Carlos Bacca isn’t the surest of penalty takers. The Colombian centre forward misses one in four attempts. But that wasn’t the only reason Jordan Pickford fancied his chances against him. The England goalkeeper was armed with crucial intel: when in pressure, Bacca shoots to his right.
On Tuesday night, in their Round of 16 match in Moscow, Pickford — and England — used this stat in the crudest way possible. When Bacca took his shot, Pickford leaped to his right, parrying the ball away with his outstretched hand. It was the most crucial moment of a dramatic shootout as England, scarred by decades of failure, finally won a tie-breaker.
It should also provide closure to one of football’s favourite cliches — that penalties are predominantly down to luck. This logic might have been true a decade ago, when the use of statistics and technology was at a primitive level. But as teams have shown in the last few years, especially in this World Cup, the sport has become smarter. There is science behind penalties, not just luck.
Every team has at least one analyst whose only job is to study the penalty patterns of their opponents. On Tuesday night, Pickford and David Ospina, the Colombian goalkeeper, guessed the right way almost every time. But most kicks were so well hit that it was practically impossible to save them. Of course, it’s impossible to say what the penalty taker will do at that exact moment. But the data helps goalkeepers take an educated guess, thus giving them a better chance of saving the penalty.
Coincidentally, it was in Moscow that the first actual impact of data science in penalty shootouts at a major tournament was witnessed exactly 10 years, in a match involving English teams. Before the 2008 Champions League final, Chelsea got on board a researcher named Ignacio Palacios Huerta.
The Spaniard prepared a dossier on every Manchester United player and one of his findings was particularly striking: Cristiano Ronaldo, he observed, paused during his run-up, waited for the goalkeeper to commit and then slotted the ball to the opposite side. Huerta also pointed out that most of Ronaldo’s kicks were to the goalkeeper’s right. These bits were relayed to Petr Cech, the current Arsenal goalkeeper who who was with Chelsea back then.
The final ended 1-1 after extra time and penalties came into play, Cech — who till then relied simply on instinct — followed Huerta’s advice. When Ronaldo’s turn came, he, as expected, stopped briefly in his run-up. But Cech didn’t move. That unsettled Ronaldo and he ultimately hit a weak shot to the right. Cech leaped in that direction and saved it. The play forced Ronaldo to alter his run-up — he has never repeated the pause again.
In the same match, Huerta also provided Chelsea’s strikers with fascinating insights on Manchester United custodian Edwin van der Sar’s behaviour in shootouts. The Dutchman, he said, had a tendency of diving to his right. So in the tie-breaker, the first six penalty-takers aimed to Van der Sar’s left, with him going to his favoured side each time.
Then, the most remarkable thing happenned. When Nicolas Anelka stepped up to take the decisive kick, Van der Sar pointed to the left, as if saying, ‘I know which way you’re going.’ That sowed doubt in Anelka’s mind. He halted for an extra second after the referee blew his whistle, trying to decide which way to go before choosing to go to the right. Van der Sar jumped in that direction and pulled off a stunning save. A classic example of what Gary Lineker once said, that penalties are ‘war of nerves between the kicker and ’keeper.’
That night, Anelka’s decision to deviate from the plan cost his team a European title. But Huerta’s reputation grew several folds. In the football world, they started calling him the penalty doctor. It wasn’t only because of that one night in Moscow.
In 2003, he came up with a fascinating thesis (Professionals Play Minimax), analysing 1,417 penalty kicks, primarily from the leagues in Spain, England and Italy. It was the kind of research that was never done before, going into the minutest details of each penalty taken — the reaction of players in pressure situations, the placement of penalties and such.
One observation, however, stood out: the team that took the first shot first won 60.5 per cent of the shootouts. That, he concluded, was because of the mental pressure on the team kicking second, of the need to score in order to stay in the game.
Toss, one of the most under-rated aspects before shootouts, hence becomes crucial. In the quarterfinal of the 2008 European Championships, Gianluigi Buffon won the toss and allowed Spain to take the first kick. Italy lost while Spain went on to win the title. In 2016 Champions League final, Atletico Madrid won the toss before the shootout and decided to go after their city rivals Real. They, too, could not cope with the pressure and lost.
That shootout, too, revealed the kind of study that goes into shootouts. Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, Real noticed, would take a small step towards the side he would jump just before the penalty was taken. It would help him cover the corner faster and more efficiently. So Real’s kickers slowed down their run up, saw Oblak’s first step and placed the ball in the opposite corner.
These weren’t perfectly taken penalties, but it didn’t matter because Oblak had no chance of saving them.
An analysis by Opta, one of the leading sports analytics companies, shows that penalties hit to the top corners are the least saved because it is hard for goalkeepers to cover those areas. In the Euro 96 shootouts, where Gareth Southgate infamously missed his kick, 9 out of the 11 penalties were hit in the top corners. The current England coach went low, and his attempt was saved.
Penalties taken along the surface, too, have a high success rate but only when they are aimed at the side netting and hit with a lot of venom — almost half of Cristiano Ronaldo’s 104 accurate penalties are hit here. At this World Cup, 9 out of the 24 penalties in the group stage have been hit to the bottom right corner of the goal. But accuracy is a key issue here — slightly weak, and it’ll be saved — as Bacca’s failed attempt proved on Tuesday.
Research shows that from goalkeepers’ point of view, it might not be a bad gamble for them to stand their ground. In 2010, analysts Florian Baumann, Tim Friehe and Michael Wedow (General Ability and Specialization: Evidence From Penalty Kicks in Soccer) studied 999 penalties in the Bundesliga and concluded that 15 per cent of players shot down the middle. At the same time, a separate study of 286 penalties showed just two per cent goalkeepers remained in the centre. That, they said, is because of action bias — where the goalkeepers feel it is important to be seen as making an effort instead of doing nothing and being blamed.
It is, of course, not always possible for goalkeepers to remember all this in the heat of the moment. So some, like Julian Pollersbeck, take the extreme measure of sneaking in cheat sheets on the field. The German goalkeeper was spotted checking the tiny sheet of paper, hidden in his left sock, containing penalty instructions during the European U-21 championship semifinal against England. He pulled off two brilliant saves, condemning England to yet another shootout defeat.
On Tuesday, Pickford ended England’s tie-breaker hoodoo. There was a lot of skill involved in pulling off the save. But there was also science behind it.
AbaB to ABBA?
This is the traditional format, being used in this World Cup. Each team has five kicks and takes it in turn. The team with the most goals at the end of the five kicks each wins the game. In case there’s a tie, it goes to sudden death. However, research has proven that the team taking the first penalty has a winning percent of 60.5, giving the team that wins the toss an advantage.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB), which formulates the game’s rules, has experimented an alternate system, similar to tie-breaks in tennis. As per that, Team A takes the first penalty, Team B the second and third, Team A the fourth and fifth and so on until each team had taken five. The sequence would continue if the shootout then goes to sudden death.
Penalties targeted at the top corners are least saved because it is hard for the goalkeepers to cover those areas. Out of the 434 penalties taken in 44 World Cup and European Championship games, just 3 percent of the shots hit halfway up the goal or more are saved, according to statistics group Opta. At this World Cup, none of the penalties aimed at the top corners have been saved — three failed shots have missed the target.
Penalty kicks taken along the surface have high success rate, but mostly when they are aimed at the side netting and hit with a lot of venom. Cristiano Ronaldo is among the finest exponents of this – half of the 104 accurate penalties he’s taken in his career are aimed here. Usually, right-footed players aim at this corner since it is their natural side.
Shots taken down the middle have high conversion ratio. Analysts studied 999 penalties in Bundesliga and concluded that 15 percent of players targetted centre. Another research found out just 2 percent of the keepers remained in the centre. Since they dive either left or right, the goalies have been able to save only those shots which have been low, getting lucky with their trailing leg.
Accuracy an issue
The number of penalties aimed to the left of the goalkeeper are fewer because this is a natural side for the left-footed players, who are in the minority. The only concern with penalties aimed at the bottom — left or right — is the accuracy; slightly weak or misdirected, and it’ll land in no man’s land, resulting in a save, as was the case with Colombia’s Bacca on Tuesday.
The shots aimed at the top corners also require a high degree of technical skills. These attempts are risky as it is easy to hit them off target. Overall, in the World Cups and European Championships, 18 percent of high shots have missed the target. In Russia, too, it has happened thrice, most recently during the shootout between England and Colombia, when Mateus Uribe’s shot struck the crossbar.