Champions League 2008: Analyzing One of the Most Iconic Shootouts in History

Sean BabcockCorrespondent IIJuly 2, 2011

Champions League 2008: Analyzing One of the Most Iconic Shootouts in History

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    Ignacio Palacios-Huerta is not exactly a name commonly associated with world football.  A graduate of the University of Chicago, he went on to become a recognized economist and distinguished professor at the University of the Basque Country in Spain and the London School of Economics.  If you were to ask the most devoted and outspoken of Chelsea or Manchester United fans about Ignacio, chances are you would be greeted with blank stares.  And yet, in the never-to-be-forgotten clash between these two English giants in the Champions League Final of 2008, the professor played a role so profound that he deserves to be etched into the lore surrounding that game forever.  And, in some ways, he will be.

    It was 1995 when Ignacio began pouring over hours of penalty kicks from decades of footage, as research for a paper he was writing called "Professionals Play Minimax," in which he applied the mathematical concept of game theory to football.  That paper was published in 2003, after Ignacio had spent the better part of a decade looking at thousands of penalties by thousands of players.  By sheer chance, it turned out that Ignacio shared a mutual friend with Avram Grant.  In 2008, when Grant was managing a Chelsea squad that earned a place in the Champions League Final against Manchester United, this mutual friend acted as a contact between him and Ignacio.  All that Grant asked from Ignacio was that he do what he was good at: analyze United's penalty performances, and provide Chelsea with the tips that might put Chelsea on top if the unlikely scenario of a penalty shootout might occur.

    Ignacio, as it turned out, was happy to oblige.

The Economist Weighs in

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    Accounts of Ignacio's role in the resulting penalty shootout of the 2008 final are varied and exist in numerous locations around the internet.  The most complete of these accounts, however, occurs in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski's Financial Times Book of the Year, Soccernomics (Nation Books, 2009).  In their account, Kuper and Szymanski tell Ignacio's story by revealing the list that he composed for Avram Grant leading up to the big game.

    On that list were four items:

    1. The team that goes first wins 60 percent of the time (the authors attribute this to the fact that their is too much pressure on the team going second, "which is always having to score to save the game").  Should Chelsea win the coin toss, they should absolutely go first.

    2. Manchester United's goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, had a tendency to dive to the the kicker's natural side.  More often than most keepers would.  This meant that Chelsea's right footed kickers would have a better shot at scoring if they shot to their unnatural side (Van Der Sar's left).  Grant was warned that this would also increase each kicker's chances of missing the goal altogether.

    3. Van der Sar most commonly stopped penalties that were placed mid-height of the goal.  Chelsea penalty-takers should keep each shot either on the ground, or in the upper corner.

    4. Manchester United's Christiano Ronaldo was a noteworthy "special case."  When Ronaldo takes penalty kicks, he often stops during his run up to the ball.  When he does, he takes his shot to the right-hand side of the goalkeeper 85% of the time.  However, Ronaldo seemed able to instantly change where he placed the shot.  100% of the time the goalkeeper reacted early to a Christiano Ronaldo penalty, Ronaldo scored.

    In the week prior to the final, Ignacio gave this list to Grant, unsure how it would be used, or whether it would be at all.  While nobody can be sure if Grant paid any attention at all to Ignacio's advice, it becomes nearly impossible to watch the events that unfolded in that match, given the context of Ignacio's note, without wondering.

United Goes First, Cech Follows Ignacio's Advice and Saves Ronaldo Penalty

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    For anybody who's unfamiliar with shootout, or just needs a refresher, I highly recommend watching it all unfold once again in the video.

    Unfortunately for Chelsea, they lose the coin toss and Manchester United elects to go first, immediately reducing Chelsea's chances to 40 percent from the get-go. Carlos Tevez takes United's first kick, and scores.

    First up for Chelsea was the right-footed Michael Ballack. As Ignacio suggested, Ballack placed his kick to his unnatural side (Van der Sar's left). While Van der Sar did, in fact, guess correctly, he followed another piece of Ignacio's advice and placed the kick high enough to avoid the save.

    Chelsea next sent out Juliano Belletti, who, as Ignacio suggested, placed his kick low and to his unnatural side (again to Van der Sar's left). Belletti scored as well.

    By the time Christiano Ronaldo stepped up for United, Ignacio was still unsure whether or not his advice had been taken into account. But then, when Ronaldo took his penalty kick, he witnessed his advice (don't move early; the keeper should dive to his own right if Ronaldo pauses) followed word for word.

    "To Ignacio's delight, Chelsea's keeper, Petr Cech, stayed motionless—'not even blinking,' in the Spanish football phrase. Then, exactly as Ignacio had recommended, Cech dived to his right and duly saved Ronaldo's shot. Ignacio recalled later, 'After that, I started to believe that they were following the advice quite closely.' As for his wife, 'I think she was a bit shocked.'"

    It seemed clear by now: the little-known economist would be the difference maker in leading Chelsea to a Champions League title.

Ashley Cole Goes Right, John Terry Misses off the Post

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    Following Ronaldo's missed penalty, Chelsea found themselves in the lead with Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, and John Terry still to go.  Every one of these players placed their shot to the right, or Van der Sar's left.  

    This would be fine, except for the fact that Ashley Cole is not a right-footed kicker like the rest of his teammates at the time.  Following Ignacio's advice, he should have put the ball to the left, his own unnatural side.  Van der Sar did guess correctly, but Ashley Cole's shot found the back of the net nonetheless.  However, being the only Chelsea player to disregard Ignacio's advice would have an unsettling impact later on.

    Things were still looking up for Chelsea at this point though, as Szymanski and Kuper explain:

    "So far, Ignacio's advice had worked very well.  Much as the economist had predicted, Van der Sar had dived to his natural side four times out of six.  He hadn't saved a single penalty.  Five of Chelsea's six kicks had gone in, while Terry's, as the whole world knows, flew out off the post with Van der Sar in the wrong corner."

    On the verge of winning the greatest prize in Europe, John Terry fell under the pressure and missed his shot.  But, Ignacio had warned that kicking to the unnatural side would make a player less likely to score.  Chelsea still just needed to keep it together and keep following Ignacio's advice.

Van Der Sar Senses a Strategy

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    After John Terry's miss, the shootout entered extra-frames.  Chelseas's sixth penalty-taker was Salomon Kalou, another right-footed player who again did what Ignacio recommended and put the ball to his unnatural side.  But, since Ashley Cole had ignored Ignacio's advice, Salomon became the sixth man in blue to take a shot to Van der Sar's left.  At that point, Manchester United began to sense a strategy.

    "After six kicks, Van der Sar, or someone else at Manchester United, figured out that Chelsea was pursuing a strategy.  Admittedly, the keeper didn't quite get its strategy right.  Wrongly, but understandably, he seems to have decided that Chelsea's strategy was to put all the kicks to his left.  After all, that's where every kick he faced up to that point had gone."

    And so, as Nicolas Anelka stepped up to the spot and prepared to take his shot, Van der Sar showed his cards.  As the whole world was watching Anelka, the United goalkeeper raised both his arms and pointed to his left.  It went somewhat unnoticed at the time, but you can bet that Anelka saw it.  Van der Sar knew where he was going to shoot.  And suddenly, all strategy went out the window.

On Equal Footing, Van Der Sar Comes out on Top

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    What Van der Sar did with his simple arm gesture was break down Chelsea's entire strategy, and bring the entire situation back to the very essence of game-theory, the very concept that Ignacio was studying in the first place.

    Again, the writers of Soccernomics explain it best:

    "Anelka knew that Van der Sar knew that Anelka knew that Van der Sar tended to dive right against right-footers. What was Anelka to do? He decided to avoid the left corner, where he had presumably planned to put the ball. Instead, he kicked to Van der Sar's right. That might have been fine, except that he hit the ball at midheight—exactly the level that Ignacio had warned against."

    And Van der Sar saved the shot, winning the competition for Manchester United.

    Had Anelka followed Ignacio's advice, Chelsea would have at least survived into the next frame, maybe even going on to win the shootout. But he didn't.

    In game theory, Ignacio's advice was a way for Chelsea to "cheat" the equilibrium (as opposed to cheating within the actual rules of the game). In most cases, the best solution (as demonstrated in Ignacio's paper) is to randomize the direction of your kick or your dive (depending on your role in the situation). Unless, of course, you have additional information about player tendencies.

    What Van der Sar did was eliminate that upper hand and bring them back to an equal level. Both players' best option became, as it would normally be, to randomly select their respective directions. Which they may have both done. But, in any case, Van der Sar came out on top when there was no advantage for either side.

    Watching this all go down, Ignacio must have been sick to his stomach. Alex Ferguson later stated, "That wasn't an accident, his penalty save. We knew exactly where certain players were putting the ball." Which seems unlikely, but who knows.

    Either way, it was easily one of the most exciting penalty shootouts in recent memory. And now you know the story of how an economist almost won Chelsea the European Trophy.

    Kuper, S., & Szymanski, S (2009).  Soccernomics.  New York, NY: Nation Books.


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