The penalty kick is one of the many fine margins underpinning football's perilous and changeable nature.
Former Brighton man Mat Ryan has labelled the prospect of a penalty save as something that “motivates” and “excites” goalkeepers. It is their uninterrupted shot at glory. The taker is at their most vulnerable and the shot-stopper is at their most punishing.
The Athletic’s John Muller adamantly believes that penalties are “too generous a reward”, due to the perceived advantages for the taker. According to The Football Association, the goalkeeper must remain stationary until the ball is kicked and have at least part of one foot touching, in line with, or behind, the goal line.
The days of Jorge Campos and Jerzy Dudek flinging themselves from the goalmouth are gone. The goalkeeper's powers have become vastly limited. To combat this, the goalkeeping union has uncovered many tricks to reverse this seemingly unassailable advantage…
Should the goalkeeper stand still or buoyantly jump around as a form of distraction? Logically, extravagant and excessive movements with outstretched arms should create hesitation.
This can be particularly effective if the taker boldly opts to maintain eye contact with the goalkeeper. But Gianluigi Donnarumma will hypothesise a different method. In Italy’s dramatic shootout victory over England at the European Championship in 2021, the 6 foot 5 man mountain barely flinched. Throughout the Three Lions’ run-ups, Donnarumma remained frozen, undeterred by stuttered or speedy approaches.
If the goalkeeper goes too early, the shooter can simply go the other way. But, as a motionless picture of confidence and poise, Donnarumma prevailed: diving at the last second, he saved the efforts of Jadon Sancho and Buyako Saka to seal the Azzurri’s unforgettable heist at Wembley.
For Matt Pyzdrowski, it is no surprise. The former goalkeeper, who played in the United States and Sweden, stated that substantial movement before the kick is not required and is hugely detrimental to the shot-stopper.
He feels it causes the goalkeeper to dive too late and can affect their balance. Pyzdrowski concluded that a goalkeeper who “calmly stands as big and focused as they can” instead of “flapping about”, is easily more intimidating. By moving around, the goalkeeper is attempting to overtly control the dynamic and almost takes some of the spotlight off the taker.
Pyzdrowski pinpoints patience and physical attributes as key characteristics of the art of saving penalties. Emiliano Martinez is the master of this. The Argentine’s imposing frame, timing, and athleticism are the foundational triad of this penalty-saving phenomenon, allowing him to comfortably reach the extremities of his goal.
Similarly to Donnarumma, Martinez’s commendable ability to remain disciplined and stay in the centre of the goal is brave but monstrously efficient. However, their rituals slightly differ as Martinez’s noticeable – but acute – movement is expertly executed. As demonstrated by his save of Kingsley Coman’s penalty in La Albiceleste’s World Cup final win over France, Martinez bounced from side to side, a perfectly curated mix of unsettling enough to disturb and premeditated enough to extend his frame.
This keeps his legs bouncing, ready to explode into life at the dying moment. For Pyzdrowski, this is the ideal preparation. The strength generated from his legs travels through his torso and arms, giving adequate force for his dive to push the ball away.
The age-old tactic of research and revision is a sneaky and strikingly effective method. In May 2022, Nottingham Forest’s Brice Samba made three shootout saves against Sheffield United in the Championship Play-Off Semi-Final. Samba had instructions taped to his water bottle on what action to take for each taker. Ollie Norwood was at the top of the list and Samba dived to his right to save the penalty.
He stayed in the middle for Conor Hourihane, batting out the midfielder’s powerful effort, and made another diving stop from Morgan Gibbs-White. Samba revealed that he had wrapped the bottle inside of his towel, so nobody could dispose of it. In this shootout, the goalkeeper took centre stage and seized his chance to crushing effect.
The construct of a penalty concerns how the goalkeeper can affect the taker’s decision making and confidence. It places the goalkeeper on a mental pedestal. Diego Alves, who boasts the best penalty record in La Liga history with a 46.8% save rate, described it as a “psychological battle between the goalkeeper and taker.”
The manipulation of the mental dynamics is the goalkeeper’s most devastating and cunning tool. It can be applied without persistent physical training and can be tailored to any taker and occasion in a split-second. By mastering the mental, it inhibits the taker's mindset. Subsequently, it affects the outfielder’s conviction and technique, rendering the years of practice completely useless in a quick-fire face-off of football in its simplest form.
Cue Jens Lehmann in Germany’s quarter-final against Argentina at the 2006 World Cup. The game went to penalties and Lehmann openly consulted an infamous piece of paper before every kick. He saved two attempts and the hosts advanced to the semi-finals.
Andreas Kopke, Germany’s goalkeeping coach, insisted that he had analysed over 13,000 penalty kicks to provide a series of tactics for Lehmann. Argentina’s Juan Roman Riquelme believed the opposite, insisting that nothing was written on the paper and Lehmann’s routine was purely about delay and distraction.
This mythical artifact was bought for €1million by Utz Claassen, the CEO of German energy giant EnBW, and now resides in a museum. However, the paper’s content can be regarded as irrelevant. As stated by German film director Sonke Wortmann, Lehmann took his time to look at the paper and then stared at the upcoming penalty taker, whilst nodding his head. The Arsenal Invincible’s research had a snowball effect and allowed for a brutal exploitation of penalty psychology.
It worked most poetically on Esteban Cambiasso. Argentina’s final taker didn’t feature on Lehmann’s list, but he still proceeded to study the sheet and saved the midfielder’s effort to win the shootout. A brilliant piece of intuition and trickery.