Penalties are a goalkeeper’s rare chance to shine. Making a penalty save that turns the game, or wins the penalty shootout is a keeper’s ultimate moment of glory.
But the chance of success is still fairly slim. Historically in the Premier League 84% of penalties have been scored, 4% missed, and 12% saved. So keepers aren’t expected to save penalties by any means.
You can however maximise your chances by improving your strategy and approach. Here’s what I recommend.
1. Stay Put (Believe It Or Not)
Believe it or not, research suggests that the best move keepers could make is to… not move.
An analysis of 286 penalty shootouts found 49.3% of keepers leaped left, 44.4% leaped right, and 6.3% stayed in the middle. Interestingly, the study shows that 39.2% of kicks were struck down the middle, 32.1% go to the left, 28.7% to the right.
Essentially, this tells us goalkeepers decide to leap when it’s statistically better to stay put. Professional goalkeepers must be aware of this, but probably feel pressured to make a more active attempt at saving the shot. This is known as ‘action bias’ — where we decide to take action even when doing nothing is better.
Indeed, keepers would face criticism from their team, coaching staff, and fans if they failed to save consecutive penalties without moving from the middle and “trying”. Just bare in mind that a lot of penalties are hit around the body.
2. Stand Slightly Off-Centre
Prefer to take the guesswork out of penalties? The good news is that keepers can actually influence where the shots are placed.
By standing around 10 cm off-centre of the goal (slightly to the left or the right), it makes one side of the goal wider than the other. Some studies show that up to 60% of penalty kickers will aim for the gap, believing they have identified an advantage to exploit.
Knowing this is an enormous advantage for goalkeepers.
3. Watch the Eyes
If you carefully watch the eyes of the penalty taker you’ll often notice a glance to one side of the goal just before the run up. What does it mean?
- For younger, less experienced, more naive players this often signals their intentions; they’ll look where they’re going to place it.
- For those with a little more experience it’s usually a bluff; they’ll show you one way and put it the other. It could even be a double bluff…
You won’t guess right every time. Use your poker technique to read their intentions.
4. Identify Stutter Runs
Stutter runs are becoming more popular in the modern game. It may turn out to be a phase, if the slow run-up proves to play into the hands of goalkeepers.
If you identify a stutter run, wait until the penalty taker is about to strike the ball before you decide which way to leap (if any). You can afford to react slightly later as the slow runup will prevent any real power and speed on the ball. This approach takes some of the guesswork out of your dive.
5. Watch the Kicker’s Feet
In football there is a ‘natural’ side to kick a penalty which is usually the left side for right-footed players, and the right side for left-footed players.
At low-level football, you would expect more players to “play it safe” and opt for their natural side, hitting across the ball in a diagonal swipe. Yet in professional football there doesn’t appear to be any clear pattern between where right and left footed players place their penalties.
You can however also watch what penalty takers do with their weak foot prior to the runup. Whilst they place the ball on the spot, their weak foot often points at the side they’re going to shoot. So keep that in mind, too.
6. Step Off Your Line
Stepping off the line before the penalty is struck is arguably the most consistently broken rule in football.
Leaving the line early undoubtedly favours the goalkeeper as it reduces the space to shoot at and narrows the angle, making it more difficult for the penalty taker to score. The referee will however ask you to get back on your line if you’re too obvious about it.
7. Make Yourself Look Big
Goalkeepers need to use every tool they’ve got to reduce the number of penalty goals. Stand up tall, on your toes, and make yourself look big and intimidating.
This makes the opponent falsely believe that the goalkeeper is bigger than he actually is, and that the goal is smaller.
This strategy can be taken a step further by using some slightly underhanded tactics — like swaying hips, jumping, star jumping, etc. The 2005 Champions League final was practically won from this.
8. Research Previous Penalties
If you have access to your opponent’s previous penalty kick data or footage, then that could help improve your odds.
You might, for example, identify that certain players put their big, decisive penalties in their “favourite” spot. If you identify any type of pattern, this could be your best guess.
Just bare in mind that the penalty kickers are also aware of where they’ve placed their penalties in the past. So there’s every reason for them to mix it up in an attempt to send the keeper the wrong way. Unfortunately penalties are a choice — not an exact science!
9. Watch Lots of Penalties on YouTube
Aside from practising penalties (which I assume you do anyway), you can watch tons of penalty compilations on YouTube.
The more you watch, the more you’ll be able to anticipate the direction the penalties are heading in. Without even realising it you’ll start to get a feel for what situations lead to penalty saves. Your brain will start doing all the interpretation for you, and your judgement will improve.
10. Treat Penalties Independently
This one applies to penalty shootouts. Basically, there’s no evidence (at professional level) that previous penalty placements influence the next. In other words, if one player shoots right, then it doesn’t mean the next penalty is more likely to go left. That’s a fallacy.
So each penalty is independent. Sure, pressure plays a big part, as it builds up as the shootout goes on — and that can influence the choice. But there’s more chance of making a save by applying a combination of the other tactics I’ve listed in this article rather than guessing that the opposition will “even out” previous choices.
I hope these tactics will help you to save more penalties. Please feel free to put your own tips & suggestions in the comments section below.
You may also be interested in my article about how the introduction of VAR could create more penalties in professional football.