The understudied phenomenon of penalties

Penalties are an area of the game which are grossly understudied. The extent of penalty analysis we hear from the pundits on TV is for the taker to ‘to pick his/her spot and not change it’ and that the ‘goalkeeper should do his/her homework.’ This, in my opinion, is a rather simplistic view of a significant situation in a match-defining moment in a low scoring sport. So, to delve further into the topic of penalties, I decided to test my own opinions on penalties against the existing literature that has been published in journals around the world. 

Based on my intuition and experiences with penalties, the body angles one takes up when approaching a penalty is the main factor when predicting which way they’ll shoot. Typically, there’s a low, hunched over, boxer type stance that’s adopted by penalty takers when shooting across their body. On the other hand, a more open body position signals the penalty taker will shoot on the side of their preferred foot. This becomes easier to understand with visuals.

Below is an example of whipped, across body penalty which is typically associated with the low, hunched over, boxer type stance.

Secondly, an example of a more open body type penalty can be seen below. 

And finally, a cross-comparison of the techniques.

I believe the same general rule applies to left footers. If they adopt a similar hunched over, boxer type shooting stance just before making contact with the ball, they’re going to shoot across their body. If they have an open body posture, they’re going to shoot on the side of their preferred foot. Steven Gerrard is a good example of someone who telegraphed where his penalties were going to go.

There’s many more examples such as Robin van Persie, Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, etc, who all telegraphed where their penalties were going to go. Despite their penalties being relatively easy to predict, they all typically scored regardless of the ‘keeper diving the right way because their pure ball striking ability was so special that they regularly hit the corner of the goal.

In terms of shots that go down the middle, they can be hit with any type of technique ranging from a smash:

to a tame side foot:

to a panenka:

However, a recent technique that has thrown a spanner into the works for goalkeepers is the recently adopted technique by Bruno Fernandes. Fernandes approaches the ball with a neutral stance and attempts to deceive the goalkeeper in relation to which way he’s striking the ball.

The neutral body stance enables him to wait for the goalkeeper to move before rolling the ball into the other side of the goal. In the below gif, Fernandes stops at the ball with a neutral stance with his vision focused on the keeper. Caballero, the goalkeeper, gives a slight indication at the last moment he’s going to dive to the left with the shift in his body weight. Bruno then simply rolls the ball into the other side of the goal.

Crucially, regarding Bruno’s style, he doesn’t have to hit the corners if his attempt at deceit works. All he has to do is roll the ball into the other side of the goal because the ‘keeper has been fooled. This further enhances the quality of his penalties because he’s less so at risk of hitting the ball wide or against the post/crossbar.

However, the Portuguese man doesn’t always opt for this penalty stance. In the same vein as Gerrard earlier, Fernandes also strikes penalties with the typical low, hunched over stance, where he typically shoots across his body.

Bruno will still score most of his penalties with this style because he’s a phenomenal ball striker and will typically hit the corners as a result of that, but it’s an easier technique for the ‘keeper to read. Alternatively, despite that change in style which weakens the chances of his penalties being scored, his ability to change the angle of his hips quickly at the last moment make him fantastic at that penalty taking style too. Sure, he usually goes across his body, but he is capable of going to the other side within the typical across body stance thanks to his quick shift in his hips at the last moment, which enables him to shoot on the side of his preferred foot, as seen below.

The technique used above is far less telegraphed than the typical shot on the preferred side of the foot that Gerrard, for example, would use.

Using Gerrard as an example of an older style of penalty taking (and still the most common style) is not an attempt to discredit his penalty taking qualities, because he was an incredible penalty taker with a conversion rate of 85% with 54 penalties taken in his career, excluding shootouts (which is 10% higher than the average conversion rate). Gerrard’s traditional penalty taking style is merely used to provide examples of where penalty kicks are likely to be shot. Bruno Fernandes, on the other hand, has introduced a new style of penalty taking and has an absurd 93% conversion rate with a large sample size of 44 penalties taken (again, excluding shootouts).

Overall, goalkeepers should stick to the general rule that low, hunched over boxer type stances from right footers will typically go across their body along with realising that more open body positions will typically shoot on the side of their preferred foot. In terms of penalty saving techniques, the optimal technique is to wait until the last moment to judge the hip placement of the taker, before diving the most likely way the ball will be shot. Waiting so long will prevent the goalkeeper from saving shots in the corners, but shots that reach those corners go in over 80% of the time anyway. Where this technique excels is in relation to the prediction of where the shooters will shoot, which I deem to be the most important aspect from a goalkeeper’s point of view. If they guess the wrong way, they have little to no chance of saving it. However, if they guess the correct way, that gives them the best possible chance of preventing the goal being scored. It also increases the likelihood of shots down the middle being saved with those goals primarily being scored because the keeper dives the wrong way, and penalties shot down the middle account for 28.7% of penalties overall with ‘keepers only staying in the middle 6% of the time.

So, after reaching my non-tested conclusion regarding the prediction of where penalty takers will shoot and how goalkeepers should combat that, I had a look at the existing literature to see if my general hypotheses were correct.  

The literature focuses on a number of cues which can predict where the penalty taker will shoot. The pre-impact cues within the existing literature include: the angle of the run-up, angle of the hips, the placement of the non-kicking foot, angle and lean of the upper body trunk, and shoulder zone. The hip position was found to be the best predictor regarding the side of the goal the ball was shot. Open hips typically meant the ball was going to the kicker’s right and square hips typically meant the ball was traveling to the kicker’s left side i.e. across their body (right footed penalty takers).

Alternatively, the stutter run-up kick provides pressure on the goalkeeper. It can distract the ‘keeper resulting in them losing focus and/or overthinking the situation. The slow run-up enables the kicker to observe the ‘keeper to see if they have committed themselves to one side early. However, if goalkeepers attend to later movement information such as the hip placement of the taker, this increases the likelihood of goalkeeper success.

So far, my opinions are in line with the existing literature. However, more recent literature published in 2020 which specifically focused on the psychology of penalties concluded that kick direction is primarily reliant on psychological components, which isn’t entirely accounted for within my hypotheses. The article found that penalty takers are less likely to score under high pressure conditions. Secondly, quicker, self-imposed preparation times are associated with a higher likelihood of missing penalties. Alternatively, externally-imposed long waiting times are also associated with a higher likelihood of missing penalties. 

In the same vein, penalty takers are more likely to miss in a situation that prevents a negative situation than they are likely to score in a situation that leads to a team winning. So, for example, a penalty taker is more likely to miss in a circumstance that prevents his/her team from an embarrassing defeat than they are likely to score in a situation that results in a team completing a heroic comeback. Such negative penalty taking circumstances are associated with a higher likelihood of the penalty taker turning their back on the goalkeeper, which is again linked with a lower likelihood of scoring. A prime example of these findings is when Liverpool played AC Milan in the Champions League final in 2005. As we all know, Milan blew a 3-0 lead, and Shevchenko had a penalty in the shootout which presented a negative valence situation. If he missed, Milan would be wholly embarrassed after such a shock occurred, whereas if he scored, Milan would remain in the shootout. Shevchenko turned his back and missed the penalty.

Again, in relation to negative valence behaviours, ‘keepers are more likely to dive later when attempting to save such penalties which could be down to the fact that a negative impression of the taker was formed. The goalkeeper’s confidence may increase as they’re not anticipating an accurate kick.

Goalkeepers waiting longer in general is believed to be a more optimal penalty saving strategy within the literature because the spatiotemporal requirements are less demanding. However, it’s believed that goalkeepers don’t utilise the optimal penalty saving strategy due to psychological pressure and social evaluation. Diving is perceived as making more of an effort than standing in the centre of the goal is. The latter of which elicits negative emotions and more evaluation in general when failure occurs, which it typically does because penalty takers are far more likely to score penalties than goalkeepers are to save them, regardless of their penalty saving strategy.

The article concluded that, based on the discussed psychological factors, goalkeepers act based on ‘non-verbal information available from the penalty taker’s behaviour’. This is in line with the previous literature which analysed bodily movements, albeit referring to psychological components as opposed to the approach angle and other bodily movements.

However, a piece of literature within the article concluded that the penalty takers’ use of deception showcases that specific bodily movements are not related to kick direction. I, however, don’t agree with that assessment. Just because deception plays a factor within penalty taking, and a crucial factor at that, doesn’t mean the existing literature that analyses hip placement and other bodily positions is incorrect. It simply means the situation is more complex than originally thought or made out to be as a whole.

Deception is undeniably the primary factor when dealing with someone like Bruno Fernandes’ penalties, but most penalty takers don’t have the confidence, in my opinion, to use deception as a penalty taking technique i.e. wait for the ‘keeper to move before stroking the ball into the other side of the goal. Most penalty takers opt for either the classic crossbody smash, open body strike into the side their preferred foot is on, or either one of those techniques into the middle of the goal. I don’t think that’s reliant on deception, and I believe the way the shooter will shoot is predictable based on their posture (hip placement) just before making contact with the ball.

Michael Owen said “I had always had the confidence to do it in training (use deception to score penalties) but when 50,000 people were watching I tended to play safe and think where am I going to put it before committing to that.”

Similarly, Alan Shearer reliability reiterates the same advice every time a major tournament penalty shootout rolls around with his ‘pick a spot and don’t change your mind’ advice, and I’d argue, based on my viewing and personal experience within football, that that’s the most common advice applied to penalties, which certainly doesn’t revolve around deception. A large body of previous literature combined with pundits’ general opinion and personal practical experience and analysis begs to differ in relation to the one study which suggests bodily movements aren’t correlated with kick direction because deception is used in some penalty taking techniques.

Overall, some previous literature backs up my hypothesis which states that ‘the body angles one takes up when approaching a penalty is the main factor when predicting which way they’ll shoot’. However, interestingly, recent literature on the psychology of penalties added a new dimension to the reasons as to why penalties are more likely to be missed or scored in certain circumstances (high pressure situations, internal vs external perception times, negative vs positive valence situations, non-verbal information available from the penalty taker’s behaviour).

On the other hand, the conclusion I reached implications wise for goalkeepers in relation to waiting until the last moment as an optimal saving strategy was backed up as goalkeepers who wait longer to dive are more likely to save penalties. The literature explained why psychological pressure and social evaluation is the reason why goalkeepers may not adopt the optimal penalty saving strategy of waiting until the last moment.

Furthermore, from a future research point of view, more studies are required to analyse neutral hip placements and bodily movements, i.e. Bruno Fernandes’ penalties, along with panenka’s to fill two separate gaps in the literature which cannot be analysed in further detail because no researcher has published articles on these topics.

To conclude, I’ve listed some fun facts regarding penalties below:

  • Teams participating in either the World Cup or European Championship final match roughly have a 50% chance of being involved in a penalty shootout during the tournament.
  • Goalkeepers had to stay still before the shot was taken in 1997.
  • 80% of players who exaggerated a celebration after the conversion of a successful penalty (in comparison to those who did not show pride after a successful penalty) during penalty shootouts in the European and World Championships between 1972 and 2008 ended up winning the shootout.
  • In the 2006 World Cup in Germany, 90% of the penalties taken showed players emphasising placement over power.
  • Most penalties are awarded in the second half, and this is attributed to fatigue as the game wears on and players get more tired.
  • Goalkeepers who talk to the opposition in an attempt to intimidate them along with making themselves as big as possible and partaking in distracting behaviours are more likely to save penalties than those who ‘keepers who don’t participate in similar behaviours.

3 thoughts on “The understudied phenomenon of penalties”

  1. Bro i learn from u, your site and acc is so important for me, and I prepare for something so i am not follow u for fun so plz keep your work available at least this site (sryy for my bad english btw)


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