Penalties: More than just a mind game?
The statistical analysis of penalty shoot-outs shows it's not just down to chance
Penalties are a nerve-racking experience for anyone. From the casual Sunday league striker to world-class operators. Stroking the ball home from twelve yards is always easier said than done.
As a youngster, the advice you were given regarding taking penalties probably went something like this; "Pick a side, and stick with it. Make sure it's high or low to keep it out of the keepers reach". However at the highest levels of the game, there are more problems in the mind of the penalty taker.
And what will be going through the 'keepers mind? There is a lot more variation in penalty kicks in the modern game. Stop-start run ups, the kicker waiting for the keeper to move, smashing penalties high into the central third of the net where the keeper rarely dives. And what if the kicker breaks the mould completely, and chips it down the middle, leaving the ‘keeper completely embarrassed?
In the modern game where nothing is left to chance, the importance placed on statistics is huge. Statistical influence on penalties is no different. At the highest level, those taking their kicks must remember that penalties have a memory. You have to score, but it is dangerous to show too much favour towards your strong side as you then become predictable.
All goalkeepers in the modern game have knowledge of what side their opponent usually picks. A teams first choice penalty taker has to not only focus on hitting the ball well, but must include variation in his penalties to make sure future goalkeepers won't find a pattern in his kicks. The kicker must possess the 'he knows that I know he knows' attitude when facing the keeper.
The penalty shoot-out is a different story however. Players not recognised as penalty takers now come into play. With fewer penalties taken, keepers have less back data to rely on when facing these players. Usually these players will have less differentiation in their patterns, they will pick their natural side (a right footed kicker will go to their left and vice versa with a left footed kicker.)
In a shoot-out, as fans, we are often so engrossed in the moment, we forget about the analysis that has gone into these situations. All keepers have 'crib sheets' indicating the likely direction that the penalty taker is going to go. But sometimes the keepers are analysed also. The kicker will analyse the keeper's preferences.
The book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski, ‘Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained’ offers one such example of this in the 2008 Champions league Final between Manchester United and Chelsea that went to Penalties.
Surprisingly the knowledge of this prime example is not well known. In a chapter focusing on penalties, they publicise the extent and effect of the penalty analysis from the Chelsea perspective.
To cut a long short, Avram Grant's friend knew Basque economist Ignacio Palacio. Palacio had published a paper on how penalties were taken. Grant got in touch with Palacio and asked him to construct a report of Manchester United when it came to penalties. The report focused on three main points, they were as follows:
1. Edwin Van der Sar dived to the kicker's natural side far more often than the average keeper. Thus when facing a right sided player he would dive to his right, and when a left footed player he would go to his left. Thus Chelsea's right-footed players would have a better chance of scoring, if they shot toward their 'unnatural' side (Van Der Sar's left).
2. The vast majority of Van der Sar's saves from penalties were those at mid-height. It was of paramount importance that any Chelsea penalties were hit along the ground or high up.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo stops a lot in his run ups to penalties, if he stops, there is an 85% chance he will go to the keeper's right. However Ignacio mentioned he could change his mind very late on, so if the keeper moved early, Ronaldo would go either side. It was very important for the keeper not to move early.
Looking at the penalty shoot-out, Ignacio's advice was followed to the letter. Petr Cech didn't move for Ronaldo's penalty and saved the shot to his right, and Chelsea's first six penalties went to the left, the only blip being John Terry hitting the post with the match winning kick, while Van der Sar dived to Terry's supposedly natural side.
However, while Ignacio's plan had worked thus far, it was simple with no variation. Once Van der Sar became aware of Chelsea's tactic for right footed kickers to go left, it truly did then become a lottery. If you watch the shoot-out again, as Nicolas Anelka strode up to take the kick to keep Chelsea in the game, Van der Sar can be seen pointing to his left, as if to say, 'I know where your going.'
What was going through Anelka's mind? 'He knows I’ve been told to go left, should I know go right?'. The gangly Dutchman had psyched out Anelka, he made him change his mind. Anelka committed the cardinal sin of hitting the shot to Van der Sar's right, and at mid-height. The rest as they say, is history.
This example shows the huge amount of analysis and expertise invested in the simple spot kick. It isn’t just picking a side from twelve yards; it becomes a mental battle, trying to pick out the patterns and preferences of your opponent. It seems that the old adage of 'pick a side and stick with it' is a dangerous game when your kicks are being recorded. It seems randomisation from twelve yards maybe the best way to throw your opponent.
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