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A closer look at the 2008 Champions League final penalty shoot-out


hjperdeath
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While on vacation, I had the opportunity to pick up a few books on football, among which one was Soccernomics. The book is joint authored by sports journalist Simon Kuper and sports economist Stefan Szymanski and it explores how the study of statistics and raw data have influenced the modern game.

At one point they discussed about penalty kicks. They provide a counter-argument against popular opinion that penalties are an unfair way to decide a game because at the end of the day, it all comes down to luck. To prove it, they brought up various examples, one of which is the 2008 Champions League final penalty shoot-out between Manchester United and Chelsea in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Chelsea tried their best to use game theory to win the penalty shoot-out. Game theory is such that it would allow any kind of team to win a shoot-out, making it look like there isn't any element of luck involved. For that, one must know what game theory is.

Game theory was developed by scientists and mathematicians such as John von Neumann. It is the study of situations such as, when what I should do depends on what you do, and what you should do depends on what I do.

This has a lot of real-life examples. Let’s look at the race for acquiring nuclear weapons. Say country A has a close rivalry with country B. Country B isn’t sure whether country A will develop or not develop some kind of nuclear missile, so it uses game theory to predict.

If country A has no nuclear missiles, we either :

(a) Not get a missile. There will always be incidents such as this, we can live with it.
(b.) We get the missile. We will gain country A’s respect and they won’t be attacking us again.

If country A has a nuclear missile, we either :

(a) We don’t get a missile. By the time we’re done making it and they hear about it, we would be in ashes.
(b.) We get the missile. We will gain country A’s respect and they won’t be attacking us again.

This shows that the equilibrium of the race for nuclear weapons is for both countries to acquire nuclear missiles. The logic of football matches are pretty much same; penalties, however, are not. Penalties are as the authors put it , a ‘zero-sum game’. Any gain for one player is exactly offset by the loss to the other side, or simply put a +1 for me is -1 for you.

Professionals play Minimax is a paper published in 2003 by Basque economist Igancio Palacios-Huerta, who started recording the way penalties were taken since 1995. It can remarkably be found here, though it isn’t quite on the intellectual level of a common man. Minimax simply means denoting a method or strategy in game theory that minimizes the greatest risk to a participant in a game or other situation of conflict. Penalty kicks are a fine example.

Avram Grant, the then Chelsea manager, and Ignacio had a common friend. Upon Chelsea’s journey to the final, the middle-man got them both in touch as he knew one could help the other. Grant was instantly mesmerized by the man’s line of work and desperately asked him to help him out. While Avram sat on the plane to Moscow, he was beyond delighted to receive some good news.

The economist had done an extensive study on Manchester United’s goalkeeper and penalty takers. He then went on to state four main points that would have a direct effect on the shoot-out:

1. Van der Sar tended to dive to the kicker’s ‘natural side’ more often than most keepers did. This meant that when facing a right-footed kicker, the goalkeeper would usually dive to his own right, and when facing a left-footed kicker, he dives to his own left. Chelsea would have a better chance to win the European cup if their penalty takers kicked towards their unnatural side.

2. Vast majority of the penalties Van der Sar stops are those kicked around the height between 1 and 1.5 meters. Therefore the penalty takers must always aim to hit it just on the ground or high up, never in mid-height .

3. Ronaldo often stops in the run-up to the ball. If he stops, there is an 85% chance he’ll kick to the right-hand side of the goalkeeper because he won’t be able to generate enough power after 120 minutes of football to score towards his left. When a keeper moved early, Ronaldo always scored. The key is to not move.

4. The team that wins the toss has a 60% chance of winning, because there is too much pressure on the team going second. Once you have read this, your entire memory of the shoot-out is changed forever. The Chelsea players mugged up the letter, word to word. There was absolutely no reason for them to go wrong, until Anelka stepped up.

United won the toss, and John Terry tried his best to influence Rio Ferdinand into letting Michael Ballack take the first penalty. Thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson, Ferdinand out-rightly refused. Carlos Tevez stepped up, calmly placed the ball and scored.Petr Cech really wasn’t given much advice on him and spent most of training watching videos of the club’s penalty kicks.

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Michael Ballack places the ball, looks at Van der Sar in the eyes and hits it hard and high into the net to Van der Sar’s left. The goalkeeper goes the right way, but due it not being mid-height, Ballack scores.

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Juliano Belletti again places the ball on the left. This time keeping it close to the ground. Another penalty taken on the ‘unnatural’ side. Ignacio, who was nervously watching the game at home with his wife, wasn’t fully convinced Chelsea were following his statistical based advice.

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Next up was golden boy Cristiano Ronaldo. Petr Cech didn’t move at all. His cold-blooded eyes stared right into Ronaldo’s soul without blinking. Ronaldo paused in his run-up. Right when he made the sudden movement to shoot the ball hard and fast, Cech instinctively jumped to his right and hoped for the best. Penalty saved, and Chelsea were in the driving seat. Igancio’s sceptical wife was left shell-shocked.

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Lampard stepped up, and in customary fashion, scored. It will be interesting to note that Lampard has always favoured a really hard and fast shot to his left throughout his career. However, this time he places it to the right and scores.

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Next to make the move was Ashley Cole who was loudly booed as he placed the ball on the spot. He, however, seemed to disregard Ignacio’s advice. Being a left-footed player, he decided to take a shot towards his ‘natural’ side. Van der Sar did exactly what Ignacio expected and pounced on it. However Cole’s technique was perfect and the ball just squirmed out of the Dutchman’s grasp as the ball was hit low as the economist had recommended.

Next stepped up John Terry. History was indeed going to be made at the end of the night, but the Chelsea captain made it a little too early. He went to his ‘unnatural’ side but slipped and missed as Van der Sar dived the wrong away. Pressure back on because Chelsea had lost the toss.

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Kalou steps up and does what the note said him to do - high, hard and precisely on the side your mind tells you not to shoot at. Chelsea were still in it. However, not for long.

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Next up was Anelka, but by this time Van der Sar realized something was up. A coach on the United bench realized there was some kind of strategy Chelsea were using. Every kick was almost on the same side, five out of six till then. For the first time, Van der Sar extended his arms to either side. With his left hand, he pointed towards the left corner. “You’re going to put it there. Aren’t you? I’m onto you guys and your little plan. Not this time son, not this time.” as the two men locked their eyes for a few brief seconds. Anelka now had a problem. As Stefan Szymanski puts it, game theory at its finest.

The Frenchman panicked. He had earlier planned to place the ball high on to his right corner and the goalkeeper’s left. However he shot towards his left and Van der Sar’s right. At the end of the day, statistics failed against crude and sheer psychology. Anelka knew that Van der Sar knew that he knew that Van der Sar tended to dive towards the natural side. As a rain drenched Ferguson said after holding the European cup, “That wasn’t an accident, his penalty save. We knew exactly where certain players were putting the ball.” A hurt Ignacio spent a sleepless night, as the ignorance towards his advice cost Chelsea a European title.

It’s funny how as a boy of just 11, I remember watching the game quite vividly. Nobody in the same room, including me, noticed Van der Sar pointing towards his left. However, replays clearly show exactly that. When I was busy crying harder than I did when my parents had the happiest moment of their life, I did not realize all the players had shot towards their unnatural side. Psychology and statistics. Exploited by few, under-rated by many.

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A really good analysis, but I knew this sort of ordeal years ago. VDS played a brilliant mind game and got the better of Anelka. Was a great experience for the lads and fans and we learned from it.

What makes it a little more worse was the fact VDS dove the opposite side of Terry's kick, meaning if he didn't slip it would of went no where near VDS

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A really good analysis, but I knew this sort of ordeal years ago. VDS played a brilliant mind game and got the better of Anelka. Was a great experience for the lads and fans and we learned from it.

What makes it a little more worse was the fact VDS dove the opposite side of Terry's kick, meaning if he didn't slip it would of went no where near VDS

exactly.

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Psychology and statistics. Exploited by few, under-rated by many.

Nom nom nom ... did my masters dissertation on game theory and (evolutionary) psychology. Interesting stuff indeed. You should check The Axelrod tournaments for more strategies in psychology. It counts for free riding behaviour in teams as well (there they use the prisoner's dilemma game in agent based modeling for it).

:getin::getin::getin:

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Nom nom nom ... did my masters dissertation on game theory and (evolutionary) psychology. Interesting stuff indeed. You should check The Axelrod tournaments for more strategies in psychology. It counts for free riding behaviour in teams as well (there they use the prisoner's dilemma game in agent based modeling for it).

:getin::getin::getin:

actually I'm just 16 years old, so I almost spent 2 hours researching a bit on that. don't really have a lot interest in economics or psychology for that matter, but when it came to Chelsea, the voice inside me sparked. :P

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TBH, the penalties isn't what had me in a knot after the match and then months after. It was during the incident in extra time where Ferdinando completely (Ray Mysterio'd) Joe Cole yet Cole stood on his feet and tried to rescue the ball. I remember during that incident I was complaining why he didn't just fall down considering if he were to go down in any way 98% of the time it would of been a penalty.

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Interesting read, but it made me think about something.

If Cole had followed the advice, and shot his penalty towards his left side, MU probably would have never found about our strategy. Because after Kalou, not 5, as it says in the article, but every, all 6 of our penalties went to the same side, so that must be what made VdS aware something is up. Obviously he couldn't have known our real tactics, so he just probably thought our strategy is to always shoot to his left side. Had Cole chosen his unnatural side, VdS may not not have realised something is up, and the result could have been different. Damn. :(

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Interesting read, but it made me think about something.

If Cole had followed the advice, and shot his penalty towards his left side, MU probably would have never found about our strategy. Because after Kalou, not 5, as it says in the article, but every, all 6 of our penalties went to the same side, so that must be what made VdS aware something is up. Obviously he couldn't have known our real tactics, so he just probably thought our strategy is to always shoot to his left side. Had Cole chosen his unnatural side, VdS may not not have realised something is up, and the result could have been different. Damn. :(

Very true. We threw it away slowly.

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