The Strategy of Penalty Shootouts

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Most people, inside and outside the soccer world, believe that penalty shootouts are just crapshoots; pure luck. However, two soccer fans, one a journalist, the other an economist, set out to prove those people wrong, in more ways than one.

Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski’s book “Soccernomics” turned the soccer world upside down, like Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” did in baseball. Kuper and Syzmanski started a statistical revolution in the soccer world, one that, however, Kuper himself will admit has not been properly harnessed yet. Soccernomics placed an emphasis on collecting and analyzing data, and using that data to determine the most efficent, and thus best, players. The authors looked to reform many areas of soccer, including the transfer market, manager hiring and “relocation,” or helping your newly transferred players adjust to the new country. However, in light of the recent penalty shootout between Argentina and Holland, the research the authors, as well as other “econometricians,” did on penalty kicks is all the more relevant.

Kuper and Syzmanski saw many flaws in the way that teams approached penalties. For one, they don’t do the research they should. Kuper uses the example of Jens Lehmann in the 2006 World Cup. Lehmann, Germany’s goalkeeper at that World Cup, went into a penalty shootout in the quarterfinal against Argentina with a secret weapon: a crib sheet which had on it detailed analysis of Argentina’s penalty takers on it. Consulting it before every shot, he was able to save two of the penalties and send Germany through to the semis. Germans idolize that crib sheet, believing it to be a sort of sphinx of penalty knowledge. But, in reality, it’s impact was much more psychological than analytical. Kuper points out in his book “Soccer Men” that the sheet had only basic information written on it, like “Messi Left.” The impact was not unlike Tim Krul’s, in the Holland-Costa Rica quarterfinal. Lehmann stared at his sheet for several seconds before each penalty, playing mind games with the Argentine takers. Germany went through, so you could say that it worked.

Argentina celebrates a trip to the World Cup finals while Jasper Cillesson is left figuring out what just transpired.

Argentina celebrates a trip to the World Cup finals while Jasper Cillesson is left figuring out what just transpired.

Economics love studying penalty kicks, because it is a real life application of “game theory.” Game theory is a situation where what you do depends on what your opponent does, and what your opponent does depends on what you do. Penalties are good, real life examples of this because where the penalty taker decides to shoot is dependent on where he thinks the keeper is going to dive, and where the keeper is going to dive is dependent on where he thinks the taker is going to shoot. It gets into those “He knows that I know that he knows that I know…” situations. But people like London based economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta have begun to collect massive databases of penalties, and analyze it. That way they can discover kick takers tendencies, both generally and on average. For instance, Ignacio knows that Diego Forlan does a poor job of randomizing his takes; he just hits it to the opposite corner of where he did last time.

Palacios-Huerta’s research has been used by Avram Grant and Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League Final, which went to penalties. Although Chelsea lost that shootout, his advice had a massive effect, helping Chelsea takers know to shoot to their “unnatural side;” that is, for a right footed kicker, it is easy to shoot to the your left, or the goalies right. Thus, shooting to your right, or the goalies left, is unnatural. Edwin Van de Sar, Manchester United’s goalies, tended to dive to kickers natural side too often, and also at mid height. Thus, Chelsea takers were instructed to kick penalties to their unnatural side, either high in the air, or hugging the ground. But Ignacio also helped Petr Cech, Chelsea’s goalie that night. He told him that although Ronaldo, back in  his United days, was a great penalty taker (the best don’t know which way they’re going to kick even as they run up), when he stuttered stepped, he was very likely to hit it to Cech’s right hand side. Thus, when Cech saw Ronaldo stutter that night, he dove right, and saved the shot. However, it was all for naught. Had John Terry not slipped, and thus sent his shot wide of the post by just inches, Chelsea won have won then and there. But the ball fell to Nicholas Anelka. As he prepared, Van der Sar pointed to his left side, saying “I know where you’re gonna kick it.” He had figured out the pattern. Anelka was completly psyched out, kicked right, and at mid height, and Van der Sar easily saved, winning United the Champions League.

Research like Ignacio’s is being used by teams more often now. Palacios-Huerta provided information, with Kuper’s help, to the Netherlands about Spain’s penalty shooters before the 2010 World Cup Final. Although that game didn’t go to penalties, his information would almost certainly would have won the game for the Dutch. But Ignacio isn’t the only one providing in depth research for teams now. Kuper gave a great talk at the Sloan Sports Conference, where he talked about increasing growth of data analysis in soccer. He told the story of “Team Cologne,” a group of economic professors and students at the University of Cologne in Germany, who were hired by Jurgen Klinnsman to provide the German national team with advanced dossiers and research on all their opponents. Jogi Loew has continued to use the team, and it has been great for the Germans. Kuper talks about how, for example, the team found that the optimal distance for defenders to be separated in the back line was 8 meters. However, the team found that Holland’s, one of Germany’s opponents at Euro 2012, defenders strayed to far apart, leaving open gaps. Germany exploited these gaps perfectly, easily winning 2-1.

But the dossiers provided to Germany, and increasingly to other teams as well, aren’t just on penalties. As seen above, simple observations on the space between defenders can win a game. Information on what Ronaldo does before he steps over the ball, multiple times, helped give German right back Jerome Boateng an advantage in guarding him. Data analysis is growing in soccer, and with the increasing number of managers who have never played (Mourinho, Sacchio, Rodgers, Villas Boas), people in soccer management are becoming more and more open to accepting the conclusions draw from that data. The teams that do invariably profit.

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Tags: Penalty Shootout Simon Kuper Stefan Syzmanski

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