, three went in. If you extrapolate those numbers and apply his conversion rate to the penalties he has won, he would have missed roughly 13 out of 23. How’s that for jeopardy?

It might also go some way to rectifying one of the flaws in the penalty system: a player can be fouled on the corner of the area, which is about 26 yards from the middle of the goal, facing away from goal and (on this season’s Premier League figures at least) be rewarded with a 90 per cent chance of a goal. That feels extremely unfair, but it’s difficult to effectively legislate for, beyond a drastic redrawing of the boundaries of a football pitch. This rule change wouldn’t be an exact way of redressing that balance, but introducing a small element of randomness might help a bit.

It would also emphasise a little more who is really performing well in open play. Although non-penalty goals are separated from overall totals in some metrics, they’re not in the figures that most people pay attention to. So Palmer’s tally of goals (20 league goals, of which nine are penalties) wouldn’t look quite so impressive, whereas Ollie Watkins (19 league goals, zero penalties) would benefit hugely. Similarly, we could not accuse the frequent penalty takers of ‘stats-padding’ — after all, they would’ve won the kick.

There are some scenarios where the identity of the taker wouldn’t be clear cut: for example, when a penalty is awarded for handball. It would have to be the attacking player who touched the ball last, which might get slightly complicated in a goalmouth melee, especially in games without extensive replays available to watch.

Also, take the strange scenario that Thomas Tuchel complained about in Bayern Munich’s Champions League game against Arsenal recently, when David Raya passed a goal kick to Gabriel, who put his hand on the ball and took the goal kick again. Had that penalty been awarded, and we went with the ‘last Bayern player to touch it’ solution, it would be Serge Gnabry, whose shot went over the bar — but because there was a round of substitutions straight afterwards, nearly a minute and a half had elapsed between his shot and the ‘offence’. That would have been a weird one.

One fun theoretical thing this would eliminate is that it would almost certainly scotch the prospect of a goalkeeper taking a non-shootout penalty. They are incredibly rare now, no matter how much some of us will Pep Guardiola to let Ederson take one for Manchester City, but they would become virtually impossible with this rule.

The most obvious drawback is that it strips away some of football’s meritocracy: prescribing who should be given the opportunity to score a goal does, to say the least, feel a little off, and slightly arbitrarily deadens the advantage that a team with a main, crack penalty taker has.

How would we feel if a player won a penalty with a dive? They could be doubly rewarded for cheating, with some personal glory alongside a goal for their team. The flip side is that it opens up the possibility of some swift comeuppance: take Anthony Knockaert, who, in Leicester’s Championship play-off semi-final against Watford in 2013, threw himself to the turf and won a penalty for his team, but his kick was saved, the ball went up the other end and Troy Deeney scored one of the most dramatic goals in recent English football history.

The basketball comparison isn’t entirely sound either, given that there are so many more opportunities to score: a free throw is much less likely to be the difference between winning and not winning than a penalty, so a change in football would have an outsized impact in certain scenarios.

Will this tweak to the laws happen? Almost certainly not. Would it make a huge difference to the game? Probably not. But would it make a few scenarios more fun for us, the viewing public, and introduce a little more jeopardy? Yes, it probably would.

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)



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