Shootout tiebreaker even more absurd than previously thought

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.

7 comments about "Shootout tiebreaker even more absurd than previously thought".
  1. Kevin White, December 17, 2010 at 9:11 a.m.

    In the overtime period, reduce the number of field players to 8 or even 7 and use a "golden goal" for concluding the game. This will increase the probability of a goal being scored in overtime and reduce the probability of a "shoot out". Of course, "purists" will be horrified and will prefer "tradition" over rationality. The stamina and athletic ability of the modern player (effectively making the field smaller and more easily defended) has outmoded the 11-a-side rule. Why 11-a side? Tradition!!

  2. Kent Pothast, December 17, 2010 at 10:40 a.m.

    Remember the tie-breaker used by the NASL? A player started from midfield and trhe keeper started from his goal and it was like a man-on-man breakaway situation. Don't remember the time allowed for a shot. At least there was some goalkeeping skill involved.

  3. Charley Norkus, December 17, 2010 at 11:13 a.m.

    FIFA will never agree to it, but I remember Kent's NASL suggestion - it was exciting; and I like Kevin's idea with a few modifications. Every 5 or 10 mins reduce each team by one player; once it gets down to 4 players per side, move the goals closer to 50 yards apart and eliminate offside; if the keeper is still on the field, he can use his hands anywhere on his half. (We are dreaming here, right?)

  4. beautiful game, December 17, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    Overtime can be treated as a new game which is an extension of the tie game. Each team would be allowed to introduce up to 3-subs in the overtime during the two overtime periods before going into the shootout. Such a tweek to the rules would preserve the sanctity of the game and permit for better chances of a goal(s) in the overtime period.

  5. Kent James, December 17, 2010 at 11:23 a.m.

    I find the worst aspect of "kicks from the mark" is that players who played heroically for 120 minutes can end up being the goat because they've failed to score in the shootout. I'll never forget the W. Germany v. France 1982 WC semi-final that was tied 1-1 in regulation, then France went up by 2 goals in the first overtime, and W. Germany came back and scored 2 goals in the 2nd to tie it up. A tremendous game. In the shootout, W. Germany prevailed 5-4, and the French players who missed were inconsolable. Completely unfair result for those players.

    Assuming there is a need to have a winner and you must limit the additional time played, I think the best way to improve the shootout would be to have the kicks taken from farther away (either the top of the 18 yard box or the top of the circle). Then, instead of the keeper being lucky (guessing the right way) or the kicker screwing up, it would actually take a very well placed shot to beat the keeper. Since most shots would be saved, there would be no shame in failing to score. And those who were able to score would truly win the game, rather than the players on the other team losing it. This would have the added benefit of eliminating the embarrassing situations where keepers dive out of the way of a soft shot down the middle because they felt the need to anticipate the direction of the shot. An additional benefit (while minor, Mr. Gardner did feel obligated to mention it) is that no one would confuse such kicks with penalty kicks...

  6. Kathy Splifford, December 19, 2010 at 7:05 p.m.

    With the game as it is the shootout is fair. It rewards the team with enough skill to put the ball in the net. Just as in the actual game, if you miss you may have hit the ball well but missed...Football is a cruel game in which you can you can play well, and still lose. There are an infinite number of scenarios in a game of football where one might say it is unfair (Poor offside calls, fouls,shots hit post after a brilliant build up) Maybe you could have judges who pick a winner: "I like the team with the blue jerseys, I pick them" The teams have 120 minutes to win "fairly" that is enough time and if no winner, better be technically sound on your ball striking(the essence of the game)

  7. Brian Herbert, December 20, 2010 at 12:18 p.m.

    I like Kent's suggestion best - discriminating between the shootout mark and the penalty mark is a good idea. We had a U11 (8v8) match at a recent tournament that went 22 shots (11 each side) before a winner was determined! Yes, there is a mental skill that good keepers have- they can 'get in a shooter's head' or guess correctly more often than others, but I'd prefer to see the type of duel between striker and keeper if the distance was increased. A spot closer to or on the 18 would definitely raise the bar on the striking skill necessary to score.

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