Study of 1,716 penalty kicks reveals secrets to scoring from the spot
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It is one of the most nerve-wracking moments of the beautiful game, where a you’re either the hero of the hour or you’ve thrown away your team’s best chance of winning the game.
And now, University of Suffolk researchers believe their painstaking study of thousands of penalty kicks means they have the answer to the million dollar question of how players can increase their chances of scoring from the spot.
Degree student Perry Littman got the ball rolling on the mammoth study, when he decided he wanted to look more closely at the science of penalties for his final year dissertation.
Starting by looking at local teams such as Ipswich Town and Colchester United, his work soon caught the eye of senior sports performance lecturers Dr Marco Beato and Dr Mikael Jamil.
They decided to work with Perry, now preparing for a Master’s degree, on expanding the study in order to publish an academic paper.
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Their results certainly make interesting reading for any player called upon to outwit the goalkeeper from 12 yards - and give clues into why the likes of Harry Kane and Sergio Agüero often stick it in the back of the net.
Moving away from analysing the Blues and the U’s, Perry spent hours watching 1,716 penalties taken during 312 matches across the top flight leagues in England Spain, Italy and Germany over four seasons - a dream job for a football fan, you would have to think.
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In total, 412 were missed or saved - a success ratio of 76%.
Clearly, every penalty taker has his own style - but the study found curious differences in the approaches between the different leagues, which the trio of researchers put down to varying coaching styles between the four countries.
While Serie A players often aim for the top corner - probably the riskiest strategy - La Liga and Bundesliga players are more likely to go for the bottom corner.
Premier League stars appear to go for power over placement and are more likely to shoot towards the centre of the goal.
That might seem an illogical move, given the goalkeeper is stood between the sticks - yet Premier League penalty success rates are not much different from other top league counterparts, which all roughly have an eight out of 10 success rate.
“The coaching philosophy is rather different between the four nations,” Dr Jamil said.
“Players in England are encouraged to go for power, rather than placement - whereas in Spain and Germany, it was often the bottom corner.
“Coaches in those countries were encouraging players to go low and hard - but in Italy, it was high and hard.
“With power, the goalkeeper gets less time to respond.”
Dr Jamil believes the English philosophy could partly be down to the greater pressure that Premier League players face were they to miss.
“In England, every mistake is highlighted more than in other countries,” he said.
“Maybe there is that mental fear factor. If the goalkeeper saves it, it isn’t considered to be that bad - it’s more forgiveable than hitting it off target.”
His main advice following the study is for players to “mix it up” and vary their power and placement, in the greater hope of catching the goalkeeper off guard.
Speaking of the study, which looked at penalties awarded within league matches rather than in tournaments and penalty shoot outs, Dr Jamil said: “We encourage students to come up with their own ideas for dissertations.
“Perry said he’d quite like to investigate how penalties are scored and how different people score them in different ways.
“We then asked if he’d be interested in publishing this and expanded it to include European leagues.
“The primary aim was to see how players use positive techniques for a positive outcome.”