There’s a pile of England players throwing themselves on top of each other. Somewhere beneath the swell of bodies lies Eric Dier, England’s man of the moment.
The defensive midfielder has just banished two decades of suffering with one swing of the right boot, before succumbing to a stampede of team-mates. The Three Lions’ World Cup penalty curse is over, thanks to the last-16 success against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup.
They’d finally won a shootout – their first in 20 years and their first ever at a World Cup.
But the real hero of the piece is on the touchline in an emotional clench of his own. It was Gareth Southgate’s missed penalty at Wembley in the Euro 96 semi-final that started their run of five successive shootout losses in major tournaments and it was the now-England boss who had masterminded this change in fortunes.
“The greatest gift Gareth Southgate has given us as England coach is ending the hoodoo,” says penalty expert Ben Lyttleton, whose book Twelve Yards has led to him working with several top clubs on their spot-kicks.
“It’s basically the belief that penalties are a trainable skill and can be taught and improved – he knows that from bitter experience of course.”
Forget everything that’s been said about penalty shootouts being a lottery because England’s victory against Colombia didn’t happen by accident. And as if to prove that point, Southgate’s side repeated the trick by beating Switzerland on penalties in the Nations League a year later.
A nation once widely considered as one of the worst penalty takers in world football had turned that reputation on its head. They were now the country with the blueprint to follow.
“The reason for that is he [Southgate] has clearly instilled some learnable tricks to improve the players from a technical point of view and from a psychological point,” continues Lyttleton.
“The most obvious is the sense of taking your time and not rushing. It was really clear that in previous penalty shootouts, England’s players always rushed their penalties, which is summed up by Jamie Carragher [against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup] who didn’t even wait for the referee’s whistle, had to retake it and missed.
“The England players wanted to get it over with so quickly, which is a sure sign of stress. So when the Colombia shootout happened, it was really noticeable that the players waited an extra second – in some cases three or four – until they were ready to start their run up and take the penalty.”
Re-watch Dier’s decisive spot kick against the South Americans and Lyttleton’s analysis stands out. The Spurs man pauses and steadies himself, before stroking the ball home to win the tie.
That calm had been instilled by Southgate. Along with his backroom staff, he had identified his players’ optimum spot kicks, attempted to recreate shootouts by asking players to take them after gruelling training sessions to mimic the tiredness of the game and asked goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to hand over the ball to the taker to create a familiar process.
The entire mindset had changed. England were no longer inevitable shootout losers, they now knew victory was something they could achieve themselves.
“Control is a key word,” Lyttleton explains “What they wanted to do was own the shootout and even if you’re behind in it or miss a penalty, you can still own it by being in control of your own execution by focusing on your own routine rather than your outcome. So instead of worrying or saying to yourself ‘I must not miss, I must not miss’, the players should be thinking ‘this is my run-up, this is my approach, if I get that right, everything else will follow’.
“It was noticeable when Jordan Henderson missed the penalty against Colombia, instead of all the players’ body language crumbling and Henderson putting his head in his hands, defeated – he walked back the centre circle with his head held high. You wouldn’t have been able to tell if he’d scored or missed.
“There’s a real sense body language plays a very important role in this tiny part of the game. In the Europa League final recently, Villareal celebrated their penalties exuberantly – almost exaggeratively – while only a few United players gave a celebrating fist. There’s a sense that that carries over and there’s an emotional contagion that relates to success.”
In a game that’s so forensically analysed by coaches nowadays, the penalty shootout remains an outlier when it comes to preparation. So much so, several managers admit to not practicing before knockout games or only choosing takers in the huddle moments before the shootout begins.
But as Lyttleton points out, a little forethought can go a long way. Especially in a major tournament when so many matches are decided by spot kicks.
“When I work with clubs around penalties and shootout strategy, you can ask a group of people who know the players really well… which five takers they’d have and they might come up with different names and different orders,” he says.
“But their job before the shootout starts is coming up with what their Plan A scenario would be, who their shooters are and what their order would be. They should also draw up a Plan B or C in case those players don’t make the 120 minutes, have an injury or aren’t feeling it. That’s something the coach should think about before the players take to the field.”
Making a decision on takers is only half the battle, though. So what is a manager looking for to pick his best penalty line-up in high-pressure moments?
“If it’s an international tournament or the Champions League, technically there’s absolutely no problem with their ability to score from a free shot from 12 yards – most of the time it’s a psychological question,” Lyttleton answers.
“The factor the coaches are looking for is about those players who perform best under pressure and therefore have the least performance anxiety. You’re looking for players who aren’t going to be stressed and will be able to execute what is quite a simple exercise under extreme pressure.
“In the case of Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, Marcello Lippi thought Fabio Grosso was a better pick than Luca Toni, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Fabio Cannavaro – all of whom were strikers or the captain. And he chose this unheralded left back who’d never taken a penalty before because Lippi felt Grosso’s dealing with competition anxiety was better suited to that situation than the star striker or star captain, where the pressure is inevitably greater on their shoulders.”
Data from past penalties and shootouts are also handy to consider, such as the greater success of teams kicking first rather than second and how players who turn their back on the goalkeeper after placing the ball are less likely to score than those who don’t.
There’s also the anecdotal evidence that suggests an advantage can be gained. For example, Lyttleton says he’s heard players brought on as penalty specialists during extra-time speak about wanting to come on in the 110th rather 119th minute to adjust to the game before the shootout, and how having a goalkeeper with a reputation as a penalty-saving supremo provides an upper hand.
While introducing an expert taker for a shootout isn’t that unusual, doing the same thing with a goalkeeper is remarkably rare.
The most high-profile example is Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal’s late substitution of Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul ahead of the Oranje’s 2014 World Cup quarter-final shootout win against Costa Rica. And Lyttleton says it’s a tactic that might be employed more often as shootout strategies become more widely realised.
“I don’t see the difference between bringing on a taker and subbing out a goalie who’s better at saving penalties than the other,” he adds.
“Not only does it have the effect of psyching out the other team and thinking ‘we’re up against a tough opponent’ but there’s also truth in it. If the player is a better goalkeeper at saving penalties, then you’re increasing your chances – it’s no different to the coach picking five players for a shootout. You’ve got to pick six players, five to kick and one to save.
“I’d really like to see and I think we’ll see it more in the future, more coaches being brave to switch up the goalkeepers and having a goalkeeper for open play and a specialist for penalties. Why wouldn’t you?”
One thing’s for sure, there’s little doubt it’s something Gareth Southgate will have considered as part of his penalty preparation.