In defense of the diving status quo
Imagine this scenario: It’s the 60th minute of a nil-nil game and you’re a forward preparing to shoot in the opposing penalty box. At that very moment, an opposing player barges in front of you, impeding your movement. This is not the most grievous of fouls. You are off balance, but it’s enough to guarantee that you’ll fall over. In this split second, you have two options:
1) Try to regain your footing and get a shot off.
2) Go down and hope for a penalty.
What do you do?
The dilemma at hand is an outgrowth of the rules of the game. Penalties of the non-handball variety are awarded whenever a “direct free kick offense” is committed inside the penalty box. That can be when a defender charges, jumps at, kicks, pushes, strikes, tackles, or trips an opposing player “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.” Absent these questions of intent, a defender can also be penalized for holding or impeding an opponent or throwing another object at the ball.
The penalty lacks the binary elegance of “it’s a goal if the entire ball crosses the line.” You don’t always know it when you see it. It’s an epistemological minefield. In practice, the most egregious of penalties are called with relative consistency. At the opposite end of the spectrum, all sorts of holding and impeding acts go uncalled lest the game degenerate into a series of stoppages and penalties. This leaves a tricky middle category of incidents that are probably fit the definition of a penalty — a careless tackle; some holding on a corner; having your foot stepped on — but that don’t always look enough penalty-ish enough for officials.
Once solution to this predicament: The attacking player can make the incident look more penalty-ish. It should not matter whether you end up on the ground. The relevant rules of the game make no mention of it. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the game, however, could tell you that this is how it is refereed.
So there you are, suspended in that brief moment between falling over and furtively regaining footing. You have an intuitive sense of the probabilities at play because they aren’t all that complicated, but this is an article so we can take the time to work through them.
Let’s start by considering the range of outcomes that might follow from not diving. You might stumble about and be as useless as if you’d fallen over, producing no shot. You might also recover enough to get a shot off or set one up for a teammate. In rare cases, that’ll be a good shot. In most cases it won’t, because you’ve been impeded and most shots — absent any impediment — have low expected goal values. It’s hard to come up with an argument that the average shot in this scenario will be worth more than 0.1 expected goals.
What if you go down? A penalty is worth more than just about any other shot. Depending on the expected goal model and how one factors in chances created from a rebounding miss, its value can reach 0.8xG. This is a very desirable shot. Of course, you’re not guaranteed a penalty if you go down. That’s just the best case scenario. At the other extreme, taking yourself out of the play by falling down deprives your side of a chance to get even a lesser shot off. So the range of possible outcomes is from 0 to 0.8 XG. Even if going down due to some holding in the box only nets you a penalty 13 per cent of the time, you’re still getting more value than staying on your feet.
The difference between these approaches is often couched in moral terms, but it is also distributional. Not diving will give you something like the average outcome most of the time whereas the outcomes of diving — penalty or bust — form an extremely bipolar distribution. The different ways one can think about these distributions are a staple of tactical debates: Do you value getting a lot of shots off crosses? Would you rather risk an extra pass to get a good shot? Does Andros Townsend’s shot map make you cry? (It may seem obvious to you, dear StatsBomb reader, that aggregate shot quality is the answer, but that is not a universally held position.) Going down in this case is just an extreme case of going all-in on shot quality — volume be damned!
There are, to be clear, other variables that play into the diving calculus. For instance, there’s the possibility of a player getting sent off: If you’re that player, diving is remarkably costly; if it’s an opposing player, the benefit is even greater. (The impact of a sending-off is a function of how much time is left in a match.) Still, amid all the concern trolling about diving, such extreme forms of official sanction are rare. Moreover, they are unevenly targeted. Some players get labelled as “divers” and can’t get favourable calls; most are fine. There is a risk of getting the Wilfried Zaha treatment if you go down all the time, but it is probably not an argument for always stumbling on. These added costs to diving can be addressed by picking your moments (don’t go down when up two goals) or limiting theatrics.
Exaggerated falls present a particular challenge for football administrators, who wish to eradicate diving while avoiding any other changes to the game or its rules. It’s those requirements — more than the diving itself — that make diving such a thorny problem. Administrators can discourage diving, but they may not like the game that produces.
Most obviously, an entire genre of dive could be undercut if officials ceased to treat a player going to ground as a prerequisite for a penalty call. This, in theory, would reward players who currently struggle to stay on their feet and encourage their peers to do the same. Players could be forgiven for initially suspecting that such a policy wouldn’t be seriously enforced. To make it stick, a fair number of penalties would have to be called. This would likely be in keeping with the rules of the game, but it would be a meaningful change. Would fans countenance this? Or administrators? The lesson of 2019’s Summer of VAR, after all, has clearly been that enforcing the rules as written may be unpopular to the point of being untenable.
Speaking of VAR, the technology is often mooted as a solution to diving. This, like most techno-utopianism, is simplistic at best. Video replay may address cases where a player goes down without being touched, but it is unlikely to solve for players going down after marginal contact. Indeed, the lesson of VAR so far is that every bit of contact can look bad when replayed from dozens of angles in extreme slow motion. Again, you’re likely to end up with more fouls and penalties in this scenario — and maybe a few more players carded for diving along the way.
Penalties are valuable and scarce — if not exactly finite — resources. It is not a mystery why players will go to great lengths to accrue them. (If anything, it’s a mystery that players don’t try more on this front.) For all the pearl clutching about diving, there appears to be far less willingness to change the game in a way that would meaningfully eliminate much of this behaviour. Penalties in every game is not a price anyone appears willing to pay to cut out the theatrics. The most workable compromise may be a lot of whining about diving and suggestions that change is afoot without much actual policy change. You may recognize this as the last decade; it’s also the future.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association