Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blogathon: Penalties: What's the problem?

Top of the morning to one and all.

Penalties. What are they all about?

Welcoming Sarah Flotel from Hot Scores to talk penalties. Sarah delivers the science and the insight.

I pick three isolated examples and use them to explain why Colin Murdock's better than Frank de Boer.

Follow @sarahhotscores

Here's Sarah

There are some parts of the world where fans and players alike take on the stresses and strains of a spot kick showdowns from the relative comfort of a Chesterfield armchair, cupping a vintage brandy whilst slowly drawing on a fat Cuban cigar. In 2006 Italy believed their Deutsche opposition to be such Goliaths in the penalty shoot-out stakes that instead of playing 5-5-0 in extra time, they danced through hard and fast hitting the woodwork twice and claiming their place in the World Cup final with goals from Fabio Grosso and Alessandro del Piero. Germany didn’t get the chance to take take refuge under the warm wing of mother spot kick decider, a veritable comfort blanket when the run of play less than favoured their chances of success in normal play. The Germans come a close second to Argentina from the white spot with a 71% conversion rate, flip those figures for England’s percentage, hence our morbid fascination with this subject. In Scotland the earliest record of penalties being used in competitive football date back to 1891, after a handball incident during a match between Airdrieonians and Heart of Midlothian, no excuses for any failures there then!

Countries who have several notches on the penalty hall of fame bedposts are collectivists, they don’t go into tournaments with back-page spreads pinning the hopes and dreams of victory on one or two individuals; they are a team from the stands to the dressing room, football is the dream. A similar mentality applies to clubs, Liverpool are notable kings in this area. A wonderful symbiosis between fan, player, manager and media shares the responsibility of netting your chances in a shoot-out, this can’t be inherited overnight, it comes about through the natural footballing evolution of that nation.

So who traditionally makes the best penalty taker? *Research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences (2006) tells us that attacking players convert at 83.1% (except Emile Heskey, he never takes penalties), midfielders 79.6% and defenders 73.6%. Nothing surprising there and that will change as players become more versatile as they pursue the dizzy heights and methods of the Barcelona utopia, that’s what we’re hoping for anyway. It seems natural for the best to take the first but as every kick goes by the chance of success diminishes, the psychological nuances and permutations are never ending, a penalty shootout could be planned with military precision and still end up lying belly-up in the gutter. Another interesting statistic is that players under the age of twenty-two successfully convert at 85.2%, this rollercoaster drops to 77.6% between twenty-three and twenty-eight then shifts up a little to 78.1% for the over twenty-nines. Younger players possess the natural constitution for endurance and have less emotional baggage to carry on that long, lonely walk to the spot, at twenty-two the sub-conscious jitters of previous failures may not even exist.

When it comes to taking a penalty kick consummate professionals work on automated neurological patterns; from the playground to intense repetition in training there are literally thousands stored in the filing cabinets of their minds. When an expert chokes on penalty number five in the semi-final of the World Cup something changed in their neural chemistry, their expert brain suddenly regressed and those long ago mastered elemental processes are crept upon by the reasoning of the conscious mind reacting to a hefty dose of anxiety.

For those less well endowed in the penalty efficiency department it seems a few sessions on the therapist’s couch or a quantum leap in nationality could be the only solution.

And here's my take on spot kicks:

There's something massively exciting about penalties.

But also something petrifying.

I suppose the ideas put forward in Matthew Syed's Bounce would suggest that it is something that can be practiced until it becomes second nature, an automatic thing that players can just "do."

But there are variables.

There's a goalkeeper doing a Dudek doing a Grobbelaar.

There's a crowd offering you a symphony of support - is that a help or a pressure building hindrance - or screeching a nightmarish soundtrack to try and put you off.

Can players develop the fortitude to withstand those outside influences?

If they can then I'd suspect it's something that British players would lag behind in. And if you think I'm stereotyping the British player as a moronic lump of mollycoddled man-child with an under developed idea of the cerebral side of the game then that's because I am.

In some ways I'm quite glad that Scotland don't qualify for the penalty shoot-out stage of tournaments. Another way to lose is the last thing we need.

Anyway, inspired by Sarah's piece, a look at three penalty incidents that produced what I'd consider surprise results.

1973-74

Hibs and Leeds met in the second round of the UEFA Cup. A 0-0 at Elland Road is followed by another goalless 90 minutes at Easter Road. And then another 30 minutes without a goal.

This was the season that penalties were introduced to the UEFA Cup for the first time, replacing the coin toss as a way of separating tied teams.

So this was the first time Hibs and Leeds had ever had a competitive penalty shoot out.

Hibs up first. Captain Pat Stanton misses. It's the only miss and Hibs go out.

Apparently Don Revie stayed on the pitch with his players throughout. That was against the rules. Enough to put Stanton off? Probably not.

But here's an interesting thing. When he was given the Hibs captaincy, Stanton felt the need to reassure fans that his promotion wouldn't mean he started taking penalties.

Gentle flippancy or something more?

By 1973 Stanton had played in every big game and every famous win that Hibs had enjoyed in the post Famous Five era. He was calm, elegant and collected.

But he was the only player to miss on the night? Simple bad luck? Or did his desire to take responsibility as captain clash with the demons that had forced to make that remark when he became captain?

1996

Oh dear, oh dear.

Wembley, Gary, Uri and Gazza.

Another captain taking responsibility.

We should probably discount the idea that the world's most famous disrespecter of cutlery made the ball move.

But if we accept that the ball did move should Gary McAllister have stopped. Or was he so focused in the moment that he couldn't do that?

McAllister - who scored the penalty that took us to France 98 - reckons this moment killed his relationship with the Scotland fans.

Gordon Durie told The Away End:

"We have all missed penalties. I remember them saying about Uri Geller moving the ball but Gary was man enough to stand up and take it when a lot of boys seemed to turn their back when we got the penalty."

So McAllister had the balls to take the penalty but then suffered being called a bottler when he missed it.

Cruel game, fine lines.

Compare and contrast to John Collins at France 98 v Brazil. Cool as a well toned cucumber.

2003/04

League cup semi final.

This, I think, is the clincher. Proof that when push comes to shove penalties are an exciting lottery.

This was a dreadful night at Hampden. The rain was so bad that a couple of jumped in a taxi from the supporter's bus car park to as close to Hampden as we could get.

The game finished 1-1.

The penalties were a nightmare from both sides.

It was tight.

And it came down to this: Colin Murdock, a player blessed with the grace of a freight ship trying to turn in a dry dock, scored his penalty.

Frank de Boer missed his.

Perhaps the superiority of Northern Irish journeyman over celebrated Dutchmen in penalty kick taking is an under explored theme of world football.

Or maybe not.

Penalty taking: art or science?

Whatever it is it still relies on a lot of luck.


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