The penalty shoot out lottery

The penalty shoot out lottery


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.

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.”

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 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.


  1. Good article! Time for you English to face the fact that you can indeed not only practice the technique but also train the mental abilities to win a penalty shoot-out. Lehmann won all the penalty shoot-outs he has ever been in (against Milan, Rovers, ManU and Argentina) and even against Argentina Cambiasso was not even on that little paper he had with him and he saved it anyway.

    When you observe Lehmann or other keeper who are penalty killers you will notice that they look extremely confident, even play a bit with the penalty taker and wait as long as possible. That way they do not need to guess, they can sometimes even see in which corner the shot will go. Compare that to Robinson during the WC 2006. He looked like he didn’t know what he was doing, jumped early and it was 100% clear for the penalty takers that he was just guessing and easy to confuse.

    Additionally it is also helpful for the penalty takers to know that your own goalie will save a shot sooner or later. I think in all the penality shoot-outs Lehmann was in only one penalty was ever saved by the other goalkeeper and none missed, that is how much confidence his teammates had in him. On the other hand apart from saving two penalties most of the time it also often happens that a players hooves it over the goal. That probably shows having a reputation as a penalty killer will make the penalty taker nervous as well.

    The English need to get over those traumatic penalty shoot-out desasters and maybe do some extra mental training. And their goalkeepers need more respect by their own people. Germany has been to many finals but also lost half of them. Most due to goalkeeping errors like Kahn at the WC 2002. I don’t think the English keepers are worse. They simply don’t get as many chances and with a selfconfident team like Germany they would have probably been to much more finals to date to prove themselves.

  2. This was a very interesting and well-researched article.

    With the World Cup on the horizon, one team that England and the rest need to avoid is Germany.

    They have been successful in 4 shoot-outs at the World Cup since 1982. In fact, in 19 attempts, the Germans have only missed 1 spot kick.

    “Only those with the courage to take a penalty kick miss them.” Roberto Baggio, who made about 90% during his career, said that after he missed from the spot against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final.

    I think we should send the managers to the spot during shoot-outs. Fabio Capello against Carlos Dunga or Diego Maradona… 😉

  3. Good article! I’m not convinced about the practice angle though. Nearly all teams (at club level) have penalty competitions during training and let’s face it, most amateurs, never mind highly skilled professionals, can confortably slot home a penalty from 12 yards.

    It comes down to confidence, pressure and just plain luck for me. Most keepers will have done research on penalty takers in the big competitions but there are nearly always several players involved who seldom take a penalty in normal circumstances.

    For the penalty taker its about making your mind-up early and no chanong it. I always favour the penalty into the corner with power, unreachable by the keeper. The problem is that every so often a player can just get it wrong and hit the post or put it wide.

    With keepers I believe that most play the percentages and take a chance by going early to one side. Every so often you’re bound to get lucky.

    It’s a lottery, as you say, and I think England’s problem is that their number has failed to come-up too many times. Sometime soon their luck has to change!

    So who do you think England’s penalty takers will be? Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard…….I’m not sure after that.

  4. @BD Condell: You are wrong about the keepers. The ones who save a lot of penalties wait as long as it gets, they don’t take their chances and it is not about getting lucky. That would imply that penalty killer like Jens Lehmann have more luck than other goalkeepers. Just watch some penalty shoot-outs and take a closer look at the goalkeepers. The good ones don’t jump early, quite the opposite. Of course there is a difference between a goalkeeper like Robinson who just jumps early and hopes for good luck and a goalkeeper like Lehmann who watches the moves of the penalty taker closely and tries to actually react to that.

  5. its too long ago for me to remember what his stats are like, but I read Bruce Grobbelar saying once that he’d wait for the penalty taker to plant their supporting foot and then go based on which way it was pointing. Try it, it is difficult for a right footer to send a penalty to the left if their left foot is pointing right and is close to the ball. Your left foot will naturally point left if you are going left, point right if you are going right.

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