Penalites. It is one of the cruellest methods of deciding a victor in any sport. Both ecstasy and agony in a heartbeat. A hero and a villain. One team running to celebrate with dedicated fans, and another team in despair, disappearing down a dark tunnel. After 120 minutes of intense end-to-end football the game must be decided via penalties with one team must move either a step closer, or lifting the most prized trophy in football.
The final whistle blows and teams gather around the manager, sweaty and exhausted, five players must step up to take a penalty followed by those less willing to take the test. The most confident players come first. They volunteer and stand up to be counted as a penalty taker. Preparing to risk it all for their shot at glory. Pirlo, Zidane, Ronaldo, Messi, all greats of the game were confident enough and prepared to be the hero. Although there are many great players not all have the nerve and mental focus required to be expert penalty takers. Some players lack the ability to remain calm under such high pressure and as a result often miss the goals or see their shot saved.
Once the order of takers has been decided there is the matter of who goes first and at which end of the stadium to shoot? As the referee tosses the coin each captain must decide would they rather be first and have potentially less pressure? Or shoot facing your fans and have their backing? It is a matter of personal preference and psychological mind games. Once everything is decided the shootout begins.
There are a few things to remember before a penalty is taken. Where in the goals has the highest chance of scoring? Penalties that are struck towards to top of the goals have a lower save percentage than those towards the bottom. This does increase the risk of you hitting the bar or hitting the ball over. Similarly the closer to the post the ball is struck the better. This means there is maximal distance between the ball going in the goal compared to the goalkeeper’s starting position. However if the goalkeeper is known for diving early and guessing a side then a simple strike down the middle may give you the best chance to score. Most teams that know there is the chance of penalties will have done their homework on which opposition players might take penalties, where they might place them and what the goalkeeper tends to do. This can be a huge help for goalkeepers and increase their chances of success. It is vital to have all this information in order to be as prepared as you need to be.
The long walk:
The Player: As you walk down towards the box there will be hundreds of thoughts racing through your mind. It is important to remember one thing though: Stay calm. You have kicked a ball countless times and you know you are able to put it where you want it. Many professionals have different views about taking a penalty; The first is to only focus on what you can do. You can only pick the spot, time your run and place the ball there. The goalkeeper is irrelevant, you cannot control him and thus your shot is all that matters. The other is that you draw on other information. You know the keeper likes to save to his right, that he dives early or that he stays until the ball is kicked. As you approach the spot though you should be clear in your mind where you are aiming for. Always remember it is easier for you to score than for the keeper to dive and save
The Goalkeeper: Make sure you are familiar with the goals and comfortable with your gloves and boots. Watch the player walking down and try assess his body language. Is he confident? Does he look nervous? What do you know about his previous penalties? Choose your preference of techniques – Going slightly early for the best chance of getting near the posts, or waiting until the ball is struck towards a side. Some goalkeepers try and play mind games with the opponent as they prepare for their kick. Common tactics that are used are; moving along your line to make yourself look as big as possible, throwing the ball short of the opponent so he has to come closer to pick it up and disrupt his plan, or the infamous dangly limbs used by the likes of Jerzy Dudek for liverpool. This involves wobbling along your line in an attempt to put the opponent off.
The run up:
The Player: Now that you have chosen your spot and placed the ball on the spot, take a sensible, comfortable run up. Just enough for you to take a length swing and get good contact with the ball. You dont want to be rushed. Focus your mind on hitting the ball where you want. You know where the goals are and you know where the ball is, so you can look between both. As you approach the ball be confident but try not to be too obvious where you are aiming. You dont want to give the keeper any help. Now if the goalkeeper moves very early towards your chosen direction you can change your mind if you feel confident enough to. You can alter your strike easier than he can his dive. Pirlo described his chip penalty against Joe Hart as a “calculated decision”. That Hart dived early and thus the chip was the optimal choice to maximise his chances of scoring. Be confident in your own ability.
The Goalkeeper: Watch carefully and finalise your decision on where you are diving. Then you can have the best attempt at saving the shot and try your best to alter your body position to achieve this.
The Player: As you strike the ball be firm and ensure to get the connection you want to. Follow through and be confident that its headed to the back of the net. Your job is done. You have done everything you can to ensure victory!
The Goalkeeper: You have either already begun your movement to a side and you can either try and get your hands to the ball or you can watch it hit the back of the net on the opposite side, or if you are about to dive make a move as quick as you can to get close to where you think the ball is going.
The Player: As you watch the ball move your heart will pound. Blood will race through your veins as either the net rustles, frame of the goal rattles or the goalkeeper battles and saves your kick. Then you can then feel the relief of success or the despair or missing.
The Goalkeeper: You either get your hands or body in the way to stop the shot, feeling that buzz of excitement and celebration, or you celebrate the rattle of the post. Or you pick yourself up after the net rustles, preparing for the next kick.
There is no perfect technique and no perfect area of the goal to put the ball that make a perfect penalty. A combination of confidence, focus and ability are all that is required because at the end of the game all that matters is that your penalty hits the back of the net. It is the fine margins of self belief and confidence as well as complete and total focus that determine who the great penalty takers are compared to the good ones.