Two of the recently finished World Cup (WC) quarterfinal games reminded us that penalty kicks (PKs) shoot-outs are not the prettiest way to decide the outcome of a football match. PK shoot-outs are normally very dramatic, preceded by at least 120 minutes of intense (in most cases) action and some detractors tout them as the most unfair method to declare a match winner. Their argument is that the shoot-out relies heavily on luck rather than football skill. It has also been said that PKs are a dual effort instead of a collective team effort defeating the purpose of the team sport spirit.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Whatever your perception may be on overall luck and shoot-outs, a PK shoot-out is an approved method by FIFA laws to break a tie. Also, nobody can deny that being directly involved in the taking of even a single PK (more so a shoot-out) requires some level of technical preparation (sometimes years) and individual mental fortitude (aka nerve). Therefore, any edge that can be gained over the opponent to increase the chances of victory in a PK shoot-out is always welcome. Often neglected, that advantage can easily come from one’s bench. A coach’s experience is a very valuable tool if applied correctly and timely.
PK Shoot-out Preparation
I will not dwell too much on the pre-game efforts that the goal keeper (GK) coach, the team video analysis specialist, the team statistician, and the GKs themselves must undergo prior to embarking on a match that could be decided in a PK shoot-out. The preparation is not complex but indeed meticulous. It starts with trying to anticipate which five potential PK kickers will take a turn and study their PK kicking tendencies. On top of that, each GK has his/her own defensive diving tendencies to attempt to block PKs. Simply put, it comes down to video-analyzing the potential PK kickers to slightly increase the GK’s odds of stopping PKs.
Similarly, PK takers need to undergo a lengthier preparation which starts much earlier in their football careers than the upcoming game at hand. For example, in some youth leagues around the world, match ties are not allowed forcing PKs intentionally. Match outcomes are decided via a PK shoot-out with the underlying idea of developing better PK adult kickers who are not only more used to the added pressure but more technically sound in the art of PK taking via lots of repetitions. PK kickers rarely analyze GK tendencies as those diving techniques are reactive and situational.
All that pre-match preparation for PK kickers is indispensable and must be met at a minimum to be even considered as a genuine PK taker candidate especially at a world stage like a WC. However, there are meticulous decisions that must be made in the selection of the PK takers and the sequence in which PKs are taken by a team. Sure, luck (the coin tosses explained below) helps but the coach’s experience has a strong influence in the outcome of the shoot-out.
PK Shoot-out Execution
Some coaches will tell you that only those physically, and mentally fit prior to the taking of PKs should be eligible, listed and submitted to the referee as the initial five PK takers. Others will defer that decision to the players and captain. Ultimately, the coach knows his/her players best and it is best that those five PK takers are pre-determined and only changed in case of an unplanned event (ex. injury, red card, etc.). So, provided a manager has five physically and mentally capable PK kickers, then other decisions should be made by the coach and captain to maximize the chances of victory.
Normally, the referee will use two coin tosses prior to the taking of PKs. The winner of the first coin toss selects the side where PKs will be taken (Introduced in 2016). The winner of the second coin toss determines what team starts the PK shoot-out (Lloris won this one in the WC final). Yes, on this part of the procedure, there’s an element of luck but provided your captain wins both or either one of these coin tosses, instructions must be provided to the captain so that he/she choose the goal where most of your club’s supporters are; Messi probably conquered the Qatar WC the moment he won this first coin toss and selected the side that was plagued by Argentinian fans. On the second coin toss outcome, heed the following advice:
1.For advantages proven by simple statistics/research papers and psychological reasoning (beyond the scope of this simple post), a team captain, if able, should always elect to take the PKs first in a shoot-out. In a gist, it puts additional pressure on the players going second regardless of the outcome of the first kick. Therefore, ALWAYS elect to shoot first if you win the second coin toss. This is the way Morocco eliminated Spain from Qatar.
2. Always (I mean always) have your best PK kickers go first. In Brazil’s loss to Croatia in the WC quarterfinal game, Neymar was supposed to get all the glory by kicking last (5th). Unfortunately, quite the opposite took place. the team had the youngest (Rodrygo) of all PK kickers go first and that proved to be a decision they will regret forever. Neymar never had a chance to take his PK. It was possibly Neymar’s last WC game and to go out like that is unfortunate…Neymar and Tite (no longer the national team coach) will have to live with that decision.
As an additional data point, in the WC final game, both Mbappé and Messi went first. Both are no strangers to PK taking. Despite Mbappé having scored two PKs during the course of the championship game on Martínez, Kylian (and Didier DeChamps) elected Mbappé to go a third time (all kicked to the same side) against one of the best PK GKs in the world. He converted all three attempts and set the tone for the next PK (or at least that was the plan).
3. The first PK taker dictates momentum. Over 60% of the time when the first PK misses his/her shot, the following PK taker from the same team misses too. Therefore, carefully selecting the first PK taker is instrumental to the team’s success. If there are two medium quality PK kickers, do not, by any means, have them take kicks one after another in the round of five. In the WC final game, Coman missed his kick immediately followed by Tchouameni.
4. Managers sometimes forget that great players are not necessarily great PK takers. For example, in the Netherlands vs Argentina game, Van Dijk elected to take the team’s PK first; however, he’s not the normal PK taker with his Liverpool club (Mo Salah is). Unfortunately, the lack of practice became evident as his attempt was blocked by Emi Martínez. This proved to be a questionable decision by a very experienced Coach Louis Van Gaal.
The coin tosses are determined by an element of luck; beyond that, preparation pays off. In addition to field player and GK preparation, a manager (and his/her staff) has a lot of weight on the outcome of a PK shoot-out with careful thought-out decisions. Whether the manager and captain assume/want that responsibility is a different story. Either way, preparation is key and an initial 50% chance of victory in a shoot-out can easily become more like a 75% if preparation is taken seriously. As I was finalizing documentation to wrap up my post, I stumbled upon this article posted about 8 years ago titled “How to Win a PK shoot-out in soccer“. Ironically, a lot of the information presented in that article supports my post.
As I finish writing this post, I became aware of the passing of football’s legend: Pelé. Honestly, I can’t say this was unexpected as he had been hospitalized in Brazil for over a month and I tried to keep up with his medical progress which never seemed to improve. But even with that information, I can’t deny it was shocking; it’s hard to accept that in a little over than 2 years, the best two footballers, that in my opinion, have ever played the game now reside with the football gods…where they have cemented a place.
Until next time (tomorrow) when I will be posting our annual 2022 recap of events. Have a happy and safe New Year celebration. Be sure to follow us on Instagram below where we are more active. #theGomezway