A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post giving a better alternative to penalty shootouts, namely to count the number of times each team hit the post or bar during the 120 minutes, and in the event of a draw award the game to the team with most woodwork hits. I’m not claiming to be the first person to think of this idea, but it is the best solution I’ve seen. It meets all these ‘rules’ of a good way to decide:
- 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
Some people agreed with me that counting woodwork hits was a good idea, but others came up with objections that mostly don’t stand up to too much examination. What needs to be remembered is that football is an 11-a-side game, and has been since the rules were codified in 1863. To start deciding matches by using fewer players might be exciting, but it would be the biggest change in rules in that 149 years. Even Sepp Blatter recognises the weight of history and doesn’t want to go there. There is an International Football Association Board that approves all rule changes, and with good reason it is not going to approve a change that fundamentally alters how football is played. The IFAB is concerned primarily with maintaining the integrity of the game.
So all suggestions of any variation on removing players fall at this hurdle. It is too big a change.
I got a few suggestions on Twitter for alternatives, such as team captains doing Sudoku, or who could eat the most crisps. I decided not taking those entirely seriously, amusing as they might be.
Suggestions such as who has scored the most goals in the tournament fall down on the rule that a game should not be influenced by preceding games. Suppose in the final group game, two already qualified teams face each other: what is stopping them playing out a 15-all draw to make sure they both build up a handy bank of goals in case they’re needed later? If you allow previous matches to influence a game, sooner or later the influence will be manipulated.
Various people thought that having the shootout before the match was the answer, and while it does have the advantage of removing some of the pressure, it fails on rule 4 – one team is going to become very defensive. Imagine if England had fluked the shootout against Italy before the game started. Once they realised Italy were far better, they would have spent 110 minutes in their own half (or until Italy scored, anyway).
Someone called “Spursman9” said: “I think they should keep it as it is but instead have all 11 players from each team take a penalty before deciding the winner and loser, and if deadlocked it’s decided sudden death as usual, that way it is still a team effort and no blame can be heaped on individuals.”
Well yes, by all means have 11 penalties rather than five, but having any number of penalties as first choice doesn’t get round the fact that some countries – eg England – are fundamentally disadvantaged due to their national psyche rather than anything to do with skill. That’s half the point of getting rid of them.
Gerry Lennon said: “If you are likely to end up with penalties anyway I do not see any advantage with this idea [of counting woodwork hits]. Yes, teams do hit the woodwork, sometimes two or three a game, but there are an awful lot that don’t.
I am much more in favour of reducing the number of players per each 15 mins of extra time. That involves the coaches having some influence on tactics – balance of forwards to defenders, speed over fitness, etc – and it is still a team game.
First 15 mins played to the end with 9 players each side. No subs. Still a draw, then …
Next 15 mins, ditto, with 7 players each, etc
Final extra time, ‘golden goal’ with only 5 each side.
Exciting? I think so. Draining on the players who play the extra time? Yes, but that is what squads are for, and what coaches will have to take into account.”
Far too complex, Gerry, and WAYYY too far from the current rules to ever be implemented.
Similarly, “Ronan” said: “Every five minutes take off a player from each team. 50 minutes after extra time it would have been Hart vs Buffon in the whole pitch. It would feel like a poker match when the people get whittled down and the tactics change. Sure some people would get knackered, but there would only be a few of them. But it would be worth it to see the best team score the winner.”
Sorry Ronan, this fails on so many criteria. How do you know the ‘best’ team would score the winner? But it also affects the winning team’s next game and it compromises the whole idea of football as a game of 11 v 11. Why not play the whole match with seven v seven, so there’ll be so many goals that a draw will never occur?
“4Cjay” said: “Play the extra 30 minutes, but every 5 minutes each team loses a player. Doesn’t help fatigue levels by any means, but opens up the extra time to be far more exciting and tactically intriguing. At the end of 30 minutes the team with most attempts on target wins (if goals aren’t scored of course). Frantic end to end stuff is guaranteed. Seen it happen at a few schools competitions. Far more interesting.”
Yes, well I’m not denying that would probably be exciting, but we are not just looking for excitement, we are looking for the best solution. You are compromising the integrity of 11-a-side football! Taking players off the pitch won’t happen.
Paul C had quite a lot to say, starting with this: “I don’t know why you would reward bad shots (which shots off the post are a lot of the time), and use them to decide a match when you consider that a great shot under huge pressure (penalties) is a bad way to decide a match.”
Shots that hit the post aren’t bad shots because they’ve beaten the keeper and nearly gone in. How is that a bad shot? They’re better than every other shot that isn’t a goal. They’re better than shots that are saved because they have beaten the keeper. Keepers don’t leave shots that hit the post or bar, like they do with shots that are going well wide
Paul goes on: “Penalties are simple, yet profoundly difficult in a shoot-out. They test technical skill and the mental ability to execute that skill under intense pressure. Everyone knows that the average English Footballer is technically weaker than their continental counterparts, so is it any surprise that we so often fail in what is the ultimate technical skill (the ability to manipulate a stationary ball past a goalkeeper from the penalty spot)? England fail mentally at shoot-outs largely because our footballers do not have the technical skill to feel confident executing such a simple task. How many English Footballers have the technical skill to feel confident doing what Pirlo did? How many English Footballers EVER have had the technical skill to feel confident doing that?”
This logic is backwards. Penalties are far from being ‘the ultimate technical skill’. In fact you can use no technical skill at all, and just hoof the ball as hard as possible and score most of the time. You can often score with a terrible kick just because the goalkeeper moves the wrong way too early. The pressure in a shootout is mental, and that’s because of the circumstances, it’s not due to the nature of the task.
“But penalties are a wonderful way to decide a game that otherwise might go on all-night. There is nothing random about it, as some would have you believe.”
I didn’t say penalties are random – quite the opposite, that’s why England don’t do well. It’s down to the culture of the country more than skill. This shows up in the stats of which countries regularly win shootouts and which regularly lose.
“Shots against the post are a completely random way of deciding a game. We could all imagine a game where one team dominates completely, forces the opposition keeper into save after save after save, takes shot after shot, and yet loses because the opposition took one miscued shot and hit the post. Now that IS random.”
Shots against the post are anything but random. You have to be aiming for the goal and keeping it away from the goalkeeper if you’re going to hit the woodwork. That’s not the least bit random. Your scenario is highly unlikely to say the least: a team takes shot after shot but never scores or hits the post, and the other team take one shot and do hit the post? But even if it happens, so what? Teams win matches all kinds of ways, as Chelsea proved against Bayern for example. I’m sure we’ve all been to matches where a team has one shot and wins the match 1-0, despite defending for 89 minutes while the other team misses chance after chance. Even if your example happens the game has been won on football, 11 v 11, and not on an event where the result depends not on skill or technique but on who handles individual pressure better.
Tim Stillman wrote: “I agree with Paul, I think penalties are the best way to decide the game and the most exciting. (And I think the excitement factor is important.) Some level of individual responsibility always comes in at some point when any game is won or lost. I would say ask Columbian defender Andres Escobar about that, but you can’t. He’s dead. Penalties are fascinating because they are actually easy. The best takers are the ones that know that it’s easy, it’s only the context and the pressure that makes them hard. I think the article does well to swerve the fallacy that penalties are a lottery, but I don’t see how an individual missing a penalty negates the game’s collective any more than a striker missing an open goal or a defender giving away a needless penalty in normal time. Or even a player missing a penalty in normal time, a la Bergkamp ’99.”
Tim is a reasonable sort of chap, so he largely puts forward a reasonable argument. And yes, there is always an element of individual responsibility, though more so in a shootout than most elements of football – even if you get a penalty during the game and one player takes it, the penalty still came about due to the actions of both teams. Any number of players could have contributed, at the bare minimum from the start or resumption of play there must be at least three. Escobar’s killers ignored any collective responsibility, of course, but although he was credited with an own goal it was in the 35th minute so his teammates had plenty of time to recover the situation. Possibly if Colombia had got through to the knockout rounds of the World Cup and lost in a shootout two or three of them might have ended up dead.
I don’t deny that penalties are more exciting than counting something that happened anyway during the game, but I’m aiming for fairness and integrity as well as excitement.
So no one has persuaded me any different. I don’t see a better option than counting woodwork hits, and then if those are equal going to penalties where the whole team participate. None of this five penalties each, 11 each straight off so that the whole team is responsible.
Finally there was a comment from a gentleman who shall remain nameless to spare embarrassment that said this:
“rule ain’t gonna change because some dull England can’t take a shot from 16 yards. Get a life. shit post.”
In reply I say, why not learn the following:
- How far the penalty spot is from the goal line
- Manners again, because they’re important