Shoot-out wins have nothing to do with luck
By Kieran Shannon
For Petr Cech, it was a case of when in Germany do what the Germans do.
There’s a reason why German sides never lose penalty shoot-outs, up until last Saturday night anyway. They prepare for that scenario better than anyone else, whether taking or stopping them.
Just before their 2006 World Cup shoot out against Argentina, Jens Lehmann was handed a piece of paper by the team’s goalkeeping coach Andreas Kopke, outlining where Argentina’s top seven penalty-takers were most likely to place their spot-kicks. Lehmann’s old Schalke coach Huub Stevens had a database of over 13,000 penalties taken all around Europe. Lehmann used that archive before the 1997 Uefa Cup final against Inter Milan and phoned Stevens in the lead up to the Argentina game.
From that research, Kopke was able to collate the following information: Riquelme, left high; Crespo, long run/right, short run/left; Heinze, left low; Ayala, long wait, long run right; Messi left; Aimar, long wait, left; Rodriguez, left.
Lehmann would actually save only two of the four penalties but he went — as opposed to guessed — the right way for all of them. So did Cech last Saturday night and again it wasn’t by chance. He’d got hold of a two-hour DVD of every penalty Bayern had taken over the past five seasons.
There is actually very little random about shoot-outs, for all the talk of them being lotteries. Just before Cristiano Ronaldo’s miss in last month’s semi-final shoot-out against Bayern, RTÉ’s Eamon Dunphy predicted he would “bottle it”, just as he had against Chelsea in 2008. Geir Jordet could have predicted it too, albeit for more scientific reasons. The Norwegian sport psychologist studied every penalty taken in every major international championship since 1976 and discovered the most internationally-recognised players — world-class players like Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio or Samuel Eto’o — have a lower success rate in penalty shoot-outs (73%) compared to forwards in general (80%): “A superstar, your number one performer,” concluded Jordet, “will feel more responsibility than others in deciding moments of a competition.”
That perhaps explains why Robert Di Matteo declined Fernando Torres’ request to take a penalty. That superstar shoot-out syndrome is particularly noticeable when it comes to defenders. While general defenders, such as David Luiz and Ashley Cole, make 68% of their penalties, by Jordet’s calculation, a superstar-captain defender like John Terry had only a 25% chance of making his penalty in Moscow four years ago.
The percentages were much higher though for Chelsea’s fifth penalty taker in this year’s Champions League final. In fact, Didier Drogba had more than a 92% chance of making his penalty last Saturday because that’s the rate of scoring when a player knows a successful penalty will instantly produce victory. In contrast, a player is only 55% likely to make a penalty when he knows a miss will instantly produce a loss, which would explain why Drogba himself missed the last penalty for the Ivory Coast in the 2006 African Nations Cup final against Egypt. There was nothing freakish about Bayern’s penalty miss in extra time either. As Arjen Robben lined up his spot-kick, John Obi Mikel kept telling him: “Petr Cech knows where you are going to kick it. You’re going to miss!”
While hardly sporting, it was a highly-effective intervention.
Another researcher on penalty shoot-outs, Olaf Binsch, found that shooters who were conscious to kick away from the goalkeeper, rather than to shoot accurately or into open space, spent less time focusing on their target and thus ultimately scored fewer goals.
It’s a bit like playing golf. When you’re more concerned with not putting the ball in the water, the more likely you are to put it just there, because the brain doesn’t compute words like ‘don’t’ but instead thinks in terms of pictures. Instead you’d be better off thinking of putting the ball on the fairway. Robben likewise last Saturday night was picturing Cech and missing the spot-kick, rather than where he wanted to put the ball.
Chelsea deserved this Champions League. For almost a decade they had been marvellously consistent in the competition, without actually winning it, a bit like Munster in the Heineken Cup before their breakthrough in 2006. Sometimes you win on the slipstream on more spectacular if ultimately unfulfilling seasons. Kerry probably played better football throughout 2002, 2005 and 2008 when they’d lose All Ireland finals than they did in 2004, 2007 and 2009 when they got their hands on Sam Maguire. As Pádraig Harrington put it after his British Open breakthrough in 2007, the key is to be consistently in contention and eventually things will fall your way.
Chelsea deserved their bit of luck in this campaign. But as Jordet’s — and Cech’s — research shows, there was nothing random about iteither.