He who hesitates….
by Michael Brenner on 16 Dec 2022 0 Comment

It’s soccer World Cup season – a blip on the calendar for Americans; the quadrennial extravaganza of sport for the rest of the world. They call it “football” for some inexplicable reason. Soccer/football is an unusual game. Scoring goals is a rare event – one that occurs suddenly like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky. The rest of the play can become tedious for someone who is not among the cognoscenti (of the type who relish 0-0 pitchers’ duels in baseball) or passionate about a particular side. It’s the latter that drives emotions and gives the impression that one is involved in a matter of great moment even if the players themselves appear to be doing little more than kicking each other in the shins and grabbing jerseys.


It’s the shots on goal that are the real attention-grabbers. They embody both drama and mystery – magnified by endless replays from 14 different angles. For reasons that I never have heard explained, inaccuracy seems to rule. How do these professional athletes manage to spray the ball wide of the goal or over the goal even when relatively unimpeded by a defender? The least we should expect is that their kick (a header is more difficult) would accurately target the 250 square feet that is the goalmouth.


That leaves out the many shots that go straight into the keeper’s hands. Nerves obviously have something to do with it. With scoring such a rarity, any attempt on goal takes on magnified importance. Perhaps fatigue is another factor since these players expend incredible energy running up and down the field - and the schedule of matches is greatly overburdened; money rules all.


Nerves surely are the answer to the mystery as to why so many penalty shots are missed. Penalty shots are awarded when an offensive player is interfered with in the ‘box’ in front of the goal – as determined by the referee. (The ‘box’ is roughly 60’ wide/36’ deep). The ball is then placed 12 yards in front of the goal; the offended team is free to choose whomever on the field they wish to strike the ball; and the goalkeeper tries to block the shot – usually by guessing whether the try will be to his left or his right. The keeper is permitted to move laterally as he wishes even before the ball is struck – but very rarely does.


The reasons are obscure and frankly odd since movement would allow him to play head games with the striker. Fun on the part of players is not at all an accustomed part of soccer. It runs against the grain of the prevailing ethos that pervades teams, coaches, announcers / commentators (Telemundo excepted), and even soccer parents hanging their faded dreams on the slim shoulders of their middle school children. The only players I’ve seen as much as smile are Mbappé of France and Luis Suarez of Uruguay. (Or was Suarez preparing to chomp on some Portuguese?) 


Penalty shots are also used in culminating matches to decide a winner after 120 minutes of regulation time + extra-time has produced a tied score. About 25% of all penalties taken are blocked.


The strange thing about this percentage is that it is physically impossible for a keeper to stop a shot if it is properly aimed and soundly struck. In short: were the striker’s shot aimed accurately at the side netting (left or right), physics and geometry say that the keeper cannot reach it if he sets himself equidistant from the two posts as he invariably does. That should be a “piece of cake” for a professional who has spent 20 years of his life kicking soccer balls. Why then the profusion of misses?


The obvious answer is that he ‘chokes’ – although one is not allowed to use that term in public. Many shots, in fact, are not well struck or no more than a foot or two off centre. Ronaldo, the great Portuguese player renowned for his steely nerve, did exactly that (2018) week in the match against Morocco. He stubbed the ball softly into the waiting arms of the goalie; you or I could have gathered it easily. He choked.


There would seem to be a practical solution available. I offer it gratis. A savvy coach should conclude each practice session with a drill wherein each member of the squad must take penalty shots that are expected to land in the side netting ten straight times. He wouldn’t be let off the field until he succeeds. The point is to make it as automatic as opening a door.


Forget the goal keeper, forget the crowd – neither really counts. Just decide between the left net siding and the right net siding, block out everything else, and strike. Since the lunging goalie stretches out horizontally, a high trajectory is preferred. This auto-pilot approach also should counteract the heavy adrenalin flow which is a liability when it comes to taking penalties.


So, it is psychology – or mindset – that makes the penalty taker, not practice. Amazingly, even a hugely successful manager like Pep Guardiola of Manchester City can miss that basic truth. In a big match against Liverpool, he insisted that Riyad Mahrez take the penalty despite his having failed on 5 of 8 previous occasions. The explanation? “He had been working on it in practice and had looked very sharp.” Result: less than desired. Practice means nothing since there is no practice for what counts. It is not skill and technique that count – it’s what’s going on inside the player’s head.


Although I’ve never checked, I suspect that this is what several reliable penalty takers do. One of them was the fabled Paraguayan goalie José Luis Chilavert who himself would come forward to take his team’s penalty kicks. His record at stopping penalties? Don’t know. (Two others: Zinedine Zidane, Alan Shearer – a blaster)


NOTE: Harry Kane


I have an idea about Kane’s miss. He was trying a tactic that makes complete sense, although few attempt it. That is to strike the ball straight ahead since the keeper jumps to one side or the other 95% of the time. (see above) The first time I saw this was by Zidane in a big match. Two players from the same team (Morocco?), in one of the earlier shootouts this year, pulled this off with quite soft strikes. (As with Zidane’s which appears to be in slow motion)


I’ve also seen top players miss high exactly the way Kane did. Why? The cause, I suspect lies in our Reptilian brain. Subconsciously, we instinctively are primed to avoid a dangerous obstacle to our objective. The keeper stands immediately before you between you and it. So, again unconsciously, you compensate by striking the ball as hard as you can and high so as to overpower the keeper in the dread event that he does NOT move. The result frequently is what we saw today. Too hard and too high.


Poor Kane - has he been undone by an overactive Reptilian brain?   

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