By Paul Gardner
Statistics and soccer are never a happy mix -- amusing, yes, they can be that (in the sense that they can be maneuvered into proving or disproving almost anything you wish). Therefore, they can be misleading, and therefore they are not to be trusted.
Usually, that is. But what’s this news from the London School of Economics and Political Science? Stats to prove that penalty-kick shootouts are unfair?
One small matter, before going into this topic. The story I’m talking about identifies the subject as penalty shootouts, and the kicks as penalty kicks. This annoys the sticklers for accuracy. These are not penalty kicks -- no offense has been committed, no penalty kick has been awarded by the referee -- they are, strictly, “kicks from the penalty mark,” which is how the rules refer to them.
Anyway, these kicks (I doubt I’ll be able to stick to strict accuracy in describing them) are, as everyone knows, the worst method yet invented for deciding the winner of a game. Yet they’re still used. I find them abominable, whatever they’re called, so I welcome anything that shows them in a bad light -- which is what these new stats from the London School of Economics do. You might well ask how the study of shootouts fits into the syllabus of Professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta at the LSE. Who knows, statistics can crop up anywhere, and Palacios-Huerta works in the LSE’s Department of Management, if that helps.
Never mind. The good professor has come up with some devastating stats which it will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to deny. Simply that the team that takes the first kick has a huge advantage: it has a 60 percent chance of winning the shootout. Meaning, obviously, that if your team takes the second kick, your chances are only 40 percent. In short, the shootout is a loaded affair, depending heavily not so much on the skill of the kick takers, or of the goalkeepers ... but on which team wins the coin toss.
Palacios-Huerta has, we are told, studied “2,820 shootout kicks.” I’m taking that to mean exactly what it says -- 2,820 kicks, not 2,820 shootouts. Let’s say the average shoot-out contains 10 kicks, then the professor has studied 282 shootouts, which is a pretty healthy sample, and gets rid of one standard objection to stats, namely that the sample size is too small.
The study found that in nearly all cases the winner of the coin-toss chose to shoot first (evidently there was some difficulty in establishing this fact -- simply because the telecasts that were studied tended not to air the coin toss (being too busy with commercials). But in 19 of the 20 games where the information was available, the toss winner chose to kick first. Obviously, the advantage of leading off is well-known to players.
Now that fact is statistically established by what seem to be unassailable figures. The shootout is already such a flimsy gimmick anyway, that this finding really ought to see it thrown into the trash can of soccer history.
Palacios Huerta comments: “I suspect that the heads of FIFA or UEFA are not going to like the fact that the winner of the World Cup, the European Championship or the Champions League is decided, in part, on the 60-40 flip of a coin."
A very sensible comment, but not one that is likely to cause any problems to the FIFA minds that have been happily giving us vital games decided by shootouts for over two decades now -- including two World Cup finals. What FIFA might listen to, unfortunately, is Palacios-Huerta’s suggestion for banishing the advantage conferred by taking the first kick.
That advantage is more easily explained as a disadvantage lurking in the minds of the coin-toss losers, born of the feeling that they are always lagging, or trying to play catch up.
The answer, says Palacios-Huerta, is to learn from tennis. Instead of simply alternating the kickers (an ABABABABAB format) use the different pattern that tennis uses in its tiebreaker: start with a single kick, then have each team take two consecutive kicks -- an ABBAABBAAB format. This way, says Palacios-Huerta, “the second team is not always trying to play ‘catch up’ and the problem of leading or lagging would be compensated for.”
I’m assuming that the tennis pattern would continue throughout the shootout pattern, if it goes beyond the original 10 kicks -- meaning that the teams would alternate as the lead-off kicker for each pair of kicks.
I do not see how FIFA can fail to embrace the reasoning. To persist with an already faulty system when it is now shown that its results, at the mercy of a coin toss, are even more absurd than previously thought, would be, well -- it would be madness, which unfortunately, has characterized this whole tiebreaker business from the start.
All the same, while congratulating Palacios-Huerta and his assistant Jose Apesteguia (an associate professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona) on their diligence in coming up with figures that coaches or journalists should have unearthed long ago -- I do wish they hadn’t bothered. What are needed are not sensible suggestions for improving the shootout, but cast-iron arguments for doing away with it altogether.