Government Nudge Unit's penalty shoot-out solution: Kick it down the middle

  • @oliver_wright

They have advised Government on everything from the best way to get people to pay their tax on time, to increasing organ donation or reducing energy consumption.

But now Whitehall’s famous Nudge Unit has turned its attention to an altogether more difficult behavioural problem: how a football team can win a penalty shoot-out.

Ahead of the World Cup the Behavioural Insights Team – now no longer controlled by Government – analysed the evidence to establish the most effective techniques to prevent England suffering another humiliating last minute exit in Brazil.

And the answer is really very simple: Kick the ball straight.

They cite a book by Freakonomics’ authors Levitt and Dubner that found a penalty kick toward the centre is seven per cent more likely to succeed than a kick to the corner.

In fact every penalty that has been hit high down the middle in a World Cup shoot-out has resulted in a goal - yet despite this, only 17 per cent of penalties are aimed towards the centre.

But they speculate that professional footballers are loathed to follow the stats for fear if the shame of missing in this way above the collective glory it might bring the team.

The unit also cites the work of German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer who concluded that footballers should not try and outthink their opponent when taking a penalty – but rather rely on a gut instinct.

In contrast goalkeepers should try to get the penalty taker to think about what they’re going to do, perhaps by pretending to examine a i-pad before the player takes his kick.

But unfortunately none of that may be enough. Research by Apestiguia and Palacios-Huerta examined 2,820 penalty kicks from penalty shoot-outs between 1970 and 2008.

They found that the team that takes the first kick wins 60 per cent of the time – meaning the coin toss confers a 20 per cent point advantage upon the team that goes first.