Changes have been made to the laws of the game ahead of the 2023-24 Premier League season starting; here, we look at the most significant and the data behind them.
The new Premier League season is almost upon us, so strap yourselves in for a raft of exciting rule changes that promise to revolutionise the beautiful game as we know it. Triangle goals, orange cards, set-piece multi-ball, eradication of offsides in stoppage time, legal handball quotas…
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) has tweaked the laws of the game slightly ahead of the new campaign, just not quite to that extent.
Nevertheless, prepare for their changes to provoke a lot of discussion over the next few weeks, as they do at the start of most new seasons, so you might as well get ahead of the curve now and learn about the data behind the most significant alterations.
The biggest and most notable change due to come into effect relates to match duration; in fact, you may already be aware of increased discourse relating to this over the past week because it was a major talking point in the English Football League and the Community Shield last weekend.
It essentially boils down to referees now being obliged to add on all lost playing time to the end of a half. So, the days of one or two minutes arbitrarily being added on before half-time are largely over (at least for now). Seeing an additional five, six, even eight minutes played at the end of either half will become the norm.
Of course, this way of approaching stoppages and lost time was adopted at the 2022 World Cup, with the average match time reaching 100 minutes and 23 seconds as a result (excluding extra-time). That was one minute and 56 seconds longer than the average Premier League game last season; this may not sound like much, but the early signs are that things will be even more extreme in club football.
Sunday’s Community Shield was the first top-level domestic game to abide by the new guidelines, and that had a match time of 105:45. Obviously it was just a one-off game, so it’s difficult to make sweeping declarations or conclusions based on that alone, but it does provide a snapshot of the change that’s coming.
A glance at the EFL probably provides a more intuitive picture, however. Across the 35 games in the Championship, League One and League Two on the opening weekend of this season, only two came in under 100 minutes; over the 36 matches on Matchday 46 of the 2022-23 campaign, 30 were ended before 100 minutes.
It’s a significant change, but what does it mean beyond the obvious? Well, one argument is fans will get more bang for their buck. We’re in an age when supporting your football team has never cost more, whether you attend every weekend or just watch on TV. So, there’s certainly a feeling it will be better value for money.
However, players might argue it’ll do the opposite. Manchester United defender Raphaël Varane made that very point on Twitter (or X, if you insist on us using its new name…) at the start of the week, frustrated that the changes mean even more physical exertion for players who are already stretched.
This’ll probably be another law change that sticks out like a sore thumb in the next few weeks as the threshold for being cautioned for dissent will be significantly reduced. There’ll obviously still be a degree of subjectivity to each scenario, you’d think, but generally, if more than one player approaches a referee regarding a decision they’ve made, expect to see cards dished out a little more readily this season. The objective, unsurprisingly, is to get players acting more respectfully towards officials.
Theoretically, lowering of the yellow-card threshold should serve as a deterrent; perhaps it’ll work in the long run, but there’s every chance some players will take a little longer to get used to it.
After all, last season saw 88 cards (that’s yellow or red) shown for referee abuse, foul language and/or dissent in the Premier League, which was at least 13 more than each of the previous three campaigns. Nevertheless, that was nowhere near the record.
As far back as Opta records go (2006-07), the most cards shown for referee abuse, foul language and/or dissent was 159 in 2016-17, showing that progress has already been made, regardless of the increase in 2022-23.
It’s also worth noting, those figures were only for players.
Referees will be clamping down on the behaviour of managers and coaches as well. Only one member of staff will be permitted to stand pitchside at a time, while officials are going to be keeping a more watchful eye on managers stepping outside the perimeter of the technical area.
Those offences will be dealt with more harshly than before, and the same goes for aggression towards officials or opponents, which will yield red cards more often than not.
Critics – well, managers and coaches – might argue their conduct was already very heavily scrutinised last season, when there were 38 cards shown to managers; that may not sound remarkable, but 2021-22 had just 18, while there were only 12 cards handed out to managers in the three seasons combined before that.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has already failed to adhere to the new laws, having been shown a yellow card in the Community Shield after he ran down the touchline to the fourth official, gesturing for a Manchester City player to be booked.
“I cannot change my behaviour in three days,” was his response after the game. “It’s a very difficult thing to do. We try our best, I try my best. I understand the rules, I understand where they’re coming from, but we can get frustrated there because sometimes we don’t know what part of the technical area we are [in]. But it’s fine, we will adapt.”
In time, perhaps. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see a flurry of cards shown to managers in the early weeks.
Time-Wasting and Goalkeeper Conduct
Wasting time became a particularly hot topic last season if you remember. We produced The Ultimate Guide to Time-Wasting towards the end of the campaign, and it caused quite a stir.
That came on the back of Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe venting his frustration about the tactics employed by Arsenal in a 2-0 defeat. His perception of their conduct was: “They managed the game well from their perspective. They slowed it down, lots of breaks in play, which was frustrating for us. Naturally, we wanted the ball in play more. Especially when you’re chasing the game.”
As it happened, on average Newcastle took more than three seconds longer to restart a game with a goal-kick than any other team in the Premier League (35.6s); for additional context, Liverpool took just 21.9s to resume play at a goal-kick. Similarly, Newcastle were also high (third) for average time of delays (29.58s), behind only Brentford (31.3s) and Everton (29.63s).
Those figures around Newcastle weren’t particularly surprising given several other managers had already accused them of taking liberties with respect to time, but they stoked debate and discussion nonetheless.
The authorities hope time-wasting will be limited now, though. “Match officials will also be taking a more robust approach to dealing with clear/deliberate actions that are impactful in delaying the restart of play,” according to Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the body responsible for refereeing in English football.
Clearly, goalkeepers will be in their crosshairs. In the Premier League last season, every match lost just over seven minutes on average to delays before goal-kicks. Granted, not all of that can be blamed on time-wasting, but it’s easy to see why some might argue there are gains to be had here.
Since 2003-04, more cards for time-wasting have been shown to defenders (279) and midfielders (281) than goalkeepers (247). Although that might sound surprising initially, it does make sense if you really think about it; keepers can only ever make up 9.1% of a team’s starting XI, yet they account for 25.8% of cautions for time-wasting. However, you could potentially also argue the overall figure (247) suggests keepers have been more likely to get away with taking longer over their duties, given most fans would say many take unnecessarily long over goal-kicks. That may no longer be the case.
This also feeds into unsporting conduct. IFAB has removed wording to the effect of goalkeepers not being allowed to touch “the goalposts, crossbar or goal net” before a penalty, instead broadening the law to say: “The goalkeeper must not behave in a way that unfairly distracts the kicker, e.g. delay the taking of the kick or touch the goalposts, crossbar or goal net.”
Whether those cards become classified under “unsporting conduct” or time-wasting remains to be seen, but expect to see fewer antics from goalkeepers around penalty kicks – or perhaps more cards… We’re looking at you, Emi Martínez!
While referees will be coming down harder on unsporting conduct and dissent, players are seemingly going to get greater freedom to be a bit rougher with each other – as long as their conduct is deemed fair.
Referees are being tasked with trying to let games flow better by reducing stoppages, meaning the contact between players in duels will have to be more significant for a foul to be awarded.
Moving the goalposts (no, not literally) in terms of what qualifies as a foul will, in theory, lead to fewer free-kicks, or at least fewer free-kicks for marginal calls. “Careless” and “reckless” fouls will still land a player in trouble, and anyone deemed to have endangered the safety of an opponent will continue to be shown a red card.
Therefore, it would appear there’s a chance the fouls average in the Premier League could drop below 20 per game for the first time on record (since 2003-04) this season. The 2021-22 season averaged 20.2 fouls every match, which is the fewest for a full campaign as far as our records go back. In fact, it’s one of only three seasons to have fewer than 21 fouls awarded each game, the others being 2017-18 (20.7) and 2018-19 (20.4).
Last season there were 21.6 offences per game worthy of a free-kick, but this was nowhere near the most on record; that was 28.7 in 2005-06. In fact, between 2003-04 and 2010-11, the per-season average never dropped below 24 per game; since then, the average has never gone above 22.7.
Of course, on a single-game basis this probably isn’t noticeable to anyone but the nerdiest data scientist. However, aside from throw-ins (14,422), more restart delays preceded free-kicks (9,071) than any other state of play in the Premier League last season, so this should also result in the ball being in play for longer.
Over the past two campaigns, the ball was in play (54:49 in 2022-23 and 54:45 in 2021-22) less than in the three seasons before, when it ranged between 56:06 in 2020-21 and 55:25 in 2018-19. This change, coupled with the referees’ obligation to add on all lost time, should see the ball-in-play time increase significantly. It was 58:28 (excluding extra-time) at the 2022 World Cup, for instance.
IFAB has also provided extra clarification over cautions given to players for denying a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity in the penalty area, adding that a player is booked if the offence was an attempt to play the ball or – and this is the addendum that’s been made – “a challenge for the ball”. As before, any other offence that’s deemed to carry no possibility of winning the ball is still punished with a red card.
These aren’t all the law changes that have come into effect, but they are the ones we believe to be the most significant or noticeable. The powers-that-be have clearly taken note of the discussion around real match time, with several of the biggest alterations having roots in ball-in-play time.
For the most part, fans saw this as one of the positive aspects of the 2022 World Cup. Football is increasingly expensive to enjoy for punters; getting a few minutes back per match can make a real difference to supporters’ enjoyment, and help them feel they’re getting better value for money.
But it’s difficult to ignore the concerns raised by players, such as Varane, particularly when new tournaments are in the pipeline. The discussion promises to rage on well beyond this weekend.