Messi has missed a fair few penalties and some big ones too. His failures include ones for Argentina against Iceland in the 2018 World Cup and against Chile in the 2016 Copa America final. Does that make the Barcelona number 10 a poor penalty taker? Not all at. In fact, he has a very decent record from the penalty spot, with a conversion rate of over 80%.
So, what does all this tell us? It shows us that no one’s perfect, but with the application of a bit of skill and penalty-spot savvy, you’ll have a better chance of scoring.
How to take a perfect penalty kick is really about power and placement. The harder you hit the ball, the less chance that the goalkeeper has of saving it. And you reduce his or her odds further if you can put the ball in the places where he or she is the least likely to reach it: the corners.
If you can kick the ball at speed into one of the corners, top or bottom, then you dramatically increase your chances of scoring. There’s science to prove it. But the theory is the easy part. Doing it is much harder. As Dutch master Johan Cruyff said, “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
Another thing to consider when you’re fine tuning your penalty kicks is your run-up. Players take long ones and score, and they take short ones and score. But they take long ones and miss, and they take short ones and miss.
What does all this mean for your penalty? That you should work out a run-up that you’re comfortable with.
And don’t over-elaborate because being too fancy can end in tears. Need evidence of this? Manchester United midfielder and French World Cup winner Paul Pogba’s bizarre stuttering deserves a mention but look up Simone Zaza’s penalty for Italy against Germany in the Euro 2016 quarter final. A spot-kick specialist, he was brought on especially for the penalty shootout. When his turn came, he rolled out a demented running man routine and duly sent the ball sailing high and wide of the goal.
Practice can be boring but it works, in particular when it comes to penalties. Hitting the corners is harder than it looks, so training your mind and body to do so is a very good idea. Gareth Southgate famously got his England team to practice penalties before the 2018 World Cup and look what happened: a 22-year losing streak was ended. And watch Harry Kane’s penalties at the tournament again – a ruthless combination of power, placement, poise and practice.
However, as good advice as following these four Ps is, it’s not everything. Football isn’t just about blood and thunder, and cold, hard science, it’s about skill and grace too. That’s why the Panenka penalty exists. It is impudent as it is simple – chipping the ball into the centre of the goal with the application of the right speed and weight to leave the goalkeeper, having dived one way or the other, completely stranded.
It’s called the Panenka because Czech midfielder Antonin Panenka was the first player to show it to the world, in the final of the 1976 European Championships, to win the competition no less. Find the video, it’s a beautiful thing. Countless players have tried to emulate him since and plenty have succeeded – including Zinedine Zidane for France in the 2006 World Cup final – but many more have failed.
So, how do you take a perfect penalty kick? Well, power, placement, poise and practice will all help you do it but there is no guarantee of success. There is no sure fire way of scoring a penalty and there probably never will be.
Why? Because there are too many invariables.
Pressure, fatigue, the pitching cutting up (check out John Terry’s penalty for Chelsea against Manchester United in the 2008 Champions League final), the referee failing to spot the keeper moving too early – anyone one of these could ruin your day. If it happens, you just have to pick yourself up and go again (if your team lets you!).