The players seem to hate it, but the neutrals love it – a penalty shoot-out in the FA Cup final can divide opinion.
But if Arsenal v Chelsea does go to spot-kicks, what can the footballers in the spotlight do to make sure they don’t miss?
Ben Lyttleton, the author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, is an expert on the subject – here are his tips for penalty perfection should Chelsea and Arsenal find themselves 12 yards out with the FA Cup on the line.
“What you can do is practice with some purpose,” said Ben. “I spoke to one coach who adds a competitive element to penalty practice, which is fining his players if they miss. He fines them a very small amount, but the jeopardy element of losing and paying a forfeit really heightens the competition. The next time that player fails the amount is doubled, and doubled and doubled.”
Furthermore, it’s not just the penalty itself that requires some preparation. “Before the 2002 World Cup quarter-final between South Korea and Spain, Guus Hiddink was the coach of South Korea and he made his players walk from one box to another before the game, at the stadium itself,” said Ben.
“The walk becomes a lot shorter and less challenging. It’s a tiny thing but if you don’t practice the walk of course you’re going to be nervous.”
The centre circle marks the area players must wait in while others take their penalties – can anything be done that far away from the goal?
“We see a lot of heads go down,” said Ben. “A lot of the time we see the players with their arms around each other, and then the player who’s missed walks back to this wall of team mates, and no one breaks the wall. That has a psychological impact on the next taker: they don’t want to be the one who walks back into that unforgiving wall of players.
“It’s a very simple case of body language, but if a player misses, it’s recommended that the wall breaks and players come forward and welcome that player back into the group. It shows the next person that if they miss this penalty they’re going to be welcomed into the group.
“There’s no rule about where the players need to stand in the centre circle either. Most are on the halfway line, but they can stand at the front of the centre circle. It’s a shorter walk, it’s easier to break off as a group, and it’s less far for the player who misses to walk back.”
When it comes to the walk, the long journey from the centre circle to the penalty spot, Ben is very clear: “It shouldn’t be the most nervous bit. You shouldn’t want to get it out of the way. It should be the bit where you think: ‘This is my chance to show what I can do.’”
With a trophy potentially on the line, the psychological stress of a penalty can be enough to make a player miss, so what can a player do to combat that?
“One of the things a lot of performance psychologists talk about is to focus on the process not the outcome,” said Ben. “So instead of saying ‘I must not miss’, or ‘I must score’, say ‘I’m going to spot the ball here, I’m going to check the spot, I’m going to pull up my socks, my routine is to take six steps back, one to the left, and then take a deep breath after the referee blows his whistle.’”
And with that hopefully under control, all that’s left is for the player in question to put the ball into the back of the net. While a simple enough task in theory, Ben explains there are two ways to do that.
“There are two ways to take a penalty: goalkeeper dependent or goalkeeper independent,” Ben continues. “Goalkeeper independent is ‘smash it and if you hit it well the goalkeeper won’t save it even if he goes the right way,’ while goalkeeper dependent is much harder.
“Goalkeeper dependent relies upon waiting for the goalie to make the first move and then going the other way. Technically it’s trickier but over a long period of time, and having studied a lot of penalties, the goalkeeper dependent method is more successful – it’s what Eden Hazard does.”
You might think once a penalty is scored, that’s the end of it. But as Ben explains, the reaction to scoring can be just as important.
“I think there’s an emotional contagion to celebrating when you score, and also an added pressure on the next kicker,” said Ben. “You see a lot of people score penalties and then walk back with their head down – job done, I’m a professional – but a penalty is still a goal, so it is to be celebrated.”
One example of the benefits of celebrating might be a penalty shoot-out from another recent big game: Manchester City v Liverpool in the 2016 League Cup final.
“Liverpool were on top at one stage and then Jesus Navas scored a penalty,” explained Ben.
“No-one expected him to take one, and after he scored he kicked the ball really high in celebration, he really went for it, and suddenly you felt there was some kind of momentum shift, and the celebration really affected both sides.”
Manchester City went on to win.
And finally, if an Arsenal or Chelsea player is looking for further advantages, a certain type of penalty might be what’s required.
“My theory, my belief, is that a scored Panenka penalty in a penalty shoot-out is worth more than one goal,” said Ben.
“I believe it’s worth maybe 1.1 goals, because of the negative impact that it has on the conceding team. It’s a huge risk, but when it’s scored it feels like the receiving side should have saved it.”
So there you have it. Should Chelsea and Arsenal settle this year’s FA Cup final from the penalty spot, this is how they can win – of course, if both teams were to read this article, the shoot-out could go on forever.