World Cup 2014 panel

When it comes to penalties, the eyes are the window to the goal

A Krul defeat for Costa Rica. Ali Haider/EPA

World Cup 2014 has been described by many as the best ever for the exciting play and huge number of goals. And, as the tournament has progressed, the drama has increased, with hard fought games going to extra time and then the dreaded penalties. So far we have seen three – 27 penalties have been taken and only six saved.

As a vision expert, it’s interesting to see the different approach taken by strikers and goalkeepers when it comes to penalty taking. Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul garnered praise and vitriol for his recent success in saving two penalties for the Netherlands against Costa Rica, taking his team through to the semi-finals. Krul marched up to every Costa Rica player before they took their penalty to tell them he had studied their game and knew which way they would shoot. But, is this really possible or was it just a psychological game he was playing to put off the opposition?

With all the video technology that is now available it should be expected that goalkeepers will study the form of those likely to take a penalty awarded during the course of play. They will study the speed and angle of the players’ run-ups and watch endless video clips to identify if they have any “tells” to show where they are going to place the ball. So, Krul’s claims were feasible in a way.

But when it comes to a World Cup penalty shootout, the keeper is likely to be facing an unknown quantity. The players who take the penalties may not be regular takers and it will not be known until the last minute who will be thrown into the pressure cooker of the shoot-out, depending what happens in the preceding 120 minutes of the game. This means that the preparation possible for keepers before games will be limited and it is all down to their anticipation in those final seconds of the spot kicks.

Anticipating and acting

Analysis has shown that the time between when a ball is struck and when it arrives at the goal for a penalty is between 500 to 700 milliseconds. This does not give a goalkeeper enough time to respond physically and make a save so they have to use information available to them before the ball is struck to best guess where the ball will go. They have to anticipate by around 100 milliseconds before ball contact, otherwise it is too late.

So where should goalkeepers be looking in order to give themselves the best opportunity to make a save? Research has shown us that expert goalies use the position of the strikers hips as an important cue to detect the direction of the kick. And, the angle of their body’s trunk can tell the keeper more about the height to expect the shot at – the more the player is leaning back, the higher the ball is likely to go.

Also, it has been shown that goalkeepers who spend longer looking at the non-kicking leg are more likely to make a save than those who look anywhere else. The angle at which the non-kicking foot points towards the goal seems to be the clearest indicator of ball direction so it makes sense for this to be the last point of focus for a goalkeeper before they move.

It is not just where experts look that set them apart from less successful goalkeepers, it is also how they look. Your eyes naturally jump from one point of fixation to the next (called a saccade) about three times a second to gather information from areas which grab your attention. But, in the penalty situation, expert goalkeepers show much fewer fixations than novices, but they last much longer. This suggests that they are gathering more information in each look than their less skilled counterparts.

So, with the chance of more penalties on the way, goalkeepers must follow these clear visual strategies for saving their team from elimination: long, slow eye movements, moving from the trunk, past the hips and the fixating on the non-kicking foot. And, of course, hope that their teammates can hold their nerve and put the ball past their counterpart on the other team.