How to win a Premier League penalty: A deep dive into the best masters of the dark arts

Arsenal are still level with Bournemouth after 41 minutes and are getting frustrated.

They need a win to keep the pressure on Manchester City, who play Wolverhampton Wanderers later that day, in the battle for the Premier League title.

Kai Havertz has made a career of finding pockets of space and does so again, gliding into the penalty area to meet Martin Odegaard’s through ball. He uses the outside of his left boot to flick the ball away from onrushing goalkeeper Mark Travers — before keeping that foot down on the turf, elongating it towards the floor like a ballerina performing an axel turn.

Travers cannot avoid it and makes contact.

havertz vs bournemouth

“I felt the contact and went down,” said Havertz post-match. “For me, it’s a penalty.”

There is no untruth in that statement — just omittance. With the goalkeeper’s momentum having already stopped, it would be fair to say that Havertz initiated the contact.

Referee David Coote awarded the spot kick — and VAR did not consider his decision a clear and obvious error. Bukayo Saka scored and Arsenal were on their way to an eventual 3-0 win.

Bournemouth head coach Andoni Iraola’s take was relatively accurate: “On the penalty, Kai Havertz is the one trying to find the contact. At the last moment, he finds the contact and he’s not going towards goal to score a goal.”

The key phrase there is “he finds the contact”. It suggests agency — in exactly the same way that attackers “win penalties” rather than “get fouled”.



If VAR can’t decide quickly, referees should review their own decisions

Opposing captains, coaches, and fans will call it a realm of other things: “diving”, “going down too easily”, “looking for it”. It is fine to disagree with the writing of the laws but in a way, that is immaterial.

Under the regulations as they are written, attackers are rewarded for finding contact. The laws have made winning penalties a skill — and until that changes, the fine margins of the Premier League mean that players will not turn that opportunity down. It can only be solved by more specific laws and more accurate refereeing.

And there is skill in winning penalties — being too obvious or too subtle are unhelpful alike. The best strikers and wingers are not necessarily the best at winning penalties.

Havertz, for example, has done this exact move before — the sequence below is taken from Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Everton at Stamford Bridge in March 2021. He nudges the ball around Jordan Pickford but starts to slow his run before the Everton goalkeeper lunges after it — thus ensuring contact.

havertz vs everton

After that, Havertz said: “It was only a matter of time to fall down… (it) was easy for me to get the penalty.”

But Saturday was the first penalty Havertz has won for Arsenal all season — and he did not manage a single one for Chelsea in 2022-23.

So who are the best at winning penalties in the Premier League — and how do they do it?

Most Premier League penalties won this season

  • 2023-24: six penalties
  • Past three seasons: eight penalties

The master of the art is Anthony Gordon, who has won twice the penalties of any other player this season.

Though Alexander Isak missed the resulting spot kick during Newcastle’s win over Burnley on Saturday, the goals scored from Gordon’s other penalty wins have been worth six points to Eddie Howe’s team. Without those penalties, Newcastle would be eighth in the league and likely to miss out on the financial boost of European qualification.

Add those five scored penalties to his existing assist total (10) and Gordon would be alone at the top of the Premier League assist chart (Ollie Watkins has 12 assists, with two penalties won).

Gordon earned a reputation for going down easily when breaking through at Everton, much of this after a tempestuous Merseyside derby at Anfield in April 2022, during which he went down twice in search of penalties. Neither were given.

The Newcastle winger has earned his penalties in several different ways this season. He is a two-footed dribbler with the pace to take advantage of mistimed lunges. Saturday’s penalty award is a good example of this, the 23-year-old wrong-footing Josh Brownhill and forcing the Burnley player to haul him down.

When Gordon appeared on Gary Neville’s The Overlap podcast two weeks ago, the former Manchester United defender brought up a dribbling technique he found hard to deal with — where players drive towards his inside leg, rooting it, before changing direction late.

“Sometimes wingers make it too easy by going one way too early — you take it right up close,” Neville explains. “Do you deliberately do that?”

“That’s another thing, my angle of approach on a one-vs-one, I try to keep it the same,” says Gordon, nodding. “If I come to you on your left leg, you’re going to have to commit to one side at some point, and then it’s about how quickly can I react — and I feel like I’m quick enough to beat you.”

Penalties and assists are the result.

Most Premier League penalties won in last three seasons

But Gordon, as shown by his derby exploits, will also try and earn them. For each player, The Athletic has watched their penalties over the past three seasons to reach a subjective opinion on whether these were the product of poor challenges (“fouled”) or cunning (“earned”). Sometimes, of course, they are partly both. Make up your own mind which is dominant.

Gordon’s tactics were most evident against West Ham in March — where he twice stepped in front of a defender, winning a penalty on each occasion in a frantic 4-3 win.

The first was a race for the ball with Vladimir Coufal — and with Gordon far quicker, he threw out his left leg slightly wider, knowing the full-back would have no choice but to make contact from behind.

gordon vs coufal

It is not dissimilar to a technique Gordon used against Brighton in 2021-22 when he knew he was quicker than Enock Mwepu, and so manoeuvres his body in front before suddenly slowing his run and accepting the nudge in the back. He effectively brake-tests the defender.

gordon vs brighton 1

Later in the West Ham game, Kalvin Phillips (who was enduring a nightmare cameo) loaded up to clear the ball — and Gordon came from his blind spot to put his leg in the way. Gordon never actually touched the ball. Phillips made contact with Gordon and though, to be frank, the Newcastle man’s leg had no business being there, the penalty was awarded.

gordon vs phillips

Similarly, for the only goal against Brentford in September, Mark Flekken appeared to be pulling out of a challenge, only for Gordon to leave his leg hanging. Though not given on the pitch, a VAR review awarded the spotkick.

  • Earned (4/8): 50 per cent
  • 2023-24: zero penalties
  • Past three seasons: six penalties

He is better known for his penalty-taking than penalty-winning — but had Ivan Toney not been suspended for eight months last May, the Brentford striker may well have earned the most penalties in the league over the past three seasons.

Toney earns a large number of his penalties from tussles in the box and the majority are fouls where he is being wrestled.

Here is a good example against Brighton, where Joel Veltman is draped over his back. This contact is common in the box but Toney knows when the level is high enough to merit a foul, and throws his heels up to highlight it to the referee.

toney vs brighton

One part of Toney’s success may be his physicality — where he jostles with defenders all match, wherever he is on the pitch, and averages almost two fouls per game. This sets an expectation level in the defenders’ minds but whenever they assert their own contact in the box, Toney goes down.

Here, in a strange incident against Norwich in 2021-22, Toney is running away from Grant Hanley when he feels a slight nudge misdirecting him. The striker instantly goes down as if tripped — and scores the second goal in his eventual hat-trick.

toney vs norwich

  • Earned (1/5):  20 per cent
  • 2023-24: one penalty
  • Past three seasons:  five penalties

The Arsenal forward has been no stranger to controversial penalty incidents, such as a last-minute winner against Liverpool in October 2022 where Thiago Alcantara only faintly caught the back of Jesus’ boot. Jurgen Klopp called it “made up”.

Particularly during his time at Manchester City, Jesus was quick enough to outpace defenders and draw fouls. Here is a good example from his first season for Arsenal.

He drives at Tariq Lamptey’s inside leg before flicking the ball away at the final moment and being upended by the Brighton defender.

gabriel vs brighton

There are also examples of him earning spot kicks. The Liverpool example may be one but here, against Leeds United, he forced Luke Ayling to ground early.

This leaves the Leeds right-back as his plaything and with Ayling’s legs outstretched yet the defender motionless on the floor, Jesus is happy to simply run into him and win the penalty.

gabriel vs ayling

  • Earned (2/5): 40 per cent
  • 2023-24: three penalties
  • Past three seasons: five penalties

Raheem Sterling is another player who developed a reputation for diving early in his career — though one stoked as much by his idiosyncratic running style and unconscious bias as his play itself.

Over the past three seasons, the five penalties Sterling has won have all been straightforward: a case of a winger skipping by a defender and being scythed down by a poor challenge.

Here, against West Ham, his late change of direction commits Tomas Soucek — and though the initial contact is outside the area, the pair’s legs are still entangled in the area.

sterling vs whu

If anything, the penalty Sterling most “earned” was in the 2021 European Championship semi-final against Denmark, where he bounced between two defenders and went down after feeling a slight touch from Joakim Maehle.

  • Earned (0/5): zero per cent
  • 2023-24: two penalties
  • Past three seasons: five penalties

Alongside Gordon, Jota is the other master of penalty-area dark arts. The Liverpool forward has manufactured three penalties in the past three seasons.

First, against Crystal Palace in January 2022, he is clean through on goal but his attempted touch past Vicente Guaita goes too close to the byline. Guaita has stopped but Jota deliberately takes an extra step with his right foot into the goalkeeper, effectively clattering into him. Penalty given.

jota vs crystal palace

Then, against Arsenal in April 2023, he helps Liverpool to an equaliser in a virtual reconstruction of Gordon’s tangle with Coufal — slipping his left leg in front of the trailing Rob Holding in order to facilitate an inevitable clash.

jota vs arsenal

The final example is similar to the Havertz incident — and came against Newcastle on New Year’s Day. Jota rounds Martin Dubravka — and in the incident which is the closest to a dive of all those studied, appears to have remained upright after minimal contact, only to then decide to extend his right foot and go down, several steps later, with the ball heading out of play.

jota vs newcastle

  • Earned (3/5): 60 per cent
  • 2023-24: zero penalties
  • Past three seasons: five penalties

Bowen’s ‘standard penalty’, if such a term exists, is finding space in behind before tangling with the desperate covering defender — it is almost a cliche of a penalty.

But the West Ham forward has also won a couple in a similar manner to Gordon. His superpower is to arrive at speed from the defenders’ blind spot.

Here, against Leeds, Pascal Struijk has no idea that Bowen is arriving from his left — and in attempting to clear the ball, he connects with the veering England man.

bowen vs leeds

The example above is a clear penalty but Bowen is a little sneakier against Watford. Daniel Bachmann again has no idea that the winger is arriving but this time, Bowen is never in possession of the ball. Like Gordon against Phillips, Bowen simply puts his leg in the way of the clearance — and tumbles over.

bowen vs watford

  • Earned (1/5): 20 per cent
  • 2023-24: two penalties
  • Past three seasons: four penalties

For Bowen, read Ollie Watkins. The Premier League’s current assist leader has created plenty more over recent seasons, primarily due to his sheer volume of touches in the box.

Here, like Bowen above, the ball is never under control in a game against Wolves in April 2022 but Watkins is able to toe it towards the touchline and the only contact he needs to ensure that it is a penalty is when he inevitably collides with goalkeeper Jose Sa.

watkins vs wolves

  • Earned (1/4): 25 per cent
  • 2023-24: two penalties
  • Past three seasons: four penalties

Like Toney, the Brighton forward is physical and is frequently tugged down in the box — he has completed his transformation from precocious starlet to wily veteran. He was awarded two penalties in this manner in different matches against Tottenham Hotspur this season.

Take this example, where Dejan Kulusevski is pulling the shirt off his back — Welbeck knows what crosses the line and goes down.

export 2024 05 06T120647.346

  • Earned (0/4): zero per cent

The best of the rest

Some honourable mentions. Newcastle’s Fabian Schar has somehow won two penalties this season from centre-back — securing 2-2 draws against Bournemouth and Wolves.

Arsenal midfielder Fabio Vieira has won two penalties despite a paucity of minutes — averaging 0.61 penalties won per 90 minutes.

No player in Europe’s top five leagues has won more than Gordon’s six but in the race for the Golden Penalty Spot, Inter Milan’s Marcus Thuram (five) is pushing the Newcastle winger close. Thuram and Gordon are the only players with more than three.

(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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