Germany are turning to technology to get even better at penalties

It’s not enough that Germany already have the world’s best goalkeeper and the best penalty shoot-out record of all international teams. Now, a country famous for its meticulous planning, has turned to technology to give the national team an extra edge should they concede a penalty at Euro 2016 or find themselves involved in a shoot-out during the knock-out rounds.

Penalty Insights, an app designed by German software company SAP, gives Manuel Neuer and the team’s goalkeeping coaches information about how their opponents take penalty kicks. A database contains all the teams competing at the European Championship and highlights the most likely players in each team to step up to the spot. The app then displays the area of the goal each penalty taker usually aims at, along with specific shot characteristics such as the run-up and whether they look at the ball, the goal or the keeper.

There is also data on how many penalties each player has taken before, how many they’ve scored, how many they’ve missed and how many have been saved, and which part of the goal each penalty was aimed at. Finally, there are video clips of penalties taken by the player in question, allowing Neuer and the other German keepers to analyse their opponent in exact detail.

“In the past we had to search painfully for data,” says German goalkeeping coach, Andreas Kopke. “Now we can look at individual players and prepare our goalkeepers in an optimal way.”

Kopke was in goal when Germany last won the European Championship in 1996. He conceded a spot-kick to Patrik Berger in the 59th minute of the final, which gave the Czech Republic a 1-0 lead. But Kopke did save Gareth Southgate’s penalty in the semi-final shoot-out that sent Germany through to face the Czechs and eliminated England. Six years earlier, Kopke had been on the bench at the Stadio di Alpi in Italy, when Bodo Ilgner saved Stuart Pearce’s penalty in the World Cup semi-final between the two nations.

Germany have a 100% record in World Cup shoot-outs, winning four out of four and missing only one of 18 penalties taken. Current No.1 Neuer has a decent record of keeping out his opponents from 12 yards too, saving 15 penalties in his 13-year professional career and conceding 32. He recently denied Fernando Torres in the Champions League semi-final against Atletico Madrid.

Germany’s Head Scout, Christofer Clemens, says the idea behind Penalty Insights is to eradicate as much unpredictability as possible. There is now less chance of Neuer being surprised from the spot and, if the taker is aware their every move has been studied – from placing the ball down to hitting the strike – the mental advantage can play further into Neuer’s hands. It’s great for Germany, but what about the rest of us?

Germany’s only loss in a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament came in the 1976 European Championship final against Czechoslovakia. The first seven kicks were converted before West Germany’s fourth penalty taker, Uli Hoeness, smashed his shot over the bar. With the score finely poised at 4-3, Czech midfielder Antonin Panenka stepped up to win the tournament with such an impudent, delicate finish, that football ended up naming a new style of penalty after him.

Panenka ran up as normal, waited for Sepp Maier to dive to the left, and then chipped the ball gently down the middle of the goal. It flummoxed the big German keeper in the same way a batsman is deceived by a fast bowler suddenly switching to a slower pace. Maier’s timing was all out: he moved too early, in the wrong direction, and flailed around hopelessly as the ball floated over the line to bring the term ‘Panenka’ into the footballing lexicon.

Had Maier been in possession of a mobile phone app that forewarned him of what Panenka might try – that the Czech had form for such a confident act from 12 yards – then he might well have just stood there, easily collecting the shot in his arms. Panenka would have looked a fool rather than a pioneer, and history would not have been made.

German team manager, Oliver Bierhoff (Joachim Low’s role is team coach), is aware that even the most meticulous planning can be undone by a flash of brilliance. “Top players know that goalkeeper’s collect this kind of data,” he says. “The human touch is all important. There is still room for error and manoeuvre: who will react to who in the moment.”

Bierhoff scored two goals in the Euro ‘96 final to overturn Berger’s penalty opener and give Germany a 2-1 win against the Czechs courtesy of a golden goal in extra time. He’s proud to be the last German to score a winning goal in a European Championship final, but says that he would gladly give up that honour to one of the current squad.

Bierhoff would also like to see UEFA and FIFA remove the restriction on using technology on the field so that goalkeepers can take an iPhone into their goal during shoot-outs.

In 2014, SAP performance analysis technology helped the Germans reduce the average time each player spent on the ball to 1.1 seconds, down from 3.4 seconds at the 2010 World Cup. Moving the ball quicker, Joachim Low said, was a crucial part of the strategy that destroyed Brazil 7-1, defeated Argentina in the final, and ensured Germany became the first European team to win the World Cup in Latin America.

At Euro 2016 the Germans have a third app, also designed by SAP, which analyses opposition strategy and tactics and gives insights into individual opponents.

“We can send all this information to coaches and players on their iPhones, in an easy to understand and nice to look at format,’ says Bierhoff. “Whoever we are playing, we can look at our opponents and react to any changes they make.”

However, even if a coach has the best information, it doesn’t mean they will always make the right decision. At the last European Championship Low chopped and changed his team throughout and eventually Germany were defeated by Italy in the semi-final after failing to control the influence of Andrea Pirlo.

It is perhaps that disappointment that persuaded Germany to pursue technological advantages with greater urgency. The marginal gains can be essential. Although Italy had largely been written-off before Euro 2016 started, the German Challenger Insights App carried a warning: ‘Never go behind against Italy. They are masters of maintaining a lead and will use every trick in the book to do so. They have extensive tournament experience and are tactically astute.’

If only Belgium had been able to heed such accurate and vital advice, then perhaps they would have joined Germany in making a winning start to the tournament. Germany aren’t content just being the best in the world: with the benefits SAP offers they aim to stay there for a long time.

Germany are turning to technology to get even better at penalties
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