penalties Italy Germany

Penalty drama! 

Interview: Raphael Honigstein
Photo: Getty Images  

Author and penalty expert Ben Lyttleton explains why so many players lost their nerve in the Germany - Italy shootout and why this German team isn’t as deadly from the spot as they were in the past
Raphael Honigstein
Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is The Red Bulletin’s expert football columnist and also writes for The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung.

All four Premier League-based players (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Özil, Matteo Darmian and Graziano Pellè) missed from the spot during the epic EURO 2016 quarter-final shooutout between Germany and Italy. 

But there’s one English specialist who always delivers when it comes to penalties: Ben Lyttleton. The author of 12 Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty and consultant to Champions League and international teams talked to The Red Bulletin about Simone Zaza’s little dance, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s choice to shoot towards the Italian goal and the penalty takers’ fear of Manuel Neuer.  

THE RED BULLETIN: Bastian Schweinsteiger opted to go second after winning the toss. Were you surprised by that? 

BEN LYTTLETON: Yes. You should always start, because the pressure on the later takers increases. Teams that start win 60 per cent of the time. That’s the result of a study of 220 shoot-outs. That’s not the biggest sample but significant. Maybe Schweinsteiger wanted to make sure he would take the winning pen. Poland’s captain Robert Lewandowski also chose to go second twice at these Euros. It worked once, but not the other time.

Another strange sight was Schweinsteiger deciding to shoot towards the Italian goal. Out of superstition

It may have looked curious but the numbers say that it makes no difference which goal you aim at. 

It took 18 shots until we had a winner in Bordeaux. “I’ve never experienced a shootout like that,” Manuel Neuer said. How unusual is it for a shootout to go on as long as that? 

We’ve never had 18 penalties in a World Cup or European Championships before. I find it even more unusual that six out of the first ten and seven out of those 18 were missed because we had two very good teams with very good players. You could see how the extreme pressure affected the takers. I’m convinced they would have done much better if there hadn’t been so much at stake. 

“Cristiano Ronaldo was much better from the spot before he won the Ballon D’Or”

Thomas Müller missed an important penalty this season in the Champion’s League semi-final against Atlético Madrid. Özil failed against Slovakia. Did you expect both to step up against Gianluigi Buffon? 

Not really. And Schweinsteiger also missed a crucial pen in the 2012 Champions League final.

Do past misses have an effect on the present?

You don’t get worse, but you can experience ups and downs. The fact that Müller didn’t want to take it against Slovakia suggests to me that he wasn’t entirely confident. He only converted eight from twelve this season. Form and momentum can make a big difference, we’ve seen that with Eden Hazard and Lionel Messi in recent times. 

Müller didn’t trust his usual technique of waiting for the keeper to make a move on Saturday. He simply took the shot because Buffon refused to move. He lost his nerve a little bit. There’s also a second reason why I didn’t really like the choice of the first five takers for Germany though. A study has shown that players with elite status  - captains, Golden Boot winners like Müller in 2010 and so forth - convert fewer penalties than non-elite players. Elite players score 59 per cent of pens, regular ones 74 per cent. Future elite players are the best, by the way: they score 89 per cent of their pens. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, was much better from the spot before he won the Ballon D’Or. Statistically speaking, young, up and coming players are the best takers.

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Germany missed 3 penalties Italy missed 4 penalties

Buffon and Neuer have a reputation for saving penalties. Does that have an effect on the takers?

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The penalty takers think they need to aim especially well or do something out of the ordinary to beat these guys. As a result, they miss more often, which feeds back into the penalty saving stats of the keepers. Only 63 per cent of penalties have been converted against Neuer. In other words, he saves almost every third pen - or one third of takers miss. 

Zaza was brought on specifically in the 120th minute to take a pen. A good idea?

I know of players who don’t mind that. Others say they don’t feel comfortable if they haven’t had a touch of the ball or got a feel for the pitch yet. Zaza’s run-up was outright bizarre. He started from the wrong side, as if he was right-footed, then he jumped over and continued to hop. He wanted to confuse Neuer. Graziano Pellè was also playing mind games. He gestured to Neuer, showing him that he would try a Panenka. He had converted two pens that way with Italy as a youngster, he wanted to remind Neuer of that or annoy him. If you engage in these kind of games as the taker, you often lose. You’re wasting energy and it’s better to concentrate on the job at hand. Draxler and Kimmich showed how you do it. The behaviour of Zaza and Pellè makes me think that Italy weren’t fully prepared for the situation, which is strange. Antonio Conte is the sort of coach who leaves no stone unturned. 

Twelve Yards - Ben Lyttleton

Follow Ben Lyttleton’s on Twitter and find out more about his book and other work 

Stranger still if you consider that Italy seemed to be playing for penalties at the end.

Exactly. The team that scores last in the game tends to win the shootout more often, as they have a bit of momentum. The Germans could have been frustrated after the late equaliser. Italy had a big disadvantage as their two best penalty takers weren’t on the pitch. Antonio Candreva has converted eighteen from twenty two, Eder ten from ten. Without these two, there wasn’t a lot of penalty-taking experience left. Darmian, De Sciglio, Giaccherini and Parolo had never taken penalties. It was unusual to see Bonucci take the spot kick for the equaliser while Eder was still on the pitch; he had never taken one during a game before. His second shot on the night was saved by Neuer.

And why is it the Germans always win on penalties?

You know, I don’t think this a typical German team anymore. Germany used to rely on efficiency and their strong mentality; these sides were perfect from the spot and only missed once - Stielike in 1982 - after 1976. I wasn’t so sure about Löw’s team ahead of the Euros. They are a creative, technical side of free thinkers, with different backgrounds and influences. That might not be the best profile for succeeding in such a high-pressure situation. Look at Mesut Özil’s penalty record, it’s pretty poor. With three misses in the first five, you’d expect to lose. The Germans had Neuer to thank. But most of all, they got lucky.

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07 2016 The Red Bulletin

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