Penalty kicks, soccer, and statistics

One of my very first posts when I started this blog, back in late 2010, was about Simon Kuper's terrific book "Soccernomics," about the economics of soccer and the minimal use of data. So this New York Times article about the failure of two top Spanish teams to convert penalty kick opportunities to wins rang a bell.

But what's curious is that the Times writer focused on the gut reaction, his own and the fans', though he did note that Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho pointed out soccer players miss shots just as tennis players do (even the good ones miss frequently).

But in fact there's some serious analysis of penalty kicks available, and Kuper has explained in this column how it can be done. (Ignore the name of the website, but read the column.)

The key moment in any shootout occurs before it even starts. The referee tosses a coin, and the captain who calls correctly gets to decide whether his team takes the first kick. Always kick first, says Palacios-Huerta. The team taking the first penalty wins 60% of shootouts. That’s because the team going second shoots under great pressure. They keep having to score just to stay in the game.
Sadly, the various video links in the column don't appear to work. But the column is worth reading in full. Better yet - read the book!

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