Tuesday, 26 June 2012

pirless, or the right stuff theory of penalty-taking



Penalties are fascinating. Very little in sport attracts so many half-baked bullshit narratives built out of a sequence of very few badly-scrutinised events, and that's saying something. I recommend Marbury on why goalkeepers always dive when it's obvious to almost everyone who thinks about it that they shouldn't. (You don't get slagged off for making an obvious effort, even if it's counterproductive.)

My usual spiel is about manly English defenders who 'stand up to be counted' and aren't any good at penalties. At least England didn't do that this time. This time, two good penalty takers missed. Ashley Young's was a high-tariff shot which would have been completely unsavablesix inches lower. Ashley Cole's was eminently savable by a keeper who guessed right.

Well, next time you're watching a shoot-out, I recommend you listen to the praise heaped on penalties just like Ashley Cole's where the keeper guessed wrong. Had that happened, Cole's penalty would have been 'slotted coolly' and he'd have jogged back to his team-mates like a cold-eyed assassin. This happens three or four times every single shootout, and these moderate penalties, whose success is entirely dependent on a keeper guessing wrong and boldly, are usually the difference between winning and losing. There's no logical reason for praising the ones that go in more than Cole's, not really. It's like the Right Stuff. It can leak from any seam and everyone has bought into the pretence that it's somehow not to do with luck. Creating a narrative arc out of the story beats in a shootout is just too irresistible.

(Incidentally, watch Pirlo's penalty again. He cocked it up. He intended for it to enter the goal at about chest height so that there would be no danger of its being knocked away by the keeper's trailing leg, but he underhit it. The moment Pirlo made that kick, his heart was in his mouth. Luckily, Hart guessed wrong too emphatically, but a number of keepers might have left their leg near enough the middle to have booted it away.)

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