England’s Under-21s eclipsed their seniors last night by achieving the miraculous, by pulling off the unheard of, by winning a penalty shoot-out in a major tournament.
Stuart Pearce has had his young charges practising spot-kicks ever since the U21s were knocked out on penalties by Holland in the last U21 Euro Championships two years ago. Fabio Capello take note: Practice does indeed make perfect, James Milner’s slip aside.
England’s U21’s were so well-rehearsed for last night’s semi-final shoot-out against Sweden that even goalkeeper Joe Hart stepped up to take a spot-kick. And score emphatically.
Even after Milner slipped and skewed the opening penalty horribly high and wide, England kept their nerve to score their remaining six spot-kicks and book a place in Monday’s final with Germany. More penalties anyone? Don’t bet against it.
Stuart Pearce has carefully analysed his players taking spot-kicks during U21 duty for two years and has compiled a list of his players from 1-23 in terms of their penalty-taking ability. Pearce knows whose kicks nestle in the net and whose fly sky-high.
Without this knowledge, nobody would have known Joe Hart’s ability to smash penalties into the roof of the net, as he did against Sweden. Without the practice he would probably have never even taken one in training.
It is not known for sure how much the seniors practice penalties on the occasions when they meet-up, but surely Fabio Capello can implement a similar strategy to Pearce to discover who really are England’s best penalty-takers. England’s Italian headmaster has been handed a lesson instead of giving one.
Given that Pearce is an important member of Capello’s backroom staff, arranging regular spot-kick rehearsal should not be too difficult.
History dictates that England will face a shoot-out at some point during next summer’s World Cup, so preparation is vital.
Managers often say that you can never recreate the pressure of a match situation in a training session, but constantly practising behind the scenes means players will be more confident when the spotlight really shines on a big occasion.
They know where their kick will go, they have seen it so many times. Looking at England’s penalty shoot-out record, a lack of improvement will spell an early exit from South Africa 2010. Simple.
Pearce’s U21 strategy is simple as well: get your players practising penalties and watch to see who is consistently successful and who consistently blazes over the bar. If Capello was watching the U21’s triumph on spot-kicks over Sweden last night, he must surely have noted that practice makes perfect.