Matt Maher: A lottery? Sorry, shootouts are anything but

Penalty shootout season is back and so are the tired old clichés.


              
Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba saves the penalty of Sheffield United's Oliver Norwood
Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba saves the penalty of Sheffield United's Oliver Norwood

“It’s a lottery!” came the inevitable reply from one TV reporter in the aftermath of Rangers’ Europa League final defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt.

It really is time such statements were consigned to the dustbin of history. While the notion might have carried a little weight 40 years ago, when shoot-outs (particularly in domestic football) were relatively rare, taking penalties and saving them has, like pretty much every other aspect of the sport, become a science.

Watching three high-profile matches be decided shoot-outs over the past week brought to mind a conversation with Villa goalkeeper Jed Steer, shortly after he had been the hero in their play-off win over Albion at The Hawthorns three years ago.

Steer explained how preparations had involved studying potential opposition takers, while they had also watched highlights of other shoot-outs in an attempt to find how winning teams might have gained an edge.

Villa goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, for example, had read a study which found penalty takers are more likely to score if they are handed the ball by their own goalkeeper. Rewatch the shoot-out at The Hawthorns and you will see Steer retrieving the ball after every Albion spot-kick and then waiting on the edge of the area to present it to his team-mate, a tactic repeated in recent days by Liverpool’s Alisson Becker did during their FA Cup final win over Chelsea and Nottingham Forest’s Brice Samba in the play-off victory against Sheffield United.

Frankfurt’s Kevin Trapp was the exception though the German could be seen getting a last-minute refresher on the preferences of Rangers’ likely takers. Samba had notes stuck to his water bottle and – crucially – trusted the intelligence, standing still to punch Conor Hourihane’s penalty onto the bar.

Preparation, of course, can only take you so far. It is always players who will ultimately win or lose the day. The most research can do is put them in the best possible position to succeed.

But in that regard penalty shoot-outs, while high pressure, are no different to any other part of the sport. Nothing can ever be guaranteed and luck will always play a part but to the best of this writer’s knowledge, no-one has ever used “lottery” to describe defending corners.

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