Marketing Idea No. 300: The humble penalty kick and what it teaches us about strategy

Champions League final between Manchester United vs Chelsea, Moscow, 2008. In the final spotkick of the night in the tie breaker, Chelsea captain John Terry is about to take his penalty against Edwin Van der Sar, who was standing 12 yards away. Terry correctly predicted that Van der Sar is going to dive right against right footed kickers and he also correctly put his own penalty on the left. What he couldn’t predict or control that he would slip in the wet grass and miss the kick. By one estimate, that one missed penalty cost Chelsea $170 million.

Considering how much rides on penalty kicks, very few people actually pays a lot of attention to it. Its often thought as random and unpredictable, when its anything but. There is a clear strategy that goes behind taking and saving penalties and teams that can pay attention to it, can greatly benefit from that.

Take the scenario of Germany vs Argentina in World Cup Quarterfinal in Berlin 2006.

The Germans at that point had a database of 13,000 penalty kicks and from that they can predict who is going to shoot where and how. Jens Lehmann, the German keeper for the night, had a small crib sheet tucked in to his socks which read

  1. Riquelme – Left
  2. Crespo – Long Run-up/right
  3. Heinze – Left Low
  4. Ayala – Waits long time, long run-up/right
  5. Aimar – Waits a long time/left

Germany ended up winning that match in shoot out and its hardly a surprise.

In recently completed Work Cup 2014 in Brazil, Holland coach Louis Van Galle substituted his No. 1 keeper and sent substitute Tim Krul to take the penalties in a crucial knock out match against Costa Rica. This strategic master stroke not only put Holland through, but also put penalty taking strategy at the front page to receive some much needed attention. In hindsight, it was quite clear that sending Krul made all the sense. He was much taller than the No. 1 Goalkeeper whom he replaced giving him a few inches of extra reach, had a decent penalty saving record and more importantly, the sheer unpredictability of his sudden presence would un-nerve the opposition. And during the penalties we can he is playing mind games with the shooters.

Aficionados of Game Theory will point out the essence of that theory in penalty taking. Its after all a strategic game and like all strategies, penalties need long hard thinking and preparation. And like all strategies, you can never completely avoid mistakes or unpredictability.

Take the case of one Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo often stops in the run up to the ball. If he stops, there is a 85% chance that he is likely to shoot to the right hand side of keeper. But also, he is one of those rare penalty takers who successfully can change his mind where he wants to put the ball at the very last instant and get away with it. That makes him almost impossible to read at times

Like most other strategies that are often underutilized, penalties are criminally under exploited. Probably 4 out 5 cases, Goalkeeper will always choose a side and jump, making the penalty taken straight down a much higher chance to go inside. Knowing that, very few penalty takers, mysteriously, choose to shoot down the middle, as it’s a showcase of counter intuitive thinking and absence of long term thinking as well. One can only hope as the world of football moves to data crunching and companies like Optas come into being, this long perceived “gamble” of penalty taking will also become part of a more executable strategic plan for all the teams.

Going back to that infamous (or famous, depends on which team you support) night in Moscow, after 6 kicks Edwin Van der Sar understood that Chelsea is following a strategy of putting all their kicks on his left side, since Van der Sar has a tendency to dive to the right. As Nicholas Anelka prepared to take Chelsea’s 7th penalty, in a moment of intense drama, the Dutchman pointed his left arm to the left corner as if he was saying to Anelka “I know that’s where you are going to put it”.

If you are Nicholas Anelka, now you got a dangerous game theory to work out. Should he course correct the strategy of putting it in left corner? Or should he stick to it?

We all know how that played out.

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