Statistics to win penalty shoot-outs

With the World Cup nearly upon us we can look forward to another heroic defeat on penalties by England. England are in fact the worst country of any of the major footballing nations at taking penalties, having won only 1 out of 7 shoot-outs at the Euros and World Cup. In fact of the 35 penalties taken in shoot-outs England have missed 12 – which is a miss rate of over 30%. Germany by comparison have won 5 out of 7 – and have a miss rate of only 15%.

With the stakes in penalty shoot-outs so high there have been a number of studies to look at optimum strategies for players.

Shoot left when ahead

One study published in Psychological Science looked at all the penalties taken in penalty shoot-outs in the World Cup since 1982. What they found was pretty incredible – goalkeepers have a subconscious bias for diving to the right when their team is behind.


As is clear from the graphic, this is not a small bias towards the right, but a very strong one. When their team is behind the goalkeeper apparently favours his (likely) strong side 71% of the time. The strikers’ shot meanwhile continues to be placed either left or right with roughly the same likelihood as in the other situations. So, this built in bias makes the goalkeeper much less likely to help his team recover from a losing position in a shoot-out.

Shoot high

Analysis by Prozone looking at the data from the World Cups and European Championships between 1998 and 2010 compiled the following graphics:


The first graphic above shows the part of the goal that scoring penalties were aimed at. With most strikers aiming bottom left and bottom right it’s no surprise to see that these were the most successful areas.


The second graphic which shows where penalties were saved shows a more complete picture – goalkeepers made nearly all their saves low down. A striker who has the skill and control to lift the ball high makes it very unlikely that the goalkeeper will save his shot.


The last graphic also shows the risk involved in shooting high. This data shows where all the missed penalties (which were off-target) were being aimed. Unsurprisingly strikers who were aiming down the middle of the goal managed to hit the target! Interestingly strikers aiming for the right corner (as the goalkeeper stands) were far more likely to drag their shot off target than those aiming for the left side. Perhaps this is to do with them being predominantly right footed and the angle of their shooting arc?

Win the toss and go first

The Prozone data also showed the importance of winning the coin toss – 75% of the teams who went first went on to win. Equally, missing the first penalty is disastrous to a team’s chances – they went on to lose 81% of the time. The statistics also show a huge psychological role as well. Players who needed to score to keep their teams in the competition only scored a miserable 14% of the time. It would be interesting to see how these statistics are replicated over a larger data set.

Don’t dive

A different study which looked at 286 penalties from both domestic leagues and international competitions found that goalkeepers are actually best advised to stay in the centre of the goal rather than diving to one side. This had quite a significant affect on their ability to save the penalties – increasing the likelihood from around 13% to 33%. So, why don’t more goalkeepers stay still? Well, again this might come down to psychology – a diving save looks more dramatic and showcases the goalkeeper’s skill more than standing stationary in the centre.


So, why do England always lose on penalties?

There are some interesting psychological studies which suggest that England suffer more than other teams because English players are inhibited by their high public status (in other words, there is more pressure on them to perform – and hence that pressure is harder to deal with).  One such study noted that the best penalty takers are the ones who compose themselves prior to the penalty.  England’s players start to run to the ball only 0.2 seconds after the referee has blown – making them much less composed than other teams.

However, I think you can put too much analysis on psychology – the answer is probably simpler – that other teams beat England because they have technically better players.  English footballing culture revolves much less around technical skill than elsewhere in Europe and South America – and when it comes to the penalty shoot-outs this has a dramatic effect.

As we can see from the statistics, players who are technically gifted enough to lift their shots into the top corners give the goalkeepers virtually no chance of saving them.  England’s less technically gifted players have to rely on hitting it hard and low to the corner – which gives the goalkeeper a much higher percentage chance of saving them.

Test yourself

You can test your penalty taking skills with this online game from the Open University – choose which players are best suited to the pressure, decide what advice they need and aim your shot in the best position.

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