How England's preparation has made them penalty perfect


Five perfect penalties. An England first, at the 10th time of asking. England have found a way to reach the semi-finals in Germany without playing well. And nothing embodies that more than the attention to detail to fix their notorious Achilles’ heel.

Some aspects of their preparation have come in for justifiable criticism. Harry Kane’s surprise admission England “didn’t know” how to press against a back three was alarming, especially given Gareth Southgate’s exhaustive methods. It has brought back the pressure England have felt, and succumbed to, in previous tournaments.

Other aspects have been more comprehensive than ever to alleviate that stress. Penalties have been on Southgate’s mind ever since he took up the job in 2016, when he quickly set up an 18-month task-force assigned with ending England’s hoodoo of six defeats out of seven on spot-kicks.

Their work would exorcise the demons of his own Euro 96 miss as England went on to beat Colombia in the last 16 at World Cup 2018, but the old anxieties returned with defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final three years later.

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Jamie Carragher says Gareth Southgate and England’s penalty analysts deserve a lot of credit following their shoot-out win over Switzerland

Southgate surely did not envisage his technically-gifted England team grinding their way to the last four this time around given their wealth of attacking talent.

But the pain of that night at Wembley was enough to ensure no stone was left unturned to learn lessons ahead of this tournament and create what a leading expert has called “the most robust set-up in the world” from 12 yards.

“They have prepared, they have made mistakes, they have corrected those mistakes,” Geir Jordet, a professor in psychology and football at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences who worked as part of that taskforce, told Sky Sports.

“England, with this set-up, and the quality of the penalty takers and goalkeeper, would be favourites in any shoot-out in this tournament. And who would have thought that several years ago?

“In my opinion England have got the most robust, deliberate, structured set-up in the world.”

Of course, success is still never guaranteed. You never know when a sandy penalty spot will claim its next victim, or a goalkeeper feeling particularly prophetic will have a purple patch.

England’s focus is on controlling the controllables, something they have done better than anyone else at this tournament and something which at least gives them the best possible platform to perform.

Once the whistle went at the end of extra-time against Switzerland Southgate gathered a huddle of only his 11 players, all of whom may have been required to take spot-kicks. The rest of the squad, plus England’s backroom team, were sent away – unlike for previous shoot-outs.

It helped him to address and inspire his players directly, but also lay out a new aspect of their preparations, with each taker assigned a ‘buddy’ to welcome them back into the pack on the halfway line after their spot-kick, to embrace the pressure collectively rather than have it on one individual.

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After Ivan Toney’s no-look penalty against Switzerland, England had some light-hearted fun in their training camp with the Brentford striker

The images of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho trudging the 50 yards back to the centre circle alone after missing their kicks in the Euro 2020 final will almost certainly have played a part in that move.

Jordet criticised that approach from three years ago in his recently-published book, ‘Pressure: Lessons from the psychology of the penalty shoot-out’. He had previously suggested a less structured version of this new approach to the FA taskforce and, six years on, it appears they have taken it on board.

“I think they had a focus on the process whether they scored or missed, which was something they picked up from Great Britain hockey,” he said.

“That, to me, is a wasted opportunity to show togetherness, belonging, cohesion, support and these kinds of things.

“Back in 2007, I had worked on the entire team welcoming a player back to the centre-circle and spoke to the FA taskforce about it, but England did not adopt it in 2018 or 2021. Now they have even taken it to the next level.”

England were also meant to have a new angle to their approach before each player had taken their penalties.

Jordan Pickford has handed England’s next spot-kick taker the ball in every shoot-out under Southgate, but this time he was meant to greet them on the edge of the penalty area and chaperone them to the penalty spot, presenting a united front against Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer.

Everything was going perfectly until Italian referee Daniele Orsato threatened him with a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct. “Maybe he didn’t understand my accent,” the Sunderland native later laughed.

He is an old hand at bending the rules of a shoot-out, and had already been warned by Orsato for time-wasting ahead of Manuel Akanji’s opening Swiss penalty.

When the Man City defender missed from 12 yards, he could have done with his team-mates adopting the approach England did.

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Penalty decision-making, tactical plans and England’s streetwise nature were on the agenda during Gareth Southgate’s press conference following the Switzerland win

While their Swiss counterparts stood in the traditional chain of locked arms on the halfway line, England largely stayed as a broader swarm of players – avoiding the optics of an ‘us vs you’ situation in quite the same way when takers returned from the 18-yard box.

That added pressure may have made the difference in England’s disappointment back in 2021. But what was derided far more in the aftermath of the Italy defeat was the decision to bring on Rashford and Sancho in the seconds before the end of extra-time.

Southgate did not make the same mistake twice. The seven and 13 minutes Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ivan Toney played before Saturday’s penalties was not physically significant, but psychologically it was enough to make a difference.

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Captain Harry Kane praised Bukayo Saka’s mentality after stepping up to take a penalty in England’s win over Switzerland

“With Rashford and Sancho in 2021 they came on without any sort of rhythm,” said Jordet. “It’s like they’re not part of the team, almost.

“The rest of their team has got them to the penalty shoot-out and now it’s up to them to perform and give the team-mates their reward, and that’s more pressure.

“The key to fix that is to give the players more time in the game and to some extent, Southgate did that.”

Now the cat is out of the bag. Netherlands have had five days to work out how to disrupt England’s best-laid plans from the spot, should it get that far.

But with England’s comfort of knowing they have done everything they can to prepare ahead of time, will it be enough?



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