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May 28, 2012

Paying the penalty

At the very least, Bastian Schweinsteiger wasn’t alone, and we don’t just mean that Ivica Olic also missed in the Champions League final shootout or that Philipp Lahm ran over to comfort him. The apparently unprecedented sight of a German desolately lamenting a high-profile penalty miss is actually not that new.

Just a few weeks ago, in the Under-17 European Championship final, Schweinsteiger’s young compatriots also lost a shootout. Worse, they were defeated by Netherlands -- a country with one of the worst spot-kick records in international football history. These recent aberrations only followed Lukas Podolski’s miss against Serbia in their 2010 World Cup group match.

If anything, the aura is starting to evaporate. Might it be the best bet of Euro 2012? Could Germany lose a first shootout in 36 years?

Of course, throughout that time, such a prospect has been unthinkable, but then so has the idea of a Germany international missing any penalty at all.

Since Uli Stielike saw his kick saved by Jean-Luc Ettori in the 1982 World Cup semifinal against France, the Germans have scored every single penalty they’ve taken in an international tournament.

It seems a remarkable record but, in truth, simple physics should have rendered it a routine record because, unless a six-foot-plus goalkeeper is standing right beside the post, the top corners of any goal are unreachable. At best, even someone leaping around his line (like Petr Cech) can reach only 72 percent of the area he’s trying to protect.

As such, there are clear targets players should be trying to hit to eliminate the variable of the goalkeeper altogether. And, with proper, rigorous practice -- while also actually observing and perfecting technique -- there is no reason that they can’t mechanically train themselves to hit these corners repeatedly. After all, the very dimensions are much more forgiving than free throws in basketball or putting in golf. Gary Player’s maxim -- “The more I practice, the luckier I get” -- stands even truer.

Similarly, in a wide-ranging study of penalty kicks, psychologist Olaf Binsch found that shooters who were focusing on a target, rather than just trying to beat a goalkeeper, had a much higher success rate since they were less distracted. Here, the older maxim of “picking your spot and staying with it” also stands true.

The wonder, of course, is why all teams don’t follow this approach, but is it really that surprising? Football is a notoriously anti-academic game.

It says a lot that, as Fernando Torres suffered the worst confidence crisis of his career over the past year, neither Chelsea nor the striker’s agent reportedly even considered the idea of consulting a proper sports psychologist.

In football, untested truisms seem to become outright fact a little too easily: most infamously, that “you can’t practice penalties;" that “you can never recreate the pressure." But let’s flip that concept on its head. In a pressure situation, who is the likelier to succeed: the player who is maybe taking his first proper penalty in two months, or the player who has been mechanically honing his technique?

There have been suggestions that the Germans at least leant toward the latter over the last few decades. Sources suggest they did approach penalties along these lines, and you only have to look at the quality of their kicks in shootouts during the 1990s in particular: all placed, all powerful. The efforts against England in Euro ‘96 were especially exceptional.

Famously, though, the German youth infrastructure was completely revamped in 2000. Almost all of the changes were for the good. 

Is it possible, however, that they forgot to incorporate one of the true positives of the past? Are we finally seeing a generation of German players who have not been inculcated into the old approach to shootouts? Recent events would suggest so.

Even when you look at their last shootout -- the 2006 quarterfinal against Argentina -- all of the kickers were brought up through the old system. And, if we have seen a change, then, in Euro 2012, shootouts may not necessarily be a lottery, but rather much more susceptible to issues like fatigue, fitness and, of course, mentality because, as it is, almost no country prepares properly.

The stories about ad hoc competitions after every training session are essentially irrelevant if no-one is thoroughly surveying the quality and technique of the approach. Simply kicking at goal and seeing if you scored or missed isn’t enough. There are too many variables.

In that context, too, aiming for the top corners as we’ve discussed here is of no benefit. Most players will not have practised it enough to make it truly worthwhile and to minimise chance as much as possible.

As such, the ‘best’ penalty in the current circumstances is probably the “poker bluff” - trying to outfox the keeper or make him move before striking. Against West Germany in the Euro ‘76 final, Antonin Panenka gave the best example of this. At the turn of the millennium, Gaizka Mendieta seemed to master it. More recently, Mario Balotelli has been emulating it.  But even that’s not perfect, as we saw with Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2008 Champions League final and Schweinsteiger in this year’s.

The ultimate question, though, is whether the Euro 2012 teams will emulate their own historical records this summer. Can the Dutch or the English improve their record? Will Portugal lose one?

Perhaps most interestingly of all, Czech Republic and Germany may well meet in the knock-out rounds. Even if you include the 14 from 14 of Panenka’s old Czechoslovakia, a Czech has never missed a penalty in such situations. In this case, Schweinsteiger may be hoping for another, different, break with history.

But, essentially, while approaches to shootouts remain so unprofessional, most will remain open to a degree of chance. They will never, however, be a lottery. Otherwise, all of these teams would have almost identical records.

 

The record of all the Euro 2012 squads in international tournament shootouts
Country Penalties taken Scored Conversion rate Total shootouts Won
Portugal 12 9 75% 2 2
Czech Republic 6 6 100% 1 1
Ukraine 4 3 75% 1 1
Germany 28 26 93% 6 5
France 31 25 81% 6 3
Spain 28 21 75% 6 3
Denmark 10 9 90% 2 1
Ireland 10 7 70% 2 1
Sweden 12 9 75% 2 1
Italy 37 26 70% 7 2
Netherlands 24 16 75% 5 1
England 31 21 68% 6 1
Croatia 4 1 25% 1 0


 

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