The art of penalty-taking and the British psyche

I’m a product of British football culture. I grew up watching football on British television, listening to the language and opinions of British commentators and pundits. I was taught to play the game by British parents and coaches, who told me not to wear gloves in winter, and who expected goalkeepers to catch the ball and never to punch it. Nobody in the youth football matches I remember even thought about diving, unless they were looking to get a laugh. And nobody was going to check their step or throw a dummy in the run-up to a penalty, certainly not in a competitive game…not without getting a bollocking.

For many years I felt uncomfortable whenever I saw a player stall or stutter on their way to taking a penalty. I always thought he’d miss. Only in recent years have I thrown off my British conditioning that football is a serious game and started to revel in the cockiness of it. It’s supposed to be entertainment, after all, and there is something very satisfying about seeing a player send the goalkeeper one way and roll the ball the other from 12 yards. But I still hear the voices around me in the stands, ready to whine at the player who ‘fucks about’ when it’s time for business; ready to have a go at the ‘clown’. I decided to get to the bottom of this very British footballing prejudice. Why do we have it in for the checked-step penalty?

I remembered my first encounter with this kind of spot-kick. It came during the shootout at the end of England’s goalless quarter-final against Spain in Euro ‘96, at Wembley, and the commentary on ITV’s coverage revealed much about the English attitude towards such an approach. As Guillermo Amor (who you may remember from a previous feature on The Set Pieces) strode up to take Spain’s second penalty, co-commentator Ron Atkinson was telling viewers about his personal preferences in such situations.

“I don’t like to see them side-foot it,” he said sternly, despite having just watched David Platt side-foot the ball expertly beyond Andoni Zubizarreta’s reach. “I hate to see those little ones that creep along the ground.”

Then Amor did what you can only imagine was anathema to Atkinson. After beginning his long run-up from inside the ‘D’, the Spanish midfielder exaggerated his penultimate step before halting suddenly over the ball. David Seaman was half-sold by the dummy, jerking slightly to his right as though to dive, before realising he’d been had. But just as he reset himself, Amor passed the ball along the floor into the bottom right-hand corner of Seaman’s net. The goalkeeper, left flat-footed after righting his initial inclination to go after the dummied shot, simply watched it roll in.

“Oh, and he took it very cleverly,” said Brian Moore, before drawing our attention to something happening off camera. “Tony Adams has gone to the linesman to say that was gamesmanship,” he added, allowing Atkinson a way in. “Yes, I just wondered about that,” Atkinson chirped, in a tone with a hint of the jobsworth about it. “There is some sort of ruling about that.” And then, as a slow-motion replay was shown: “There’s that little check-step.”

Now there’s nothing utterly outrageous about that piece of commentary, but there was undoubtedly an air of consternation about that ‘little check-step’ in the gantry that afternoon. I was 11 years old that summer and had never seen a player pause over the ball to dummy the keeper before taking a penalty. Had the accompanying commentary been more appreciative of the skill involved, or had it not been scored against a team I was deliriously supporting, I might have felt differently about the whole concept. It worked perfectly, throwing Seaman into throes of uncertainty and allowing Amor to calmly dispatch his penalty without fear of the goalkeeper reacting in time to reach it. But all I remember about that penalty now is the calling into question of its legality. The idea that somehow it was an act of ‘gamesmanship’.

Even as a replay of Amor’s penalty was being shown, Moore was setting up the narrative quite perfectly as Stuart Pearce made his way from the halfway line to take a penalty in a major international tournament for the first time since his heart-breaking miss in England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to West Germany six years earlier. “Nobody wants to see him miss it,” the commentator announced during the veteran left-back’s run-up, “…AND HE HASN’T!”

Pearce’s emphatic penalty was stroked across the goalkeeper into the bottom right-hand corner of the net, perfectly placed and with plenty of power, provoking a series of air punches and headbutts that left the demons of 1990 knocked out on the Wembley turf. The most English penalty of all time had succeeded the most un-English of penalties, banishing the memory of Amor’s tricksy, altogether more ‘continental’, stalling run-up.

Of course, this being the 21st Century, there is now a technical term for both types of penalty, which takes us deeper into the psyche of the spot-kick. “There are two ways of taking penalties: goalkeeper dependent and goalkeeper independent,” explains Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty.

“Goalkeeper independent is exactly as you’d expect – you strike the ball independent of where the goalkeeper is going to go and if you hit it hard and true, and it finds the target, you’re more likely than not to score a goal. Rickie Lambert, Alan Shearer, Julian Dicks, all traditional English penalty-takers have usually taken the goalkeeper independent route, although Zinedine Zidane was another example of this way – he always used to pick his spot.

“However, the goalkeeper dependent method is what Eden Hazard does, what Yaya Toure does, it’s what Gaizka Mendieta did. That involves waiting for the goalkeeper to move, and to do that you have to have some kind of pause in your run-up at some point. Whether it’s half a second or longer, there is some kind of checking in the run-up to allow for that pause. Then the goalkeeper normally commits himself and the player will go the other way.”

Goalkeepers must hate it. They’re being toyed with, often in front of the television cameras for all to see. You’d think they must feel the same way as Atkinson and Adams did at Wembley in 1996, but Mark Schwarzer has a somewhat unexpected view of the shootout psychology.

“For me, I didn’t really find it that bad,” Schwarzer tells The Set Pieces. “Sometimes [that type of run-up] can be deceiving if you don’t stay up on your feet and you react too early. Sometimes you can get sold a dummy and, by doing that check, the player is trying to make you move first, then that allows him to take it calmly to one side or the other.

“But the way that technology works these days, there is so much video analysis going on that you are able to view everyone’s penalties and free-kicks over the course of the last couple of years. So generally there are no surprises.

“It becomes even more of a psychological game because if a player has consistently played a certain way and been successful, they will tend to stick with that and very rarely change their motion or their decision. So it then becomes a case of the player thinking, ‘Right, my last four pens I went to the keeper’s right and I’ve scored. He knows that because I’m sure he’s done his homework. Do I go there again?’

“And the goalkeeper is thinking, ‘Is he going to go for a fifth one in a row? Surely he can’t because he’ll know I’ve looked at the information.’ So it is still very much a cat-and-mouse situation. That doesn’t change.”

It stands to reason that technology would change the way we view the checked-step run-up. After all, a goalkeeper is less likely to complain about a run-up they’ve seen their opponent pull out a dozen times before, especially if it gives them the chance to make the taker look foolish by calling their bluff. Schwarzer remembers one such moment clearly.

“The one that comes to mind was an occasion when I wasn’t actually in goal,” he explains. “It was Yakubu against Brad Jones, when he came back into the Liverpool team after Doni got sent off at Blackburn.

“Now Yakubu was actually at Middlesbrough with Brad and I, where we used to practise penalties a lot after training and he used to do that [check-step run-up] all the time. It was really difficult to stay on your feet because he waited so, so long.

“In that particular game, Brad knew exactly what he was going to do and he just waited and waited and waited. In the end, Yakubu panicked and just hit it along the ground, like a little roller, and Brad just dived on it.”

Clearly, in principle, Schwarzer has no real problem with the idea of a penalty taker checking their run-up to affect the goalkeeper’s decision-making processes. However, he adds that the way in which the staller stalls is significant. “I think it’s if you actually stop, then that would be when I would say it was unfair,” he says. “These days, so long as you’re still in a forward motion, it’s acceptable. I think that’s fair enough.”

Don’t stop moving, should perhaps be the rule then, as S-Club Seven sagely advised in 2001. Perhaps that particular track didn’t sell too well in Brazil, where the paradinha, or ‘little step’ is a well-known part of penalty-taking tradition. Unsurprisingly, it’s believed the first to do it was Pele, who had one of his early efforts at this type of penalty ruled out for ‘ungentlemanly conduct’ during a game against Argentine club River Plate. The paradinha was quickly accepted in Brazil, however, and he became renowned for stopping briefly midway through his run-up, even dispatching his 1000th career goal after stalling on his way to the penalty spot.

Neymar has inherited the mantle of the paradinha poster-boy for this generation, scoring with an outrageously flamboyant stop-start run-up during the opening game of the 2014 World Cup against Croatia. Technically, he never stopped moving, but he certainly tested the referee’s motion sensors before his shot found the net via the palms of Stipe Pletikosa.

As Lyttleton explains, that wasn’t Neymar’s first rodeo. Indeed, he had previously caused controversy for his little stops during the early days of his career. “When Neymar did it in 2010, for Santos against Sao Paulo, it caused a huge storm, to the point where FIFA intervened and changed the rules,” Lyttleton recalls. “He would stop in the middle of the run-up, at which point the keeper would dive and he would roll it the other way. But he would literally stop.

“FIFA changed the rules on penalty kicks to say that the kicker was not allowed to stop in his run-up. He’s still allowed to slow down, but he’s not allowed to stop and then start again. Rogério Ceni, who was the famous goalscoring goalkeeper at São Paulo, said that if Neymar tried it in Europe, they wouldn’t let him. He felt Neymar was just taking the piss out of them and that every goalkeeper was going to go after him.”

There’s that idea of goalkeepers getting angry again. But former Aberdeen and Silkeborg keeper David Preece – who is now a journalist and recently analysed Claudio Bravo’s shot-stopping problems – never really saw it that way during his days between the posts.

“If I did have a problem with it at any time I can’t remember,” he says. “Even now, I don’t have any problem with it whatsoever. The only vague memory I’ve got about any sort of directive coming in to try and outlaw it – because John Aldridge used to do it all the time – was one of those things that referees tell you at the start of the season and then just forget about.

“Mario Balotelli also does it and his is more in the style of the example you gave with Amor, in that it’s a quick run-up and then a sudden stop, before going and placing the ball. That’s what Amor did with Seaman. He’s basically put Seaman on his heels because when he stops Seaman has sort of relaxed.

“The taker and the goalkeeper’s movements are almost synchronised in the run-up to a normal penalty, where you’ve got the run-up, the shot and the goalkeeper’s reaction all in one action. Now, it’s different as a goalkeeper, especially when you know the player might do that. All goalkeepers can do is stay as long as possible and it becomes almost like a game of chicken.”

Playing mind games with the taker before they can make you a pawn in their game sounds like a good idea, but Preece is more sheepish when asked for an example. “I did a piece for the latest issue of Mundial magazine about Henrik Larsson,” he continues. “The first penalty he ever took against me, I was expecting him to hit it down the middle. The manager kept hitting it home to me before the game that if they got a penalty, Larsson would go down the middle. So I’m sort of waiting for him to chip the ball into my hands and all he does is roll the ball down the side of me, you know? That made me look a bit of an idiot.”

Is that what British players are afraid of? Is there a deep-rooted dislike of making a fellow sportsman look stupid? Is it possible that a nation’s approach to penalties could be held back by a hangover from the days when terms like ‘gentlemanly conduct’ directed the sport’s moral compass?

“Yes,” agrees Lyttleton unequivocally. “I absolutely believe that. And there are two reasons why I believe that. One is this: think of an English player that’s ever tried a Panenka in a big game. I can only think of John Stones doing it against Juventus in a pre-season friendly. I genuinely can’t think of an English player doing it in a proper game. So I do think there’s a cultural element to it.

“I think the other reason why English players don’t do it is because there is so much trauma around their experiences of penalty kicks that they are scared to try anything like that. There is a fear of failure, there is a fear of making mistakes. We know that during extra time of tournament matches, England players have admitted to being scared about penalties while they should have been focusing on the game. They have built it up in their heads.”

Lyttleton is referring here to Steven Gerrard’s comments in his 2006 autobiography, Gerrard: My Autobiography, in which he reflected on England’s elimination from that summer’s World Cup, on penalties, at the hands of Portugal. “As extra-time went on around me, I spent half an hour worrying about the only kick that counted – my penalty,” wrote Gerrard. “Sweat poured even faster off my forehead. Stay calm. Focus. You must get through extra-time. But I was already distracted, the clock only showing how long it was until I had to make that soul-destroying walk from the centre-circle. Nearer and nearer. My pulse raced madly. My head was pounding. Penalties, penalties, penalties. Fuck it. ‘Where am I going to put it?’ I thought. ‘Has their keeper seen my Liverpool pens? Soon find out.’”

It’s fair to say from reading that passage that Gerrard favours the goalkeeper independent penalty method. In fact, he reveals as much later in the chapter when we reach his moment of truth in that match. “As I neared the spot, my body went numb. God, I wouldn’t wish that walk on my worst enemy. Yet even with all the doubts building, I had belief in my technique. That penalty was going in. I will score. I went through my penalty routine. Set the ball right? Yes, done. Remember all the good kicks in training? Yes…Know where you’re going to place it? Yes. Ricardo’s good, but if I place the ball exactly where I want, at the spot where Robbo, David James and Scott Carson told me about in training, Portugal’s keeper can’t stop it.”

Sadly for Gerrard and England, Portugal’s keeper did stop it. But as Preece tells us, sometimes a rushed penalty is the easiest for a goalie to pre-empt. Sometimes a quick, pre-planned run-up gives everything away. “From a goalkeeper’s perspective if a player approaches quickly and takes it straight away, the ball is more likely to go where their feet tell you it’s going to go,” he explains. “The quicker your approach, the harder it’s going to be to change how you strike the ball. There’s no time for you to open your body out or change your body shape.”

Preece’s hunch is backed up by the numbers, according to Lyttleton. “The key thing behind all of this is that a study done by a German psychologist showed that the goalkeeper dependent method was more successful,” he confirms. “I think that if you measure it over time and assume that the people who prefer the goalkeeper dependent method are the ones that have the technique, have put time in to train and practice, are cool under pressure, super-composed, and able to cope with the context of the situation…they score more often than the others.”

Players like Matt Le Tissier, for example. One of the foremost penalty specialists in English football history – he scored 47 of 48 penalties in his professional career – was actually very atypical of his nationality when it came to his approach from the spot. Le Tissier was no different to Gerrard in his attitude towards practising penalties. He also practised a lot, and against different goalkeepers too, but he had a more relaxed attitude towards the whole 12 yards.

He often suggested with his run-up that he would go one way, before wrapping his foot around the ball at the last moment and sending it the other. This was the most simplified form of the goalkeeper dependent approach, without the checked step. Most importantly, he didn’t try to get it over with as quickly as he could to avoid the trauma. It wasn’t an ordeal to him. In fact, it seems he saw a penalty kick as an opportunity to prove his ability and showcase his technique. “I wanted the whole stadium to watch me, it appealed to my ego,” he once said. “I also liked scoring goals and this was the easiest way to do it, especially as I didn’t have to run!”

In this respect, as in so many others, Le Tissier may be the exception that proves the rule among English footballers. His preference for the goalkeeper dependent method, for making the goalkeeper complicit in his success from 12 yards, makes him an unusual case. It is no coincidence that all the names, bar Zidane, that sprung to mind when Lyttleton was listing exponents of the goalkeeper independent approach were English.

But are times changing? Has the international influence on our domestic game worn down our resistance to such matters? British goalkeepers regularly punch the ball now; some of them even wear short sleeves. A person who comments on brightly coloured boots or gloves is more likely to be told to ‘bore off’ than humoured. Is it possible that we’ve now accepted the checked-step penalty run-up as well? Perhaps the litmus test for such changes in attitude always lies with our co-commentators.

When Liverpool beat Stoke after a shootout in last season’s League Cup semi-final, there were two stuttered run-ups in succession. A subtle stop-start from Glen Whelan, who scored, before Christian Benteke channelled his inner Amor with an exaggerated penultimate step that sent a nervy Jack Butland diving to his left. With the goalkeeper now out of the equation, the Belgian simply pushed the ball into the other corner.

But now, 20 years after Adams’ protests to the linesman had sent Atkinson rummaging around for his rulebook, there was a markedly different reaction in the commentary box. “Ho-ho-hooh, dear!” an audibly titillated Alan Smith cooed. “They’re great when they go in, aren’t they!” How times have changed.

The art of penalty-taking and the British psyche
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