For the second consecutive game in the Euro 2012 championships, 120 minutes of action proved to be insufficient in deciding a winner, resulting in yet another penalty shootout that unlike some of the football being played at this tournament – is always directly to the point and never lacks excitement. Spain won the shootout 4-2 and advanced to the Euro 2012 finals, but it was Portugal’s penalty strategy that ended up being the most talked about topic following the match.
Portugal missed two of their first four penalties, resulting in the match being over before Portugal’s star player Cristiano Ronaldo could even attempt a shot. The commentators and pundits immediately sounded off with heavy criticism for the strategy employed, droves of Ronaldo haters flocked message boards and social sites proclaiming Ronaldo to be anything from a choker to a selfish glory-seeker, and headlines read as you might imagine when arguably the world’s greatest footballer ends up ‘failing’ so dramatically.
Such criticism is only natural in a sports community where over the top knee-jerk reactions make for great ratings. Analyzing the whole thing deeper however suggests Portugal’s penalty shootout strategy made quite a bit of sense.
Portugal’s last two penalty shootouts came at the Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 championships – both against England in the quarter-final stage. In both cases, Ronaldo did not go in the first three (which would have guaranteed he take at least one penalty) – and instead went fourth in Euro 2004, and last in WC2006 – both leading to Portugal wins with the most recent one being the exact same strategy that Paulo Bento was just criticized for using. “If it would have been 4-4 and he would have taken the last penalty, we would be talking in a different way” Bento was left saying in last night’s post-game presser.
Also fresh in recent memory is the 2012 Champions League final in which Chelsea won 5-4 in penalties against home side Bayern Munich. Andre Villas-Boas used the same strategy in that one as Paulo Bento used last night against Spain, with Chelsea’s top penalty kick taker Didier Drogba going 5th and earning his team the championship. The Germans in that match had their best three penalty kick takers go 1-3, resulting in misses in the last two penalties when pressure was at the highest. Let’s also not forget that Ronaldo’s most recent penalty in major competition was in the semi-finals of this year’s Champions League when Ronaldo went first but missed his penalty which led to his team’s loss.
The sample size is too small to make any definite conclusions – but this is the data that Bento and Ronaldo were working with ahead of the order decision.
But besides looking at some conveniently picked bits of recent history, let’s have a look at the recent statistics concerning penalty shootouts. Since 1998, the average success rate of penalties in penalty shootouts in the World Cup and European Championships have been 68.9%. If we only look at penalties that were taken when the game was literally on the line – the success rate drops to an astounding 14.2 percent.
Now given this stat, it makes tremendous amount of sense to put your best penalty kick taker, or at least the one with the most experience in these high pressure situations, at times when you feel the game will be on the line. Paulo Bento made the slight gamble that Portugal would take at least 5 penalties, a gamble that proved correct, and that was expected given A) the caliber of Spain’s penalty kick takers, B) having arguably the best keeper in the world guarding their net, and C) Portugal losing the coin flip and having to go second each time.
Ultimately Paulo Bento’s strategy put his team in the best position to convert penalties and win – which is the only thing you can really do as a manager in these situations. A lot of stock is put on getting off to a good start to put pressure on the other team, but statistics show that early penalties don’t suffer from the ‘choking phenomenon’, especially when the opposition is going first AND uses their best penalty takers at the beginning as Del Bosque likes to do. Ronaldo on the other hand, even if he did personally request to go 5th, was doing exactly the same thing that Fabregas had done in the same game, Drogba had done in Champions League final, and countless other stars had done throughout the game’s history so calling it selfish is a bit of stretch.
What doesn’t get nearly enough press is Bruno Alves miscounting the amount of penalties that had taken place, and attempting to go third when in fact that was Nani’s turn. Alves perhaps never really recovered from the embarrassment and it clearly showed on his face when he stepped up to take the next one – a penalty that had ‘choking’ written all over it and ultimately cost Portugal the game.