When the handball comes in an aerial duel or right after the duel, the accuracy of penalty decision drops to 16,7% which is roughly 1 in 6 penalty incidents that we solve correctly. Reminder though - this percentage takes into account only situations where penalty was given or should be given and not the ones where not giving a penalty is the correct solution.
This is such an astonishing drop from the average accuracy that it requires further analysis. And this is not a statistical fluke either as we have 30 of such situations in our database (from 4 leagues and 7 seasons) with only 5 of them being awarded correctly.
1) First we look at two handballs that happen after dead-ball situations. A free-kick is played in and the players both jump for the ball. The defender spreads his arms for balance and the attacker heads the ball to an outstretched arm of the defender. The referee is positioned so that the handball is covered by both the body of the attacker and the defender. Handball from a FK - head to arm: 2) Almost the exact same situation happens from a corner kick with the difference that here the attacker tries to shoot at the goal and the hand is clearly blocking the shot. Even from a video the handball is hard to detect - what chance does the referee have? Here the defender is also positioned behind the attacker jumping for the ball and the arm of the defender (with a white armband) appears into the picture exactly 1 frame before the header. Handball from a corner - head to arm 3) Another possible situation is where the defender has his outstretched arm on the body of the opponent and the attacker misses the ball with his head making the ball drop onto the hand of the defender which is clearly out from the body. Handball when header is missed: 4) Final example from a missed penalty comes from open play where the ball is also coming to a possible aerial duel but the defender manages to handle the ball just a fraction before the duel happens. Here the tricky part is understanding if the ball touched or did not touch the hand. Handball from open play before aerial duel:
5) There have been a few also wrongly given, probably based on the reactions of opposition players or just seeing the touch but not understanding the full movement. Here the defender plays the ball with his head to his hand and making this clearly not a punishable offense. So the old truth of “never give what you do not see or if you are not 100% sure” holds true. Solution definitely is not to start guessing. Wrongly given handball from an aerial duel: Looking at those videos we can easily understand why it is such a hard topic for referees and why we need VAR in modern football, as they can go back, slow it down, zoom it and come up with the right answer. Is there anything we can do on the field of play to get better at those situations - besides praying that it does not happen in my game?
Firstly we can surely prime ourselves for searching for the handballs. You know when you have just bought a new car and you drive it down the main street - for some reason you see the same brand of cars everywhere. It is because your mind is highly alert to seeing, for example, Toyotas. Same principle can be applied in refereeing - look for the signs of a possible handball happening before it happens. Look for the hands moving out from the body of the defenders when they go into aerial duels or when they are going to try to block a shot on goal. Also ask your team, especially the 4th official to concentrate on possible handballs during set-pieces. Sometimes you have a feeling in your stomach that there was a handball but it is not enough to award a penalty, but if a team-mate also comes into a mic “Did I just see a handball?” you might have enough for the correct solution.
6) Here is a great example from Estonia where the referee asks “Was there a handball?” and the assistant replies “Yes, I think there was!” Correct handball from an aerial duel with the assistance of AR A second concept that could help is being less focused. What do I mean by that. Sometimes when we sit on the tribune and watch a match we see things that are not seen by the referees. It could be the angle we are watching from or the fact that we have a wider perspective (being further away), but it could also be that as a spectator we are not over focusing on details. Attention is a finite resource and if you are concentrating 100% in seeing a possible foul in an aerial duel you have no resources left to see the next thing - a handball happening. Widening your attention can be of course trained over time, but I have a feeling that if we trust ourselves more, be alert and aim to use optimal energy (optimal attention resource) then we will see more. Otherwise we are a bit like horses with blindfolds - seeing one thing perfectly, but losing focus around the edges of our vision.
7) Here is an example of such a penalty being given by an Estonian referee who reached an incredible 100% accuracy in penalties and red cards through the whole season in 2020. In an interview he gave RefPal after the season one of his key ideas was to “Arrive in the penalty area and then calm down (lower my heart rate), just observe” or it could be that he was just lucky - god knows, we need our fair share of luck as referees. Correct handball from an aerial duel