Developing New Metrics: Winning Penalties as a Skill

Om Arvind explores a novel metric that we recently added to our TransferLab platform.

One of the earliest trends in the nascent football analytics movement was the exclusion of penalties from goal totals.

The thinking was: penalties are converted very often (at roughly a 75% rate) and, thus, the player taking them is adding very little scoring value even if they are specialists. Treating penalties like other goals potentially miscommunicates how likely a footballer is to score in the future or in a new team where they might no longer be the primary spot-kick taker.

Nevertheless, attempts from 12 yards are clearly very valuable in and of themselves. A three-in-four chance of scoring doesn’t come along often in football and surely someone should be getting credit for them.

Given that taking the penalty is not intrinsically meaningful from a statistical point of view, perhaps there is something more significant to be found from the players winning the penalty? If this is the case, then it might indicate that winning penalties is a skill and clubs could incorporate this knowledge into their recruitment.

To reflect this, we added a new metric to our TransferLab platform: “Penalties won per 90” Here’s what we found out about winning penalties on the basis of the data:

The Results

Here are the twenty-five players who ranked highest in this stat from the two highest tiers in TransferLab for the 2020/21 season (994 minute cut off):

As one might expect, prolific dribblers are well represented on this list. Figures like Marcus Thuram, Anthony Martial and Kylian Mbappé drive at defenders aggressively to bait tackles before using their quick feet to push the ball away at the last second.

Here’s Anthony Martial doing just that in a game against Manchester United’s cross-city rivals Manchester City:

By running into a congested space in the box, Martial is able to use his feet to almost shield the ball from Gabriel Jesus who can only bundle into the back of him, giving away the penalty.

Here’s Kylian Mbappé doing the same. By driving at defenders and making his way into the box, the Paris Saint-Germain striker forces defenders to have to make tackles in high-risk situations:

Invention and a capacity to invite contact are themes that stood out on film when observing Thuram, Martial and Mbappé. Penalties often manifest from dynamic, chaotic situations, where an attacker needs to be able to react on the fly to manufacture incidents.

Here’s Anthony Martial winning a penalty against Leeds United by simply moving the ball over Pascal Struijk’s leg and then taking the contact:

Of course, the “dark art” of embellishment helps, too. Marcus Thuram is especially good at this, exacerbating the slightest touch in order to force the referee into making a decision:

Combined with his ball control and rapid changes of direction, the Borussia Mönchengladbach attacker can be a nightmare to contain in the box without fouling.

However, not everyone in the top twenty-five is a take-on artist. Case in point: ex-Emmen forward Michael de Leeuw ranks in the 39th percentile for dribble quality.

Fortunately, there are other ways to draw contact in the area. Runs off-the-shoulder were some of the most common actions leading to penalties on film, especially if they were executed on the blindside of the culpable defender.

The lack of reaction time for the defender, the effect of an attacker suddenly appearing in front of them, and the desperation to prevent a shot from the highest value location on the pitch combine to make these plays some of the most penalty prone.

Even the aforementioned dribble machines relied on movements in behind to get to the spot. In this clip, from Borussia Mönchengladbach’s visit to Hertha Berlin last season, Marcus Thuram wins a penalty through clever movement:

Running into the space behind the defence, the young Frenchman is able to get a toe on the ball just before the defender makes the tackle.

Kylian Mbappé is the master of fashioning these sorts of potential penalty-winning scenarios. Look at this sequence of play against Lorient last season:

Using his explosive acceleration and smart body positioning, Mbappé is able to get in between the defender and the ball and invite the contact.

In an era where teams are looking for the slightest advantages to improve their chances of success, figuring out who can consistently create one of the most valuable shots in the game is a must.

Analytics FC helps by providing a much-needed statistic but the eye test is also key. Watch out for wily dribblers with a taste for theatre and pacey, intelligent off-ball runners that can turn the perfect threaded pass into a penalty.

Header image copyright IMAGO / Team 2

At Analytics FC, we provide software and data services to entities within football looking to realise the gains possible from analytical thinking.

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