The concept of football’s penalty shoot-out is simple. It hasn’t changed since the first one ever to decide a major international tournament in 1976 when Czechoslovakia beat West Germany 5-3 in Belgrade.
It is blessed with a fixed, easy-to-follow format – five players from each side take turns from the spot and the most goals wins. If it’s a draw after 10 kicks the teams alternate penalties until someone misses and someone scores.
It is precisely the predictable nature of the game-within-a-game that makes it a perfect arena for the appliance of digital technology, data analysis and more recently, the kinds of gamified simulations that are so familiar to Attensi and our partners.
The big nations and clubs know this of course, and in the spirit of leaving absolutely nothing to chance in the ceaseless search for the one per cents that make the difference in elite sport, they are investing big in the field.
That makes sense when you consider that 30 matches in the knockout-stages of the men’s FIFA World Cup including two finals have been settled by shoot-outs; as well as two women’s FIFA World Cup finals and 11 UEFA Champions League Finals.
The influence of digital tech in the mysterious inner-world of the shoot-out emerged following the triumph of Liverpool FC in the 2022 FA Cup Final at Wembley.
The game ended 0-0 after extra-time, and then the Reds beat Chelsea 6-5 in the shoot-out. While the jubilant victors were still parading the trophy around the pitch, the story behind the story of their spot-kick success became clear. They had hired a pioneering German consultancy, neur11, which creates neuroscientific data-based training for elite athletes, to perfect a strategy for occasions just like this one.
After the match Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, handed credit to them for his team’s win. He said:
“We got in touch with a company, neur11, and they said they can train penalty shooting. I said ‘really?’ They worked with us. This trophy is for them, too.”
Later he added:
“The neuro11 team has developed a highly innovative and fact-based mental strength training method that can be seamlessly integrated into our training program.”
Skill, courage and character
“We are now able to specifically train the mental and shot-precision abilities of our players directly on the pitch, in a way that wasn’t possible for us until now.
“Since mental strength plays such an important role at the highest level, we‘re excited about working with these guys.”
Neur11 technicians worked directly with the Liverpool players on the training pitch to turn theory into practical actions which made an enormous difference in their approach to the shoot-out.
Of course, the joy of sport is that the spoils of victory don’t always necessarily go to the side with the strongest tech game. Its beauty and fascination rests on the skill, courage and character of the players themselves – and in this case Liverpool only won the Cup because a nerveless Greek full-back named Kostas Tsimikas stepped up to the mark and slotted a perfect penalty in sudden-death.
But Liverpool entered the contest knowing that they enjoyed not just the noisy backing of their supporters in the stadium and millions more watching at home, but also months of careful preparation and the applied science of the most up-to-date digital technology in the world.
Comprehensive and universal
So what is the next step in this most specialist and most testing of sporting arenas?
The answer may lie in the direction of more gamified simulation training.
It’s clear that the ubiquity of cameras at every football match of any consequence anywhere in the world means that the available information on penalties is comprehensive and universal.
It is already possible to use that database of past penalties to build models of probable outcomes of shoot-outs yet to come. It can model preferences of players in where they aim their shots; the way goalkeepers move; even the level of vigilance individual referees apply to keepers’ movements before the ball is struck.
From these, it is possible to game out potential head-to-head contests against specific teams and use them as the basis for practice drills before a big match, as well as video briefings for players during their pre-match preparations.
Not every professional footballer is eager to sit through long meetings to analyze what, to them, is an activity as natural as breathing. But the appeal and power of gamified simulation – for the employees of every industry where Attensi is active, just as much as for footballers – is that it works with the technology they already know, understand and love.
Video games are an established feature in every club’s recreational activity. Applying the same technology to actual scenarios that can come up in their day job is no hardship. It seems likely that footballers will be just as willing as any of their counterparts in sectors such as retail, finance or hospitality to hone their skills and build their knowledge in a virtual setting. They are then ready to take them into the place where it really counts – the fields of sporting glory.