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Why soccer teams that go first in shootouts usually win

The agony and ecstasy of a soccer penalty kick, explained with behavioral economics.

Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev dives to save a penalty from Croatia’s midfielder Mateo Kovacic during the Russia 2018 World Cup quarter-final match on July 7, 2018.
Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev dives to save a penalty kick from Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic during a World Cup quarterfinal match on July 7, 2018.
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The penalty kick in soccer is among the highest pressure moments in all of sports. The fate of an entire game, a tournament, even a career can hinge on a few fractions of a second between kicker and goalkeeper.

All that pressure is especially concentrated at the World Cup, with nearly half the world watching. And it ramps up even higher in elimination rounds, where penalty kicks are deployed as a tie-breaker. Since its introduction in 1978, 30 World Cup games have been decided through a penalty kick shootout, including two World Cup finals.

In this year’s tournament, we’ve already witnessed four shootouts. Another shootout is a possibility when France and Croatia match square off in the World Cup final on Sunday.

Croatia narrowly avoided a shootout on Wednesday in its semifinal match with England, winning 2-1 in overtime.

But both teams had their own nerve-wracking shootouts in the 2018 World Cup. You may have caught this moment after the July 3 round of 16 match between Colombia and England:

Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman, left, and England head coach Gareth Southgate, right, comfort Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after the round of 16 match between Colombia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesd
England manager Gareth Southgate, right, remembers the pain of missing a penalty kick all too well as he comforts Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after the round of 16 match between Colombia and England.
Alastair Grant/AP

Here, England manager Gareth Southgate is consoling Colombian midfielder Mateus Uribe, who missed his penalty kick, allowing England to advance to the next round with a 4-3 win in the shootout.

It’s a feeling Southgate knows all too well, having missed his kick 22 years earlier at the 1996 Euro Cup when England played Germany in the semifinals:

“Football World Cup, it is a passion, and when the match goes into extra time, it’s a drama, said former FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2006 during the World Cup in Germany. “But when it comes to penalty kicks, it’s a tragedy.”

As emotional as they are, penalty kicks in general and shootouts in particular are not just gambles. Behavioral economics research shows that there are methods that both the kicker and the goalkeeper can use to gain an edge, and one of the most crucial factors takes place before the shootout even begins: which team goes first.

Here are some fascinating things researchers have learned about penalty kicks, and what they’re analyzing to anticipate the next shot.

Penalty kick shootouts are really unfair to the goalkeeper and to the team that goes second

A penalty kick is awarded when there is a foul inside the penalty area in front of the goal. A penalty shootout occurs when the teams are tied at the end of regulation time and overtime.

It’s a horrendously lopsided contest: A goalkeeper has to defend 192 square feet of area from a shot taken from 36 feet away at upward of 80 miles per hour. In baseball, by contrast, the batter has to swing through a strike zone of about 3.5 square feet at a ball thrown from 60 feet away at more than 100 miles per hour. That gives a batter about 0.4 seconds to swing and a goalkeeper just 0.3 seconds to leap with their whole body. More often than not, the goalkeeper needs to guess — in advance — which way the ball is going.

So it’s not a huge surprise that most penalty kicks result in a goal. As Kirk Goldsberry pointed out at Grantland, soccer players only scored on about 10 percent of their shots at the 2014 World Cup, but scored on more than 81 percent of World Cup penalty kicks since 1966.

But for researchers, penalty kick shootouts provide a prime natural experiment in sports psychology and a useful behavioral model for game theory.

“If you look at soccer as a game, it’s very intricate,” Tom Vandebroek, a sports economics researcher now working as a professional coach, told Vox. “Whereas if you look at penalty shootouts, it’s very good example of a natural experiment: The stakes are high, the effort is relatively low. It’s one against one. It’s repeated. The behavior of the goalkeeper and the player is kind of simultaneous.”

Vandebroek co-wrote a 2016 study in the Journal of Sports Economics on the psychological pressure behind penalty kicks. The results showed that strategizing should begin at the coin toss for who goes first.

He explained that during a shootout, teams alternate between kicks, which creates a discrepancy in the stakes depending on the score of the shootout. For example, if the score is 5-4 after nine shots, the final kicker bears a massive psychological burden that can then cause them to choke.

Russian forward Fyodor Smolov kisses the ball during a penalty against Croatia at the 2018 World Cup. Smolov missed his shot.
Russian forward Fyodor Smolov kisses the ball during a penalty against Croatia at the 2018 World Cup. Smolov missed his shot.
Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Writing in a 2003 paper in the Review of Economic Studies, Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a professor at the London School of Economics, noted that penalty scoring rates during regulation matches decreased as the game wore on. This is “not because the goalkeeper’s saves increase but because kickers shoot wide, to the goalpost, or to the crossbar more often than earlier in the game. This may be attributed to nervousness or kickers being tired at the end of the game.” Based on player interviews, nervousness seemed to be the likelier explanation, according to Palacios-Huerta. So it stands to reason that players are most nervous during the tie-breaking round of penalty kicks at the end of a long match.

Heading into the shootout, there is a strong first-mover advantage for kickers, according to mathematical models and observations. Vandebroek and his colleagues found that in just over 60 percent of penalty shootouts, the team that shot first won. This result confirmed Palacio-Huerta’s earlier findings and held even if the second team gained the lead during the shootout.

Croatian players look on during a penalty shootout in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Quarterfinal match against Russia.
Croatian players look on during a penalty shootout in the World Cup quarterfinal match against Russia.
Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty

The result makes sense if you think about what happens in the first round of kicks. Before the first team — let’s call them Team A — steps up to shoot, the score is 0-0. The first player from Team A therefore can either gain an advantage by scoring, or leave the score tied with a miss. But the first player from Team B can only tie or put themselves at a disadvantage.

“If I am behind in the score, I have actually a lower probability of scoring my kick,” Vandebroek said.

But going first isn’t a guarantee of victory. In this year’s World Cup, every team that went first in a shootout — Spain, Denmark, Colombia, Russia — has lost.

That means there are a lot of other factors to consider. As in baseball, the order of players that take kicks is extremely important. The results show that you want your best kickers to go first in the shootout, though this isn’t always put into practice.

In the 2012 UEFA Euro Cup matchup between Spain and Portugal, the teams found themselves in a shootout after a 0-0 draw in regulation time. Portugal elected to have its best penalty shooter, Cristiano Ronaldo, go last, but Spain won the shootout 4-2 before he ever had a chance.

The researchers observed that “the placement of a star shooter may increase the magnitude of first-mover advantage associated with psychological pressure.”

The relatively simple way to neutralize the first-mover advantage in penalty kicks is to change the kicking order. Rather than an A-B-A-B alternation, the team that goes second could get two attempts in a row (A-B-B-A). It’s being tried right now at lower level competitions and in some leagues, but it may be a while before it comes to the World Cup.

“It’s probably a bridge too far, at least for the moment, but it would be more equitable,” Vandebroek said.

Aim high and wide

Obviously, you shouldn’t kick the ball right at the goalie. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim at the center.

The Economist and data analytics firm Opta recently did an analysis of all successful World Cup goals scored in penalty shootouts. They found that the hardest places to aim, the top corners of the goal, are also the hardest to defend, with keepers saving just 2 percent of balls aimed there. These are ideal targets for more skilled players.

For less skilled players, blasting the ball down the center above the goalkeeper may be the most effective tactic. Since the goalkeeper is essentially guessing where the ball is going and is usually primed to jump left or right, the top center area is easy to overlook. It’s the area where goalkeepers make the fewest saves. There’s even a kicking technique known as the Panenka to exploit this fact.

This echoes earlier findings from researchers at the University of Chicago published in a 2002 study in the American Economic Review journal. Looking at penalty kicks in Italian and French soccer leagues, the researchers found that aiming down the middle had the highest payoff. They also found that kickers and goalkeepers most often go left (to the goalkeeper’s right).

There’s an arms race in penalty kick tactics

Data analytics are starting to take root in soccer, and penalty kicks — high stakes, low effort, repeated, zero-sum games — are an ideal place to apply them.

“We did this kind of testing well in advance of the World Cup to ensure that if a shoot-out came around, there would be a calmness in the way in we approached it,” England’s Southgate told Al Jazeera’s David Cox.

Teams are now going to the tape to see how elite scorers like Brazil’s Neymar telegraph their intentions as they run up to shoot (he almost always aims right or center). He’s also notorious for stutter stepping to try to throw off the goalkeeper.

Other players mix it up, but statistical models can still find patterns that goalkeepers can use to anticipate where the ball will go. This has led to a race between teams aiming to detect patterns in their opponents while obscuring their own. As Cox writes:

In many cases, both teams will have access to this data and, hence, both sides would be aware of any potential patterns. Because of this, analysts will also scour through videos, breaking them down frame by frame to try and identify any small adjustments in body position or posture that can help a goalkeeper detect where the ball might go.

For example, if a player opens up his body up as he prepares to strike the ball, he’s most likely to place his penalty to the goalkeeper’s left.

”A kick-taker should have good body language which makes him hard to read,” said Daniel Memmert, who worked as a penalty consultant for the German national team.

”This means the chest should be open, the shoulders are behind, and he should always watch the goalie when he steps back from the penalty spot. The Dutch have done this very effectively in the past.”

All this means that if your team is heading into a shootout, your best bets are to try to go first, line up your best shooters early, have them be unpredictable in their movements, and aim down the center.

And if you still lose, have a sense of humor.

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