The science of penalties
MAY 22 — The script-defying finish to Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea supported my belief that sport, at its best, is better than anything that fictional drama can provide. Oh, hang on... I wrote that article last week.
So let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about penalties.
Once again, a major fixture has been settled by penalties — doubly so, on this occasion, with Chelsea’s shoot-out victory only coming after Arjen Robben fluffed his spot-kick and blew the chance to win it for Bayern in extra time.
It’s certainly nothing new to see penalties play a decisive role. Already this season, they have been fundamental in settling both Champions League semi-finals (Bayern winning a shoot-out against Real Madrid; Lionel Messi missing for Barcelona against Chelsea), as well as allowing Liverpool to end their trophy drought by winning the Carling Cup (on penalties against Cardiff), and forcing Bolton to suffer relegation (Stoke’s Jon Walters sending them down with a late spot-kick).
And with the European Championships rapidly approaching, it’s more than likely we’ll see quite a few more important 12-yarders before the summer is through.
Barely a major tournament goes by without a hugely significant miss or a save or a conversion from the penalty spot, yet the general attitude within the footballing community towards penalties is still distinctly aloof.
Self-excusing phrases such as “penalties are a lottery” and “they’re just luck” are routinely trotted out, with coaches and players alike seemingly prepared to simply pick left or right at random and cross their fingers that the vagaries of fortune will work in their favour.
I’m not really a fan of penalty shoot-outs — they have too little in common with the essence of the sport for my liking — but until now nobody has come up with a better solution so they are here to stay. And thus perhaps it’s time for us to start taking a more scientific approach to penalties.
Did you notice, for example, that Chelsea keeper Petr Cech dived to his left for five of the six penalties that he faced on Saturday evening? That, surely, is too high a proportion to be sheer coincidence.
I would suggest that there are two possible explanations: either Cech had a pre-determined plan to dive to his left because he (or Chelsea’s coaching staff) had identified that Bayern’s penalty takers prefer to kick to their right (i.e. Cech’s left), or he favoured that direction because he is left-handed and it is therefore his “natural” side.
If it was the former, then we have to congratulate Cech and his support staff for a wonderful job of preparation. But if it was the latter, doesn’t it demonstrate that teams should take a more considered approach to penalties rather than simply trusting to luck?
After all, if Bayern had correctly predicted Cech’s movements, they would have easily scored five of their six penalties by simply rolling the ball into the opposite corner, and now they would be European champions instead of crying into their bratwursts. Maybe we should give Cech more credit, though, and make the assumption that his five dives to the left were part of a planned strategy, rather than a game of chance. And that’s quite feasible because the direction of penalty kicks really can be scientifically researched.
In the same way that goalkeepers naturally prefer to dive to their strongest side (for example, left-handed Cech to his left), penalty takers also generally favour to place the ball towards a particular corner: to the left-hand side for right footers; to the right-hand side for left footers. That is all to do with the natural shape of the body as you strike a ball: a right-footed player shooting into the right-hand corner has to open up his body a little unnaturally, and will therefore instinctively feel more comfortable keeping his head over the ball and driving it towards the left.
In times of tension, that natural tendency is further magnified, so the left-footed Arjen Robben was always likely to succumb to the pressure of the situation and automatically default to his preferred “natural” corner, the right, when taking his extra time spot-kick.
We’ll probably never know the answer, but I’d love to ask Cech why he correctly chose to go to the left. Was it just a subconscious hunch? A lucky guess? Instinct? Or a carefully thought-out conclusion that Robben would aim for the right-hand corner because he is left-footed?
Cech then did exactly the same thing to deny the shoot-out kick by Ivica Olic — another left-footer under intense pressure who went to his natural side, the right. Again, Cech guessed — or worked out — correctly and made the crucial save that got his team back on level terms in the shoot-out.
It’s not always so simple and there’s no way you could guarantee success with scientific research: Manuel Neuer, for instance, went the right way for Ashley Cole’s penalty — which was struck to the Chelsea full-back’s “natural” right side — but the ball was hit so firmly and precisely that the goalkeeper was left with no chance.
But surely a more scientific approach would improve the preparation for both goalkeepers and penalty takers, enhancing their chances of success at such pivotal moments? Rather than ambling up to the spot, full of nerves and not knowing what to do, before deciding during the run-up which corner to aim for, a more planned approach must be preferable.
Even if it just provides the tiniest amount of assistance, when the trophy is on the line no stone should be left unturned. And maybe, just maybe, Chelsea and the left-diving Cech are one step ahead, which is why they are now champions of Europe.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.