There have been two penalty shoot-outs at this World Cup and both have been, frankly, rubbish. One side has walked it, the other crumbling pitifully. First, Japan’s players proved to be way too nice against Croatia, padding the ball gently into the midriff of the goalkeeper. But at least the Japanese, even as they were evicted from the tournament, managed to convert one of their spot kicks.
Here in the Education City Stadium, Spain went one stage worse. They failed with all three of theirs, not able to record a single success. And in their abject failure, they seem to be adhering to a pattern.
At the 1966 World Cup, eight penalties were taken, and all of them converted. Goalkeepers got nowhere near any of them. So far at this competition, of the 24 dispatched, eight have been saved and one has hit the woodwork. Only 15 have been scored. And in between those two tournaments, the numbers of those hitting the back of the net have gradually declined. Of the 68 taken in Russia four years ago, for instance, 20 failed to trouble the scorers.
Despite preconception, this is not a problem confined to England, by the way. It is a universal problem: it seems everybody is getting worse from 12 yards. Which suggests one of two things: either players are no longer able to dispatch the ball properly, or goalkeepers are getting better.
One thing we do know: penalty shoot-outs are no longer a surprise. It seems very unlikely that Luis Enrique will have sent his Spanish players out unprepared. The days when it was assumed it was “impossible to practise penalties” have long gone.
Gareth Southgate for instance, in part compelled by his own unfortunate relationship with the shoot-out, has gone to considerable lengths to ensure his England players are properly mentally and physically prepared for what likely lies ahead in this tournament.
One of the things he has done is introduce the shoot-out to training sessions. This is something he learned from the Team GB women's hockey team, who won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics via a shoot-out in the final. He discovered that they practise relentlessly, not just hitting the ball, but the whole rigmarole, the walk from the halfway line, the decisions about the order of takers, everything. So that when the pressure arrives, their bodies have sufficient muscle memory to know precisely what to do.
And he cannot be alone. Every modern international manager will do the same. Yet Spain seemed like rabbits in the headlights as they approached the spot here. Pablo Sarabia hit the post, Carlos Soler prodded his penalty pathetically into the chest of the Morocco keeper Bono, while Sergio Busquets, renowned as the hardman in the middle of a group of artists, was equally enfeebled. And even though Morocco scored three times – Hakim Ziyech thumping the leather off the ball while Achraf Hakimi showed nerves of steel to deliver a Panenka on the decisive kick – they too had a kick saved.
Which suggests that in the 12-yard lottery, goalkeepers are getting the upper hand. For a start, what they know longer do is follow superstition. Keepers in the past might have had sequences of dives – left, left, right, right. Others might wobble their knees, or try psychological ploys like staring out the taker. Nor, in the days of Var, are they able to stray yards off their line as goalkeepers used to do, narrowing the angle with every advance.
No, what goalkeepers do these days is work at it. They study their opponents. They know everybody’s preferences. They have a pattern worked out appropriate to each taker. And that feeds into the whole mental approach to the shoot-out. The Spanish players will have seen their own keepers working on their processes, getting their homework done. And will be more than aware that their opponents will have been equally assiduous.
What we may well be seeing in this World Cup is that the goalkeepers, through study and labour, are getting the psychological upper hand. When those Spanish players stepped up to take their shots, imagine what was going through their minds: the noise of the Moroccan fans, the pressure, the intensity. And they will know the keeper will know their habits, know they have been studied. Do they do what they always do, or do they try something different?
Though some might suggest it might help if, instead of stuttering and stalling and fiddling about as if they have ants in their pants, they simply ran up and thumped the thing. No amount of study is going to benefit a goalkeeper if the ball is hammered into the top corner.