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pressure time England starting to think about their biggest nightmare again - penalty shoot-outs


England boss Gareth Southgate is hoping to learn the lessons from his famous penalty shoot-out miss during the 1996 European Championship semi-final against Germany at Wembley. Photo: Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images

England boss Gareth Southgate is hoping to learn the lessons from his famous penalty shoot-out miss during the 1996 European Championship semi-final against Germany at Wembley. Photo: Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images

England boss Gareth Southgate is hoping to learn the lessons from his famous penalty shoot-out miss during the 1996 European Championship semi-final against Germany at Wembley. Photo: Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images

Don’t believe it is a lottery

Only fools spend much time choosing a lottery ticket. After all, who wins a lottery is down to luck.

For many years, England thought about penalty shoot-outs in a similar way, with successive managers attributing their repeated failures to bad luck, or the impossibility of recreating match pressure on a training ground.

But repeating those clichés not only provided little comfort, after England’s eliminations, it also increased the prospects of losing them again and again.

A study interviewing those who took penalties in a shoot-out between Holland and Sweden at Euro 2004 found that those who thought the result was more down to luck were more likely to have destructive interpretations of anxiety – and ultimately be more likely to miss - than those who believed it was down to skill.

Embracing the importance of skill in penalties might be the first step towards being better at them.

Past failure makes future failure more likely

In a classic study, scientists asked male and female students to take an arithmetic test. When females were told that women tended to perform worse, they performed worse than males in the test. But when females were told that women performed equally well, they performed slightly better than men.

This is “stereotype threat”: when a negative image becomes associated with a group, it is more likely to be repeated. In English football, there has been no stereotype more potent than the idea that, when it came to a penalty shoot-out, England would lose.

Geir Jordet, an academic considered the world expert on penalty shoot-outs, has found that for players from teams with a history of losing – such as England or Holland – past failure makes future failure more likely, even if those players were not directly responsible.

Those representing countries who have won their past two shoot-outs score 89pc of penalties. But those from countries who have lost their past two score 57pc, falling to 46pc if they were personally involved in the previous unsuccessful shoot-out.

Practise like a shoot-out – even your celebrations

For professionals, beating a goalkeeper from 12 yards is relatively mundane. The difficulty comes from everything that surrounds it: the nation’s glare, the unfamiliarity of the situation and the dreaded walk from the centre circle.

Teams need to practise the experience of being involved in a shoot-out, right down to that lonely walk – something England have been replicating in training. In 1996, when Gareth Southgate missed the sixth penalty against Germany, England did not have even a set list of takers beyond the first five.

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Perhaps influenced by that, as manager, Southgate brought a new order to penalty preparations in 2018. Every member of the squad did psychometric tests to help compile a list of penalty takers and players practised taking them when they were tired, just as they would after extra-time. To put extra pressure on themselves, players often told the goalkeeper where they were aiming before shooting.

Savvy teams can even improve their chances by celebrating as a team. An analysis of all shoot-outs in the World Cup and European Championships until 2008 found that after players who scored celebrated with both arms extended, their team-mates who took the next penalty were twice as likely to score. When players celebrated with both hands, the next opponent to take a penalty was more than twice as likely to miss.

Jordet – who calls this “emotional contagion” – has two bits of advice after each penalty is taken. If a player misses, team-mates should rush out to meet him and bring him back into the group – “don’t make him walk 50 yards alone”. And if players do score, “celebrate like there’s no tomorrow”.

Take your time

When we are nervous, our natural inclination is to rush. But with penalties, just as in other pressurised moments, those who want it to be over as quickly as possible are more likely to get the wrong result.

Southgate learnt as much in 1996. Before he took his sudden-death penalty against Germany, “all I wanted was the ball: put it on the spot, get it over and done with”, he wrote.

Jordet and a team analysed the relationship between the time players took and their success in shoot-outs.

When players started their run-up less than one second after the referee blew the whistle, the success rate was a paltry 58pc, but players who took longer than a second scored 80pc of the time.

These findings help explain England’s appalling history of penalties. In 2009, Jordet analysed how long players from different countries took between the referee’s whistle and taking their shots. English players took the least time after the whistle of any country analysed – only 0.28 seconds.

Know your enemy

There is under half a second between a ball being kicked from the penalty spot and it crossing the line. On average, it takes a goalkeeper 200 milliseconds to react, and another 350 milliseconds to dive left or right – more time, in other words, than it takes for the ball to reach the goal from 12 yards.

So goalkeepers must anticipate where the penalty will be taken, not merely react to it. But they have to do this while not allowing the taker to anticipate where they will move, getting their timing just right.

Elite goalkeepers pick up early cues from the penalty taker’s approach, the position of their non-kicking leg relative to the kicking leg, and the angle of their hips relative to the goal. When goalkeepers save penalties, they tend to hold a steady gaze in the space between the ball and non-kicking leg for longer, allowing them to extract information from surrounding areas while using peripheral vision to follow the arc of the kicking leg. Goalkeepers use all this information to anticipate where the shot will go. Mickael Landreau, the former France goalkeeper, was one of the best penalty savers of all time, stopping 39 in total. He used cues from the start of a penalty taker’s run-up, and his own pre-match research on the players.

As penalty takers ran up to take their kick, Landreau “watched a lot of momentum and potential changes” for further clues. He learnt how to time his dives – jumping early enough to reach the ball, but late enough not to allow the taker to place the ball the other way.

Go first if you can

Teams who go first in penalty shoot-outs win 60pc of the time, according to a study by Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a Spanish economist.

Sides who go second seem to struggle with the pressure of constantly needing to score to level the shoot-out – or to avoid elimination. “The psychological pressure of ‘lagging behind’ clearly affects the performance of the team that kicks second,” Palacios-Huerta said.

As the pressure ratchets up in shoot-outs, the quality of kicks plummets.

When scores are level going into the fifth penalties, the team shooting first score 76.2pc of kicks. However, should that be converted, the scoring rate for the other team falls to 62.5pc. The lesson is: if you win the coin toss, go first.

From observing how teams around the world prepare for penalties, Jordet believes that “the country in the world now leading the preparation for penalties is England”.

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