Penalty kicks in soccer

I watch a certain amount of soccer (this is a relatively new phenomenon, mostly just in the last couple years), so I haven’t seen a lot of penalty kicks made. Unless there’s a shootout at the end of the game, they’re pretty rare. But when they do happen, I notice that the goalkeeper virtually always jumps to the wrong side in his attempt to block it.

Now it may be that I’m not seeing a very representative sample, but assuming I am, I can think of two reasons for this:

  1. Goalkeepers are very bad at judging which direction a kicker is kicking the ball.
  2. Goalkeepers jump before the kicker commits to kicking it a particular direction.

I strongly suspect that #2 is the main reason. After all, even if they’re bad at judging the direction, they should get it right about half the time. Instead, they’re wrong about 95% of the time. So has anyone attempted to fix this problem, or is it just too rare to be worth the time and energy to do it?

I’m not an expert, but have watched professional football (soccer) for 20 years and played it (at an extremely low level) for the same amount of time. I can assure you that professional goalkeepers and their coaches have and do spend considerable time and effort on trying to improve how many penalties they save. Ignoring shoot-outs, most teams can expect to have a few penalties given against them each season, so improving the odds so one more of those isn’t scored could (conceivably) be the difference between winning the championship or not. When you add the fact that they will be in a shoot-out probably at least every couple of years, it’s worth doing so.

So, to your question - why has this not made that much difference? You are basically right in the answer to your own question. At the amateur level, it can be correct for the goalkeeper to stand his ground until he is certain where the ball is going, as much of the time it will be a poorly-directed attempt within his reach, and/or moving slowly enough that he can still react and stop it. But professional penalty takers are generally capable of kicking the ball powerfully and accurately. This means that if the goalkeeper follows this strategy, they will have virtually zero chance of making the save as the ball will already be past them as they are diving for it.

That being the case, they have to guess, or at least anticipate, where the ball might go. But bear in mind the penalty taker can change their mind as to where to place the ball right up to the point they make contact with it. So the goalkeeper is in a bit of a no-win situation - if they anticipate, the striker will likely see them and simply place the ball in the opposite corner. This is probably the most common outcome and explains your observations. Whereas if the goalkeeper does not anticipate, the striker will simply blast it into either corner and score anyway. The keeper’s best hope therefore is to anticipate (but not too much) and hope a) they guess correctly and b) the striker either decides not to change their aim because they think they can get it right in the corner and score anyway, but fails and either misses the target or puts it close enough to the keeper for a save to be made, or they attempt to switch direction but as a result fluff their shot and miss the target on the other side (or put it too close to the middle where it might be saved by the keeper’s legs).

There is a lot of science and research into the question of saving penalties. Here are some straight forward facts to refute your starting position:

from The Secret to Saving a Penalty Kick.

Other research indicates that not moving at all is the best option but goalies are reluctant to do it because they feel they would look stupid if they should have dived.

According to research described here, goalkeepers guess the shot’s direction (left or right) correctly only around 40% of the time.


Thus a goalkeeper must try and read the body language of the player taking the kick. This includes looking at the player’s eyes, as they may betray the location that the player intends to direct the shot. Also, as the player taking the penalty takes his run up before kicking the ball their gait or body shape may give away clues, particularly in the final step or so before making connection with the ball when the non-kicking foot needs to be planted so that the other foot can strike the ball.

A good penalty-taker will reveal a minimum of such information to the goalkeeper and the best will try to fool the goalkeeper by directing their eyes in a misleading direction or in their run-up feign their body shape clues to make it appear they will shoot in one direction, while actually striking the ball in another. This is likely the explanation for goalkeepers having a less than even chance of guessing the direction correctly.

Perhaps the discrepancy in percentages can be put down to the fact that the World Cup will include many elite goalkeepers.

Also, since the World Cup is a cup competition, many (perhaps the majority) of penalties would be from sudden death penalty shoot-outs in the knockout stages. If given a penalty during a game, such as a league game, from a foul in the penalty area it will be the team’s designated penalty-taker, their best penalty-taker, who takes the kick.

In sudden death penalty shoot-outs, more players in each team will be required to take a penalty. Depending on how each team’s penalty-takers do, this could be a minimum of three players on each side taking a penalty. However, if both sides perform similarly, more players will have to take one, including players that don’t normally take penalties and with lesser penalty-taking ability/experience. The longest penalty shoot-out in the World Cup was apparently six rounds.

That, and the World Cup has more shootouts than club play. So the goalies have more time to think about opponent tendencies and prepare, and the shooters are under more pressure and may become predictable rather than shoot away from their favored side (to avoid the embarassment of missing completely in front of 3 billion people).

Can a goalkeeper expect to stop a shot within, say, 50 cm of an upper corner? Assume normal penalty-kick speed (i.e. fairly fast) and a goalkeeper who is not allowed to move until it’s kicked.

My impression is that even if the keeper is told where the shot will go, most will probably not be able to get to it in time.

If the shot goes into the top corner, and it’s hit hard, it’s basically unstoppable even if you guess right. Because of the size of the goal, you can cover all the way up to the post if you time your leap right, but it’s basically impossible to leap far enough horizontally and vertically. If you watch any penalty shoot-out, you’ll see that the shots that are saved are either on the ground or straight at the keeper (or both). You’ll almost never see one stopped that is close to the post and in the air.

why don’t the kickers just kick it at the top corner every time

It’s a tough shot to hit correctly and it’s worse to miss (in terms of perception) than it is to have the shot saved.

Although shooting the ball into a top corner is much harder for the goalkeeper to stop, there is a much greater risk of the ball sailing over the bar. Having the ball not even hit the target and going high into the stands is a bit embarrassing and is usually accompanied by jeers from the opposition fans.

When all the spectators and, potentially, the millions in the television audience are watching, the pressure is immense. So skill at taking penalties is as much about cool-headed composure as it is about technical skill, if not more so.

The most popular penalty shot taken is the one that is safest and least easy to muck up - striking the ball with the right foot to the keeper’s right. The most audacious penalty style, requiring balls of steel is the Panenka (named after Czech player Antonin Panenka) where the penalty-taker chips the ball right down the middle. Of course, getting it wrong makes one look extra silly

Why don’t NBA players make every free throw?

Or perhaps the more accurate analogy is why don’t NBA players just attempt three pointers from the halfway line ever time they get possession?

I don’ know why the OP is surprised that keepers try to guess and read where the kick taker is going to go. Guessing (or reading) is a staple of professional sports. Tennis players try to read where the serve will go ( Agassi was very good at this), batters in baseball and cricket, etc.

Also, it’s not just a case of diving right, the keeper must also guess where the ball is gong, high, low, straight.

The easiest penalties to save, apart from ones straight at the keeper, are the penalties arriving at the goal about a foot or two off the ground. Any shot that is hit with decent pace and accuracy along the ground(ideally hit an inch off the ground all the way to the goal) are harder to save. It’s tough for a goalkeeper, most of whom are 6ft plus, to leap that far *and *get down to ground level quickly enough.

We are discussing only male keepers I presume? Since most of the above is only true for them.

Just realised that the board ate my explanation; female GK are shorter and have lesser reach than their male counterparts, the goal and the ball are the same. There is little part of a goal a modern male keeper cannot reach. For a female keeper, a ball on either side near the upright will be a goal; everytime.

Why not shoot at the top corner every time? Because this will often happen. And Roberto Baggio was one of the finest scorers of his era.

They also don’t shoot as hard so the reaction time of the keeper doesn’t need to be as fast.

I read that and thought “no, that can’t be right!”. But you are right!

I’m shocked that there have been 26 penalty shoot-outs in the World Cup and none of them has gone past six rounds. It’s not completely uncommon for shootouts to go for 7/8/9/10 rounds and even 11 rounds (which would normally involve the goalkeeper taking a penalty against his opposite number) or more.

My team in Scotland, Aberdeen, last won the Scottish Cup in 1990 - the game finished 0-0 after 120 minutes and we won the penalty shoot out 9-8. In that instance it was the tenth round of penalties and it was the two least confident outfield players taking penalties. Their guy missed, our guy scored.

But I digress - my ignorance has been fought!