How Elite Soccer Teams Can Gain A Psychological Edge In Penalty Shootouts
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From the 2020 European Championships to this season’s FA Cup final, many of the biggest matches in soccer are decided by penalty shootouts. Penalties are often depicted as a “lottery” or something dependent on luck, but any team that can gain an advantage at penalty shootouts has a better chance of winning trophies.

With the spotlight on one player, whose next kick could be worth millions of dollars and could be the highlight or lowest point of their career, psychology plays a major role in penalty shootouts.

Soccer psychology researcher Geir Jordet, who is a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and has worked with the Netherlands national team, has looked into ways that teams can get a psychological edge.

He suggests Liverpool might have had that edge in their recent FA Cup final victory over Chelsea. Liverpool were well organized and selected their penalty takers quickly, giving head coach Jurgen Klopp time to approach each penalty taker individually with care and love, give them a hug, and then boost the team’s confidence with a rousing speech. Liverpool also managed to select the side of the pitch closest to their bench allowing players to receive messages from the coaching staff.

Chelsea on the other hand were perhaps less in control and were more reactive in their approach with head coach Thomas Tuchel making his plans in the middle of the Chelsea huddle and asking players about the shots in front of the team, adding to the stress and anxiety that they could feel.

Jordet points out that there are many other factors affecting the outcome of the shootout, not least Liverpool goalkeeper Allison’s impressive career record at saving spot kicks. But while Tuchel and Chelsea were likely well-prepared and were forced into their rushed approach by other circumstances, many other teams don’t prepare properly for spot kicks.

This lack of preparation comes from several reasons, including some teams avoiding the subject as they do not want their players to be thinking and worrying about penalties all game, to other teams being overconfident that they can win the game without the need for penalties. Kicking the ball into the net from 12 yards might seem simple, but Jordet says to get to the point where you can treat penalties as a simple act, there needs to be sophisticated planning ahead of it.

When it comes to taking penalties, there are two basic strategies: a goalkeeper-independent approach where you pick a corner to aim for, and a goalkeeper-dependent approach where you wait for the goalkeeper to move before deciding where to shoot.

With the goalkeeper-independent strategy, if the goalkeeper guesses correctly where you intend to shoot, the chances of scoring dramatically fall. All the top clubs will study their opponents, so will know their favored spots.

In the recent Championship play-off semi-final, Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba saved three of Sheffield United’s penalties to win the shootout for his team. After the match, it turned out he had notes written on a water bottle that he had hidden with a towel showing where the Sheffield players were most likely to shoot.

That’s why for many years, penalty specialists like Chelsea’s Jorginho and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski have used goalkeeper-dependent approaches where they wait until the goalkeeper starts to move before shooting. This approach had been extremely successful, but requires a high level of focus. Rather than just pick a spot, penalty takers must keep their cool when the pressure is high as perfect timing is needed to react to the goalkeepers’ movements.

Recently goalkeepers are starting to figure out how to save these kinds of goalkeeper-dependent penalties such as by using small foot movements to trick the penalty taker. As a result, both Jorginho and Lewandowski have started using a combination of strategies.

Jordet says penalty takers should have at least two different ways to take a penalty so they have some flexibility, and the best penalty takers have several strategies. But as penalty shootouts often involve players who don’t regularly take spot kicks, those players might not have developed different penalty-taking techniques.

The next evolution in penalty taking according to Jordet will be the increase in the number of teams using specialist set-piece coaches and perhaps even penalty kick coaches to give them an advantage in this area of the game. Penalty-taking is also being seen as more of a team-based task rather than an individual task.

There have been several recent examples of strategies involving teammates helping prepare a penalty taker. For example, in the Club World Cup final, where Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta picked up the ball and drew the attention of the Palmeiras players and their disruption tactics before later handing the ball to the real penalty taker Kai Havertz who was able to calmly focus on his shot.

Despite the importance of penalties, many teams can still improve their planning. It’s often argued that players can’t practice penalties because of the high-pressure environment of a penalty shootout, but they can still hone their technique on the training ground so that they are comfortable with several different strategies, and teams can still prepare ahead of time to help remove as much stress and anxiety as possible and allow penalty takers to focus properly on how best to put the ball in the back of the net.

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