Penalty Kicks – The Order of Shooters

Five play-off games are in the books at the Euro 2012 and at this point two of the five have gone to soccer’s less than perfect decider – penalty kicks.  In the fourth quarter-final England succumbed 4-2 to Italy in a result that most seemed to accept but today’s Spain vs Portugal contest which ended 4-2 in favour of Spain brought the arm-chair coaches storming from their chairs and taking to Twitter, Facebook and the soccer discussion groups with a fervour.

The source of their angst the decision by Portugal coach Paulo Bento to hold back Ronaldo until the fifth shot – which unfortunately for both the player and his country was not needed as Spain ran-out 4-2 winners. The outcry was long and loud online that Ronaldo, being Portugal’s best should have shot first and put the pressure on the Spanish shooters.

As it turned out Spain put the pressure on themselves missing their first shot and whether a Ronaldo goal instead of Joao Moutinho having his shot saved would have made the difference we will never know.

The choice of what order your shooters go in for this kind of situation is probably second in difficulty only to the choice of who actually takes the shots and will call on all your experience, knowledge of your players mixed with the circumstances of the day (injuries, mood etc. of players).

Among the many questions:

Who is my best shooter – both technically and psychologically?
How strong and deep is the other teams rotation of shooters?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of both keepers?
Do I even have FIVE strong takers of penalties?

At the elite, professional level that we are all watching and enjoying right now – the manager has a grasp on all these questions and in all likelihood has the full compliment of five he feels confident in taking a kick.  At the level most of us coach we may not have many if any of these questions fully answered.

Not just the absence of all the information but one important piece of information that I’ve always believed has led me to do one thing always in this situation as a coach at all levels – my strongest, mentally and technically, player goes fourth in the rotation.

My belief is that most shoot-outs at the levels below the professional level (and perhaps even at that level) are decided on or by the fourth round of shooters – so I want my best taking that all important fourth shot.  Even looking at the admittedly small sample of the last two games at the Euros the results hinged on the fourth shots – the shoot-outs were not necessarily lost on the fourth shot as there had already been a previous miss in both cases – but the miss on the fourth shot allowed the opponent to win with their next shot.

In other words in both the case of England and Portugal a goal on the fourth shot would have not just extended the shoot-out but just as importantly shifted the pressure to score back on to the shoulders of their opponent.

1 Goal Goal 1-1 1 Saved Saved 0-0
2 Miss Goal 0-2 2 Goal Goal 1-1
3 Goal Miss 2-0 3 Goal Goal 2-2
4 Goal Save 3-2 4 Goal Miss 3-2
5 Goal 4-2 5 Goal 4-2

The next most important spot for me is the first shooter – important to establish a psychological edge and so in my case I would place my second best shooter in the first slot because you do want to get off to a good start.

Alternatively a miss in round two or three (hopefully not both) is one that can be recovered from (see Italy) so I’d place my fifth best player in slot two and fourth best in the third spot.  Assuming your first shooter has been successful your fourth and fifth best player who are more likely to be challenged psychologically by the situation can find at least some, however slight, relief from the situation.

This leaves the final spot for your third best, maybe not ideal but if your in the position of having to score with your fifth shot the sequence to that point probably would not have mattered and if your plans have been perfect you’ve won with your fourth kick and the fifth player will not need to shoot in any case. If they do you’ve only gone three deep in your rated players and are in a pretty good position to still score.

Many, much more knowledgeable people including Bobby McMahon have weighed in on this with an article in Forbes – “Was Paulo Bento Really Wrong in Leaving Ronaldo To Last?” citing the following for his argument that the answer is Bento got it right leaving Ronaldo until the five spot. I’d have used him fourth if he is indeed Portugal’s best penalty taker.

Jordet, G., Hartman, E., Visscher, C. and Lemmink, K. A. P. M. (2006) Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: The roles of stress, skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-9, Preview article.

This paper is an essential starting place for an analysis for the impact of penalty shoot-outs in competitive international football as it reports some empirical findings on events in penalty shoot-outs in the World Cup (WC), European Championships (EC) and the Copa America (CA). The results are fascinating; here is a glimpse. The percentage success rate in the World Cup is 71.2% compared to 82.7% (CA) and 84.6% (EC), possibly reflecting the greater importance and consequent pressure of the world stage. The success rate of each penalty kick changes throughout the competition:

  • First kick 86.6%
  • Second kick 81.7%
  • Third kick 79.3%
  • Fourth kick 72.5%
  • Fifth kick 80%
  • ‘Sudden death’ kicks 64.3%

These results highlight the increasing pressure as the competition progresses and may also highlight the ‘best player should go first’ fallacy. The idea of ‘getting off to a good start’ by putting the best penalty taker first appears wrong as there is least pressure on this kick.

Further Reading:

Slate – Do Soccer Players Choke?
Assessing the research on penalty kicks and pressure.


Discovery News – Perfect Penalty Kick Calculated
A high kick, targeted to the right or left of the goalie traveling 56 to 64 miles per hour is the most successful, number crunching shows.

Psychology Today – The Psychology of Penalty Kicks
Some interesting stuff here including a tidbit about goalkeepers guessing perhaps a topic for next time…