Los 40 USA
Sign in to commentAPP
spainSPAINchileCHILEcolombiaCOLOMBIAusaUSAmexicoMEXICOlatin usaLATIN USAamericaAMERICA


The science behind penalty shootouts: Analysis and probabilities of penalty kicks

One of the most polemic aspects of the game, penalty kicks are dreaded by fans and derided by casuals, but just what does the science say?

One of the most polemic aspects of the game, penalty kicks are dreaded by fans and derided by casuals, but just what does the science say?
PressFocus/MB MediaGetty

Nothing is more hated in soccer than penalty shootouts. If you are a casual viewer who only watches the game every four years when the World Cup rolls around, it may please you to know that die-hard fans also share your disgust with this moment.

But even a penalty given during regulation play has a host of problems, namely the taker and the placement. It is nothing less than infuriating when you consider that a clumsy defender can draw a penalty at the edge of the 20-yard box by the touchline, a position from which he has virtually no chance of scoring on his own, and is rewarded with centering the ball just 12 yards in front of a gaping goal with only the keeper in the way. Not for Clumsy to take his chance, nor Sneezy, or even Doc, but for team’s marquee striker.

The only explanation for this disproportionate punishment is encompassed in the name itself: penalty. This move is designed to be a punishment for the defending team, rewarding the attacking team with as close to a sure-thing goal as can be justified.

How many penalties are made?

And the statistics reveal that it is indeed a pretty sure thing. 85% of penalties taken at the top-flight level are scored, while only 11% are saved. That other 4%? That is when the kicker simply shanks it.

Of course among this 85%, there are a host of styles and targets to consider. Research shows that you are best off simply taking three to four steps and kicking it low and straight. Here is a humorous take on this knowledge given by the magnificent Stephen Fry on the British television show QI:

Penalty Shootouts

There are some interesting variations on these numbers when it comes to a penalty shootout, however. While 85% of regulation penalties end up in the back of the net, that number actually falls as you go down the order in a shootout, to less than 70% by the time you get to kicker number six.

After receiving an individual prize, a player will be expected to score from a penalty only 65% of the time, so leaning on your big stars is not necessarily the best option either. Research has shown that in a shootout, your best penalty taker should go first. Your second best should go fifth. Order, it turns out, really matters in shootouts.

Always the most effective penalty takers are those who feel in complete control of the ball and where it goes. The players who feel as if it is all a lottery are more likely to miss than to score. Most tellingly, however, is that they are also more likely to miss than for the keeper to save the shot.

The biggest opponent in a penalty is not the goalkeeper, but the kicker himself. Most tend to be right-footed, and will kick left. Knowing this, many will try and go the other way, and indeed most saves are made on the lower right side of the goal.

Best advice? Pick a spot, be decisive, don’t monkey around with stutter steps, and kick it straight. Or, as Stephen Fry says, “Be German.”