Saturday 26 May 2012

The Fundamental Flaw Of Penalty Shootouts.

A week on from Chelsea's Champions League triumph on Bavarian soil over "host" team Bayern and reactions to their overtly defensive display remains mixed.From the Kings Road to Monaco the matter rather than the manner of the victory is the only really pertinent fact from the evening,while neutrals and partisan Germans are still less than enthralled.Consequently,it's easy to imagine that Sepp Blatter's vocal denouncement of the penalty shootout format that allowed Chelsea their victory was also a veiled reference to "anti" football overcoming the entertaining "good" variety.As if the Nou Camp wasn't bad enough.....

Blatter explained his dislike of the shootout in terms where "team essence" was sacrificed to individual "one on one" duels.This convoluted reasoning is certainly at odds with FIFA's recent views on the subject where a spokesman (Mr S Blatter) in 2010 suggested that penalties should be used after 90 minutes of deadlock as opposed to the current 120 minutes,thereby reducing the ability of "team essence" to come to the fore even more.Presumably the logical extension of this drive towards team inclusiveness would also be the abolition the various Golden Boot and Glove Awards and the attendant lavish hospitality.

Blatter has entrusted Bayern Munich President,Franz Beckenbauer the task of coming up with an alternative.His suggestion will be eagerly awaited,once the raw disappointment of Saturday night has disappeared and fortunately for Chelsea any rule change is unlikely to be retrospective.Happily,Didier Drogba can leave for China as a true Blue legend and following his stint of torch carrying,a true Olympian,to boot.

It is certainly easy to poke fun at FIFA,but for once Blatter's views may have substance,even if his motives are less transparent.The penalty shootout is certainly a flawed device,but not for the reasons he states.Individuality will always exist inside team sports and if no decisive result is possible after 90 or 120 minutes of predominately combined effort,then allowing football to go "one to one" is the only real alternative.

The flaw in shootouts arise because the event is highly stacked in favour of the attacking participant.The "team essence" of football is made from both attacking and defensive parts and while it is undeniable that the majority of fans enjoy the attacking element more,both parts play a similar role in overall team success.Different goal environments may skew conclusions very slightly,but overall a goal saved is equivalent to an extra one scored.Defence and attack are equal partners in creating Blatter's semi mystical "essence" and when the time comes to break a stalemate,both should be treated equally.

A clear shot from twelve yards is converted over 75% of the time and while these figures drop slightly overall in shootouts as a result of less recognised penalty takers stepping up to participate,the advantage remains with the shooter.Also few national teams and even fewer clubs sides with have more than a couple of regular penalty takers.Therefore,almost inevitably the majority of such contests will be decided by a player failing to perform a task that he is not well versed in under match conditions.

So under the present format,the taker has the advantage,but because he is "expected" to score he can only disappoint the fans by missing.Conversely the keeper is continually at a disadvantage,even when the lesser kickers start to appear,but he can be the hero by making an "unexpected" save or by causing the shooter to miss.It's a difficult choice to decide who has the easier role.

Ideally we should try to even up the chances of the player scoring or the keeper saving the shot and while trial and error from different shooting distances would give us the answer,we can make an educated guess by looking at goal likelihoods from varying distances in open play.We saw here  that a shot in open play from 12 yards,the distance of the penalty spot,has around a 25% chance of resulting in a goal.These shooting events are of course extremely varied,from one on ones to crowded goalmouth scrambles,but with limited data we have to make do,as long as we accepted the conclusions as being tentative.If we compared the success rate of 75% for the unopposed shot from a penalty to the 25% rate from open play,we can start to see how the presence of a defence on average degrades a player's shooting ability.The likelihood of scoring from the same distance is increased 3 fold from the spot.

If we now take this 3fold rule of thumb we can find the distance from the goal where the chances of scoring unopposed by defenders would be around 50%,thus giving the attacker and facing keeper an equal chance of success.Conveniently,this distance appears to be around the 18 yardline.A 16% chance of scoring in open play from exactly the edge of the box could realistically be expected to approach 50% if the shot was undefended by all but the keeper.

We now have a perfectly balanced contest between the champion of the defence,the keeper and the attacker's champion,the shooter.Neither expectation nor advantage lies with one party or another and therefore success by either is all the more exciting for the crowd because the outcome is a coin toss,albeit one decided greatly by skill.The mechanics of the new shootout could also be varied because scoring is no longer the most likely outcome.Personally I'd go straight to sudden death with shots taken by three nominated strikers who had taken part in at least 10 minutes of the match.But most importantly we now have the ability to settle a tied game requiring a winner by a piece of comparable skill from either the kicker or keeper.


  1. Are we sure that penalties shoot outs in themselves are not a coin-toss?

    I'm pretty convinced that the ability to score/save a penalty has an overwhelmingly larger luck than skill component.

  2. first, beckenbauer isn't bayern's president. hoeneƟ is.
    second, why the assumption that shooter and keeper should be equally likely to succeed? isn't it just as fair if it would be an unequal probability, as long as the teams are having the same chance. or is the argument that there is more skill involved in the alternative?

  3. OK,Beckenbauer is the honorary President and I think you'll find he spells his name with a capital B as do Bayern ;-).

    Why the assumption that they shouldn't?

  4. Hi James,difficult to work out the luck involved for takers because of the survivor bias.Easier for the keepers,they'll face penalties season after season.

    Maybe we should end ties with a keepie uppie competition;-)