It’s 2008 and at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow Avram Grant’s Chelsea have taken the Champions League final against Manchester United to penalties. Luckily Avram has received the following advice for this very situation:
- Van der Sar tends to dive to the kicker’s ‘natural side’ more often than most keepers do. This means that when facing a right-footed kicker, he will usually dive to his own right and when facing a left-footed kicker, to his own left. Chelsea’s right-footed penalty-takers therefore have a better chance if they shoot to their ‘unnatural side’, Van der Sar’s left.
- The vast majority of the penalties Van der Sar stops are kicked to a mid-height and hence penalties against him should be kicked just on the ground or high up.
- Christiano Ronaldo often stops in the run-up to the ball. If he stops, he is likely (85%) to kick to the keeper’s right-hand side. He also seems to be able to change his mind about where to put the ball at the very last instant. That means that it is crucial for Čech not to move early. When a keeper moves early, Ronaldo always scores.
- If you win the toss you should choose to go first. Teams going first win 60% of the time.
The instructions were written by Basque economist Ignacio Palacios who was put in touch with Avram Grant by a professor of economics and mathematics at an Israeli university who knew them both. As the shoot-out goes into sudden-death Kalou is also able to follow the advice to the letter to beat Van der Sar with ease but by the seventh penalty the pressure was on. Chelsea’s first six had all gone to the United keeper’s left and although they varied in height, this repetition is approaching what economists call a ‘pure strategy’ and the problem with pure strategies is that they are predictable. As my girlfriend said straight away when I showed her the instructions: “Won’t the goalkeeper work out what they are doing?“.
Whether Cole putting his left-footed penalty to Van der Sar’s right would have thrown the Dutchman off the scent or whether he would equally have noticed that every penalty had been placed to the ‘unnatural’ side is hard to say but by the time Nicolas Anelka steps up, Van der Sar is onto them.
If you missed this the first time you have to go back and watch it because it’s simply brilliant: as Anelka is preparing to take his penalty Van der Sar actually points to his left, to where Anelka has been told to hit his penalty…
This undoubtedly fazes the Frenchman who hits a tame right-footed penalty to Van der Sar’s right at a mid-height, the type of penalty that Van der Sar is statistically most likely to save and the exact opposite of what Anelka has been told to do but he only did it because Van der Sar had let Anelka know that he knew that Anelka knew that he usually dived to the right against right-footed penalty-takers…
You would of course expect any team to do their research although this is usually primarily made up of working out what certain penalty-takers are most likely to do. A famous example of this that was also interlinked with some shameless mind games took place during the penalty shoot-out in the World Cup quarter-final between Germany and Argentina in 2006 where German keeper Jens Lehmann consulted a piece of paper from his sock before every Argentinian penalty!
As it turned out, the sheet featured hardly anyone that took one but it did for Ayala (“waits longtime, long run-up, right” i.e. keeper’s left) and after getting close to the other penalties, by the time Cambiasso stepped up to keep Argentina in the game he must have been wondering what on earth that piece of paper said about him! It said nothing at all but possibly still did enough to allow Lehmann to make the stop that put Germany through.
Mind games aside for a moment, a good penalty-taker is of course neither as predictable nor as easy to stop as such ‘cheat sheets’ suggest. Long before advising Avram Grant, Ignacio Palacios took a sample of 1,417 penalties from 1995-2000:
|Penalties to taker’s ‘natural’ side & keeper goes wrong way = 95% success rate (5% miss)|
|Penalties to taker’s ‘unnatural’ side & keeper goes wrong way = 92% success rate|
|Penalties to taker’s ‘natural’ side & keeper goes right way = 70% success rate|
|Penalties to taker’s ‘unnatural’ side & keeper goes right way = 58% success rate|
This means that to maximise their chance of scoring a penalty-taker should shoot to his ‘natural’ side 61.5% of the time and to their ‘unnatural’ side 38.5% of the time. The players in the sample placed 60% to their ‘natural’ side and 40% to their ‘unnatural’ side – almost perfect.
The goalkeepers meanwhile should dive to the kicker’s ‘natural’ side 58% of the time and their ‘unnatural’ side 42% of the time. The actual figures?: 57.7% and 42.3%.
To be what economists call a true ‘mixed strategy’ however, penalty-takers must also alter their placement in a random sequence with no pattern at all – when looking at regular penalty-takers (those involved in more than 30 penalties in the sample) Ignacio showed that, unbelievably, players are capable of exactly that! It is impossible to predict which way a regular penalty-taker will decide to place their penalty.
The most impressive thing is that these players follow such perfect theory seemingly intuitively. Franck Ribery, to bring in a protagonist from tonight’s match whose penalties follow the theory, apparently doesn’t know which way he will shoot even once he has started his run-up!
This is not to say however that all penalty-takers are as unpredictable, the beauty of the penalty shoot-out is that it drags players who are not regular takers into the fray as well as, if it goes on long enough, players who don’t want to take one or have little aptitude to do so. When the penalty-taker is not an expert, they are far more likely to simply place it in their favourite spot and far less likely to make it un-saveable, meanwhile the pressure of the occasion may even have the same effect on even the most clinical penalty exponent (looking at you Cristiano!).
I’ve been watching the tapes of Bayern’s games. I’ve seen everything I can but in the end it’s all about the moment and whether the penalty taker is strong enough to keep calm and place it well. If he does that then the keeper has no chance, so in a shoot-out you try to force people into mistakes.
In 2008, we had plenty of information about Manchester United penalties. We’d lost to them in a shootout before but you can’t always rely on what you’ve seen. You need to rely on your instincts.
I always prepare myself for such situations, Our goalkeeping coach, Toni Tapalovic, showed me on his laptop before the match (the semi-final against Real Madrid) how Ronaldo usually takes his penalties. I learned that Ronaldo prefers to send the ball low to his left. In the penalty shoot-out, I was convinced that he would aim for his favourite spot.
Whether Bayern are aware of the work of Ignacio Palacios is impossible to tell but it seems unlikely that Chelsea would employ such a bold team strategy in a Champions League Final shoot-out again (assuming even Ignacio could come up with pointers for facing Neuer!) but having won only 2 out of 9 penalty shoot-outs in the last decade if tonight’s match were to be all square after 120 minutes then Chelsea fans will certainly be wanting to win Pedro Proença’s coin toss!
Information primarily taken from: