29 June, 2010

Suicide in 5 minutes

I’m sitting here in the comforts of my basement, watching arguably the most boring World Cup game in South Africa in Paraguay vs. Japan. After 120 minutes, finally the excitement. It hits me, the penalty kick sucks. It is perhaps the most lopsided part of the game against the keeper. But is it really?

Landon Donovan has converted more than 80% of all his penalty kicks lifetime. While, granted, he is probably the most efficient 11m kicker of all time (with more than 10 takes from the spot), many other penalty kickers have made more than missed their shots. The Wall Street journal did some digging and found that the conversion rate of most major leagues together converted 78% of their kicks (317 of 407) last year.

Yet, as pressure increases on the shooter, the rate of conversion can go down. Take, for instance, the 2008 Champions League Final. Chelsea’s Van der Sar had a crib sheet of typical places for Man U’s shooters to place their penalties. While the foreknowledge, by and large, didn’t work (only John Terry missed his shot of the first five shooters), Van der Sar pointed to the side Anelka typically shoots, correctly guessing his placement. Or did he?

Many keepers have taken to waving their arms to distract shooters. Other keepers have gone so far as to psych out their opposition by staring them down (i.e.- see Vanole of the US team against Costa Rica in 1989 qualifier). With such a high conversion rate, and with keepers forced to primarily make reactionary saves only, the penalty kick is pretty much a guaranteed goal for the shooting team.
It is there that psychology plays its part.

“At dinner a few nights before the penalty, “Gato Diaz,” the keeper who has to stop it, muses about the kicker:

‘Constante kicks to the right.’

‘Always,’ said the president of the club.

‘But he knows that I know.’

‘Then we’re f%$#ed.’

‘Yeah, but I know that he knows,’ said el Gato.

‘Then dive to the left and be ready,’ said someone at the table.

‘No. He knows that I know that he knows,’ said Gato Diaz, and he got up to go to bed.”
– Excerpt from Osvaldo Soriano’s “The Longest Penalty Ever”

Until the paradinha was finally recently banned by FIFA, the shooter could effectively hold the trump card against the keeper. The paradinha was a delayed fake type penalty kick to force the keeper to choose a side to which to dive, effectively making the shot an almost certified goal.

This brings me back to the penalty shoot-out between Paraguay and Japan... The only missed shot was off the crossbar by Japan’s Komano. A wicked shot, but the shooter psyched himself out. The keeper did well to choose the side, but there was no crib sheet. Paraguay didn’t appear to research the Japanese shooters prior to this game. It was a simple misplaced shot.

In theory, if you pick one spot, and one spot only in which to place your shots, unless you take multiple shots from the spot in a game, you should make the shot if you perfectly hit a corner, every time. Granted, if you are forced to make that same shot again in the same game, a keeper should pick that same spot to dive to, so you should pick a new place, but why have the same kicker take two shots from the spot in the same game?

That is why a good keeper is one that can intimidate and scare the shooter. Van der Sar called the shots, maybe accurately, maybe not, and Anelka missed in the 2008 CL Finals. Watching the Japanese play, the Paraguay keeper is standing off the line leading up to every shot, necessitating the ref to warn the keeper to step back before each shot. The Paraguayan keeper is using a psychological trick and making the goal appear smaller. Whether this is the reason for the miss, I can only assume, but it works, regardless. Japan missed.

The best friend of the keeper during the shootout is the shooter himself. If the keeper can intimidate, he has made the job easier for himself, and the shooter misses. It truly is a suicide for the shooter, because everything rests on him, but to make the effective shot, the shooter cannot think about it. In approximate five minutes, a lackluster field display has become not a display of skill but rather whose keeper can force a miss. The beautiful game is reduced to whether a shooter wants the goal or is too busy thinking about that booger hanging from the keeper’s nose. Yeah, I was right, the penalty kick sucks.


  1. Want to state the WSJ article in question is They made the work possible for this.

    Posting that here until I can get the link intra article working for me.

  2. And yet the shooters still tend to ignore the spot that would yield a score the most. Like baseball the statistics on penalty kicks get a good turn of handle. Here's a great article on the subject...


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