If you get ahead in a penalty kick shootout you gain a psychological advantage over your opponent. The next man out has to score simply to tie – and it’s easier to make a mistake when you’re under pressure. When the chances of scoring are as high as three out of four, the first kick can be decisive.
Spanish researchers collected data from 129 shootouts and conclude that the team that shoots first wins 60 percent of the time. In Norway, Hødd, a team that plays in a division below its opponent Tromsø, got the upper hand in this manner when the flip of a coin went their way.
The result was that Hødd, the underdog, won the penalty kick and thus the Norwegian Cup, earning themselves a qualifying spot for the 2013/14 UEFA Europa League.
This is far from the first time number crunchers have analysed penalty kick shootouts. Previous research has shown it pays off to cheer with both arms in the air after scoring, and that the chances of missing are greater if the goalkeeper is dressed in red.
In this year’s cup final in Norway, it seemed as if the Tromsø players deliberately used the tactic of taking a long time before kicking.
Geir Jordet at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences has previously shown that players who hurry with their kicks have a higher chance of missing.
“Tromsø player Thomas Drage has this as a strategy, but in this year’s cup final he broke world records in waiting, so there’s no research on the effect of waiting so long,” says Professor Jordet.
After the referee blew the whistle, Drage let nine seconds pass before starting his kick.
It’s unknown whether instructing players to pause like this has the same effect as if they elect to do it on their own volition.
Spanish economists Jose Apesteguia and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta are the researchers who showed the benefits of shooting first. They were also curious to find out whether the advantage of starting a shootout was well known in football circles.
They sent a questionnaire to players and coaches on Spanish teams. They queried top professionals as well as teams in lower divisions, and asked: If the choice was theirs, would they opt to kick first or last?
The response was conclusive. A whopping 96 percent answered they would prefer getting the first kick. Nobody wanted to shoot last, whereas a few said the decision would depend on the situation. Nearly all based their preference on the importance of putting pressure on their opponents from the start.
Professor Jordet from the Norwegian School of Sport Science says he is uncertain about the Spanish results, because he hasn’t seen the same in his own analyses.
“I’ve only studied the most important shootouts, and in these I haven’t found this effect. So naturally I’m a little sceptical.”
One explanation may be that the effect can be stronger in less momentous competitions.
Since 2003, team captains who win coin tosses have been given the option of choosing which team kicks first in a shootout. Before that, the winner of the flip automatically got the first shot.
According to the website Soccermetrics, Italy’s goalkeeper and team captain Gianluigi Buffon won the toss in the European the UEFA European Football Championship against Spain in 2008. But he made the unusual decision to shoot last. Given the results of the Spanish research, the website calls his decision one of biggest mistakes in international soccer history.
Of course you can still win a shootout as an underdog and as the last to shoot. When Zambia beat Ivory Coast in the Africa Cup of Nations this year, the team managed to match each scoring kick.
With the score tied at 7-7, after seven kicks each, Ivory Coast missed. Then Zambia blew the next kick, which would have won the game for them. But when Ivory Coast followed up with yet another miss, a Zambian placed the ball neatly in the net.