Monday, 17 March 2014

The Science of Penalties

Sunday’s Scottish League Cup final was billed as a potential classic: Two teams currently battling it out in the top half of the Scottish Premiership. One, former powerhouses of Scottish football, looking to end 15 trophy-less years, the other still in its infancy and appearing in its first major final.

Though not the most drab 0-0 you’ll ever see, 120 minutes of goalless action in a cup final hardly constitutes a classic. And so it took penalties to separate the sides. Which is a lottery, right?

Well it depends which manager you listen to. In their respective post-match interviews, Derek McInnes spoke in a measured tone that his team talk just before the spots kicks was “It’s not about have practiced them all week”. His Inverness counterpart, John Hughes, by contrast bemoaned penalties being “down to luck”, wedging yet another overused, empty expression into his already cliché-ridden vernacular.

This is where the final was won and lost in the end and the marked divergence between the managers’ attitude towards penalty shootouts is clear to see. Hughes, essentially, compared penalties to a lottery, and how can you practice for a lottery?

If it is a lottery, then why pick your best five penalty takers? Furthermore, best estimates put the amount of penalties scored somewhere around 80% - incidentally, the amount scored in yesterday’s shootout had a 75% success rate - if so, then why bother practicing other ways of putting the ball into the net, be it other dead-ball situations like free-kicks and corners or attacks through open play?

These situations end in goals with far less frequency than penalties kicks, making them even more of a lottery, so why bother practicing them either?

The fact is that scoring from the penalty spot is as much of a skill as finding the top corner on the turn or threading a through-ball through a tight space. Fine-tuning putting the ball into areas where the goalkeeper can’t reach, mastering run-ups that confuse and, from the goalkeeper’s point of view, researching where the taker is likely to strike the ball, are all techniques that can be practiced and developed.

Practicing and developing these skills will increase you chance of scoring penalties. Not some unexplained cosmic force.

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