The science wars behind football’s penalty shoot-outs

Teams are now talking science instead of luck or fate when discussing penalty shootouts.

World Cup - Quarter Final - Russia vs Croatia
Outcome of a penalty shoot-out - joy for one team, despair for the other [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

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When teams assemble to discuss the potential possibility of a penalty shoot-out in football, they do not talk about luck or fate. Instead, they talk science.

When it comes to penalty kicks, many pundits still refer to the traditional mantras that good fortune and intuition are the most important components of success.

After Spain‘s shoot-out defeat to Russia in World Cup 2018 last-16, newspaper Marca described penalty shoot-outs as “lottery”.

That may have been true a few years ago. But goalkeepers and kick-takers at this World Cup make many of their decisions based on scientific data.

Over the past four years, major European teams have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on analysts who examine hours and hours of video footage to identify potentially decisive trends.

Such is the intensity of preparation that when a match goes to penalties, even the five first-choice penalty takers are typically selected based on scientific information and psychometric evaluations which identifies the players that will prove most resilient to the pressure of such a situation.

Even the precise order is often decided through using this data, with studies showing that the first and fifth kicks are the most important, so they need to be taken by those most robust to handling stress.

“We did this kind of testing well in advance of the World Cup to ensure that if a shoot-out came around, there would be a calmness in the way in we approached it,” said England manager Gareth Southgate who masterminded his country’s first World Cup shoot-out victory over Colombia in the last-16.

“You want as much of your analysis and thinking done well beforehand to avoid making any decisions on the spur of the moment.”

Psychometric evaluations are the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to the scientific battleground before a penalty shoot-out.

Following a trend set by clubs in the English Premier League and La Liga in recent years, most of the teams in the World Cup now either employ independent consultants to gather penalty data or subscribe to services provided by teams of analysts at large companies such as Opta. 

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“It’s an expensive business. Teams will pay around $400,000 for three months’ access to Opta’s data,” Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, who has worked as a penalty consultant for the Dutch football team, told Al Jazeera.

Analysts mine through thousands of videos – of club and international matches – to gather information on every potential kick-taker and goalkeeper.

As a start, they try to spot obvious trends which will be easy for players to memorise.

For example, even the best players in the world often have subconscious recurring patterns in their decision-making.

Palacios-Huerta points out that Brazil‘s Neymar, for instance, almost always places penalties to the right of the keeper or down the middle, with his trademark stuttering run-up actually making it very difficult for him to shoot left.

Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois, however, typically chooses to dive right, with kick-takers who shoot to his left enjoying a considerably greater success rate.

For regular penalty takers, who tend to mix up their aim a little more, analysts even use complex statistical models – typically employed in financial trading – to look at the sequential data of their past few kicks, for example, “left, left, centre, right, centre” to try to predict where they are most likely to go next.

“On average, goalkeepers manage to save 20 percent of the kicks,” said Palacios-Huerta.

“So, the relative importance of helping the goalkeeper is much greater than helping the kick-takers.”

In many cases, both teams will have access to this data and, hence, both sides would be aware of any potential patterns. Because of this, analysts will also scour through videos, breaking them down frame by frame to try and identify any small adjustments in body position or posture that can help a goalkeeper detect where the ball might go.

For example, if a player opens up his body up as he prepares to strike the ball, he’s most likely to place his penalty to the goalkeeper’s left. 

On average, goalkeepers manage to save 20 percent of the kicks, according to penalty consultant Ignacio Palacios-Huerta [Kevin C Cox/Getty Images]
On average, goalkeepers manage to save 20 percent of the kicks, according to penalty consultant Ignacio Palacios-Huerta [Kevin C Cox/Getty Images]

“A kick-taker should have good body language which makes him hard to read,” said Daniel Memmert, who worked as a penalty consultant for the German national team.

“This means the chest should be open, the shoulders are behind, and he should always watch the goalie when he steps back from the penalty spot. The Dutch have done this very effectively in the past.”

After the goal-keeper, the second priority for teams is to find ways to improve the chances of infrequent kickers. Teams will drill these players to make them less predictable, and try to feed them information on where a particular goalkeeper may be more likely to dive.

Data is even used to influence the practise environment – analysts have found that teams who practise penalties in a pressurised environment, with mini-competitions between teammates or media and fans watching on, are more likely to succeed.

Mind games are also a hugely important component of a penalty shoot-out. When Kasper Schmeichel prepared to face each penalty in Croatia‘s last-16 shoot-out against Denmark, he would fake to dive in one direction before choosing the other.

It nearly worked. Schmeichel saved two penalties. Because of this, teams even employ specialist psychological consultants to devise new strategies.

“One effective strategy is for the keeper to stand very slightly to the left of the centre of the goal, tricking the shooter into thinking there’s much more space to the right,” said Memmert.

“Subconsciously, he’s then more likely to decide to shoot right, and when the keeper dives in that direction, he has a much better chance of saving the penalty.”

But there is one potential downside to this vast bank of information.

With players having to get through a minimum of 120 minutes before a potential shoot-out, and be alert to various opposition strategies at set plays or counterattacks which will have also been studied before the game, information overload is a genuine risk.

“The margins are very fine, so this kind of data can make a big difference,” said Southgate.

“If it comes down to that in the match, we have to make sure that everything is calm and there aren’t too many voices in the players’ heads.” 

Source: Al Jazeera