On the surface, scoring a penalty is one of the simplest tasks in football. A static ball, 12 yards out, with just the goalkeeper to beat. The odds are heavily weighted in the taker’s favour and yet so many struggle to find the net consistently.
Even some of the best players in the history of the game, those who can conjure up moments of unimaginable artistry, repeatedly fail from the spot. Lionel Messi, perhaps the best footballer of all time, having almost redefined our sense of what’s possible, is a prime example.
During a career of almost uniform brilliance, he’s scored more than 750 goals at the very highest level, many of them breathtakingly exquisite. His ability is otherworldly, in virtually all respects, but when it comes to taking penalties, Messi is made to seem mortal.
He’s taken 131 in total and missed 29 of them, giving him a conversion rate of just under 78%, only marginally better than the average player. His longstanding rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, enjoys a superior record but has still missed 28 times out of 170 attempts. Both had efforts saved at the last World Cup.
Unlike shooting from open play, where so many variables are involved – the position of the ball relative to the goal, its speed and trajectory, the proximity of teammates and opponents – each penalty is essentially the same. Everything from the precise placement of the ball to the run-up and connection is in the taker’s control. It’s vital to press home that inherent advantage.
“My technique was simple. I would pick a corner, hit the ball as hard as I could and try to get it as close to the post as possible,” explains Rickie Lambert, who scored 54 of the 57 competitive penalties he took, including a run of 38 in a row.
“The main thing was power with me. Sometimes the keeper’s got a hand to it, but the power’s beaten them. If I was going to my right, I’d sidefoot it with power. I was looking to bend it just a foot inside the post. If I was going left, it was laces with even more power.”
Pitched as a battle of nerves between taker and goalkeeper, there is a huge psychological element to penalties. They are imbued with a unique narrative weight. A sense of inescapable destiny. Most players find that pressure and expectation difficult to deal with, but not Lambert.
“I absolutely thrived off it,” he remembers. “That’s one of the most enjoyable things about being the penalty taker, especially if you know it’s going to be the goal that wins the game. You want to be the hero. I was a goalscorer and I wanted to be the hero from as early as I can remember. I wanted to be the guy who won the game.
“It’s a one-off occasion, so you’ve got to like the pressure. Taking a penalty’s not just about striking a ball and trying to score from 12 yards. It’s about grabbing the ball, waiting, everyone watching you. All the players stopping and watching you. Having a little personal battle with the goalkeeper. You’ve got to love all that.”
As a young player, Lambert didn’t take a penalty for his first couple of clubs. Even at Stockport County and Rochdale, he initially had to bide his time behind others. He finally became the main man at Bristol Rovers and proved virtually unstoppable in his later years. The only blemish was a miss for Liverpool in a friendly against AC Milan.
Lambert ignored outside distractions and always backed his technique.
“I would try and make it as simple as possible in my head,” he says. “I loved all the pressure, but when it finally got to the point where the ball’s on the spot, I’m where I want to stand, everyone’s ready and the ref blows the whistle, it’s a free shot from 12 yards and I’d fancy myself against any keeper in the world with my strike.”
The former England international, who retired in 2017, prided himself on how cleanly and consistently he hit his shots. He was adept at directing the ball, without compromising on power. At Southampton, where he scored all 34 penalties – from League One to the Premier League – regular practice made perfect.
“Bart Bialkowski was the second keeper to Kelvin Davis, an unbelievable shot stopper,” Lamberts tells The Set Pieces. “We’d have a £20 bet. We’d argue whether it was going to be three or four pens, but I’d got to score all of them, he just had to save one. That’s the way I’d practise. He would know my technique down to a tee, so I’d have to try and change it up with him.
“I’d like to say I got the better of him but, by the end, I think he was better off than me. But I wasn’t that bothered about winning that competition. That was the best practise I could get because he was unbelievable at saving pens. It made my technique better. We’d have those competitions once or twice a week.”
Going head-to-head with Bialkowski was particularly hard because the towering Polish goalkeeper knew his preferences. The higher he rose up the leagues, Lambert was aware that opponents would be monitoring his penalties more closely, so he had to keep them guessing.
“My favourite place was bottom left because I could gather the most power there. Even if the keeper went that way, I was still confident. If you see my pens in the Premier League, some of the keepers went the right way. Ben Foster went the right way early, but it went right in the corner and he couldn’t stop it,” he recalls.
“But you know that if you keep going that way, eventually a keeper’s going to go that early that he’s going to save it. It would be how I felt on the day, but if I’d gone left three or four times on the trot, that’s when I’d think, ‘I’m going right today’. I’d have a feeling before the game.”
Each player approaches a penalty in their own way, finding what works for them. While playing for the Saints, Lambert received some tips from one of the best in the business. He was impressed by what he heard but couldn’t imagine following suit.
“Matt Le Tissier gave me advice,” Lambert says. “I asked questions about his technique and it was fascinating listening to how he did it. He was going to his right every time he ran up to the ball. Opening his body up and hitting right, with power. But if the keeper was going that way, at the last minute he was able to wrap his foot around the ball and hit it to the left.”
Lambert picks out two penalties as his most well-taken – textbook in their execution – both from Southampton’s time in the top flight. The first sealed an opening day win away to West Bromwich Albion in the last minute and the second briefly brought them level against Manchester City later that same season. Despite their best efforts, Foster and Joe Hart were helpless.
At all levels, opponents look to throw penalty takers off their stride. To ratchet up the tension and create an element of doubt through delaying tactics or verbal joshing. Lambert didn’t let it affect him. The older he got, the more he embraced it.
“There are loads of times where a defender or the keeper says, ‘Where are you going?’,” says the striker. “When I was younger, I wouldn’t say anything. But when I was confident, I’d tell them, ‘I’m going bottom left.’ Sometimes I’ve gone bottom left, and the keeper hasn’t really gone for it because it’s fucked his mind up more than mine. It’s thrown him.”
Lambert scored penalties in each of the top four divisions of English football, often emphatically. He put away nine in a single season in 2011-12, as Southampton won promotion from the Championship, but was lucky to get away with his second against Millwall.
Nigel Adkins’ side were 2-1 down with five minutes left when Lambert sent Maik Taylor the wrong way to level the scores. Two minutes later, he faced up to him again with a crucial victory and a hat-trick on the line. It showed that even the best penalty takers sometimes need a bit of luck.
“It was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” he explains. “I went right on my first pen and I wanted to go left on the second one. For whatever reason, I don’t know, my confidence just drained. I knew the keeper was going to my left, where I wanted to go.
“That hasn’t bothered me before, but running up, I had no confidence. At the last second, I’ve changed my decision. That’s the worst thing you can do, unless that’s your technique, like Bruno Fernandes. I hit it with my heel, and it just about missed his foot.”
While typically assured, Lambert still remembers his three earlier failures.
“I didn’t hit one of them as cleanly as I’d like. I was a bit too nervous. I went more for power than accuracy, instead of doing both,” he says. “I hit one wide and the keepers have pulled off great stops for the other two. I wasn’t able to get them close enough to the corner, which is why I didn’t score.”
The nature of penalty taking continues to change, with more players now engaging in mind games. Some, like Ivan Toney, take it to extremes. He bases his whole technique around intently watching the goalkeeper, waiting for him to move, and adjusting his shot accordingly at the last possible moment. It certainly works for the Brentford striker, who is yet to miss in 13 attempts for the club.
“The way he does it is very impressive,” Lambert adds. “I’ve never seen anything like that because he doesn’t take his eyes off the keeper from the beginning. I’m impressed with his technique but it’s not something I would ever try. His record speaks for itself.”
So did Lambert’s. His approach to penalties was much more conventional, but no less effective. From run-of-the-mill league matches to Wembley cup finals played in front of huge crowds, he combined temperament and technique to great effect from the spot.