How to win a penalty shoot-out, according to science

Morocco's Achraf Hakimi scores the winning penalty during the penalty shootout - Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Morocco's Achraf Hakimi scores the winning penalty during the penalty shootout - Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Football managers often speak about “controlling the controllables” and that maxim is certainly applicable in the case of penalty shoot-outs. There is no single factor that determines success or failure from 12 yards, but there is now enough research and science to show what can be done to raise a team’s chances of success.

The idea that a penalty shoot-out is a “lottery” is, effectively, nonsense. There are so many details to master, and so many elements to consider, that there is simply no excuse for failing to come up with a defined strategy.

So, how should international sides be preparing ahead of the World Cup in Qatar? What does the research show? What can be learned from shootouts of recent history, and what can teams do to maximise their chances of winning a penalty shoot-out?

The first penalty shoot-out of the tournament took place between Japan and Croatia after the pair drew 1-1 in the round of 16, with Croatia winning 3-1 on spot-kicks.

Use your goalkeeper as an agent of chaos…

In Australia they call him the “Grey Wiggle”, and it is not hard to see why. Andrew Redmayne became a footballing hero in his home country after playing a crucial role in their play-off victory over Peru in June.

Wearing all-grey, Redmayne was brought onto the pitch as a substitute in the final minute of extra time. He proceeded to dance across his goal-line prior to Peru’s penalties, throwing his limbs around in erratic fashion and jumping from side to side.

Such antics are nothing new, of course – Bruce Grobbelaar and Jerzy Dudek famously took similar approaches in Liverpool shirts – but it remains rare for a goalkeeper to be so brazen in his attempts to distract his opponents.

Uncouth? Certainly. Effective? According to the latest research, absolutely. A study of all penalty shoot-outs during World Cups and European Championships from 1984 to 2012 found that a goalkeeper attempting to distract the penalty taker results in 10 per cent fewer goals. The more unpredictable and erratic, the better.

Redmayne, it should be said, went even further than simply prancing around his goal. The Australia goalkeeper also threw his opposite number’s water bottle – featuring notes on the Australian penalty takers – into the stands.

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“It is a do-or-die moment, it is us against them,” he said afterwards. “It goes against every moral fibre in my body to be that kind of person and that kind of antagonist.”

…and a bodyguard

More revolutionary from Redmayne was the role he played in protecting his team-mates in advance of their penalties. The goalkeeper joined his team-mates for the final part of their walk to the spot, shielding them from any attempted mind games from the Peru goalkeeper.

Geir Jordet, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and a leading researcher on penalty shoot-outs, has said this was the first time he has seen a goalkeeper take on this role in a shoot-out. Jordet, who was unavailable for comment, has previously said that Redmayne’s actions helped him to “seize control” of the contest, thus tipping the odds in Australia’s favour.

Part of Redmayne’s routine was to collect the ball and hand it to his team-mate, a move also used by England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford during the 2018 World Cup. This allows a final word of encouragement from one team-mate to another, making the long walk feel less lonely and helping to give the kicker a sense of familiarity in his routine.

Jordan Pickford saves - JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images
Jordan Pickford saves - JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images

Celebrate wildly

If you score your effort, it is important to celebrate it properly and visibly. A 2010 study into “emotional contagion” – the transference of emotion from an individual onto his team-mates and opponents – found that full-blooded celebrations can have a significant impact on your side’s chances of winning the shoot-out.

The research found that celebrating enthusiastically – extending both arms, expanding the chest and clenching the fists – has a positive effect on your team-mates.

At the same time, it has a negative effect on your opponents: the study (by Tjerk Moll, Jordet and Gert-Jan Pepping) found that it was more than twice as likely that an opponent’s next kick would be saved after the previous taker had “displayed two-handed celebratory behaviour”.

It might look cool to casually stroll back to the half-way line after scoring, with a business-like expression etched upon your face, but it is far more effective to swing your arms around and roar towards the sky.

Stuart Pearce - Ross Kinnaird/ALLSPORT
Stuart Pearce - Ross Kinnaird/ALLSPORT

Do not worry about going first

A long-established truth of the shoot-out is that it is better to go first. The most recent research, however, has shown this to be incorrect.

In a study published earlier this year by Ricardo Manuel Santos, a professor at Trinity University in Texas, 663 penalty shoot-outs in major competitions since 1970 were examined. This is far more complete data than had been previously used, and it reveals there is no “statistically significant differences in winning probabilities for teams kicking first or second”.

The research shows that 50.8 per cent of the 663 shoot-outs were won by the team that went first. For women’s teams, meanwhile, it is actually worse to take the first kick, as the results show a win percentage of only 37.5 per cent for teams who go first.

At World Cups, meanwhile, the last six penalty shoot-outs have been won by the team that went second.

Do not rely on your biggest stars

Perhaps the most curious piece of research to have emerged in recent years concerns the strange reality that the most esteemed players are often not as reliable from the penalty spot as you might expect.

Jordet’s study of all the shots taken in penalty shoot-outs in the World Cup, European Championship and Champions League between 1976 and 2006 revealed that players who had earned prestigious international recognition (for example the Ballon d’Or) performed worse than players at the same level who had won no international awards.

In another study, from 2009, Jordet found that “players from the national teams with the highest status performed worse than players from the teams with lower status.” Higher status leads to higher expectations, which leads to greater pressure for these stars of the game.

Avoid shooting down the middle

However tempting it might be to simply smash the ball towards the centre of the goal, this is statistically proven to be a risky move. In the 30 penalty shoot-outs that have taken place at World Cups, only 57 per cent of shots down the middle of the goal have been successful. Shots to the left and the right, meanwhile, have a conversion rate of 74 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, forwards have been the most successful players in World Cup shoot-outs (with a 75 per cent conversion rate). Defenders and midfielders have been largely as effective as each other – defenders have scored 67 per cent of their efforts, while midfielders have scored 69 per cent.