Soccer-How England changed their penalty mentality

By Mitch Phillips

DORTMUND, Germany (Reuters) – Just like the five shots confidently dispatched to beat Switzerland on Saturday, England’s conversion from one of the worst-performing countries in penalty shootouts to the current, confident unit, has nothing to do with luck.

England’s penalty problems are well documented and when Gareth Southgate took over as manager in 2016 he knew breaking that negative association was one of his most important tasks.

Ironically, it was his miss in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany, or more specifically his decision to put his hand up to take a penalty when he was patently under-qualified to do so, that was at the heart of England’s problems.

Former defender-turned pundit Gary Neville spoke last week about how the kickers at the 2006 World Cup were decided by a casual competition in training that ended up with centre back Jamie Carragher among the nominated five.

In the quarter-final shootout against Portugal, he missed the decisive kick at the second attempt after taking his first before the referee had blown his whistle.

That casual approach and consequent regular failing was the background to the FA launching a remarkable plan to investigate everything about England’s relationship with shootouts, something applauded by Norwegian behavioural psychologist Geir Jordet in his book “Pressure. Lessons from the psychology of the penalty shootout”.

“I was surprised and ecstatic when I heard what they were doing because I hadn’t ever seen anything like it,” Jordet told Reuters in a recent interview.

The key man was Chris Markham, who spent four years as an analyst at the FA and was behind the 18-month project targeted specifically at winning a shootout at the 2018 World Cup on the back of losing five in a row.

“I found quotes from each of the last five England managers before Gareth Southgate, not including Sam Allardyce, that said either the penalty shootout was a lottery, penalties are all down to luck, or that you can’t practice that kind of pressure,” Markham told Jordet.

“From a psychological perspective, speaking about a lottery takes ownership away from the players and that was the thing for me, to give them it back.”

Southgate bought in to Markham’s vision, that drilled down to the minutia of the process, including run-up steps, angle, pace, breathing techniques, optimal areas of aiming and goalkeepers as well as how players behaved individually and towards each other after each shot, particularly a miss.


It all paid off when England beat Colombia in the last 16 in Russia, and though they lost the Euro 2020 final shootout to Italy, they have now won three of their last four, including a Nations League playoff, all under Southgate.

That change in mentality was almost tangible in Duesseldorf. England played in extra-time as if they wanted penalties, while it was the Swiss who launched a series of frantic late assaults.

Harry Kane, England’s designated penalty taker, had been substituted by then but said he felt calm watching from the sidelines ahead of the shootout.

He had good reason to as Southgate, to his immense credit, had absorbed all Markham’s work, added his own “arm around the shoulder” support and was able to leave his selected shooters to what seemed their own, serene approaches.

It helped, but of was no coincidence, that England had five ideal men lined up. Cole Palmer, who has never missed a penalty, Ivan Toney, who has scored 31 of his 33, and Bukayo Saka are all regular spot-kick takers for their clubs, while Jude Bellingham and Trent Alexander-Arnold are world-class ball strikers.

All scored, with different types of kicks, and all celebrated wildly in front of the England fans behind the goal – another “trick” that Markham identified as helping the next man in line.

The other key component, of course, is a goalkeeper who can save at least one of the shots he faces.

Jordan Pickford had a list of all the Swiss players’ directional preferences taped to his water bottle but, just as importantly, were the “distraction” techniques he employed and identified as key by Jordet.

Pickford was nowhere to be seen as Manuel Akanji placed the ball on the spot for the first Swiss penalty, and after two separate discussions with the referee and a quick drink diversion, he took his place, dived in the direction his bottle notes told him to, and saved to give England an advantage they did not relinquish.

The FA’s media team has since stepped in to limit questions about penalty preparation, while Southgate, when asked about England’s change of approach, quipped: “Everybody else who used to work for the FA seems to have done that over a period of years. We’ll keep our counsel.”

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)



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