Even though I hadn’t been watching the World Cup semi-final match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Wednesday, I leapt to my feet upon receiving word from my SportsCenter app that they were heading to a shootout after extra time of a 0-0 game, turned on the TV, and saw Argentina prevail 4-2 on penalty kicks.
And why wouldn’t I? A shootout can be absolutely thrilling, especially when it’s deciding an elimination game in a global sporting event that happens just once every four years.
A shootout is an exciting way to decide a World Cup match.
A shootout is also terrible way to decide a World Cup match.
Because for about two hours, 22 guys ran around a pitch, making passes, corner kicks, shots on goal, and perhaps diving like they had just been shot through the torso with a howitzer in a game of skill, athleticism, grit, quickness, and heart. But since they weren’t able to settle the match in 120 minutes, the two sides went kick for kick in what from the goalie’s perspective is a kind of rigged carnival game.
Then again, a rigged carnival game just might give goalies a better chance at beating their opponents.
According to The Science of Soccer Online, penalty kicks can reach upwards of 125 miles per hour. And at 36 feet away, that’s less than a quarter of a second for the goalie to react, which he can’t. So he must simply guess where the shooter will kick the ball and hope that if he does guess right that it’s close enough where he can get any part of his body on it.
The Science of Soccer Online also cites an Israeli study that examined video of 286 penalty shots in professional leagues, European Championships, and World Cup games. Here’s what it found:
From the penalty kicker’s standpoint, 85% of the penalty shots placed on goal were successful. A bit more than half of the shots taken were placed in the lower one-third of the goal (57%). These low attempts were successful ~80% of the time. By comparison, only 13% of shots were placed in the upper third of the goal. However, all of these efforts resulted in a goal scored (100% success).
In other words, it’s far too easy to score in a shootout.
This is quite different from professional hockey shootouts, where there is far greater shooter-goalie parity. During the 2013-2014 NHL season, 30 players took 10 or more shots during shootouts throughout the year for a combined total of 376 attempts. Of those, 154 were converted, which means that 40.9% of all shots were successful. On any given shot, there’s a reasonable chance of the shot succeeding — or failing.
You can see more of the shootout study’s findings here, which are interesting because they suggest that the best strategy may very well be for goalkeepers in a shootout to remain right in the middle of the net. That’s because the goalie can cover more ground and air standing than if he were diving to one side or the other. In this way, the shooter would have to consider one additional possibility in addition to the goalie diving left or right: holding his position.
But until goalies staying in the middle of the net during a kick becomes a more common approach, all the shooter pretty much has to do is kick it to a far side or an upper third of the net and GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLL!
Of course, there’s a possibility I could warm up to shootouts if this happened more often: