Putting statistics on the spot

Four years ago in Soccer City, as the World Cup final between Spain and Holland ebbed towards a shoot-out, there was concern on the Spanish bench.

Putting statistics on the spot

With just a few minutes of extra-time remaining, Vicente del Bosque turned to his assistant Toni Grande and said “We need to start thinking about penalties.”

Grande frantically tried to identify the Spanish players still left on the pitch who had penalty experience. Flustered and frustrated, he turned to the goalkeeping coach for advice. Ill-prepared and under pressure, the Spanish staff fretted and sweated. And then Andres Iniesta scored.

Ignacio Palacios-Huerta is a professor at the London School of Economics. He has studied more than 11,000 penalties since 1995. He is a penalty doctor, applying theory and statistics to analyse patterns, frequency and scoring rates. Yet, using his native Spain’s approach in 2010 as an example, he still can’t quite believe the ignorance of some to such an intensely critical aspect to the sport.

“This is the World Cup! Just a few minutes before the end and we had this conversation on the Spanish bench, ‘We have to start thinking about penalties!’ Because of various elements, the probability of a shoot-out was 30% and they had not even thought about it. I found it totally unbelievable. This wasn’t a minor team. This was the European champions. You can’t get any more professional. But not in terms of data, it seems.”

Palacios-Huerta was approached by a couple of teams during the 2010 tournament. They wanted to use his expertise in preparing for the possibility of shoot-outs. One of those teams was Holland. He handed over a comprehensive report before the final. One of the key things he noticed from his research into the Spaniards was that Iker Casillas was a weakness that could be exploited.

“He’s not a good goalkeeper when it comes to penalties. He dives to his right more often than he should. You’re almost certain to score 95% of the time when you kick to his left. On the right, he’s much better but there’s probably a 30% difference which is huge.

“So I was very clear in the data and I would’ve predicted that the majority of the Dutch would’ve kicked to the left. I don’t know much about Casillas but I know he’s somebody who doesn’t want to have data. For him, it’s pure instinct. To compare, Pepe Reina checks the videos, checks the data, checks the run-ups, checks everything he can. He studies penalties a lot. And look at the data. Who is better at penalties? Reina, of course.”

Palacios-Huerta argues the coin toss before a shootout is the most important moment. A number of years ago, he found that the team that takes the first penalty has a 60% chance of winning. But few still attach much significance to this unless they do their homework. In 2008, Palacios-Huerta advised Chelsea on their penalty strategy prior to their Champions League final clash with Manchester United. After extra-time, Rio Ferdinand won the coin toss and turned to ask his bench for advice on what to do. John Terry, remembering Palacios- Huerta’s notes, offered to go first. Ultimately, United took the opening kick but the rest of Palacios-Huerta’s research worked a treat. He had noticed Edwin van der Sar, like Casillas, dived to his right too much. Chelsea put their kicks to the opposite side and would’ve been crowned champions if Terry hadn’t slipped as he struck his penalty. As it turned out, United won the shootout when Nicolas Anelka ignored Palacios-Huerta and sent a poor kick to van der Sar’s right side. It was saved.

There are patterns to penalties, and Palacios-Huerta finds them.

Many are wary of trusting facts and figures — that football cliché.

But, as Palacios-Huerta points out, this is very much the ‘data era’. When there is so much on the line, it makes sense not to chance things.

“When you look at the markets, people care about 1% or 2% inflation so with penalties we’re talking about 20% or even higher, depending on the situation. These are big numbers when we put them in perspective, especially in the World Cup.”

A shoot-out is a game within a game and more inexperienced penalty takers have a key involvement. Probably unbeknownst to them, they have signifiers too.

“Infrequent kickers have more tendencies than frequent kickers.

“They tend to shoot much more to the natural side so a right- footed kicker will shoot to the right side of the goalkeeper and a left-footed kicker will shoot to the left side of the goalkeeper.

“Very often it could be as much as 80/20, especially in high-pressure situations.”

When it comes to seasoned penalty takers, it’s a little harder to figure out their system. At the beginning of his career, Lionel Messi had a high scoring rate on the left side of the goal. It took goalkeepers a while but eventually they started diving that way. Now his scoring rate is higher on the right and in the centre. But there are noticeable sequences when it comes to some players.

“I was talking to a club president recently. He told me, ‘One of my players is unbelievable at penalties. He doesn’t know where he’s going to put his kick at any time’. The data was 50-50 between the centre and left of the goal. But when I studied things further I found that in the last 14 penalties, this guy went centre, left, centre, left, centre, left. This guy had a strong habit of not repeating his kicks. Some players will show tendencies not in the frequencies, not in the scoring rates but in the pattern.”

Moments after the penalty shoot-out between Holland and Costa Rica on Saturday evening, an email came through from Palacios-Huerta. He had studied the kicks. Tim Krul, the Dutch goalkeeper, guessed correctly for all four of the penalties he faced. It wasn’t a coincidence. According to Palacios-Huerta, a subtle but clear narrative emerges when players have to take penalties in quick succession: they have a very strong tendency not to repeat their previous shot.

Against Holland, none of the Costa Rica players repeated the penalty they took in the shootout against Greece.

Louis van Gaal and his goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek had done their research. And Palacios-Huerta was a happy man.

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