Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Photo:  Sean MacEntee
There seems a certain inevitability about England bombing again. Pessimism, rising to inflated expectations, punctured by a lacklustre performance, and followed by the curse of the shootout. OK they didn’t go down to the Germans, but the spirits of Waddle, Pearce and Southgate have risen again and the name of Ashley Cole will live on in pizza adverts and infamy. (Or perhaps greater infamy). What, I wonder, is the trouble with penalties?

An initial glance at the stats confirms England’s penalty shootout record is indeed poor. A 17% win rate has to square up to 33% for Italy, 64 % for Brazil, and (this may hurt) in excess of 70% for traditional nemeses Germany and Argentina. A further look suggests that England are also worse at penalties than Ethiopia (80%), Burma (50%), and The Seychelles (100%). Maybe Africa is the new heartland of beautiful game and Aung San Suu Kyi would inspire any country to kick ass, but what about The Seychelles? Surely England are better than them. It’s not like the days when Glenn Hoddle was spouting karmic wisdom, hanging out with faith healers and disdaining practice. As a Scot I’m dying to believe the ‘England are shit at penalties’ theory but another look at the figures forces me to admit that there may be more to it.

It’s not exactly news to point out that penalties contain an element of chance. No one really knows how much and factors from age to national character have been suggested as influencing the outcome. The trouble is that we are tempted to find reasons other than chance for winning or losing. Reasons such as crude national stereotypes. The Jerrys (soulless efficiency), the Brazilians (samba flair and hot fans), and the Argies (lets not even go there). How satisfying are these explanations though for anyone beyond a member of the BNP? I mean what do the Italians have that makes them better? Pasta and opera? And I’m looking forward to reading about how the traditional fishing industry of the Seychelles lays the foundation for their stellar form.

Let’s imagine for a second that the result of a shootout is pure chance. Where would that leave England’s record? We might think the law of averages would apply and the outcomes would look random. A 50% win-rate right? Well actually wrong. The other trouble with those penalty stats is that they are all based on small numbers of matches. Six for England, seven for Germany and only one for the mighty Seychelles. The trouble with truly random numbers is that, when you only have a few, they don’t always look random. When you throw a dice or flip a coin a few times the numbers or sides often don’t come up nearly as equally as you might expect.

The fact that we find it hard to believe that random things are really random can lead us into all sorts of bollocks.  Hotnumbers in the lottery (ones that seem to come up a lot) is a classic example but the same process can lead us to thinking that the outcome of penalty shootouts is determined by Teutonic discipline, Latin cunning or English decline.

So let’s go easy on Roy and the lads. England might be a bunch of overpaid pretty-boys who crack under pressure, but equally they might simply be victims of the oddities of chance. On the more hopeful side some other statistical theories suggest that, over a much larger number of events, random sequences will actually start to look a lot more like we expect (i.e. 10,000 coin flips might be likely to have a more even result than 10 flips). By that reckoning a few hundred more shootouts and England should have something close to a 50% record.

It just might be worth booking for Euro 4012 after all.

John McGowan, 27th June 2012

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