How did England banish their World Cup penalty demons?

Inside story of how Gareth Southgate’s team’s detailed preparation paid off

All the numbers were against England going into the penalty shootout against Colombia. England: three defeats from three World Cup shootouts; six defeats in seven shootouts in major tournaments. And with a 14 per cent win percentage, the worst of any national team with more than five shootouts to its name.

England also conceded a late equaliser in normal time. Statistically, teams that score the final goal take momentum into the shootout and are more likely to win it. Oh, and Colombia took the first penalty, which increases their chance of success. So now we know for sure that this edition of the World Cup cares little for precedent.

Make no mistake, this shootout success belongs to Gareth Southgate. He is unlike every England coach who has faced a penalty shootout in the past: the only one to have missed a penalty for England, and the only one to accept that the penalty shootout is not a lottery; that taking penalties is about performing a skill under pressure; and that penalties can be trained.

Not for him the arrogance, incompetence or fatalism of England coaches past. "You can never recreate on the training ground the circumstances of the shootout," said Glenn Hoddle in 1998. "When it comes to the pressure we are not good," said Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2006. "You can't reproduce the tired legs. You can't reproduce the pressure," said Roy Hodgson in 2012. Southgate turned the trauma of his own experience in 1996 into a vindication of five months' work preparing for the prospect of a shootout. Funny how we heard similar excuses from the Spain coach Fernando Hierro – "it's a lottery and we were unlucky" – and Denmark's Åge Hareide – "unfortunately it was decided by a lottery" – after their shootout defeats at the weekend.


Southgate talked to his players about owning the process, and he worked on the players' individual technique and team dynamics. He even recreated "the tired legs", with Kieran Trippier admitting that players had "practiced and practiced and practiced" penalties, taking spot-kicks while fatigued at the end of long sessions. Twenty-eight years of World Cup penalty hurt and all it needed was a bit of practice. Who would have thought it?

Once extra time was over, it was clear that everyone knew their roles. When Southgate addressed the players in a huddle, he was not asking for volunteers, which many coaches do – Hierro included – and was how Southgate himself ended up, reluctantly, taking a penalty in 1996. (In my eyes, this is an abdication of the coach’s responsibility, as the coach should know the players’ ability to cope with what’s called “competition anxiety” better than the players themselves).

When the referee Mark Geiger addressed the two goalkeepers before the shootout, Jordan Pickford pulled himself up to maximum height; before every penalty he jumped to touch the crossbar, as though reminding his opponents that he might be taller than he looks. Pickford also handed the ball to each England player on his way to the spot. This is owning the process, and ensured that David Ospina would not disrupt any players' penalty routine by making them walk to get the ball.

Every England player struck his penalty using the Goalkeeper-Independent method: they picked their spot and trusted in their execution. The four that scored all went to their natural side, generating enough power (and in the case of Trippier, height), that the goalkeeper could do nothing to stop them, even though he dived the right way. Only Jordan Henderson kicked to his non-natural side.

It was noticeable that England players waited at least one extra second, and in some cases more than that, before taking their penalties. In the past, England has the quickest reaction time of any national team from the referee blowing his whistle to the player starting his run-up: just 0.28 seconds. This is a sure sign of stress. In his autobiography, Southgate described his process: “All I wanted was the ball: put it on the spot, get it over and done with.”

This was another lesson learned from the 1996 defeat. On Tuesday night the England players took time to compose themselves before their kicks, unlike Carlos Bacca, Colombia's last kicker. As soon as the referee blew his whistle, Bacca began his run-up. His was the quickest reaction of any player in the shootout. His penalty was saved.

And so England win a penalty shootout in a World Cup. It feels strange even writing those words. For a generation conditioned by the vicious cycle of defeat and inevitable trauma, Southgate has changed the narrative. The coach urged the players to write their own story and they have done just that. And if the next chapter requires another penalty shootout, England will never have to fear the ghosts from the past again. – Guardian service

Ben Lyttleton is the author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty