It’s a rather English excuse to say that penalties are a lottery. Of course, there is a certain amount of luck involved, sometimes the gut instinct of a goalkeeper can be the difference between a win and a draw, a bobble or gust of wind can define a match, or a tournament.
But when England fought, er, valiantly to a penalty shootout against Italy in the quarter final of Euro 2012, it was not a lottery that Ashley Young blasted his kick into the stands behind Buffon’s goal.
Succeeding in stopping or scoring a penalty is less about luck than it is about being mentally stronger than the man 12 yards in front of you, skilled enough to strike the ball properly into the tiniest and most unreachable scrap of space you can find, and keeping a cool enough head to remember that you scored 99/100 in training yesterday, and although the surroundings are different, the situation isn’t.
Goalscoring is no different.
And that’s why Liverpool missed so many penalties last season. Not because we don’t have a plethora of skilled and experienced penalty takers, not because of bad luck, but because of the psychological malaise that had infected the entire squad, the exact problem that led to dozens of one on ones being squandered and the much discussed impotency in front of goal.
Take Luis Suarez. Last season, he scored 17 goals in 39 performances, and was frequently profligate in front of goal for Liverpool, and is now, whilst rightfully praised for his incredible skill and talent, toted as a player who is not a natural finisher. A great creator, but not reliable in front of goal.
But players that aren’t natural finishers do not score 49 goals in 48 games in a season, albeit in a less competitive league, whilst also contributing 14 assists. Luis Suarez has the goal record, before Liverpool, of a natural finisher. His current record at club level is 111 goals in a mere 159 games, hardly the figures of a man who struggles in front of goal.
Now look at his penalties. Last season he took 2 for Liverpool, against Sunderland on the opening day of the league season, and Brighton in the FA Cup, and missed both. During his time at Ajax he netted 18 penalties in 3 and a half seasons.
Liverpool were poor in front of goal last season, thus they were poor at penalties. It’s a simplistic explanation but one that’s hard to argue with. Clearly as the season progressed, and the missed chances and hits of the woodwork began to play on the minds of the team, penalties became even more pressured than they should have been. “If I don’t score this, will we be able to score at all?”
|2011/12||Penalties taken||Scored||Missed||Conversion %|
(Carling Cup Final penalty shootout included)
As you can see, the only player to take and not miss a penalty last season was Glen Johnson, who scored against Cardiff in the shootout. The rest does not make pleasant reading. Only Steven Gerrard achieved above 50%, and had it not been for a fairly miraculous save from Cardiff goalkeeper Tom Heaton, would have notched a perfect record for the season.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Suarez failed miserably on the spot, while Andy Carroll, Dirk Kuyt and Charlie Adam also had less than successful seasons from 12 yards.
Considering Adam and Kuyt had superb records from the spot before this season, it is clear that Liverpool penalty takers were not immune to the mental block when it came to putting the ball in the back of the net last season.
So what about next season?
The slate is clean, the new manager is in, a new system is set to be implemented, and last season’s problems are close to forgotten.
Selection of a penalty taker for the 12/13 season should be based predominantly on the success rate of the players before last season. Liverpool players did not miss penalties in 11/12 because they were bad at them, but because mentally, they were terrified of yet more criticisms of the team’s failures in front of goal, as well as knowing that with the poor chance conversion rate, it would be their best chance to actually score.
The number one on the list of contenders, if fitness did not factor, can be no other than the captain, Steven Gerrard.
Stevie has been scoring penalties for Liverpool for several years now, and was the only regular taker with a respectable conversion rate last season. In his Liverpool career, Gerrard has scored an impressive 26 of his 33 penalties, leaving him with a decent scoring percentage of 79%.
However it still remains to be seen how often the talisman will feature next season. With his recent years being plagued by injury, and his age catching up to him, it may be that we only see Gerrard in half of Liverpool’s games next season, depending on the talent at Rodger’s disposal across the midfield.
Charlie Adam is a set piece specialist. Despite taking one of the most laughable penalties of all time at Wembley last season, previous years have seen him do the business from the spot when called upon.
But will he be at Liverpool to take them next season? With Lucas being the obvious first choice for the defensive midfielder role, Jordan Henderson’s burgeoning talent, Steven Gerrard being Steven Gerrard, and Jonjo Shelvey’s emergence as a real prospect last season, Adam may find himself as the odd one out. In fact, he may even struggle for a place on the bench should Aquilani choose to stay at Anfield and Joe Allen reunite with Rodgers.
Luis Suarez, as mentioned before, did generally well at penalties before he came to Liverpool. The fact is, you need confidence to take a penalty, and Luis’ struggles in front of goal, coupled with a dip in form after the controversy with Patrice Evra, would have left him unsure of himself.
However, he’s arguably Liverpool’s best player. He is already having an impressive summer with Uruguay, and could be coming into the Premier League season firing on all cylinders. If Rodgers can find a way to get the best out of him in both a goal-creating and goal-scoring role, Suarez should truly elevate himself into being one of the very best players in the world next season, and if he’s on fire like he was at Ajax, he should be able to do the job from 12 yards out on a consistent basis.
Last season, Liverpool missed chances. So Liverpool missed penalties.
If Rodgers can get his players to be more ruthless in front of goal next season, he won’t lose any sleep about them scoring from 12 yards.
[Stats courtesy of transfermarkt.co.uk and eplindex.co.uk]