England won their most recent penalty shootout in a major tournament against Colombia in the 2018 World Cup

Credit: Michael Regan – FIFA
/Getty Images Contributor

England’s penalty shootout record – although improved in recent years – leaves much to be desired, especially against Germany.

Ahead of the crunch quarter-final, Telegraph Sport reveals the secrets behind a successful shootout, and how England can avoid emulating France; Kylian Mbappe’s miss saw the world champions crash out in the last-16 stage.

Don’t believe it’s a lottery

Only fools spend much time choosing a lottery ticket. After all, who wins a lottery is down to luck. 

For many years, England thought of penalty shoot-outs in a similar way, with successive managers attributing England’s repeated failures to bad luck, or the impossibility of recreating match pressure on a training ground. 

But repeating the cliche of penalties as a lottery did not just provide a little comfort after England’s penalty eliminations. It also increased the prospects of England losing. A study interviewing those who took penalties in a shoot-out between Netherlands and Sweden at Euro 2004 found that those who thought that the result was more down to luck were more likely to have destructive interpretations of anxiety – and ultimately more likely to miss – than those who believed that it was down to skill. 

Embracing the importance of skill in penalties might be the first step towards being better at them.

Edwin van der Sar of the Netherlands saved the decisive Swedish penalty in the 2004 Euro's, struck by Olof Melberg

Credit: Marcel Antonisse

Past failure makes future failure more likely

In a classic study, scientists asked male and female students to take an arithmetic test. When females were told that women tended to perform worse, they performed worse than males on the test. But when females were told that women performed equally well as men, they performed slightly better than males.

This is ‘stereotype threat’: when a negative image becomes associated with a group, it is more likely to be repeated. In English football, there has been no stereotype more potent than the idea that, when it comes to a penalty shoot-out, England would lose. 

Geir Jordet, an academic considered the world expert on penalty shoot-outs, has found that for players from teams with a history of losing – like England or the Netherlands – past failure makes future failure more likely, even if those players were not directly responsible. 

Those representing countries that have won their past two shoot-outs score 89 per cent of penalties. But those from countries that have lost their last two shoot-outs score a paltry 57 per cent, falling to 46 per cent if they were personally involved in the last unsuccessful shoot-out.

Practise like a shoot-out – even your celebrations

For professional footballers, beating a goalkeeper from 12 yards is relatively mundane. The great difficulty comes from everything that surrounds it: the nation’s glare, the unfamiliarity of the situation and the dreaded walk from the centre circle.

Teams need to practise the experience of being involved in a shoot-out, right down to that lonely walk – something England have been replicating at their training base at St George’s Park. 

Henderson ready to follow orders over penalties

In 1996, when Gareth Southgate missed the sixth penalty against Germany, England did not have even a setlist of penalty takers beyond the first five. Perhaps influenced by that, as manager Southgate brought a new order to England’s penalty preparations in 2018. Every member of the squad did psychometric tests to help Southgate compile his list of penalty takers and players practised taking penalties when they were tired, just as they would after playing extra time. To put extra pressure on themselves, players often told the goalkeeper where they were aiming before shooting. 

Savvy teams can even improve their chances by celebrating as a team. An analysis of all shoot-outs in the World Cup and European Championships until 2008 found that after players who score celebrate with both arms extended out, their teammates taking the next penalty are twice as likely to score. And when players celebrate with both hands, the next opponent to take a penalty immediately after is more than twice as likely to miss. 

Jordet – who calls this ’emotional contagion’ – has two bits of advice after each penalty is taken. If a player misses, teammates should rush out to meet him and bring him back into the group – “don’t make him walk 50 yards alone”. And if players do score, “celebrate like there’s no tomorrow.”

Take your time

When we are nervous, our natural inclination is to rush. But with penalties, just as in other pressurised moments, those who want it to be over as quickly as possible are more likely to get the wrong result. 

When Gareth Southgate missed the 6th penalty for England in 1996, he charged up and smashed it, rushing due to a desperation for the moment to be over

Credit: Stu Forster
/Hulton Archive

Southgate himself learned as much in 1996. Before he took his sudden death penalty against Germany, "All I wanted was the ball: put it on the spot, get it over and done with," Southgate wrote.

Jordet and a team analysed the relationship between the time players took and their success in shoot-outs. When players started their run-up less than one second after the referee blew the whistle, the success rate was a paltry 58 per cent. But players who took longer than a second scored 80 per cent of the time. 

These findings help explain England’s appalling history of penalties. In 2009, Jordet analysed how long players from different countries took between the referee’s whistle and taking their shots. English players took the least time after the whistle – just 0.28 seconds – of any country analysed.

Know your enemy

There is under half a second between a ball being kicked from the penalty spot and it crossing the line. On average it takes a goalkeeper 200 milliseconds to react, and another 350 milliseconds to dive left or right – more time, in other words, than it takes for the ball to reach the goal from 12 yards. 

So goalkeepers must anticipate where the penalty will be taken, not merely react to it. But they have to do this while not allowing the takers to anticipate where they will move, getting their timing just right. 

Elite goalkeepers pick up early cues from the penalty taker’s approach, the position of their non-kicking leg relative to the kicking leg, and the angle of their hips relative to the goal. When goalkeepers save penalties, they tend to hold a steady gaze in the space between the ball and non-kicking leg for longer, allowing them to extract information from surrounding areas while using peripheral vision to follow the arc of the kicking leg. Goalkeepers use all this information to anticipate where the shot will be kicked. 

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The former France goalkeeper Mickaël Landreau was one of the best penalty-savers of all time, stopping 39 in total. He used cues from the start of a penalty taker’s run-up, and his own pre-match research on the players, to help determine where he dived. 

As penalty takers ran up to take their kick, Landreau “watched a lot of momentum and potential changes” for further clues.

He learned how to time his dives – jumping early enough to reach the ball, but late enough not to allow the penalty-taker to place the ball the other way.

Go first if you can

Teams who go first in penalty shoot-outs win 60 per cent of the time, according to a study by Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a Spanish economist.

Sides who come second simply seem to struggle with the pressure of constantly needing to score to level the shoot-out – or to avoid elimination. “The psychological pressure of ‘lagging behind’ clearly affects the performance of the team that kicks second,” said Palacios-Huerta.

As the pressure ratchets up in shoot-outs, so the quality of kicks plummets. When scores are level going into the fifth penalties, the team shooting first score 76.2 per cent of kicks – but, should that be scored, the scoring rate for the other team, who now need to score to avoid defeat, falls to 62.5 per cent. The lesson is simple: if you win the coin toss, go first. 

And the good news?  From observing how teams around the world prepare for penalties, Jordet now believes that “The country in the world who is now leading the preparation for penalties is England.”