England may have avoided a World Cup clash with old foes Germany, Portugal and Brazil by finishing second in their World Cup group, but there may be no escaping a more familiar enemy now that they are in the knock-out rounds: the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
No side has a worse record in World Cup shoot-outs than the Three Lions, who have lost all three that they have been involved in: to the Germans at in 1990, Argentina in 1998 and the Portuguese in 2006.
Similar exits at the European Championships in 1996, 2004 and 2012 — making it six defeats from their last seven — have further seared spot-kick trauma into the team’s collective consciousness.
Of course, with the most recent painful memory having occurred six years ago when just five members of Gareth Southgate’s current squad were present, supporters may comfort themselves by questioning how much relevance previous failures really have to a young England team, should they be taken the distance by Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday night.
But keen penalty shoot-out student Ben Lyttleton has some bad news.
“The data on the legacy of failure research takes into account that players might not have been involved in the last shoot-out,” Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty and a director at the Soccernomics consultancy, told City A.M.
“The trauma belongs to the team and not the individuals. From that point of view, it shouldn’t make any difference at all [that it was six years ago].”
A player’s likelihood of converting in a shoot-out is just 57 per cent if playing for a team who had lost the last two occasions a match had gone to penalties, Lyttleton explains in his book. It rises to 89 per cent if those previous two shoot-outs had ended in victory.
So, is there absolutely no hope to be gleaned from Southgate’s forward-thinking approach?
“I do think this current England set-up has been much more considered in its approach to everything going into the tournament, and that would include penalties,” says Lyttleton.
“They have been worked on and discussed openly. We’ve heard players talking about practising the walk from the centre circle to the spot. So we’re seeing an implicit understanding that penalties are not just a lottery, which is what every other England coach has said, that they cannot be practised.
“I think that comes from having lost so many shoot-outs in the past and the trauma that brings; the easiest scapegoat for losing on penalties is the format itself. There is luck involved, but there are ways of increasing your chances of success without guaranteeing it. That’s all England are trying to do.
“So even though the numbers are against us in terms of our previous record, it’s clear that this England set-up are practising penalties in a different way to any other set-up in the past.”
Practising that long, lonely walk that has crippled even England players with multiple Premier League and Champions League medals has been one element of a typically holistic approach taken by Southgate.
“We’ve been practising and going through strategies on them [penalties] since March,” the England manager, who has personal experience of penalty heartbreak after missing the decisive kick against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 96, said at the weekend.
“We’ve done various different studies and had individual practice. We’ll obviously go through that in a little more detail now, but it would have been too late to start that now.”
One of those strategies could be for players to slow down and take their time when stepping up to strike. In Twelve Yards, Lyttleton found that English players are quicker than those of any other nation to get their kick away once the referee blows his whistle, betraying stress and anxiety.
No such traits were present in Harry Kane when he decisively dispatched his two penalties against Panama in the 6-1 group stage win. The Tottenham striker took a deep breath in between the referee’s whistle and beginning his run-up.
“It was very noticeable that he took his time,” says Lyttleton.
“The players were really trying to get in Kane’s face, trying to put him off, trash talking. He put the ball on the spot and every time someone came up to him to disrupt his routine he would pick up the ball, put it down again and restart.
“It was encouraging to see that because it suggested to me that he’s been thinking about how to optimise his performance from 12 yards and not let outside distractions get in his way. Ronaldo’s always done that throughout his career. He’s very good at it.
“One breath can make all the difference. If you look back to the 2006 World Cup shoot-out against Portugal, Jamie Carragher actually took the penalty before the referee had blown his whistle. That’s how desperate he was to get it out of the way. That’s how quick he was. It’s a sure sign of stress and gives a huge advantage to the opposition goalkeeper.”
So Kane can keep calm and carry on. If England find themselves in a shoot-out, the captain’s team-mates need to follow suit to avoid paying the penalty yet again.