Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG), Photo: Shutterstock

Let’s start in the nightmare parallel universe in which the rules of the NBA dictate that, after J.R. Smith outmuscles Kevin Durant for the rebound and dribbles out the clock in a tie game, the starting fives for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors each shoot a single free throw, tallying up their makes to declare a winner. “You hate to see this decided with foul shots,” Mike Breen says solemnly, before Jeff Van Gundy dives into his spiel about how ridiculous it is that in two thousand eighteen the sport can’t come up with a better way to resolve ties. And because this is a nightmare, LeBron misses his free throw, costs his team the game, and sparks an epidemic of tweets—good, bad, and Rovellian—that makes logging off humanly impossible.

It’s an awful vision, but one could argue it’s less bad than what soccer’s actual last-ditch tiebreaker—the penalty kick shootout, or PKs—presents. During a match, a penalty kick is a rare occurrence, far rarer than a free throw. And even when it does arise, the job of sneaking the ball past the keeper from 12 yards out typically falls to a sole specialist; for most players, it’s an irrelevant skill. So deciding a match based on penalty kicks is more on par with, I dunno, seeing how many Cavs and Warriors could dribble out of a full-court press: Maybe it reflects some sport-adjacent ability, but holy shit does it seem arbitrary.

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And yet, this imperfect minigame will shape the knockout stage of the 2018 World Cup: In the 10 Cups since PKs were accepted as a tiebreaker, three champions have won a shootout along the way to claiming the trophy—two of them in the final—and nearly a fifth of all elimination games have ended from the penalty spot. Shootouts have been the medium for perhaps the most famous moment in all of women’s soccer, and some of the most heartbreaking on the men’s side; crucially, they also offer the most discrete, quantifiable elements in a sport that’s far behind on the statistical curve.

So while it’s important to understand right off that PKs are a bit ridiculous, you’re still going to have to watch a shootout or four in the next few weeks, and fortunately, there’s no shortage of smart (and pseudo-smart!) things to say about them. If you want to dunk on your friends who think a semester abroad made them experts, or if you just want to scream precise insults from your couch, keep reading.

Context

PKs arise when two teams tie after 90 minutes and remain knotted following 30 minutes of extra time. Five players from each team then take penalty kicks, with the teams alternating attempts; the squad that converts more of its kicks moves on, while the other team—statistically speaking—heads home to England. If the teams stay tied after five rounds, it becomes sudden-death, with the first to score while its opponent misses earning the win.

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Of the two protagonists, the shooter has the far easier task. He can slot the ball anywhere within the 192 square feet of the goal mouth, and the keeper has little chance to cut down the angles. (Technically, he must stay on his line until the shot, but the ref allows him a bit of leeway.) The shooter, too, can alter the pace of his run-up to the ball—even to an embarrassing degree—in hopes the keeper will betray his intentions of where he plans to dive. He dictates the proceedings, and more often than not, if a shooter executes his penalty as planned, if he doesn’t slip and miss the target, the keeper won’t have much of a chance.

Given his disadvantage, the keeper finds himself initially reduced to carnival barker, doing anything to mentally fry the shooter. He’ll wobble his knees. He’ll stall and shout. He’ll point to where he thinks the shooter will place the ball, or visibly check his notes on the shooter’s penalty history, or even inexplicably take his gloves off, all to try and instill a modicum of doubt in the shooter’s mind.

At its essence, what makes the penalty so compelling is its simultaneity: Were the keeper to wait for the kick and then react, he’d have no chance, as the ball will reach the net in about a quarter of a second. So he must gamble, just as the shooter strikes the ball, and splay himself to cover a portion of the goal.

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How does he decide where to go? I hate to say this, but…it’s time for some game theory.

Analysis

Overall, around 75–80 percent of penalties are converted. That rises to roughly 90–95 percent when the keeper guesses the wrong way (the shooter can, of course, still shoot wide or high); if the keeper guesses correctly, however, only about 60–65 percent are converted. So it’s vital that shooters and keepers maintain mixed strategies in their shot placement and movements.

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Two papers in the early 2000s—including one from Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a professor at the London School of Economics and the head of talent identification for Spanish club Athletic Bilbao—found that penalty kick behavior is an example of a Nash equilibrium: Shooters vary their placement such that the keeper’s likelihood of stopping the shot is identical no matter which way he dives. Likewise, keepers move around such that the shooter scores at roughly the same rate, no matter where he places it.

In terms of behavioral patterns, Palacios-Huerta found nothing. Generally, a player’s shot placement doesn’t provide a hint of his next, nor can one predict a keeper’s choice of side in a given round of the shootout based on his—or the shooter’s—prior choices.

Notes bordering on overanalysis

In part because the English are famously inept at PKs—they’ve lost five consecutive shootouts, and six of seven in their history—researchers have turned over every stone possible to see why they fail, culminating in the rare academic paper that could inform a First Take debate. Ben Lyttleton, in his book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of The Perfect Penalty Kick, highlights a slew of findings. Notably, England exhibit “avoidance behaviors” comically more often than other teams: The majority of English players turn their backs on the keeper after spotting the ball, and when the referee blows his whistle, they start their approach in barely over a quarter of a second. As Lyttleton notes, Usain Bolt gets off the blocks in 0.17 seconds, so these players are hustling to be done with their ritual embarrassment.

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But if they succeed, they should go nuts. More specifically, they ought to celebrate with “one or two hands raised over shoulder height”; when a player does that, the next opponent to kick is more likely to miss.

Meanwhile, keepers can tilt the odds in their favor by standing slightly off-center in the goal to coerce the shooter into aiming for the larger vacant area. They should try to, yes, ice the kicker by forcing him to wait a few extra seconds before the ref blows his whistle. And keepers should consider staying put; one paper showed keepers holding their position on just 6.3 percent of penalties, despite 28.6 percent of attempts targeting the center. They move due to neuroscience: By staying in the center, the keepers will feel worse about conceding a goal. Instead, they would rather fail by doing the standard something (diving), an example of action bias. (This is the corollary to omission bias, which referees in most sports exhibit by “letting them play” at the end of close games; as the default behavior is to not call a foul, refs prefer to make incorrect non-calls rather than incorrect calls.)

One weird trick keepers hate!

To capitalize on the keeper’s expected movement, players might attempt a Panenka, a penalty requiring meticulous technique and ruthless execution and perhaps a healthy dollop of dickishness. A successful Panenka (named for Antonín Panenka, whose penalty in this style lifted Czechoslovakia past West Germany in the 1976 Euros) leaves the announcers chuckling, then trawling for synonyms of “cheeky.” It’s an Eephus pitch merged with a flop shot; the ball lofts down the middle, slow enough that the keeper’s legs—his last, desperate, flailing defense mechanism—will have vacated the area.

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The good ones are gorgeously impudent, but the Panenka is also tactical, especially if the shooter can deploy it milliseconds after seeing the keeper bolt to one side. Why isn’t it more common? For one, the chip itself doesn’t leave much room for error. But mostly because the shooter can’t tip anything off; if he does, the keeper will stay put and claim the easiest save imaginable. The risk might be worth it; while it’s too rare for proper analysis, some (including Lyttleton and Antonin Panenka himself) believe—anecdotally—that a successful penalty in this style has an added psychological effect on the opponent, unsettling the keeper for future rounds. But above all, you benefit from any such effort, since it lends a chance to both shout “Panenka”—which I highly recommend—and trash either the keeper or shooter: Similar to an ambitious dunk attempt, the Panenka try basically ensures one player will leave looking foolish.

Fairness, or: The unattainable virtue of Athletics

When viewed on TV, the shootout typically begins with innumerable close-ups of the two goalkeepers ambling around their goal, stranded from their team members back in the center circle. One player then marches toward the penalty spot, looking stoic and/or on the brink of soiling himself. He coifs the grass and situates the ball just so as the opposing goalkeeper waves his arms, trying to make the goal appear as small as possible. The ref blows the whistle; the shooter approaches and connects—usually scoring, sometimes not. He jogs or trudges back accordingly, and the cycle repeats itself until one team has a conclusive advantage.

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But even before that first attempt, a key shift in odds will have happened. Prior to the shootout, the team captains gather for two coin flips—once to choose the goal on which the kicks will be taken, and again to grant one captain the choice of kicking first or second. Unless he’s a big Marty Mornhinweg fan, he’ll choose to go first: A more recent analysis from Palacios-Huerta shows that the team kicking first has a 60 percent chance of advancing.

Said another way, not every penalty kick is equal: Shooters perform worse when trailing—they’re more likely to miss the goal completely. And since the first team more often kicks with a level scoreline, while the second has to draw even, the latter is at a notable disadvantage.

The perilous duties of the manager

The manager must select his lineup of five kickers and then best order them, one through five. The first demand isn’t that simple: While we consider some players assassins from the spot, few convert at a significantly higher rate than a league-average specialist. It’s hard to pare PK skill from luck even with dozens of data points, so imagine the manager’s challenge of choosing his best five shooters based on little but training-ground exercises.

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Choosing an order requires nuance, too: The later kicks are generally considered more stressful, but the shootout can be clinched after just three rounds. Think of the fifth kick as soccer’s version of baseball’s closer debate: A manager may want to save his best reliever for the final frame, but he can lose the game by waiting so long. In the semifinals of the 2012 European Championship, the golden (bronzed) boy Cristiano Ronaldo—one of few distinctly accomplished from the spot—was slated to go fifth in the shootout versus Spain, with his team kicking second. But when his teammate Bruno Alves missed in round 4, Spain’s Cesc Fabregas closed the door before Ronaldo could even step up.

Ronaldo’s lack of opportunity wasn’t surprising: In the sample of 98 international shootouts that my colleague and I analyzed to determine the optimal shootout lineup, fewer than half reached the second team’s fifth kicker: Considering that, the second team to kick shouldn’t put its best shooter last. Palacios-Huerta’s chart of win frequencies in shootouts broadly concurs with our analysis that, on average, the fourth and fifth spots are the most important for the first team. The fourth spot is crucial for the second team too, but—in order to both guarantee that he kicks and helps the team get out to a solid start—the first slot isn’t a bad place for its specialist.

A brief history of alternatives

The default tiebreaker in any sport boils down to “keep playing until someone has scored marginally more.” But that’s insufficient in soccer, where a goal is so rare that the game’s de facto poet laureate can call it the sport’s “orgasm” with a straight face. Teams can’t play endless extra time in hopes of a breakthrough, so in the days before shootouts, if they couldn’t quickly schedule a replay, what would they do? Fifty years ago, they flipped a coin. And after Israel’s men’s team lost a drawing of lots in the 1968 Olympics following a stalemate in the quarterfinals, a pissed-off Yosef Dagan, then the general secretary of the Israeli Football Association, lobbied for a more just tiebreaker, leading to the international acceptance of PKs.

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The “There Are No Bad Ideas” section

Shootouts could better reflect soccer’s dynamism. The shooter might start with the ball from 35 yards out, having five seconds to beat the keeper, who’d no longer be tethered to his goal line. That’d be cool, right? MLS tried this system in the 1990s and abandoned it, but MLS not doing something is, historically, the best endorsement possible.

I mean, look at this!

FIFA’s technical director expressed interest in the idea last year, and it’s hard to not start daydreaming about buzzer-beaters (in soccer!), the best players in the world in open space, attempting audacious shit as the final seconds wind down.

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Otherwise, reformists aim to fix two glaring flaws within the current system, starting with mitigating the first-team advantage. The revised format would flow like a tennis tiebreaker: Team A kicks once, then team B kicks twice, then team A kicks twice, etc. Colloquially, this is the ABBA format: Palacios-Huerta estimates that the first-team advantage, currently around 60/40, would decline by more than half under ABBA. But the greater indictment of PKs is that they dull the latter portions of the actual game, as holding on for a shootout (aka “playing for penalties”) provides an escape route for lesser teams. To prevent that, FIFA could move the shootout to before the extra time session; the losing team in the shootout then couldn’t afford to accept a tie in the final half hour, and they’d surge forward to earn the necessary goal, opening up the field. The expectation is that with the rule change, less than a quarter of extra times would remain scoreless.

The obligatory gambling section

You’d have to be a degenerate to want to wager on this, but since you’re here, remember that shootouts are mostly psychological. I’m not going to pretend like certain nations are consistently mentally tougher than others, but also let’s not act like Germany doesn’t exist. Germany lost its first-ever penalty shootout, way back in 1976, and they haven’t lost any of their six since.

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They buckled prior to the knockout stage, but the perpetual success of Die Mannschaft in PKs hints at something beyond pure randomness. Geir Jordet’s analysis suggests that previous shootout results reinforce a nation’s future performance: Teams who won their most recent shootout scored at a higher clip than teams with no history; teams who lost their previous shootout shot worse. And if they were on a streak, the effect grew.

So in lieu of Germany’s easy money, consider Spain, who have won three shootouts in a row. On the other hand, by now you should know not to bet on England. But you may also want to avoid Argentina, who—since advancing via shootout in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup—have lost in consecutive Copa Americas by way of penalty kicks. (Brazil, for what it’s worth, won the Rio Olympics via penalties, with Neymar slotting home the clinching kick; they had lost their two prior shootouts.)

A final case for enjoying PKs

OK, look: A penalty kick shootout is a fickle system, but for you, that mostly means it’s volatile and well-staged (seriously, the blocking on that march from midfield is delightful). You get to yell about players cracking under pressure and for once not be completely full of it; you’re equipped to always—and immediately—make strategic suggestions with the power of hindsight; you can laugh, cry, think, and swear profusely, all in, like, a six-minute span.

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We want, and maybe expect, the final moments of any close contest to provide a chaser of equitability, something to conceal the previous hours of randomness. Shootouts don’t provide that, but neither do other sports’ tiebreakers, in which a single mistimed pitch call or serve placement—let alone a catch ruling overturned on tenuous grounds—can have seismic effects. And yeah, no one’s thrilled about the divergence of PKs from the game’s general format; it seems strange to allow a match to be decided so nakedly by such a whimsical measure. But the truth is that soccer’s lack of scoring is a virtue, and any effective tiebreaker will have to veer from the sport as we know it.

By that token, a shootout is minimally intrusive. Think of what happens during PKs, in their most basic form. A player kicks a ball; a keeper tries to keep it out. It might go in; it might not. What more could you want?


Lucas Hubbard is a writer based in Durham, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter here.