England's soccer team used to dread penalty shootouts. Here's why they've come to embrace them - Soccer (2024)

England's soccer team used to dread penalty shootouts. Here's why they've come to embrace them - Soccer (1)

Photo: The Canadian Press

DORTMUND, Germany (AP) — Penalty shootouts used to strike fear into the hearts of England’s soccer players and their fans.

Maybe not anymore.

England coach Gareth Southgate, who has his own special chapter in the country’s spot-kick heartache, has worked hard behind the scenes to change the psyche around the shootout in his eight years in charge of the national team.

Now it's something they embrace, not dread.

“I think we’ve got a good process,” Southgate said after England’s 5-3 shootout win over Switzerland in the European Championship quarterfinals.

That process involves a bit of common sense (picking specialist penalty-takers), some science (breathing techniques and not being rushed), plenty of data (on goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s water bottle were instructions for each of Switzerland’s penalty-takers ) and, of course, some luck.

It's clearly working.

England has won three of its four shootouts in Southgate’s tenure. Before that, the team had lost five in a row — stretching back to 1996 when Southgate himself had a penalty saved in a loss to Germany in the Euro semifinals. He ended up in a pizza advert, where he got mocked for his miss.

England’s penalty transformation can be split into two stages.

The first came between January 2017, a few months after Southgate was hired, until the World Cup the following year in Russia.

In that 17 months, a team of analysts led by a sport psychologist worked on getting England better at penalty shootouts. Geir Jordet, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, details in his recently published book “Pressure: Lessons from the Psychology of the Penalty Shootout” how the analysts found that England coaches typically said the penalty shootout was a “lottery” and that players couldn’t simulate the pressure of a shootout on the training field.

England’s players were taught ways to take control of the situation, not be scared of it.

The second stage came after the Euro 2020 final, which England lost on penalties to Italy — the team’s only shootout failure under Southgate. Southgate realized he’d veered off script primarily by picking the wrong players – like giving Bukayo Saka, at 19 the youngest player in the squad, the decisive fifth penalty that he had saved.

“After those Euros, it was my responsibility,” Southgate said after the Switzerland game. “On a night like tonight, it is the players who deliver. What I want to do is take the pressure off them. If it doesn’t work, it’s down to me.

“But for it to work, it requires them to deliver as they did and they were so composed. I thought the whole process was really calm.”

It was noticeable how much time England players took, particularly Saka, after the referee signaled for the kick to be taken, and how they took plenty of deep breaths before their kicks.

“Some are told to do very deliberate conscious breathing, where they are focusing on deep diaphragmatic breaths that we know will bring on a cascade of constructive hormones and neurobiological processes in your brain and body,” Jordet told The Associated Press.

Away from the science, Southgate has also filled his squad with specialist penalty-takers. Even though No. 1 taker Harry Kane had been subbed off in extra time, England still had in the team Cole Palmer (Chelsea), Ivan Toney (Brentford), Saka (Arsenal) and Eberechi Eze (Crystal Palace) who take penalties for their clubs. Throw in Jude Bellingham and Trent Alexander-Arnold, a set-piece specialist who was introduced as a late sub and converted the clinching penalty, and England has a formidable lineup.

Toney even took a no-look penalty for his successful attempt. It wound up being the talk of social media.

“I believe we have some of the best penalty-takers in the Premier League and the world,” Saka said. “We’ve talked about it before — if we do come to penalties, we’d be pretty confident. I’m happy we showed that today. We scored five out of five.”

Then there is Pickford, who has now saved four of 14 penalties he has faced in shootouts at major tournaments. The list of instructions on his water bottle, showing where to dive depending on which opponent is taking the penalty, again shows the lengths England is going to in order to help win shootouts.

“If you’re going to the knockout stage of a Euros, there’s a certain chance — I think at the Euros it’s a 25% chance — that these games go to penalties,” Jordet said. “Now that would mean they should devote an equivalent percentage of time to that in the preparation.”

England appears to have done that and are reaping the rewards.

A nervous nation will still watch through the gaps in their fingers if England is involved in a shootout against the Netherlands in the semifinals on Wednesday and again in Sunday’s final, should the team get there.

But they can do so knowing it’s no longer simply all down to chance.

___

AP Euro 2024: https://apnews.com/hub/euro-2024

England's soccer team used to dread penalty shootouts. Here's why they've come to embrace them - Soccer (2024)

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