So England have lost another penalty shootout. Gareth Southgate and his coaching group either didn’t do their homework or, if they did, they left it on the bus.
It was his chance to make history – and he did, just not the type he had envisaged. Rather, it brought back to life the cruel memories of that Euro 96 penalty against Germany, as England’s long wait goes on.
So what about that homework? The 2018 World Cup round of 16 victory against Colombia was a significant day for England. It was over 20 years in the making. They had finally done it – winning a penalty shootout, as they put themselves into the quarterfinals.
Fuelled by a nation gripped with feelings of relief, joy and excitement, England started to believe. Perhaps it was their year, at last, and that football was finally “coming home”. The landmark moment sparked what was ultimately an impressive World Cup in which they reached the semi-final, before bowing out to Croatia in extra time.
Fast-forward to the Euro 2020 final. Another new dawn, a chance for history. Another heartbreak.
On a day that should have ended in English elation, Italy stole the show, courtesy of the dreaded penalty shootout.
Upon closer analysis, however, emerges a glaring, almost comical failing in England’s preparation. One that meant they set themselves up for failure long before young Bukayo Saka fired into the ever-reliable gloves of Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It’s almost as if the England camp were so relieved by lifting their shootout voodoo in 2018 that they completely forgot why it went so well for them and not so well for Colombia!
The Euro 2020 final against Italy saw five of the ten penalties in the shootout not converted.
There has been vigorous debate in the aftermath surrounding Southgate’s choice of penalty takers for the final, with question marks regarding the decision to allocate the fifth penalty to Saka. He is a bright talent who will no doubt grow as a player, but nonetheless a 19-year-old who until then, had not taken a single penalty at professional level. Talk about pressure!
Furthermore, the decision to introduce Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, no earlier than the 119th minute, for the sole purpose of firing home in a shootout has raised more than a few eyebrows. Again, one can only imagine the additional pressure on their young shoulders, in knowing the only contribution they were to make.
Raheem Sterling was heavily criticised for falling easily against the Danes. Despite a solid tournament, he did not step up to the spot against Italy, or perhaps Southgate backed the youngster Saka ahead of him. Sterling’s 68 caps are just nine shy of the combined 77 caps possessed by Rashford, Sancho and Saka.
Jack Grealish has also faced heavy criticism notably from Roy Keane, but has since clarified that he did want to take one. Luke Shaw, the goalscorer, surely an option?
On one level, it’s not hard to see why Southgate did what he did. Rashford has scored plenty of high-profile penalties for Manchester United, but have they ever asked him to do so having warmed the bench for over two hours? Would they? The same can be said of Jadon Sancho.
For Saka, Southgate stated afterwards that he “chose the penalty takers based on what we’ve done in training.” If that’s his criteria, he has displayed shocking naivety. He has seemingly failed to consider that success in a shootout relies less on a player’s penalty-taking ability (they can all take a penalty) than their ability and experience to convert under pressure, as Harry Kane and Harry Maguire did.
Pressure of the sort that Rashford, Sancho and Saka faced and which cannot be replicated on the training ground.
Unsurprisingly, it was these three players who missed. So what’s the common theme – youth, inexperience? Maybe for Sako, but hardly for Rashford and Sancho, both solid players at United and Dortmund, and teammates at Old Trafford next season.
The common theme is that all three had been substituted on, rather than starting the game. It seems all too real to be a coincidence, and in analysing the last three major tournaments England have participated in, we gain valuable insight into some of the stats surrounding penalty shootouts. The homework that Southgate and England left on the bus.
The 2018 World Cup saw four penalty shootouts, consisting of 39 penalties in total. Of those 39 penalties, 19 were taken by players who had been substituted on at some point in the match, compared to the 20 that were taken by players who had played the entire 120 minutes. Of the 39 penalties taken, 13 were not converted (i.e. saved or missed).
Now, this is where it gets interesting…
Of those 13 unconverted penalties, nine were taken by players who had been substituted on, compared to just four by players who started the game. That means that nearly half (47%) of the penalties taken by substitutes were saved or missed, compared to the much more favourable 20 per cent failure rate for players who had played the entire match. Important margins of difference in the latter stages of a major tournament.
Rewind even further, to the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and we see a similar picture. In 2014, there were four penalty shootouts consisting of a combined 36 penalties. Players who had played the entire game had a failure rate of just 23 per cent, compared to an alarming 50 per cent for players who had arrived as substitute – remarkably similar to the 2018 World Cup.
At Euro 2016, there were three penalty shootouts and 37 penalties taken. Substitutes had a failure rate of 43 per cent compared to just 20 per cent for those who had played the full 120 minutes – echoes of 2014 and 2018?
The real stinger for Southgate, however, lies in that very shootout against Colombia. Two Colombian players failed to convert. The common theme? Yep, you guessed it, they both came on as substitutes.
England lost to Italy for the same reason that Colombia lost to England. This time, against a wily Italian team with a mix of old heads and youth, against a manager who knows a thing or two about winning late, on an occasion when the stakes were at their highest, when football was coming home, when fine margins are decisive – Southgate gambled the lot, and went all-in. Three penalties by substitutes.
Why? Because of what he saw on the training ground.
I wish I could say it’s cruel luck, but it isn’t. England had the blueprint from 2018 – they just didn’t use it.