IIt took Antonín Panenka two years to perfect the penalty on the flop-wedge that bears his name. He first practiced it against the Bohemian goalkeeper Zdenek Hruska in training shootouts, in which they would bet on beer and chocolate, then in friendlies and league matches. And then, with Czechoslovakia 4-3 up on penalties in the 1976 European Championship final, he saw West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier move early, and cheekily scooped up the ball, not only securing the trophy, but also instantly registered a new movement.
The secret, Panenka explained to Ben Lyttleton in his book, Twelve Yards, was to use a long run to see what Maier was going to do. “I ran fast, because then it is more difficult for the goalkeeper to read your body language,” he said. “Even when I’m a meter away from the ball, Maier is already moving to the left. If I wasn’t using the chip, I would have put it in the opposite direction. “
I thought of those words after Sergio Agüero’s Panenka-style slow-motion penalty fell meekly into the hands of Chelsea goalkeeper Édouard Mendy on Saturday night. “He used to do this in practice, but he never used to score, so I don’t know why he tried,” said Micah Richards, as social media complained and foamed. Later, when Agüero apologized, the debate centered not only on the fault, but on the dubious merits of Panenka herself.
Nobody doubts that it is a measure with high fees; one that leaves the recipient looking like a genius or a fool. But is it worth the risk? Well, that analysis requires diving into a wormhole of the science, art, and psychology of a good penalty kick.
The best place to start is with LSE professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, an expert in uncovering recurring patterns between kickers and goalkeepers, to give teams a competitive advantage on penalties.
“It’s not a terrible idea,” says Palacios-Huerta, whose clients have included Chelsea before the 2008 Champions League final and the Netherlands before the 2010 World Cup final. “In my dataset , the scoring rate of a true Panenka is statistically similar to that of any other type of penalty kicks; although it is a little lower. “
How much less, given that around 80% of the sanctions are successful? Palacios-Huerta says the small number of Panenkas makes his estimates tentative. But he says that “the scoring rate could be 4-5 percentage points lower than the penalty average.”
This analysis is supported by a study of 1,716 penalty shots in the four major European leagues between 2015-16 and 2018-19, which looked at everything from race length to whether the ball was laid, kicked or splintered, Panenka style. “Science certainly suggests that ‘placement’ followed by ‘power’ strategies is much more likely to lead to a penalty than Panenka,” says lead author Dr. Mikael Jamil.
However, in his book Lyttleton points out that there are also psychological effects of a timely Panenka. For example, during Euro 2012, Spain drew 2-2 on penalties with Portugal when Sergio Ramos scored with a Panenka to make it 3-2. Moments later, Bruno Alves walked over and hit the crossbar. The next day, with Italy 2-1 down after two shots apiece against England, Andrea Pirlo took a penalty on Joe Hart. Again, the momentum changed. Ashley Young walked over and hit the crossbar, and Italy passed.
There is something else that Aguero’s critics must also take into account.
Contrary to what many people think, going through the middle with a penalty is actually a smart strategy. Since the 2006-07 season, Opta has tracked the location of each Premier League penalty, placing them in six zones of equal size, and found that shooting left has a 77.2% success rate, while going to the right is 80% successful. That’s what most players overwhelmingly do. However, targeting a penalty from the center is 97.8% successful when the shot is high and 80.2% if it is low.
At Twelve Yards, former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech gives a compelling explanation as to why this could be the case: He says he never liked being left in the middle for a penalty because it might look like he wasn’t trying. That’s backed up by a scientific study that found that goalkeepers had an “action bias” and tended to dive because they felt less guilt would be attributed to them if they failed to save.
In the meantime, the question remains, why try a Panenka when statistically it has less chance of success? Palacios-Huerta believes that the reason goes beyond the goal, and points out that perhaps Agüero wanted to make a mark in one of his last games with City. Panenka himself, meanwhile, saw it differently. “I saw myself as a cheerleader and I saw this penalty as a reflection of my personality,” he said. “I wanted to give the fans something new to see, to create something that would get them talking.”
At the very least, the Aguero Failure is unlikely to be costly. City will continue to win the Premier League and the forward’s reputation is assured. For Panenka, the stakes were much higher. In fact, after the game against West Germany, he was told that he could have been punished if he failed, as it could have been seen as disrespecting the communist system. What kind of punishment did Lyttleton ask him? “Thirty years working in the mines,” was the reply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism