Should Gareth Southgate’s England be practicing penalties?

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Another tournament, another potential dreaded penalty shoot-out for England. This time, for the country’s Under-21 side. When England faced Belarus at Oakwell for their last warm-up game before the European Under-21 Championships there were calls to arrange a penalty shoot-out for immediately afterwards – as it would give them practice in front of a crowd in preparation for the tournament in Czech Republic.

England’s manager Gareth Southgate understandably turned it down through fear of upcoming opponents witnessing it and getting tips should they have been there to spy on them for the duration of the actual match.

To be fair they did have a shoot-out when facing Republic of Ireland the week before in a behind closed doors game at St. George’s Park. Some players, managers etc…say there is not much point practicing penalties in training as it does not ally with the feel, tension and pressure of a proper game with more at stake plus a crowd that are either expecting you to do the business or screaming at you to fail.

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When you consider that upcoming opponents could be watching, it is an awkward one for a manager to decide. In the practice shoot-out one could say that players could go for the opposite side of the goal that they would normally when they take a penalty then, for the competitive match, go back to where they would usually strike it or feel more comfortable with. But then it depends on opponents should you have spied on their techniques. It's an awkward one. Or is it?

What England CAN do is read these tips, facts and figures on penalties over the years. According to Prozone, ‘‘over 40 per cent were scored in the left-hand third of the goal,’’ the Telegraph writes. ‘‘Over 40 per cent were scored in the left hand third of the goal. This makes sense if the left is considered the 'natural' side of the goal for right-footed players, who are the majority. 35.1 per cent are scored in the right hand side of the goal while less than a quarter are hit down the middle (thought that didn't stop Andrea Pirlo and Sergio Ramos).’’

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Virtually half of successful penalties were scored in the bottom third. But for those looking at that area as a safety first option, a caveat – this is also the area the highest proportion of saves come from, as shown by the spread within the goal frame of penalties scored, saved and missed below shows.

With goalkeepers naturally diving low to the right or left, 71.4 per cent of all saves coming here. Further to the aim high or low debate there is encouragement for those brave enough to try and strike the ball in the top third of the goal. Of all the penalties in the study not a single one was saved here – meaning if you can lift the ball high and on target you are guaranteed to score. of course, the risk of striking it over or against he cross bar exists.

Well over half of those penalties missed were aimed at the top third of the goal. Almost a quarter of those missed were aimed bottom left, a function of this being the most popular target.

Unsurprisingly those who send the ball low and straight down the middle never miss. With only 3.6 per cent of saves being made in the middle of the goal perhaps Pirlo and Ramos saw these numbers before this week.

Coin toss is significant

For those who believe that penalty shoot-outs come down to luck there is support, but not how they might think. The luck of the coin toss is significant. Those who chose to go first during the study scored 76.9 per cent of cent of penalties scored compared to 68.4 per cent success for those going second – the team going first winning 75 per cent of shoot outs.

This is provably explained by the pressure of constantly playing catch up, with those missing first losing 81.2 per cent of the time. The truth of pressure telling is no more starkly revealed than in the staggering statistic that 81.2 per cent of those taking penalties that would win the shoot-out for their country scored while the figure for those needing to score to stay in the competition drops to just a 14.2 per cent success rate, the average success rate being 68.9 per cent.’’

Other figures have revealed that penalty takers who took longer than 2.8 seconds to place the ball on the spot found the net 77% of the time. Those who took 1.7 or less scored with only 58% of kicks. The Dutch are taught to place the ball on the spot, breathe in, tie laces, anything to slow down proceedings. The Royal Dutch Football Association insist on younger age-group sides conducting shoot-outs at the end of games. Their Under-21s beat England's equivalent on penalties at the Euros in 2007. Prior to 2008 at least 25% of knock-out games in major tournaments were decided by penalties.

So Gareth, do what you do on this matter and make a note of the points stated above. Like our wretched record at major tournaments it could well be the difference between winning a trophy, making a nation happy and gaining an easier life; or getting knocked out, coming home to boos, criticism and a mark stamped on your name etched FAILURE.

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Gareth Southgate
England Football

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