The Penalty Theory – Play the Percentages?

There have been four penalties so far at the 2014 World Cup – Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema have all taken, and scored a spot kick. All four are right-footed, three shot to the left of goal, and one (Cavani) shot to the right. Is this is a prevalent pattern? Using our vast database at Sports Matrix we decided to get to the bottom of how penalties are taken.

Since the introduction of the penalty shootout to World Cup football in 1982, spot kicks have been a nail-biting, cruelly decisive way to conclude a match, with two finals being ended from 12 yards (1994 and 2006). Whether from open-play or after extra time, penalties are vital moments on which the fate of a match often rides.

Cavani penalty

In the run up to this summer’s showpiece in Brazil, several pieces of research has been published on the subject, offering varying degrees of depth. The BBC calculated that 204 penalties in shootouts have been taken in World Cup history, with 71 per cent finding the net, and world-renowned scientist Professor Stephen Hawking’s whimsical study concluded that takers should take a run-up of over three yards and strike the ball with “side foot rather than laces”.

But what about the primary question of how penalties are taken, not just in the World Cup but in all continents at all professional levels. Looking at over 20,000 open-play penalties from 55 leagues around the world gave us the bigger picture.

Some 55% of right-footed penalties we looked at were directed at the left-side of the goal (as opposed to right-side and middle), while 53% of left-footed penalties were directed at the right-side (as opposed to left-side and middle). This suggests that takers prefer to wrap their foot around the ball, using the in-sole to curve or side-foot, as Professor Hawkings advocated.

Penalties Infographics

Analysing both right and left footed penalty takers as a whole, the bottom of third of the goal is by far the most popular target (58%) compared to the middle third (31%) and upper third (11%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, research carried out by Liverpool John Moores University in the run-up to Euro 2004 ascertained that “A well-placed ball, high to the corners will not be stopped by the goalkeeper even if he anticipates it”. However from our data, it is clear that most takers lack either the skill or confidence to attempt to find the top-corner; a risky but rewarding method.

So what about the goalkeepers? Well it is apparent from our findings that the men between the sticks are wise to takers’ tendency to wrap their foot around the ball. Against right-footed players, goalkeepers dive to their right (the taker’s left) 56% of the time, while when facing left-footed takers they dive to their left (the taker’s right) 57% of the time.

Alonso pen

With this in mind, the most lethal weapon available to any penalty taker may well be a clever feint, shaping to shoot on one side but opting for the other, or ‘the eyes’ – keeping their sights fixed on one side only to deliver the ball to the other.

As for the goalkeepers, knowing a particular penalty taker’s habits takes away a lot of the guess work. The ability to study a ‘penalty history map’ for each player is now a reality thanks to a product developed by our Research and Development team at Sports Matrix. This aid is already benefitting the preparation of several teams at the ongoing World Cup and we look forward to telling you more about it over the coming weeks.

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