Three Questions on Penalty Kicks with Ben Lyttleton

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Penalty kicks. Football’s equivalent of Russian Roulette. Twelve yards that can reduce the best footballers of all-time to neophytes. This week we saw further evidence of penalties’ cruelty: five-time Ballon d’Or winner,Lionel Messi, face down on the MetLife Stadium turf after blasting his penalty over the bar in a shootout that ultimately lead to Chile claiming the Copa America Centenario title and Messi claiming he’s done with international football. In this edition of Three Questions we delve into the science of the spot kick with Ben Lyttleton, author of “Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick.”

MiB: Your book goes into great detail regarding the different strategies players employ when taking a penalty kick. The kick is from 36 feet away. What is it about them that has made so many greats, Platini, Baggio, and now Messi, miss?

BL: Any professional player good enough to play for their country should score a penalty-kick. It’s a free shot with only one player to get the ball past! If it was only about technique, they would score all the time. But they don’t, and that has to come down to psychology. The mind can play strange tricks when it comes to performing under pressure. As for the likes of Platini, Baggio and Messi: one academic study showed that for players who have won individual awards, their penalty conversion rates were better before they won the awards than after. Winning those awards elevates them to a new level, and that brings added pressure. Just look at who missed penalties at the 2014 World Cup: Alexis Sanchez (Chile), Bryan Ruiz (Costa Rica) and Wesley Sneijder (Holland). They were the best players on their teams. That must be down to pressure and not technique.

MiB: It's a clip that's been played innumerable times on TV and online this week. Lionel Messi's penalty shoot-out miss in the Copa America final. Break it down for us.

BL: Messi’s approach to the ball is very short, only three steps, which suggests he will not go for power but go for a GK-Dependent strategy, waiting for Claudio Bravo to move one way while he goes the other. The referee blows his whistle and Messi waits half a second. He’s not rushing.

At this moment, think about what’s in his mind: he always kicks first in shoot-outs, and he has never missed in that scenario, so he should be confident. Arturo Vidal has just missed, so this is a chance to give Argentina a lead. More confidence. But this is his fourth final with Argentina, and he is yet to win one. That adds pressure. Argentina has not won a trophy since 1993. More pressure. Diego Maradona was bitching about him last week. More pressure. Plus, did he have in his mind that he would retire from the team if the game ended in a defeat? Imagine standing over the ball and thinking, this could be my last kick in an Argentina shirt. Add all those factors and that is a lot on anyone’s shoulders, best player of all time or not.

So then he starts his run, and by the time he approaches the ball, he sticks with the GK-Independent method,one which has had mixed success for him over the last 18 months. That’s when you blast the ball at one pre-selected spot which, if you find it, will be unsaveable. Bravo dives the wrong way, as it happens, but Messi misses the target. When you consider what might have been going through his mind at point of contact, maybe it’s a bit more understandable.

MiB: When you're watching a penalty at home on television. What are you looking for from both the penalty taker and the goalkeeper prior to the kick? Are there tells that make you think, "This is definitely going in" or "This has no chance?”

BL: We are all amateur body language experts. I think you can tell when players don't look confident. They don't always miss, but are more likely to. Overconfidence is also a warning sign. If players rush to start their run-up when the referee blows his whistle, that can be a sign of stress. But a lot of it is down to the individual; one particular guy might like to look down and take an age over spotting the ball. It might just work for him. So there are not tells across the board. I also know that some players have patterns that work for them; the striker who rotates left-side then right-side, or the goalkeeper that will always stay central on penalty number two in a shoot-out. I have quite a good record of working out where each player will kick and whether they will score or not, but it’s not 100 per cent.

MiB: Of the Euro 2016 teams left, how do you handicap them when it comes to penalty shoot-outs?

BL: Poland will be confident because they have won a shoot-out already, they took five fantastic penalties, of which three were totally unsaveable. They also have a goalkeeper in good form and underdog status, therefore nothing to lose.

You could say the same for Italy. They have gone further than anyone expected and will be underdogs against Germany, especially if it goes to penalties. I like the character in this Italy side; while Germany have a few players who have had mixed records from the spot lately (like Ozil and Muller).

France has some good penalty-takers in their squad; don't forget Griezmann scored in the Champions League final shoot-out even though he missed in the game (that’s strong mentality for you), and I like Giroud and Cabaye from the spot. I’d worry about Pogba, with all the extra pressure he has put on himself. And Hugo Lloris does not have a fantastic penalty saving record.

MiB: Talk about the psychological effect a nation's penalty taking history has on its present day penalty takers. Asking for a friend.

BL: This definitely has an impact. England has lost 6 out of 7 shoot-outs and before every tournament the chat is always about penalties and what if we lose again? It’s statistically proven that if your team has lost its last shoot-out, then the players are more likely to miss a penalty in the next shoot-out, even if they were not playing in the previous loss. The negative trauma of a shoot-out defeat is a heavy one to bear. There is a vicious cycle of defeat. And at least England didn't lose on penalties in France!

MiB: Best and worst penalty you have ever seen? Diana Ross in 1994 for the latter, right?

BL: The best has to be Antonin Panenka in 1976. He chipped the ball slowly down the middle of the goal to win European Championship for Czechoslovakia, and basically invented a third option for penalty-takers, who before then would only go left or right. Now the middle was an option. After the game, politicians told Panenka that if he had missed, he would have been punished, as his adventurous and innovative penalty could have been interpreted as disrespecting the Communist system. His punishment? “Thirty years working down the mines,” he told me. I now believe that a scored ‘Panenka’ in a shoot-out is worth more than one goal, maybe 1.1, because of the psychological effect it has on the opposition team.

As for worst, Diana Ross has to be up there. Are you sure she’s not English?  

This article originally appeared in the June 30th issue of our newsletter, The Raven. Subscribe HERE.