Deciding football games on the toss of a coin

At the end of 2010 a ground breaking piece of research was published by the football fan and economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, which revealed a simple but crucial finding on penalty shoot outs.

The team that goes first really does have a tangibally measurable advantage in the ‘lottery’ of the shoot out. Essentially, the flip of the coin and decision to take the first penalty in these end of game deciders can swing the balance in favour of that team to 60/40.

Almost 3,000 penalties were studied by Ignacio-Huerta over a 38 year period in major competitions. 60 per cent of the time the team taking the first penalty won. Perhaps the reason is because footballers have an ingrained belief in the importance of taking the first penalty, as in just one out of twenty coin-tosses observed in the research did the winner of the toss opt to take their penalties second. That was Italy, and they lost.

Generally, the role of goalkeepers is overrated if you believe the research. It implies that rather than their saves in shoot outs making a crucial difference, that the main difference which causes the second team to lose more often are kicks that miss the target altogether. Both goalkeepers in shoot outs studied have similar success rates whether saving first or second.

The solution comes from the world of tennis, with the suggestion that penalties are taken in an order similar to those in a tie-break in a tennis game. Of course in tennis similar psychological patterns come into play. In a traditional set where both players hold their serve until the player who serves first is 5-4 up, this places significant pressure on the opponent, something clearly visible last week when Andy Murray found himself 5-4 down in the first set of his semi-final with David Ferrer, and subsequently he lost the next game and the set. That Ferrer served first was crucial in deciding that set.

Yet in football, the team taking the first penalty takes the first kick in each round of the shoot out. It seems only logical that this should change. Instead of the pattern being Team A, Team B, Team A, Team B etc…it makes more sense for it to go Team A, Team B, Team B, Team A, Team A, Team B and so on. This eliminates the inbuilt advantage for the team kicking first.

The consensus on this research seems to be rather straightforward. The shoot out must change to adapt to the fact that the team kicking first has a clear advantage. What this amounts to is three out of five games decided on the toss of a coin. With the biggest games in world football regularly going to the distance, and the money in the sport, surely it is unthinkable to continue allowing this most arbitrary of methods to decide the biggest games of all.