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Why England have a mental block in penalty shoot-outs

How national side could improve when on the spot

If Sunday night was disappointing, it was also, in a sense, reassuring. For all the recent captaincy crises and managerial turmoil and the eventual end of the era of David Beckham, the essence of English football is intact. And an inability to win on penalties is at the heart of it.

It would be comforting to tell each other that penalties are a lottery and that England are unlucky. But they are not: they are a test of shooting and saving under pressure. The problem is that England are not very good. Sunday night's defeat was England's sixth in a major-tournament penalty shoot-out since 1990. In that time they have won one such contest, a European quarter-final against Spain in 1996. And then England had the obvious advantage of playing at Wembley.

So while the cast have changed in this long-running spectacle – from Peter Shilton and Peter Beardsley to Joe Hart and Ashley Young – too much stays the same. England only ever have a couple of good penalty takers. They can start shoot-outs well but those players who have been roped in wilt while the opposition improve. Those taking the later penalties never have as good an idea of what to do as the first to step up.

On the other hand, English goalkeepers struggle with the imaginative tricks of opposition takers, never responding in kind. When they do move in the right direction, they are not always quick enough to stop the ball.

Imagination: think inside the box

Andrea Pirlo was not the first man to show up England's lack of imagination. His delightful dink of a penalty on Sunday night was the outstanding moment of the quarter-final. Joe Hart had done his preparation but he could not know what Pirlo was going to do.

English football has long had a vision deficit, and this was not the first time that such a clever kick had confused an English keeper. In Euro 2004 England were shooting-out with Portugal for a place in the semi-finals. Helder Postiga needed to score to keep Portugal alive and he had the nerve to take such a "Panenka" penalty, fooling David James.

The kick gets its name from Antonin Panenka, who won the 1976 European Championship for Czechoslovakia with such a penalty. He told FourFourTwo magazine: "I knew that there was no way any goalkeeper was going to stand in the middle of the goal and not move before I hit it. If it had gone wrong then obviously I would have looked a fool."

In 1998 Roberto Ayala of Argentina beat England's David Seaman with a very well-disguised side-foot into the corner, after running as it to hammer the ball.

Manpower: who dares wins

England often have worryingly few players eager to take penalties. There is usually a core of specialists but not very much beyond that. The longer a shoot-out goes on the less likely it seems that England will win it, as the opposition continue to find high-quality, nerveless takers while England hope someone will change their mind.

The pattern is familiar. In 1990, against West Germany in Turin, Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley took excellent kicks and David Platt scored too, but clearly the best had gone first and there were few others. The West Germans sustained the level all the way through. Six years later, Stefan Kuntz and Andreas Möller took Germany's fifth and sixth kicks with remarkable confidence. England clearly ran out of good takers.

In 1998 Argentina scored their third, fourth and fifth penalties and such was the quality of Marcelo Gallardo and Roberto Ayala's efforts that they looked like they could continue all night. On Sunday Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney scored before it all went wrong. Too often, the English efforts collapse after two good efforts stoke unrealistic hopes.

Athleticism: back yourself

Saving penalties requires not just athleticism but also foresight. The gamble – risking going the wrong way – can be worthwhile as it increases the chances of reaching the ball. On Sunday night Joe Hart went the right way for the penalty from Mario Balotelli but he could not quite go early enough to beat the ball to the bottom corner.

This is not the first time that a touch more conviction might just have been able to benefit England. In 1990, in the first and probably most traumatic episode in this series, England lost to West Germany. Peter Shilton guessed correctly for all of the German kicks but did not go quite early enough to reach them. He followed Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus' kicks to the bottom corner, then Karl-Heinz Riedle's to the top and Olaf Thon's down to his right.

Clearly, the margins are just as fine for goalkeepers as they are for takers. In 1996 David Seaman got a hand to Stefan Reuter's third kick for Germany. On a luckier day he might have kept it out. Had Reuter missed, Gareth Southgate might not have even needed to take a penalty. It was not to be, though.

Of course, diving earlier could increase the chance of being beaten by a clever chip..

Practice makes perfect

When a shoot-out reaches the serious end, and the kicks mean even more, the players often look unprepared and unsure of precisely what they mean to do. Perhaps it is a lack of practice, perhaps it is a lack of nerve, but it tends to end in the same way: a saveable penalty down the middle, its taker torn between power and precision.

The worst memories are of Gareth Southgate's miss in 1996 – it was neither one thing nor another, just a weak, flat pass to Andreas Koepke in the German goal.

Koepke himself has said that practice is not very helpful. "It makes precious little sense to practice penalties in training," said the man who is now Germany's goalkeeping coach. "I hated it myself. In training, the players just whack it. They do different things when it really counts." Maybe so, but Southgate was not the last England player to take one without a clear idea of what he wanted to do with it.

In 1998, David Batty needed to score but could only hit it straight at Carlos Roa with neither disguise nor direction. Six years after that Darius Vassell, a striker taking England's seventh kick, fired one too close to Ricardo.

Too many English penalty takers look like they have not even considered the issue before.

Resilience: try things twice

Pirlo's dink seems even cooler when you consider what happened in 2010. In a friendly for Milan against Barcelona, Jose Manuel Pinto just stood up and caught the ball.