The economics of soccer penalty kicks


I'm fascinated by economics, specifically the application of economic theories to things you wouldn't normally consider as economics. Back during the World Cup, Slate's undercover economist column took a look at the economics of penalty kicks.

Steven D. Levitt, co-author of another paper on the subject, writes in more detail on the unusually low percentage of penalty kicks taken straight ahead. I wasn't aware of the "straight ahead" strategy, but the more I read about it (and watched a video of a successful execution) the more fascinated I was by this rarely-used strategy.

Levitt highlighted the "anti-straight-ahead bias" of the press, pointing out that the second Swiss shooter hit the crossbar and was not lambasted. But isn't that worse than shooting straight ahead and being stopped? I mean, if you hit the crossbar, it means that the opposing goalie didn't even have to be there. He could've been playing Nintendo or picking his nose. You'd think the cardinal rule of taking a penalty kick is at least make it a shot on goal.

Comments (20)
  1. Me says:

    No, hitting the crossbar does not mean the goalie didn’t have to be there.  It’s all defense whether he touches the ball or not.

  2. Nathan_works says:

    I’m amazed at how often professional sports players miss the net when shooting. I don’t mean "harder" nets like basketball or the uprights for (indoor/aussie/canadian/us) football or rugy, but sports like hockey and soccer (or lacrosse).

    We always had to do sprints in practice when we missed the net on a shot. Coach would yell stop, berate us all for having our heads down and not looking at where we’re shooting, and make us go do sprints. Usually by the first game, our "not on goal" shot percentage was under 10%. Didn’t always translate into "more goals", though.

    (I realize there’s the argument of "picking corners" and what not, but the pros miss so widely that I can’t believe that. And I don’t mean deflected/blocked misses either.. Straight shots with out anyone else touching that miss the net by a mile..)

  3. Dan McCarty says:

    Nathan: Look at how often tennis players mishit the ball and miss the entire court!  It’s not because of bad aim, it’s because at their level the chance of hitting an amazing shot is proportional to the chance of hitting a terrible one.  Anything in between is likely to be returned by their opponent for a winner.

    At my level I can mishit a tennis ball or miskick a soccer ball and it still goes in the general direction I sent it.  If I hit or kicked it as hard as a pro my aim would be wildly off (and I would probably break a limb in the process).

  4. Nathan_works says:

    Dan: I understand that in part. But is accuracy or speed/power more important ? cf. Raymond’s free-kick folks that miss — if the goalie ‘jumps’ the wrong way, all you have to do it hit the net — not some monster power shot.

    Similarly, hockey powerplays — the (D) point man usually is open, and can take shots at will (depending on team’s strategy), though "far" away, still tend to miss the net a lot (with out deflection).

    So I’m not thinking of tennis situation, or trying to one-time a pass in soccer or hockey, but where the player has the time to line up a shot and take it.. And they miss (!!)

  5. AC says:

    At least in the case of hitting the crossbar, the player only missed narrowly.

    You have to take a certain amount of risk to have a chance scoring!

  6. Evan says:

    Nathan: "But is accuracy or speed/power more important ? cf. Raymond’s free-kick folks that miss — if the goalie ‘jumps’ the wrong way, all you have to do it hit the net — not some monster power shot."

    But if they kicked slower with more accuracy, how much more time would the goalie have to react? I don’t find it hard to believe that, for someone who works on it as they do, the number of shots lost by missing the goal is less than the number of shots that would be actively blocked with a more accurate but slower kick.

  7. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    You want to hit as far as possible into the corner, closer to the bar. That means you might hit the bar very often instead.

  8. James says:

    As someone who plays/watches a lot of hockey, I can say that the amount of shooting error in an pros doesn’t exceed my expectations, but I can’t explain why since there are so many variables involved, and there’s not an easy way to tell which ones actually make a difference.

  9. Reinder says:

    The final penalty in the shootout of the 1976 European Championships is a fine example of shooting through the middle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdvUnhSv7cs

  10. Marc says:

    What I hate is when a player dummy runs, stops, and runs up to the ball again. Impossible for the poor goalie to save.

  11. chrismcb says:

    If you want to talk about missed oppurtunities by the pros, shots that aren’t defened and you get, well for free.. Look at  free thows in basketball.

    The thing is, this stuff is difficult to do. Otherwise we would all be doing it.

    @Me: you know hitting the cross bar DOES mean the goalie doesn’t have to be there. If the kicker can’t get it into the net, then why do you need a goalie. You might argue that the goalie standing there made the person shoot into the corner where he hit the crossbar. But then again isn’t that the point of Raymond’s post?

  12. Omar says:

    I can’t speak to the soccer penalty kick issue, but I see the hitting the crossbar event as quality control issue. Say you can kick to a spot roughly 3 feet square 50% of the time which would normally result in a goal. 25% of the time, the shot will be a clear miss, and 25% of the time the shot will be catchable. If the shooter tries to eliminate clear misses and crossbars hits, he will have to move his target closer to the goalkeeper so that 75% of the shots will be catchable and only 25% will result in goals.

    I use the soccer analogy, but I’ve been thinking about this for hockey. In my youth, I was so worried about missing the net that invariably my shots hit the goalie. Despite all  the advice to shoot for the corners, I couldn’t do it because of the shame of a wasted opportunity. Hitting the goalie at least felt like he had to make an effort. I’m now convinced the better players actually will miss the net more than I did, because they are intentionally aiming for the edges of the net.

  13. Mike Dimmick says:

    @Marc: the penalty taker is not allowed to stop completely. They are allowed to vary the speed of their run though.

    The reason players generally aim for the top corners – and therefore sometimes miss – is that even if the keeper goes the right way, it’s very hard for them to reach that corner in time. Same for the lower corners.

    I’ve seen quite a few penalties against Reading this season as our defenders have been particularly poor at making tackles outside the box and clean ones inside. Most have been in the corners and unsaveable, Gareth Barry of Aston Villa missed by a mile, and Matt Taylor (of Bolton) sent one straight down the middle which was saved by the keeper’s legs.

  14. asymtote says:

    I love Steven Levitt’s research, he understands that it is the combination of economics and psychology that predicts human behavior. In this particular case he outlines the real cardinal rule, which is that the penalty kicker doesn’t want to look like a fool. Everything else is secondary.

    Missing the goal, or having the shot saved, because you aimed at a corner that the goalie would have to really work to reach is much more acceptable than kicking the ball straight down the middle at the one place where everybody definitively knows the goalie can reach.

    Players considered foolish are not going to be appreciated by fans and if you think fan appreciation doesn’t have a very real effect on a players economic standing then just look at the issues Barry Bonds is having finding a team that will have him.

  15. don says:

    it’s called FOOTBALL all around the world you sucker!

  16. Marc says:

    Thanks Mike.

    Looks like we will go down tomorrow

    *fingers crossed* we won’t.

    Just our luck if Derby suddenly get the feel for it and win! Still one can only pray.

  17. Marc says:

    Americans call Football that game where you pick the ball up with your hands… they call a room with just a toilet a Bathroom too, go figure :)

  18. don says:

    oh yeah, and usa is THE ONLY country in the whole world, right? Get real.

  19. Josh says:

    No, it’s just the country that houses the writer of this blog and a large portion of his reading base.  Soccer is unambiguous, and easier for us poor uneducated Americans to understand.  Have pity on us…

  20. Michiel says:

    It’s acually not a matter of public perception, as asymtote claims. German TV had a soccer show, in which pro players were challenged to hit 30cm (1′) targets. No goalie present, the only factor was the quality of the kick.

    The typical professional soccer player managed to hit 1 in 5. But one guy who had trained for it could hit the targets 100% of the time. The difference in accuracy was remarkable.

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