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Friday, 28 May 2021 08:15

The Drama of Penalties Blog

With the Manchester United defeat on penalties to Villarreal in the Europa League Final its certainly sparked a fair bit of debate on the intricacies of penalties.

Penalties are an area of the game that have fascinated me for some time now and in 2014 I started keeping my own database on penalty takers in League One, League Two and the National League, all of which I have worked in. I still each week watch all the football league goals and where possible National League goals and note down on my spreadsheet who’s taken a penalty and where they have put it.

I noticed on social media when people were discussing the Manchester United penalty shoot-out people’s theories on how to save a penalty, there was some interesting thought processes……


Can you tell?


I have heard and read people suggest that you look at the standing foot of the player and the direction its facing tells you where the ball will go. I personally don’t feel comfortable with that theory and I don’t believe a goalkeeper has enough reaction time to see the foot plant, assess what direction its planted and then decide which way to dive and ultimately execute the dive in time.

I also personally don’t think it’s possible to tell which way a penalty will go based on the angle of the run up as players nowadays are so good at disguising their intentions on their run up and opening up the body or chopping the ball back across themselves.

I think at grass roots level football my best advice would be to wait until the ball is struck and try and react rather than guess. At this level the ball striking isn’t as good in terms of accuracy on a consistent basis and pace that is achieved at the higher levels of the game. Therefore, give yourself a chance to save the penalties that aren’t right in the top or bottom corners.

At the professional levels of the game the majority of goalkeeping coaches will try and do homework on the opposition potential penalty takers. This could come from scout’s reports, watching games themselves or scouting tools such as Wyscout or Instat.

Even once you have done your homework it’s still not easy to nail down where a taker will go, it becomes a game of probability. I have always tried to provide goalkeepers with some stats and info BUT I have always said it still remains the goalkeeper’s choice which way they go, they are the one out there in the heat of the battle. Sometimes they may go with the stats but sometimes they may just have a gut instinct and decide to go with that.

I thought it was harsh when I saw a journalist had managed to get a picture of the info provided to David De Gea on likely directions of the Villarreal takers, criticising him for going a different way on some of them. The journalist claimed he went against the advice so that was his fault. The stats given to a goalkeeper are based on what takers have done before and a likely probability but it’s not a guarantee of what they are about to do and top players have the skill and strength of mind to do anything.

When you study a player to look for patterns you may get a clear pattern, such as a player has taken 10 penalties and gone goalkeepers right 7 times and goalkeepers left 3 times. However, you will also come across situations when the probability is tighter such as 6 right and 4 left or even split 5 right 5 left or they may have only taken 2 or 3 penalties that you can see so its hard to tell if there is a trend, so it’s not a perfect science. All you can do is show the goalkeepers the footage, give them the stats then let them decide how they want to approach the situation.

Down the middle?


For me I still feel going down the middle is one of the best penalties, so long as it goes above knee height. Put simply, goalkeepers tend to dive, it takes a brave goalkeeper to stand upright and not dive even if they have a slight idea, it could go down the middle.

I worked with one goalkeeper who I presented him with the facts that Izale McLeod (Ex MK Dons, Charlton, Barnet, Crawley, Notts County) had gone down the middle 8 times out of 11 of the penalties I had managed to get footage of.

He made an interesting point when he said “If I stand there in the middle of the goal and don’t dive and he rolls it in the corner, I will get hammered by the manager and probably the fans for not making an attempt!”

So, all I could suggest was that he stayed up as long as he could, left his dive as late as possible and try and be ready to throw up a trailing leg if needs be. I’ll let you guess where the penalty went……LOL


On the line, in the moment


I firmly believe a penalty is a hugely psychological moment. Players all over the world love taking penalties in training, when it comes to a game, some wouldn’t want to and for some the success rate of their conversion goes down. This is down to the pressure of the moment rather than the action of striking a dead ball from just 12 yards away placed in the centre of the area with a goalkeeper who must stay on their line.

The penalty has been awarded, the player steps up and places the ball, what do you do now?

Trying to delay the kick, gives the taker more time to think and perhaps overthink where they are going to put it so the pressure can mount on them. This could be doing your boot laces up, it could be taking a long time to return to your goal line, it could be questioning if the ball is on the penalty spot properly.

Once on the goal line, you may move across it, jump up and down a few times and generally try and get in the player’s head. Of things I personally like goalkeepers to do, I like goalkeepers where possible to stand as big as they can, arms wide and try and make the goal look as small as possible to the taker. If you are not physically the biggest of goalkeepers, if you crouch down you then make the goal look huge to the attacker which I feel visually gives the taker more confidence. I just feel whatever size you are, try and make yourself look as big as you can in it and the gaps to score look smaller.

Whether you choose to go with the stats, whether you are trying to read the takers mind, whether you are simply guessing, I still feel you have to commit fully to the dive if you are diving (not standing for the central penalty). If that penalty is struck well in terms of accurately in the corner you have to give yourself a chance to reach it. If the penalty is not hit so well in terms of accuracy there’s still a good chance part of your body (stomach, legs, feet) will get in the way and keep it out.

Homework on a goalkeeper?


At one club I was asked to study opposition goalkeepers and advise the teams penalty takers if there were any trends from the goalkeepers and advise the outfield players which way to go. However, that didn’t sit well with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, when watching the goalkeepers, whether they went the right way or not, how was I to know if that was based off luck, trying to read a taker or off the homework of that goalkeeper’s goalkeeper coach.

If a player came to me and asked to see footage of a specific goalkeeper, I was happy to do that but personally I wouldn’t go out of my way to force information on the takers.

A penalty as I’ve said is a very psychological moment so I would want my takers to have a clear mind, not overthink what the goalkeeper might do.

I firmly believe penalty takers should do 3 things across the course of a week.

1) Practice their favoured side they like to go, concentrating on technique and accuracy and consistency of that strike

2) Practice plan B, the ability to go the opposite way or down the middle to mix things up to make them harder to read or study by opposition goalkeeping coaches

3) When in the moment, in their head pick the spot in the goal they want to hit, don’t change their mind and focus on the execution of the strike as if they hit it well enough in terms of accuracy and pace, I feel it’s unlikely the goalkeeper will save it even if they go the right way


Two penalties in a game by the same player conundrum


At times in games, especially these days where so many penalties get awarded it can happen that a team gets two penalties within the same game with the same player taking it. This then becomes a real cat and mouse moment between the goalkeeper and taker. Does the player go the same way on their second penalty as they did their first or do they go the opposite way, or even change totally and smash it down the middle! Again another psychological battle of the minds between taker and goalkeeper.

My favourite penalty moments


Case 1:

2nd May 2015 Swindon Town v Leyton Orient – League One

Tyrell Belford was in goal for Swindon and his older brother Cameron Belford was the substitute goalkeeper on the day. Tyrell brought down a player in the box and got sent off! As we prepared Cameron, I let him know that there wasn’t lots of stats or footage on the taker, Lloyd James but what there was indicated goalkeepers left was the preferred option.

What was funny was the length of time Cameron took to actually get on the field and therefore delayed the penalty giving Lloyd James more thinking time. Putting his top on, shin pads in, boots tied up took what seemed an eternity, with the Orient management at the time going mad! Cameron did the slowest jog to the area, and took an age to actually take his place in the middle of the goal, on his line. Keepers left it went and SAVED with his first touch on his Swindon debut! Result 2-2 draw.

Case 2:

6th Jan 2019 Fulham v Oldham Athletic – FA Cup

League Two Oldham versus Premiership Fulham away from home, score-line 1-1 going into the 84th minute of the game. Tom Cairney went down in the penalty area, penalty awarded. When I had done the homework both Tom Cairney and Aleksander Mitrovic (who started on the bench) were penalty taking options. At this point I was right on the touchline watching to try and see if Cairney would get up to take the kick as he was having treatment from the physio and it looked touch and go if he would carry on.

Scott Parker who was at the time Claudio Ranieri’s assistant was trying to get Mitrovic ready and I overheard him pestering the linesman saying he wanted to get him on as he was taking the penalty.

I had already prepared our goalkeeper Daniel Iversen before the game with penalty information of their takers but as Mitrovic was stood to my right slightly ahead of me, Daniel was looking over at me for a reminder. I was stood there behind Mitrovic pointing to Daniels left as Mitrovic ran onto the pitch. Up he stepped, left it went, struck really well, down low and Daniel made a brilliant save to keep the scores level. 4 minutes later we got the winner to knock them out! Result 2-1 win

Case 3:

30th April 2016 Rochdale v Swindon Town – League One

Due to injuries 17-year-old second year scholar Will Henry was making his football league debut for Swindon away at Rochdale.

A nervous and exciting moment for any youngster and I was both nervous and excited for him sat in the dugout that day. He started the game really well but then Rochdale were awarded a first half penalty. Ian Henderson, Rochdale’s prolific leading scorer and regular penalty taker collected and placed the ball on the spot. Again, from homework I had done, although he had the ability to go goalkeepers left, right or even down the middle, the stats definitely favoured goalkeepers left. It was struck well, down low, to the left of Will but he got down brilliantly at full stretch to push it past the post and got mobbed ecstatically by his team-mates and rightly so! It was such a brilliant moment for Will on his football league debut. Result 2-2 draw.

Case 4:

4th December 2019 Exeter City v Oxford Utd – EFL Trophy

As the saying goes, a penalty shoot-out is a lottery. Well on this occasion South African Goalkeeper Dino Visser and myself shared a lottery win!

As a goalkeeping coach you spend hours looking for footage and information but ultimately, it’s not you out there facing them so you are the supporting actor while the lead actor is out on the pitch. I couldn’t have imagined it going to plan so well when the shootout started. Anthony Forde (keepers right), Rob Hall (keepers left) and Mark Sykes (keepers right) all went the way I felt they would (which felt like getting the correct numbers on your ticket) but Dino still had to get his lines right and he did without doubt making three brilliant saves to see us through to the next round. Result won 3-0 on penalties.


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