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The penalty shoot out lottery

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I have followed England in the last six major tournaments we have played in stretching back to the European Championships held here on home soil in 1996. During that time we have failed to qualify once – in 2008 under McClown, but in the other six tournaments we have exited on penalties on all bar one occasion. There are also those who would add that having a goalkeeper with a pony tail in the 2002 World Cup was a penalty in itself as well.

Do we ever learn? It appears not. Penalty taking is not a science, it is a lottery. Or is it? We have been negligent in viewing such competitions with a serious head and our lack of preparation has been our undoing. During the past few years I have painfully seen my beloved West Ham lose a cup final on penalties, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and AC Milan win the Champions League on penalties yet there still seems to be little interest in preparing for the event.

The penalty shoot out lottery
England lose in Germany again

Glenn Hoddle, England manager in 1998 in France freely admitted the team had not practised penalties, and even went as far to say that during extra time in the game versus Argentina he had no idea who his five penalty takers would be. In Lisbon in 2004, Sven put his faith in two players who would ultimately not finish the quarter final game with Portugal and thus be unable to take a spot kick. Two years later and Rooney’s sending off meant that Jamie Carragher, a substitute and a player who had never taken a penalty in a game before took one, and missed.

Capello said:

“Penalties are a lottery, I remember some very important players didn’t take penalties because they didn’t feel sure they would score.

For this reason, with penalties, when the time comes and you have to choose who should take them, you ask and the players say ‘no, please’ and that can even be the very best players.

I prefer to choose the players who want to take penalties and I always train with penalties in my mind.

I know who the best players are to take them, already. I know. But the pressure at the moment you have to take the penalty is different.

During training, the goal is big and the keeper is small. But when you have to score a penalty to win the World Cup, the goal is little and the keeper is big. It is difficult to score under that pressure.”

The penalty shoot out lottery
Lehmann’s saves again against Argentina

But are they a lottery as Capello says? In the quarter final between Germany and Argentina played just 24 hours before England’s defeat, Jens Lehmann was seen between kicks studying a bit of paper that he kept in his sock. It certainly wasn’t a prayer, or a good luck poem as some (probably ITV) commentators remarked on at the time, but a list of observations that he had compiled from watching the Argentinian players take penalties before.

  • Crespo – long run up – to the right.  short run up to the left
  • Aimar – waits along time – left

Whilst he only saved two of the four he faced, he went the right way for all of them. Interestingly enough, England’s success ratio in winning penalty shootouts is the lowest of all major nations.

  • Argentina – 73% win rate
  • Germany – 71%
  • Brazil – 64%
  • France – 50%
  • Italy – 33%
  • Netherlands – 20%
  • England – 17%

And in the last 20 years, who have won the major tournaments? Brazil 5, Argentina 2, Germany 2, France 2,  Italy 1, Netherlands 1… and England: ZERO. But it is not all about scoring – we need someone who can save them as well and we are at least well positioned in this respect. Our current first choice goal keeper is Robert Green, and interestingly enough he has the best penalty saving record in the Premier League with only 53% penalties he faced being scored in the past 5 years.

So it is not all about preparation then. Why are some players more successful at taking penalties than others? Let’s take four examples.

Matt Le Tissier – Scored 48 out of 49 spot kicks he took during his career. The one he missed was saved, meaning that every single one was on target. His technique was to hit the ball side-footed but with power. He claimed that 90% hit the corner of the net, making them almost impossible to save.

The penalty shoot out lottery
The slip on your bum technique

Ray Stewart – When West Ham paid Dundee United £430,000 for this teenager in 1979 most people said “who?”. But he soon became one of the most feared penalty takers in the land, netting 81 out of 86 during his career, including one in the last minute of injury time in the League Cup final at Wembley to take the game to a replay. Stewart relied purely on power, using a principle that a keeper may get a hand to it but the power would take his hand into the net along with the ball.

Julian Dicks – In a similar vein to Stewart “the Terminator” Dicks blasted home over 90% of his spot kicks during his career, including the last goal scored in front of the Anfield Kop during his season at Liverpool. In the 1995/96 season he scored 10 penalties, which is still a record for a defender in the Premier League.

Cristiano Ronaldo – The fancy Dan of penalty taking, full of shimmies, dummies, delays and dinks. He had an almost impeccable record for Manchester United for many years. Things have gone a bit pear shaped since moving to Real Madrid as he has missed 40% of his spot kicks this season.

So when we get on the field in the quarterfinal/semifinal in South Africa, please make sure Mr Capello that you know your penalty takers, that we have practiced and that our goalkeeper is fully prepared. Another four years of hurt is nothing compared to the four days of over reaction from our media!

The wrong way to take a “clever” penalty.

And the right way…

For more details on penalty kicks, go to Penalty Shootouts website.

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I am a football writer and blogger who looks at the commercial aspects of the game today both at grass roots and full blown professional aspects. I report on one game per week, taking time to research the club, talk to supporters and key personnel before writing my reports and publishing them on my blog. I recently wrote the book Passport To Football which was published in October 2009 which covers 30 "adventures" around the world watching the game. I am currently working on a new book (my 7th) which will be published in September 2010 about what it is like to follow a non-league team in England.