Despite advanced training technology, more elaborate research methods, and most importantly, the gross volume of money involved in top-flight football competition, many soccer stars still approach penalty kicks without enough thought.
In particular, Manchester United's Nani proved Sunday at Craven Cottage why his effect as a footballer—at least currently—is one of pomp without procedure, flash without fundamentals.
Quite simply, there are several rudimentary mistakes continually made by players at the elite level each year over.
To begin, the literal approach each penalty-taker takes itself is crucial to the placement and success of the ensuing spot kick. Known as the "run-up", most players take roughly five steps before their attempt. Other players take less. Some don't take any.
When a player takes only a few or no steps before his spot-kick, it's naturally harder to drive through the ball, thereby making it more difficult for the player to aim his shot to the far side. Therefore, players who take too few steps in the run-up more often than not will pull the ball (shooting across the body, aiming left for right-footers, right for left-footers.)
But even if a player decides to push his shot towards the far side, without more than three steps to truly drive through the ball, a placed shot into that side will generally lack power.
Therefore, players should always take at least five steps in their penalty run-ups. Otherwise goalies can assume the player will pull the ball (aiming at the near side) and be right more often than they are wrong. Taking enough steps also allows the taker to push the ball (aiming at the far side) with enough force to beat the keeper even if he guessed correctly.
Below, Nani takes a few stutter-steps and blows his penalty, having tipped his chosen direction in part by his minimal run-up.
Using the instep of a boot to "curl" the ball, when aiming at the near post, also slightly reduces the probability for success. The natural bend of these curled shots (as opposed to curling with the outside of the boot, a more uncommon technique known as the "trivela") take them closer to the keeper, curling away.
However, if you aim to the far post (shooting right for right-footed players, left for left-footed players), the ball bends away from the keeper before curling in towards the inside of the post.
Below Pederson takes a healthy run-up but his pulled, curled shot is blocked by Ben Foster.
Set your goals high
It's a cliche to aim high when setting your goals. Well, there's also a bit of a pun there when it relates to penalty kicks.
Generally, from open-play, it's important to aim shots low because you decrease your chances of shooting over the goal. If your shot is on target (aimed between the goal posts), aiming high gives you extra odds to miss than if the ball was travelling less than eight feet off the ground.
In other words, you can only miss right or left if you keep the ball below the crossbar. But this changes somewhat with regards to penalty kicks.
There are areas of the goal that no man or woman can reliably attend when defending penalty kicks: the upper corners.
The lower corners are more feasibly defended by goalies diving horizontally. But it'd take an eight-foot keeper with serious hops to defend either upper corner from a standing position at goal center.
As long as you can control keeping your shot under eight feet, shooting into an upper corner is far and away the most surefire way to convert a spot-kick—provided you don't balloon it.
Left, down, up, right (b, a, select, start)
Even if you take the safer route and deign to shoot penalty kicks low, there's at least one more thing you should remember.
Shots travelling on or along the ground are more difficult to save than shots travelling even one foot off the floor.
This is because a goalie begins a left or right dive by jumping. In mid-dive the goalkeeper is hard-pressed to defend shots under his body, especially when his arms are outstretched.
So even if the goalie chooses the correct direction to dive, if you keep your shot along the ground, you're odds for success increase, as opposed to shooting a few feet off the ground; that's a keepers bread and butter.
West Ham's Carlton Cole shoots near-post along the ground but took too few steps and telegraphed his intent.
From halves to thirds
Soccer is played on two halves of a field, but more advance analysis of the game divides it into thirds: the defensive third, the middle third, and the attacking third.
For whatever reason, though, the customary tactical approach to aiming a penalty kick is yet to advance from a binary decision.
Which is basically a wordy way of saying that professional players don't shoot the ball down the middle enough, when goalkeepers' often decision to dive left or right makes it a solid mathematical option.
Of the six penalty kicks taken last weekend in the English top flight, the goalie dove to one side every time. This is the prevailing paradigm in top-flight football. Goalies are accustomed to takers choosing a corner, and will almost invariably dive to one side of the goal just as the ball is struck.
On pub teams, keepers aren't likely to dive prematurely. But across the top tiers of the game across the world, keepers expect the shooter to be good enough to find a corner, and will almost invariably dive to either direction.
This means there is a nice niche—at least at the moment—in prevailing professional footballing culture for players to shoot down the middle.
So what's the ideal penalty kick?
Place the ball. Look at the referee until he blows his whistle. Turn-around and walk seven or eight steps away from the goal. In one motion, turn to face goal and begin the long run-up. Combining the top of the foot and the instep, strike the ball high into the far corner, curling inside the post.
Probability is always on the side of the shooter; especially when the right approach is taken. It's wonderful why the best players in the world still display poor decision-making taking penalty kicks, and a greater wonder why their managers let them—especially with all the money often at stake for a straightforward procedure.
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