“C’mon Gerrard!”

PK Spot: The Art & Science of Penalty Kicks

I wrote this e-book in 2012. It lived on Amazon for awhile, but now I want it to live here on Medium.

Penalty Kicks as Drama

Whistles, jeers, booing, and cheering form a deafening mixture as Cristiano Ronaldo steps up to the PK spot on July 1, 2006 in a Quarter Final match penalty shootout versus England. He bounces in place, the ball in his hands, kisses the ball, then places it on the penalty spot, a small painted circle twelve yards from the goal.

Meanwhile, Robinson — England’s goalkeeper — waits.

Ronaldo steps back, appearing calm. The referee’s whistle pierced through the stadium’s cacophony, signaling Ronaldo to approach the ball. Ronaldo took several slow steps, then one quick one (a stutter step), then his final steps before swinging his right boot through the ball, sending it towards the right side of the goal. Robinson had done his best to cut the angle, but dove left (the wrong side). The ball found its home in the back of the net. Portugal advanced to the World Cup Semi-finals for the first time in 40 years.

Penalty kicks represent the most tension-filled moment in all of sports. Other contenders are baseball (bottom of the 9th with bases loaded and a full count), basketball (the final shot in a tie game), American football (4th down and seconds remaining).

But penalty kicks are theatre. Two actors, the penalty taker and the goalkeeper, stand face to face. Destiny itself is in the balance. The spotlight is on them, like two boxers, and some glorious (or ruinous) outcome will transpire in just a few moments. For the romantic (or the physicists among us), penalty kicks shows that, indeed, Time CAN stand still.

In this incredibly short e-book (I fear calling it an essay) I will touch for the briefest of moments why time stands still, why it matters, and what to expect in this year’s World Cup Final.

Math, Science, and Decision-Making

Why Penalties Matter

The historical significance of penalty kicks (and penalty shootouts) is unmatched. Since the introduction of penalty kick shootouts to the World Cup in 1982 (before that, games were replayed to decide a winner), about 20% of knockout stage matches went to penalties.

When your country’s fate in a tournament that only takes place once every four years comes down to a penalty shootout one fifth of the time, it is hard to (and foolish) to overlook their importance. As I just recapped in the intro, Portugal’s win via penalty shootout sent them to their first Semi-final appearance in FORTY years. On the other side, England and England fans were devastated.

In the same 2006 World Cup, Italy defeated France in a penalty kick shootout. Unfortunately, France’s best player, Zenedine Zidane, was ineligible to participate because he was sent off in overtime. You may recall the head-butt situation.

Knowing the significance of the PK spot, players and managers prepare accordingly. While players may sometimes discuss who will take a regular free kick (any dead-ball kick awarded for a foul outside the box), most managers appoint a spot-kick taker ahead of the game to avoid any debate among players when these situations arise. This is true for penalties during the game and in penalty kick shootouts, where managers must determine a five-player sequence.

This holds true down through most levels of soccer. I was lucky to be the penalty-kick taker for my high school team in Beijing, so I can share that experience, too. It’s a role that holds incredible pressure, responsibility, and reward. The manager must decide which of his players he trusts to do the business.

Let’s get into the basic mathematics of the PK spot to get a baseline in the statistics ahead of analyzing the psychological components.

85/15

12 yards from goal. Nothing to do but beat the keeper. Look how helpless he looks.

Sometimes professionals make scoring spot kicks look so easy you may wonder if they even have a chance. Goalkeepers don’t have much chance, at least statistically. But once we add in the significance of psychological factors and the pressure of a World Cup or other championship setting, we’ll see that the task of the spot kick taker isn’t quite so simple. No walk in the park, this business.

For quick reference courtesy of myfootballfacts.com, I pulled up all penalties taken in the English Premier League from 1992–2014 (over 20 years) and found the following:

Penalties scored: 85%

Penalties missed: 4%

Penalties saved: 11%

There are other top leagues, like the Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliga, or the Spanish La Liga where similar results prevail. The penalty-taker holds the advantage, and therefore the pressure. It is often said that the responsibility is on the spot kick taker to score. This is true to a large extent, but sometimes undervalues the significance of the second actor, the goalkeeper. We’ll visit this concept soon when we we discuss the interdependence of strategies in two-actor decisions.

Let’s first look at a simple matrix of decision-making for the takers, since they have more direct action (they kick the ball) on the outcome of the ball ending up in the back of the net or not.

Decision-making

When I practiced penalties after school in Beijing during my senior year of high school, or after practice in college, I worked on giving myself several options. Why? You might suggest that getting really good at picking your spot and perfecting it would be a winning strategy. You would be on to something in part, but there are several schools of thought in the science of penalty-taking (and several more in the art of it).

The reason I practiced several options was so that I had just that — options. If I have seen the ball hit the back of the net in several different ways then I can visualize those moments when the time comes to take a penalty. If I’ve practiced the technique of striking the ball in just the right way to find the left side-netting, or the top right corner, or the delicate chip straight-on, then those options are in my toolbox. The goalkeeper is an actor, too, so picking a spot and going with it can work but it isn’t prescribed by every spot kick taker or expert of the craft (although some commentators swear by this).

On the professional stage, player tendencies are known, so a common spot kick taker cannot shoot for the same place in the goal every time, or even too often. It’s probably best to employ some kind of mixed strategy.

What might this mixed strategy look like? Very simply, the taker can shoot left, right, or central. But elevation also matters. He can shoot lower left or upper left. Upper left usually will avoid a keeper guessing correctly (diving in that direction) but brings with it more risk. These risks include more accurate technique and the danger of hitting the crossbar or shooting over the goal completely.

With a mixed strategy, goalkeepers like Jens Lehmann cannot fully gather your tendencies (Lehmann, in the 2006 Argentina-Germany World Cup Quarter Final consulted notes in his sock before each shooter and saved two penalties). This seemingly trivial act appeared bizarre to onlookers, and surely did to the penalty taker themselves. What has he got in his sock? What does he know about me? I’m not sure what I would do if a goalkeeper took notes out of his sock with my life story on it. At the very least it might distract me from the focus needed to perform my singular task at hand, to score the penalty.

Interdependent strategies

In The Art of Strategy Dixit and Nalebuff included a section on penalty kicks as an example of the interdependence of mixed strategies. Other examples are price wars in retail or military tactics in wartime.

Dixit and Nalebuff go deep into the interdependence of taker and keeper. In my example before, if Lehmann knows I prefer to go right he should dive right more often. But if I know he knows that, I should shoot to the left sometimes, too. Once he knows I know that he knows that, he should adjust to my adjustment. Eventually we arrive at an equilibrium where a mixed strategy employed by both parties means as a shooter I will take one of several options some of the time, and the other options some of the time. There are factors of confidence, pressure, and other psychological (or environmental) variables that might influence the decision. If I don’t think much of the keeper, I may consider the safer lower left play versus the riskier upper left play.

You might be thinking: Does this analysis really matter? Are players really thinking this? Usually not. They are more likely to have been coached to pick their spot OR be given the freedom to act independently. In a bit more detail, there are three overall approaches for the shooter:

1. Pick a spot ahead of time.

2. Pick a spot but be open to adjustment.

3. Don’t pick a spot until you see where the goalkeeper is leaning.

#1 and #2 are more common, although players haven’t been polled. #3 is viable because in order to save a well-placed penalty to the left or right the keeper must bend his knees and begin his dive in order to save the shot (professional spot kick takers often score even if the keeper guesses correctly because of the pace and accuracy of the shot). In the moment the goalie begins his motion the shooter can simply slot the ball to the other side. A cheeky version of this is the delicate chip straight down the center. Zidane famously did this in the 2006 World Cup against Italy (the ball love-tapped the crossbar before crossing the goal line). Note that other chips have failed (see Schevchenko’s chip against Dudek in the Uefa Champions League final in Istanbul).

I took a break from writing to play a soccer match (we won 5–3 — always a blast to get on the pitch for 90 minutes and play a game I love). At the game I polled my teammates on the above three approaches to penalty-taking. Everyone said they were #1 or #2, which is to be expected. The only person I’ve met so far who is a #3 is a college teammate, Mike Peabody. I remember a chat we had where he made his case: “No reason to worry to much about where to shoot since the keeper needs to decide where to dive before you shoot.”

A useful thought. The keeper must decide BEFORE the shooter decides. For proponents of the third approach, the pressure is off to decide where to shoot. And yet the pressure is still ON to analyze the keeper as you stride toward the ball waiting on the PK spot. There’s a split second when the shooter must ALSO decide where to shoot.

I also asked our goalkeeper what he thinks about in penalty situations. He said that it depends on level (in high school sometimes the goalkeeper can react and still make a save) but that in college and pro games the keeper usually needs to make a choice. Dive left, right, or hold his ground (this is only more common lately with the advent of the delicate central chip).

Actors

We’ve looked at the actors in play and their basic decisions, but let’s break down some of the detailed decisions that each actor takes.

Penalty kick taker (spot kick taker) (shooter):

1. Receiving the ball from the referee (or retrieving it). Do you kiss the ball like Ronaldo before placing it on the spot?

2. Placing the ball. The ball must be on the white-painted circle. Just part of the ball must be touching, so if there is slightly uneven ground you can shift the ball forward, backward, or to one side. Sometimes you will see the taker use his boot to stamp the ground flat.

3. Preparing the plant foot landing zone. Players usually check the spot where they will place their plant foot to ensure it is flat and even. Missing a penalty AND twisting an ankle would add insult to injury. Not metaphorically.

4. Backing off and setup. The player backs away from the ball. Some players go forward (facing away from goal) while others back away (facing the goal). Most players count off a specific number of steps just as they’ve practiced many times for consistency. Players will usually come at a slight angle to the ball. Off to the left if they are right-footed and off to the right if they are left footed. The severity of their angle CAN be a big clue to where they will be shooting.

5. Where to look. Notice where players look as they wait for the referee’s whistle. Also note that most players almost immediately begin the process of the penalty when the whistle is blown, although you don’t have to start immediately.

6. Approaching the ball. Players either walk, jog, or run toward the ball. Some stutter step (to confuse the goalie or try to get him to commit to a dive) while others approach the ball smoothly.

7. Technique of the shot. Notice some players shoot with the inside of their boot, while others shoot with the laces. Most passes in soccer are played with the side of the foot for best accuracy, while the laces are often employed for shots. But from twelve yards out, you’ll see the pros use both side and laces depending on their style.

8. Watch and hold your breath. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. But everyone in the stadium is doing it. Only the keeper is still concentrating if he’s made his dive to the correct side (he still needs to save the shot if so).

9. Celebration. Is it a fist pump, a lion-like roar? Note this will depend on the significance of the moment (a regular time PK versus a PK shootout).

Goalkeeper (goalie) (keeper):

1. Before player fetches ball. In the 2006 World Cup Bartez of France would walk to the edge of the six-yard box and “greet” the Italians. They still scored easily, but sometimes the smallest of mind-games can be the difference.

2. While player places ball. Goalies will watch the eyes of the shooter to see if he gives away where he will be shooting. This CAN be exploited by the shooter by looking to the opposite corner. It’s pretty deep meta-game but I have heard of it happening.

3. While player backs off. Usually the goalkeeper goes into a short routine here. He might bounce from side to side of up and down. The intent is not to stay limber. The intent is rather to distract the shooter. When something is bright and shiny and moving you’re more likely to shoot at it (I’ve been guilty of this in a high school club semi-final). For this reason some shooters walk away from the ball and don’t face the keeper.

4. As the player approaches the ball. This is the point where the goalkeeper is zoned in on trying to pick anything, ANYTHING, up from the approach. Does the shooter give away where he will shoot with his physical run-up, his eyes, the positioning of his leg as he plants his plant-foot? This is also where the keeper can make feints on where he might dive. If the shooter is using approach #2 (or #3) then he must mind these feints closely. Dudek is famous for his spaghetti legs against AC Milan in the Istanbul UEFA Champions League Final in Istanbul, causing one miss and saving two penalties including the penalty that won Liverpool the title. This result was so popular (Liverpool had been down 3–0 at halftime before storming back) that one of my Beijing teammates said “Remember Istanbul!” as we took the pitch for a second half facing a 2–0 deficit in the APAC Tournament in 2006. We scored two goals and tied the match. We later won the tournament. I managed to score the game-winning goal in the final, a fond memory.

5. Player is about to strike the ball. The keeper must now make his decision. Dive left? Dive right? Stay put? (Sometimes, the goalkeeper will try to cheat and jump forward off his line BEFORE diving to cut the angle of the shot — this is illegal but not always enforced despite a second referee standing on the goal line to enforce it).

6. Ball is struck. The keeper is in the process of the dive now and the ball is in the air. He is going left or right. If he’s guessed right (awesome) then he still must physically MAKE THE SAVE. This requires basic but solid goal-keeping technique. Two hands if possible. Sometimes if the shooter has gone for a chip the goalkeeper can reach back to make a save (Dudek did this against Schevchenko in the UEFA Champions League final in Istanbul).

Art, Psychology, and Specialists

Guessing game, or is it?

As I mentioned in the basic decision-making section, Jens Lehmann famously kept notes in his sock about each of the shooter he would face and this knowledge led him to diving the correct way on EVERY shot and saving two of them. You could say he did his homework. But for dramatic effect (or perhaps simply to remind himself) he pulled these notes out of his sock and reviewed them before each shot. Bizarre? Crazy? Brilliant?

The results (in this smallest of sample sizes) show that it worked. If not only dove the correct direction but he may also have rattled his opponents with the strange antics. But while Dudek’s spaghetti legs were physically odd, Lehmann’s should be classified as procedurally strange. It just wasn’t something goalkeepers DID before Lehmann tried this. Sure, they studied their opponents before the match, or got consultation from goalie coaches or scouts, but actually taking notes out of your SOCK like a magician was stunning and against the norm.

Combining research with showmanship was a winning combination.

Dudek likely followed a similar approach in the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final in Istanbul. Let’s have a closer look.

Dudek (UEFA Champions League)

Dudek’s spaghetti legs was ridiculed or praised, depending on who you asked. Liverpool fans in the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final generally were at least neutral about it. I know this because many of my teammates in Beijing that year were Liverpool supporters. “You’ll never walk alone,” they told me. Oh, cool, I thought.

But what was Dudek doing, really? When we break it down, we see his strategy was a touch different from Jens Lehmann’s, but ultimately successful thanks to similar core reasons: his spaghetti legs surprised and distracted.

Just as Lehmann’s notes emerging from a sweaty sock shocked, so too did a man’s legs turn spaghetti-like in the very moment the shooter approached the ball.

When you watch the video replays of this penalty shoot-out, you’ll also notice that Dudek takes up a LARGER part of the goal than he otherwise would. Standing still, Dudek is not physically intimidating. Lehmann, Buffon, and others are much more so. Perhaps Bartez, the French keeper in the 2006 World Cup Final shootout against Italy might have taken a page out of Dudek’s book. Bartez remained almost completely still during the shooters’ run ups to goal. As a result, the Italians went five out of five from the spot.

So Dudek was bigger. But he also shook it down, like he was in a night club, music bumping, with the spaghetti legs. Girls went wild, and the AC Milan shooters couldn’t score against him. No delicate chips in THIS house, Schevchenko!

The movement of the goalkeeper is a visual distraction that should not be overlooked. If the keeper stands still like the statue of a dead politician, there is nothing to visually detract the shooter from his target and focus.

Consider your peripheral vision. It AUTOMATICALLY picks up nuances in your surroundings. We evolved this way to avoid being eaten by lions and komodo dragons. But in todays’ survival equivalent, the World Cup penalty shootout, this same evolutionary advantage can be a killer (in the wrong way).

Because of visual distraction, some shooters don’t even look at the keeper at all. Rather, they stare at the ball and just shoot it. These shooters fall into the category #1 (Picking a spot) and can pretend the goalkeeper isn’t even there. If you can snipe the top left or right corner (“upper 90”) then the goalkeeper has very little chance of making the save. He may as well not even be there. And since these shots require a higher degree of concentration (higher degree of difficulty) it is logical to spend all your attention on just accomplishing that task.

Shooter’s perspective

From the shooter’s perspective, there is plenty of psychology in play, too.

If you have a glance back at the nine decisions or steps in the penalty-taking process, you’ll notice several opportunities for cheekiness. If not cheekiness, the shooter should at minimum be on guard to blowing his own cover.

How can a shooter blow his cover? Here are just two simple ways:

1. The shooter looks at a corner after placing the ball on the spot OR after backing off the ball.

2. The shooter looks at a corner during his run-up.

3. The shooter approaches from an angle that suggests he will shoot more easily (technique-wise) to the left or right of the keeper.

#1 and #2 are big mistakes, but the shooter can also attempt to trick the keeper with this. The keeper will probably not give this too much consideration depending on the penalty-taker’s skill and any history they have together and the shooter’s known tendencies. Meta-game.

#3 is a more delicate mistake. From a wide angle the shooter can go left or right using either inside of foot or laces, although it is a bit awkward for a right-footed player to hook the ball into the left corner from to sharp an angle.

Conversely, too narrow of an angle makes it difficult for a right-footed player to shoot to the right side of the goal. In extreme situations, some shooters (generally when keepers don’t know their tendencies) will use a straight-on run-up then side-foot their shot into the right side of the goal.

Spot kick specialists

At this point we’ve analyzed some of the basic (and advanced) strategies for both the shooter and the keeper.

But what really makes a great penalty-kick taker? What makes a specialist?

The obvious answer could be: someone who doesn’t miss. But this is results-oriented. Penalties aren’t so common that a manager will have ample time to determine who his best takers are. For reference, I’ve taken less than 20 penalties in serious games throughout my life. Coming from an online poker background (where I played in excess of 500,000 hands) I can tell you confidently that 20 of anything usually isn’t a reasonable sample size. Statistically you COULD be a mediocre or bad penalty taker and still make more than 85% of your penalties.

The keys to me are simple:

1. Confidence. You step up. Settle your emotions. Or better, don’t have emotions. Just a cold stare. Then bury it. Back of the net.

2. Technique. The shooter must be a quality shooter of the ball. He should be able to put the ball where he wants it.

3. Stoicism. Sometimes a penalty-taker finds himself in hostile environments. No matter what the fans are chanting, no matter the pressure. The penalty-taker just does the job. I once took a penalty in a World-Cup esque tournament in Beijing, 2006. I played for USA and took a penalty against the Chinese team. I scored the penalty despite all the fans just behind the chain link fence beyond the goal looking on. (Not entirely related, except that we were winning the game, but we later witnessed two of the player’s physically assault the referee via punch and jump kick to the face — the game ended with us leading 4–3…but my dad shouted from the sideline to get off the pitch and we didn’t stick around to find out what happened. I do remember the referee losing blood on impact from the karate-style jump-kick.)

This point is driven home in World Cup penalty shoot-outs. Four years of preparation is riding on these moments. Some of these players may never again see a chance to advance into the later stages of the tournament, much less play in this prestigious tournament ever again. It’s in all senses a once-in-a-lifetime situation. You take it or you don’t.

Note on #1. Confidence can be described in many ways. Let’s just say you need the confidence like Klinsmann had to cut Donavan from the USA National Team with little notice. That kind of confidence. Belief in what you are trying to do and what you are doing. And what you’re going to do. Which is score the ball. Finish the penalty. Leave the goalkeeper, his team, and their fans in the dust.

I had confidence in high school, but less in college. So didn’t inspire confidence in my coach. Managers are always looking for confidence in their players, for field play and penalty situations, the most tense and important of all in soccer.

But sometimes even with the three qualities above, players still miss or have a penalty saved. It happens. Ladies, even David Beckham has had a penalty saved. It’s happened to me too. So David Beckham and I have that in common.

C’mon Gerrard!

So I’ve detailed the decision-making process for the shooter and the keeper, with some math and a touch of psychology.

Remember the goal — to get you to the point that you can share in the joy and agony of the penalty-taking moments (and especially the penalty shootouts) that come up in the World Cup!

Penalties are theatre. Just as someone who’s never seen a play may not understand the nuances on their first showing, neither will you necessarily on your first watch of a penalty shootout. But with time you will.

Until then, just remember this phrase:

“C’mon insert name of player!” This is a standard way to cheer on your favorite player. If you don’t have a favorite, just wait for that penalty-taking moment, read the name on the back of the shooter’s jersey, and repeat this phrase! It’s best to find another fan of that player to share the moment with. If you’re in a social setting, like a party or pub, look for others wearing the same color jersey.

Have fun and let’s go watch some football!

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