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England’s Secret Shootout Tendency Bottle: Subterfuge or Due Diligence?

There was an interesting story over the weekend in The Athletic (paywalled, unfortunately) regarding England vs. Switzerland at the Euro, and “England’s ‘cheat code’ water bottle.” The hed may be a bit misleading.

Briefly, what happened was this: England and Switzerland had finished their Euro quarterfinal in a draw, meaning the match would be decided in a shootout. Anyone familiar with England’s history knows their success in the shootouts was at one time abysmal, but that’s changing. Determined to be on the winning end of the score, the team has employed any number of tactics to improve the team’s chances in the shootout.

Here’s the relevant passage in The Athletic article:

England’s penalty secret? It’s all about the bottle

There didn’t seem to be much in it at first.

Cole Palmer had just scored England’s first penalty in their shootout with Switzerland and Manuel Akanji was sauntering forward to make his response. Jordan Pickford, the England goalkeeper, began to trot over too, before suddenly doubling back.

Pickford had forgotten something — his water bottle, which was rather oddly wrapped in a towel. Having picked it up, he moved back to his goal and placed the bottle, still wearing its towel, next to the side netting.

Having made Akanji wait a bit longer by moving forward to inspect the penalty spot, Pickford settled back on his goal line. Akanji had a short run-up and struck the ball with his right foot, but Pickford was one step ahead. He plunged to his left, parried the penalty away and England had an advantage they were never to relinquish.

The article goes on to note that Pickford wasn’t grabbing his water bottle for a quick refreshing burst of cold liquid, but rather, to read a chart that had been affixed to the side of the bottle.

Good fortune? Not so much. This was actually a triumph of subterfuge for England and their team of analysts who had studied the penalties of all Switzerland’s players, noted where they tended to place them and printed out their findings for Pickford to stick on his water bottle.

The analysis was captured by a photographer at the ground but Pickford was taking no chances in the moments before Akanji’s penalty — hence his decision to wrap the bottle in that towel.

Pickford made the save, and England went on to win 5-3 in the shootout and secured a berth in the semi-final.

But was this really a bit of subterfuge, as The Athletic suggests, or merely England using every possible tool at her disposal to prepare for shootouts? England had been doing due diligence prior to the Euros, not just studying opponents’ tendencies (hence the instructions on the water bottle), but also preparing its own players to perform better in the shootouts. That process involved a bit of common sense (picking specialist penalty-takers), some science (breathing techniques and not being rushed), but also plenty of data (Pickford’s water bottle).

With one save in hand, how did Pickford do against the other five shooters? Did he use the “cheat code” on the bottle?

Having got it right first time, it was surprising Pickford did not follow his bottle’s advice on all the penalties.

Fabian Schar took their second one but rather than pretending to dive right before actually diving to his left — as his bottle instructed — Pickford did the reverse, faking left and jumping right. Schar’s penalty unfolded as the bottle had predicted, to his right, where the net was vacant.

Pickford did follow his bottle for the final two Swiss penalties: Xherdan Shaqiri struck his to the right, but it was too well placed and his shot just evaded Pickford’s fingertips.

The only penalty where the bottle was proved wrong was for Zeki Amdouni on the fourth kick. Pickford held his ground and dived low to his left, as he had been briefed, but Amdouni outwitted him by going to his right.

Thankfully for England, that one save was enough. And if their semi-final against the Netherlands on Wednesday also goes the distance, do not be surprised to see Pickford’s bottle and towel make another appearance.

Now, did Pickford deliberately go against the advice of the water bottle, or did he just forget the instructions in the heat of battle? And now that his “secret” (if it wasn’t already known) is out of the bag, how will his next opponents — the Netherlands — react? Will they still go about their PKs the same way, or will they seek to outfox Pickford (and the same goes for Pickford: will he change his blocking strategies now that his opponents know their tendencies have been scouted)?

It’s obviously not illegal to have the “cheat code” on the water bottle, although you can’t fault England for trying to keep it disguised. But isn’t this roughly the same thing as MLB players keeping positioning cards in their back pockets to assist them with their own defensive set up? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say that’s cheating or subterfuge.

Here’s a full video of the shootout, if you’re interested. On the first shot by Manuel Akanji of Switzerland, you can clearly see Pickford begin his “dive left” prior to the ball being struck.

So what do you think? Was this all a bit of “subterfuge” or at least gamesmanship by England and her goalie, or was this simply the result of good research and data crunching to ensure England had every chance to be successful in all shootouts?

I don’t follow soccer as closely as other sports, so I’ll ask: do other teams also have “cheat codes” they provide for their goalies? Or is this now the newest analytical tool which will surely be replicated by others going forward?

[Big thanks to Paul for tipping me wise to this story!]

Comments (17)

    Pickford is far from the only goalie to have ever done that. I would have been surprised if he didn’t.

    It’s often on an index card. That might be the first time I’ve seen it on a decal affixed to the bottle.

    This is no different than an MLB outfielder having a positioning chart in his back pocket for each hitter. It’s a scouting report based on the tendencies of the opponent.

    I figured as much (even used that example in my writeup) — but as I’m not as attuned to soccer as I am to other sports, the Athletic piece seemed to be making a major deal out of it. But I kinda thought this was if not a common practice, certainly not something unique to England (or soccer in general).

    They do this in field hockey all the time; many times, you see penalty corner routines listed on the flat side of the stick so that they can interpret the signals coming in from the bench, or run a certain script of corners like Bill Walsh’s 49ers.

    This is common practice in soccer. I think the only reasons it is a story are (1) the media can make anything connected to the England football team at a major tournament a story and (2) the photographer caught a photo of it.
    The English media were quite happy to leak Southgate’s formations for the Swiss game 2 or 3 days ahead of the match, and are now publishing photos like this. They sell more papers (or clicks) from England failing, so will actively damage the teams chances rather than look to help them succeed.
    The story is unfortunately more of a sad inditement of the English sports media than it is a sporting story.

    So he had a “cheat sheet” on his bottle. You’d think that a smart coach with Switzerland might tell their shooters to at least think about doing the opposite of their tendencies.

    This reminds me of pitchers and hitters trying to outwit each other. I always think about cheat codes and outguessing the outguesser, and how Greg Maddux was playing 20 steps ahead in that game his whole career. I also love knuckleball pitchers who honestly have no idea where the pitch is going, so the mind games turn to irrelevant nmush.

    Gotta say, reading this article about soccer is much more interesting than watching actual soccer. ; )

    Pickford is standard practice.
    Subterfuge is one goalie throwing the others bottle with notes on it into the stands.

    Game theory would suggest that shooters should pick their sides randomly—if they’re better at one side then maybe weight that more heavily, but still randomize the choice rather than having a fixed plan.

    Of course the equilibrium would be for the goalie to also be choosing at random.

    I went to a great presentation at the Sloan sports analytics conference a handful of years back on data analysis in PKs.

    It wasn’t a novel conclusion from their work, but important that the best penalty takers and keepers are those who are most unpredictable (even surpassing quite a bit of skill gap).

    At the time, they highlighted Buffon and Zidane – of course both are incredible players but it was really their lack of any tendencies or tells that made them particularly strong in penalties.

    Teams have scouted PKs and passed tendency reports for years, that presentation was probably in 2017 and was really just a “look at how much better we can track this now – including apps where assistants could pull up players and tie data and highlights).

    What stands out about this incident is just the historical context and catching it on film with something as clear as the double-back.

    The tricky part is the game theory of it all, but that’s a different rabbit hole

    Interesting. I have a personal theory related to this, I feel like more games in Euros and Copas have gone to pen’s then past international competitions. Tactically I think coach’s at this level find more job security in stalemate and ‘oh shucks, we lost in penalties’, then the gamble of pushing forward and playing beautiful. Current trend seems defensive.

    I don’t think anyone in soccer regards this as cheating or unfair. But the spy-like tradecraft around disguising the list on the bottle raises a potential danger: If the opposing team knows what the goalie plans to do, they can adjust, and their knowledge of the goalie’s likely action is more valuable to the kicker than is the converse goalie’s knowledge of the kickers’ pattern.

    This is anecdotal, and it may also be skewed by the increasing frequency of penalty shootouts as time has gone on. But it has seemed to me that since the 1990s, there’s been an increasing frequency of PKs kicked at the top corners of the goal, where no goalie can block a good kick. If the keeper moves at all, the low middle of the goal is wide open, and that’s the safest spot to aim for. Miss by a few feet and the ball still goes into the net. Aim for the top corner, and the margin of error to miss might be just a few inches. But as keepers have become better informed students of kicker tendencies, it has seemed to me that kickers have adapted by playing it less safe with higher-skill-demanding kicks to the outsides and top of the goal. In yesterday’s France-Portugal quarterfinal, four of the ten PKs were aimed at unsavable edges of the goal, and neither keeper got anywhere near saving any of those four kicks. But one of them missed by centimeters, hit the bar and bounced away from the goal, and that miss was the whole difference in the shootout.

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