England are rubbish at penalties and have lost 6 out of 7 shootouts in major competitions, as well as 1 out of 1 in some minor competition. This isn’t just bad luck. There is good evidence that countries that do better in shootouts are those whose populations have a more collectivist nature, whereas we English like to point fingers and blame whoever we can. The national sport isn’t really football, it’s taking the piss. So the Ashleys, Cole and Young, have had abuse on Twitter for their misses, even though the mainstream press have been kinder than they used to be. So in shootouts, where psychology and mental strength play a big part – at least as big as technique – we English will always be at a disadvantage, because on average the penalty takers will be more scared of missing, knowing that they’ll be vilified by a rabid public, and sometimes media.
It’s also a fact that younger players on average do better than older players in shootouts. I put this down to the weight of expectation being lower. Nobody told Pirlo about that one, though.
Sooner or later England will win another shootout just by getting lucky, or else by playing against a country even less collectively minded than we are (though I’m struggling to think of one). But we’ll never win a majority of them, so we need an alternative.
I like the shootout as a spectacle, especially when watching as a neutral, but it does have its drawbacks – the main one being that it puts all the responsibility on individuals, and football is supposed to be a team game. Fifa have already tried alternatives such as the golden and silver goals, but they’ve proved unpopular, despite being closer to a real football situation. Part of the problem with the golden and silver goals is that they change the way teams play, because they become more scared of conceding and may still want to play for penalties, so at least one team gets very defensive – if they weren’t already. Either way it’s not often much of a spectacle. So what else is there?
Replays are really the ideal football solution – there’s no point playing defensively if you know that unless you score a proper goal during play you’ll never win. Unfortunately replays are impractical in tournaments, so we can rule that out.
But if it’s going to be better than penalties it needs to follow some rules:
- It needs to be a ‘football’ solution – so no coin tossing, rock-scissors-paper, spoof or arm wrestling
- It should involve the team rather than individuals – so no penalty variations, like the shootouts they used to have in the NASL back in the 1970s, where a player started from the 35-yard line and had five seconds to run forward and beat the keeper (who could move where he liked) in a one-on-one
- It shouldn’t tire players out so much that they are affected in their following match – so no endless playing on for period after period of extra time until someone is finally ahead at the end of a period
- It shouldn’t cause teams to play differently and in particular be more defensive – which penalties often does – so no counting numbers of corners, for example, and no taking the penalties before the match starts; that has been suggested, but could just encourage one team to be ultra-defensive if they knew they’d already won the shootout. No counting shots or shots on target either – too difficult to be sure that a shot count was right when a shot can be confused with a cross, or get blocked before it goes anywhere, and if shots get deflected onto or off target what does that count as?
- It shouldn’t be subjective – so no going on numbers of yellow cards or free kicks, that are subject to the whims of the officials (this rules out corners as well; have you ever seen a match where the ref didn’t get at least one corner decision wrong?)
- It shouldn’t be affected by what has happened in previous games, each match should be complete in itself – so no counting any stats from previous matches in the tournament or elsewhere
I’ve ruled out most things, but there is one left: count the number of times teams hit the woodwork. If the scores are level at the end of 90 minutes or extra time, then the team that has hit the post or bar the most times in the match wins.
This has many advantages over other solutions, including penalties:
- It involves the whole team
- It happens anyway as part of the game
- No one is trying to do it over scoring
- It’s easy to count (let the fourth official do it)
- No one is going to change the way they play, either individually or as a team, except possibly to attack a bit more – which can only be good
- There’s no point hanging on for 90 minutes hoping to get lucky
- It signifies almost scoring, so it seems logical to decide matches on something that is almost a goal rather than something that is nothing to do with goals
- It’s very unlikely you’ll have a match where neither team hits the woodwork, so you’re more than likely to get a result
I would only count hits in the match taking place, though it might be that you could encourage attacking play throughout a tournament by counting those from previous matches too. But that could also mean that a team was so far ahead on woodwork hits at the start of a game that they might think it worth playing for a draw, which negates the benefit.
Of course you could still end up with a draw on woodwork hits, so I’d suggest you then do go to penalties as the next best option, but with a difference – make everyone in the team take one. That way any blame is shared round more equally and teams need to have every player capable of making a contribution.
Right, that’s that sorted. Anything else Fifa need sorting?
By the way, I used this website for some research: http://www.penaltyshootouts.co.uk/
And further by the way, none of this will do England any good until they get better at football, but one thing at a time.
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