Putting Penalties on the Spot

It’s a common consideration – which elements of football can be measured, mapped and predicted? Thanks to advances in the way we analyse matches and record statistics, many more passages of play can be broken down into revealing data, none more so than penalties. A penalty is a set routine: 12 yards, one taker, one goalkeeper; one chance to score from the same position.  This makes it perfectly suitable for extensive analysis.

Since their introduction to the competition in 1978, penalty shoot outs have come to decide 20 per cent of matches (excluding the 3rd/4th Play-Off) in the knockout phase of the World Cup. Penalties in open play can be just as crucial, effectively deciding games at the blow of a referee’s whistle. Just ask Ghana. In an incredible 2010 quarter-final, they missed a last-minute spot-kick and then lost an eventual penalty shootout to exit the tournament against Uruguay. Could the Black Stars have done their research better?

We analysed over 20,000 penalties and discovered that of 383 players to have taken over 7 penalties within the date range of the research. 244 (64%) of them showed a clear tendency when taking kicks (clearly favouring left, right or middle).

Taking the example of a regular penalty taker, Georgios Samaras is currently playing for Greece at the World Cup in Brazil. See the infographic below to see Samaras’s clear tendency when it comes to picking his spot – to the left, middle or right.


A penalty when your team is comfortably in the lead is an entirely different situation than when you are under pressure. The first ever penalty at a World Cup was taken when the 1930 game between France and Chile was poised at 0-0 – Carlos Vidal’s effort was saved by Alexis ‘Alex’ Thépot.

So how do regular penalty takers react when taking a penalty in a ‘high pressure’ match scenario? The data suggests they fall back into their comfort zone. From 79 analysed players that took at least 7 ‘high pressure’ penalties within the date range, 55 (70%) showed a clear tendency when shooting from 12 yards, a significant uprise from the overall findings.

Looking at an individual example of this trend, let’s break down the data of Landon Donovan, the United States’ top goal scorer at World Cups. From 31 penalties within the date range, 19 were in a ‘low to mid pressure’ match scenario, with Donovan’s team in the lead. From these, the LA Galaxy and former Everton forward struck 13 to the right (68%), 1 to the middle and 5 to the left. Taking the portion of the penalties in ‘high pressure’ match scenarios and the percentage of penalties struck to his preferred right side jumps, from 68% to 83%, with 10 out of his 12 ‘high pressure’ penalties being directed at his preferred area of the goal.

The lesson for goalkeepers and coaching teams is clear: don’t rely on guess work. Using the unrivalled depth of data at our disposal at Sports Matrix we have created PenaltySpot ©. The unique product, which is currently in use by national teams at the 2014 World Cup, offers a historical ‘memory map’, which tracks precisely where every opposing player at the tournament has aimed their penalties over their entire career history. Also included in the package is an extensive video archive and easy-access data library.

Not only do goalkeepers now have the ability to assess where their opponents regular penalty takers are likely to shoot, they also have the priceless ability to see at a glance the preferences of five or more opposing penalty takers during shootouts.

As the old adage says: ‘Fail to prepare; prepare to fail’.

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