THE penalty. It’s the greatest test of a player’s composure in front of goal as the weight of expectation bears down on them. It seems easy to hit the back of the net from twelve yards but, as we know, some players are better than others at keeping their cool when it matters most.
Ask most fans and they’ll tell you that left-footed players aren’t as reliable from the spot as their right-footed counterparts. It’s obvious where they’re aiming, they say. But is there any truth in this?
We’ve taken a look at every penalty taken in Europe’s top five leagues – The Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and LaLiga – this season in an attempt to get to the truth of the matter.
The global average when it comes to penalty success is around the 78% mark, so it follows that if left-footed players have a better conversion rate than this, then there is no truth to the stereotype. Conversely, if their success rate is below the magic 78%, then we can say that there is something to the claim that left-footers aren’t as successful at converting spot kicks.
The graphic above details the penalty statistics in each of Europe’s top five leagues this season and players are separated based on their preferred foot. It’s important to note that this is a relatively small sample and that the players involved are playing at the highest level, so this isn’t entirely representative but it does give us some insight into the issue.
There are a few interesting things to note here. Firstly, that the vast majority of penalty takers in the Premier League, for instance, are right-footed. Of the 55 penalties so far this season, only five have been taken by players shooting with their left, and only two have gone in: both successful strikes belong to Liverpool’s Mo Salah.
Of course, it’s only natural that the vast majority of spot kick takers will be right-footed, as right-footed players vastly outnumber players who favour their left. In our sample, the Premier League stands out for having the worst left-footed penalty takers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the German Bundesliga has the highest scoring rate.
Right-footers have a success rate higher than 78% in each of the five leagues, but there are three competitions where left-footers aren’t hitting that target – the Premier League, Serie A and LaLiga all score below the global average.
Overall, there have been 218 spot kicks taken by right-footed players this season across all five leagues with 184 of them finding the back of the net, or 84.4%. Left-footers, on the other hand, have taken 42, with 32 resulting in a goal. This gives players who use their left foot a success rate of 76.4%: just below the global average conversion rate.
So, case closed, right? Not exactly. As previously mentioned, this is still a small sample and as a result we can’t take any definitive conclusions from this. There is, however, an expert on the issue.
Ben Lyttleton is the author of Twelve Yards, a book that details how penalties are taken, the psychology behind them and the coaching that takes place; both from the perspective of the taker, and the goalkeeper.
Ben has conducted his own research spanning 20 years and has reviewed over 8,000 penalties, looking for clues to discover the optimum method of scoring – and saving them. It’s fair to say he’s an authority on the subject. So, does Ben think there is a notable difference in success rate between left and right-footed players?
“No,” Ben says. “In my sample there I found that there was no difference at all – I think there was maybe 0.1% in it.
“There are factors that come into play; how much time is left, whether or not the penalty would give their team a lead, things like that. But it doesn’t matter what foot a player uses.
“When I speak to clubs and they say they don’t want to use a left footer, I tell them it’s irrelevant.”
So why does the perception exist? “We’re all guilty of confirmation bias,” says Ben. If you believe that left-footed players miss more penalties, every time you witness one doing so it reinforces your belief. When right-footed players miss, it doesn’t stick in the mind as much.
The difference between a good penalty taker and poor one, Ben says, has very little to do with technique at all.
“It’s more about psychology than technique. Look at Lionel Messi; he’s so much better than other players at everything he does, but his penalties only go in around 76% of the time – lower than the global average,” Ben points out.
“A penalty is something that anyone can do. You don’t have to be a global superstar to score.
“A good penalty taker will practice coping with anxiety, which allows them to focus.”
The hard part of converting a penalty kick is the wait before the referee blows his whistle, according to Ben. It’s not the act of kicking the ball which is difficult, but the thinking beforehand. If a player wants to get better at penalties, the best way to do so is to focus on their own personal routine, rather than worry about the outcome.
So there you have it. This season appears to be a blip of some sort, where left-footers are slightly under-performing compared to those who use their right. In the long-term, there is no empirical difference between players using different feet. The perception remains – and is perhaps the reason behind so many right-footed players taking penalties in the Premier League – but the reality is that the theory is no more than an urban myth.