Penalty Shoot-outs: Chance or Tactics?

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After Sunday’s League Cup final, victorious Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany described the penalty shoot-out as ‘the most unfair way to win’. This suggests he believes in the old cliché that a penalty shoot-out is purely a game of chance. Yet that didn’t stop Klopp’s men facing all of the recriminations about their tactics after the game. Is this simply anger causing fans to look for a scapegoat? Or is there some truth in their claims? If so, should we be asking if penalty shoot-outs are really that hard to get right?

Liverpool’s chances were ended after Manchester City’s cup goalkeeper Willy Caballero saved three consecutive penalties from Lucas Leiva, Phillipe Countiho and Adam Lallana. After the game, Liverpool received heavy criticism for their selection of kick-takers, especially due to the fact that captain Jordan Henderson, regular taker James Milner, who had converted one just 3 days before (against Augsburg), and one of England’s best strikers, Daniel Sturridge, were nowhere to be seen.

In all likelihood, James Milner would have stepped up to take the 5th but as so often happens he never got a chance. Yaya Toure coolly slotted home into right in the bottom-left hand corner past Simon Mignolet to seal a 3-1 shoot-out win for City.

When it comes to arranging an order for a penalty shoot-out there appears to be two schools of thought. The first is, whether by choice or the players’ egos, the best penalty-takers are left until the end as they should be better at dealing with the pressure and could potentially score the winner. This appeared to be Liverpool’s strategy, but as happened to them it can easily backfire.

Never was this more cruelly exposed than in the Euro 2012 semi-final between Spain and Portugal; before Portugal’s fourth penalty Spain had edged into a 3-2 lead. If the penalty was missed, Spain would be given a match point. All eyes turned to Portugal’s talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, but he refused the penalty as he had earlier insisted he would take the 5th and final penalty. Instead, centre-back Bruno Alves was sent into the spotlight and predictably his penalty crashed against the bar, leaving Cesc Fabregas to slot home Spain’s winner. Ronaldo was left frustrated at the result, especially as he had turned down the chance to influence it.

The opposing school, which Sky pundit Jamie Redknapp strongly advocated on Sunday’s coverage, is going with a top-heavy order. Here, a team’s best penalty-takers step up as early as possible. A good idea in theory, but what if the big stars fail or the opposition also convert all of theirs? Lesser penalty-takers will be left to take the do-or-die kicks. I’m sure Liverpool fans will shudder at the thought of sending Lucas Leiva up to take the penalty that could seal the League Cup trophy.

It appears that Manuel Pellegrini got his tactics spot on; he went for a mixture of the two. Arguably, three of City’s best penalty-takers on the pitch took penalties two, three and four: Jesus Navas, Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure. This gave City experience all the way through the line-up and meant their best taker took the decisive 4th kick. A shrewd move from Pellegrini, recognising the importance of the 4th kick. It is effectively the final kick in the regular shoot-out; if the scores are tied after eight penalties, each team’s 5th kick becomes sudden death anyway. It remains a mystery why time and time again some of the world’s best managers such as Klopp get these kind of decisions wrong.

The other vital element to the art of the penalty shoot-out is taking the penalties themselves. Commentators and pundits will constantly tell you that there is no way to replicate the feeling when you’re walking up to the Wembley spot in front of 90,000 people. This may be true, but this doesn’t stop a player knowing what kind of penalty he’s looking to hit.

Manchester City’s players looked so superior to Liverpool’s when it came to striking the ball; they looked more assured, and more importantly, made sure they picked a corner and got a firm strike on the ball. Conversely, some Liverpool’s players instead opted for the modern cheeky penalty. This was despite previous horror stories, namely Ronaldo’s stuttered run-up penalty saved by Cech in the 2008 Champions League final, or Yann Kermorgant costing Leicester a place in the 2010 Championship play-off final by chipping the ball straight into David Marshall’s hands.

With these kinds of penalties, for every one scored there is one missed, as Liverpool found out to their cost. First up Emre Can, feeding off Caballero’s early nerves, chipped the ball straight down the middle of the goal; but by the time it got to penalty number three, Caballero found his form, and when Phillipe Countiho took an age to strike the ball, he easily pushed it aside.

Even if you still believe that penalties is a game of chance we can see that Liverpool’s tactics certainly lengthened their odds. In many ways the shoot-out reflected the two managers; the cool, calm but ruthless Man City led by Manuel Pellegrini triumphed over the frantic, all-action and a little bit cheeky Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool side. This shoot-out was the perfect example of how tactics can affect the outcome; the great mystery that remains is why penalties are time and time again settled by tactical differences rather than the relative form of the players taking part. It raises the question: are penalty shoot-outs really that difficult?

 

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