It was supposed to be a historic moment for Canadian soccer. Within 10 minutes of their first men's FIFA World Cup match since 1986, Canada had the chance to score its first men's World Cup goal after being awarded a penalty against Belgium by the VAR.
Although he's not a regular penalty-taker for club or country, Bayern Munich forward Alphonso Davies stood over the ball, 12 yards out from Thibaut Courtois' goal. But the 6-foot-7 goalkeeper anticipated Davies' shot perfectly; dropping down to his right to swat it away. As a forlorn Davies held his head in his hands, Courtois puffed his chest out and celebrated with his teammates. Belgium would go on to win the game 1-0.
Of the nine goals scored from 14 on-target penalty attempts in the group stage so far, goalkeepers combined for five saves (the joint-most in the history of the competition): a save percentage of about 35% that has seen Davies, Argentina's Lionel Messi, Poland's Robert Lewandowski, Saudi Arabia's Salem Al-Dawsari and Ghana's Jordan Ayew denied. For reference, the 2018 World Cup saw just 13.6% of on-target penalties saved in the group stage (three saves on 22 attempts) and the 2014 World Cup saw an even smaller percentage of 10% (one save on 10 attempts.)
Goalkeepers are saving more penalties this tournament than expected, given the average quality of the shots faced. "It will be interesting to see if this trend continues and if goalkeepers keep performing at an above-average rate this World Cup," goalkeeper data scientist John Harrison said. "Or if by the end of the tournament we will see the expected goals (xG) pre-shot equal the xG post-shot and equal the number of penalty goals scored."
Favorable heights for goalkeepers
Harrison is the head of data at Goalkeeper.com, a website dedicated to goalkeeper statistics and analysis. He has built several data models to track goalkeeper actions on one-vs.-ones and shot prevention and he uses those models to help determine the most optimal goalkeeping styles and techniques for each play.
One data model he recently built was a penalty-saving model. It uses penalty power and velocity -- compared with historical Premier League penalty data since the 2015-16 season -- to determine the pre-shot and post-shot xG of each penalty kicks.
Harrison insists other penalty models normally assign every penalty the same scoring rate -- usually an xG from 78% to 82%- -- but because these models don't usually consider a penalty's velocity or placement in its calculations, they end up giving each the same scoring rate, whether it's aimed at the top corner or the centre of the goal.
"You can't just assign every penalty with 82% probability because ... one that's above shoulder height very rarely gets saved, so you would want to assign a value much, much closer to 1," he said. "Whereas let's say like a side-footed penalty that's like 2 yards from the corner along the ground won't go in as high as 80% of the time. It might be more like 70-something because ... maybe it'll squirm under the goalkeeper even if they go the right way, but a decent punch at this height will be saved."
This might explain why a greater percentage of on-target penalties were saved in this group stage. Of the 14 penalties taken so far, all but four were struck in the bottom third of the goal (about 2.67 ft/0.81 metres or lower) -- and only one (Gareth Bale's penalty vs. the United States) fell into the Harrison model's "impossible to save" zone of <5% save probability.
The low height of the penalties seen so far in Qatar is a departure from what we saw at the 2018 World Cup, where only nine of the 24 penalties (37%) taken in the group stage were aimed at the lower third of the goal.
Part of the reason is simple: players want to keep their penalties on target. "If you miss the target, you will literally never score," Harrison said. "Whereas, obviously, at least if you're hitting it low, even if it's a yard or two away from the corner ... if the keeper goes the wrong way you're going to score anyway."
Looking through the list of players who have taken penalties in this World Cup, some aren't regular takers (Canada's Davies and Spain's Ferran Torres), have missed high-profile penalties in the past by trying to go too high (Messi), or are on teams who might not have expected to score many goals at the World Cup (Al-Dawsari). These are all players who might not fancy themselves to hit the high, impossible-to-save areas of the goal without missing the net entirely. So instead, they opted to keep their penalties low -- lowering the risk of missing the target, but increasing the risk of seeing their penalties saved.
It would also explain why regular penalty takers like Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Wales' Bale were more comfortable smashing their penalties high. "[Shooting low is] a more risky strategy if you do have the ability -- like Bale and Ronaldo showed -- to just run up and hit it higher and into a sort of higher probability area of the goal," Harrison said.
Baiting the goalkeeper
But it's not all down to the taker; the goalkeepers have also played a role in why some of the shots have been aimed low. "A few of the takers did look like they were sort of using a technique where they were just trying to wait [for] the goalkeeper [to move] and go to the other side," Harrison said.
This is something that's become more prominent in football recently, with the emerging popularity of run-ups with hops and sudden changes of pace. Though some players have taken criticism for their run-ups, there's a tactical reason for why they abruptly stop as much as they do: they can bait the goalkeeper into revealing which side they're going to react to early.
For example, a fast, wide run-up likely means a shot to the opposite side of the player's run-up (left run-up could mean a shot to the player's right side, and vice versa.) This is because it's difficult for the player to twist their hips and place a shot accurately on the same side as their approach if they're attacking the ball with a lot of speed from a wide angle.
Similarly, if a taker approaches the shot from narrower angle, they might be more likely to shoot the ball across their body, as that is the natural flow of the foot -- it takes more effort to open ones hips up and shoot the opposite side of the run-up as opposed to swinging one's foot across their bodies.
The pace of a taker's run-up could also hold some clues for goalkeepers. If a player attacks the penalty with pace, the shot is likely going to have a lot of power behind it and will probably be airborne. So in this case, a goalkeeper may get into a diving motion slightly earlier in order to give themselves a better chance at stopping a high shot.
On the other hand, if a player is approaching the ball slowly there may be a lack of pace in the shot, so a goalkeeper will want to stay upright a little longer in order to get a better read on the run-up and where they plan on putting the ball. Staying upright in a balanced shape also avoids giving any clues as to where they are planning to dive.
Just as goalkeepers are looking for clues in the players' run-up, the takers are looking for clues on the goalkeepers; and with a well-executed stutter or hop, a taker can bait the goalkeeper into revealing their cards early.
This was seen in Bruno Fernandes' penalty vs. Uruguay. By using a hop-step run-up, Fernandes got goalkeeper Sergio Rochet to react to his left side early, giving him enough time to adjust his body to shoot to Rochet's right side.
Another example was Torres' goal vs. Costa Rica. Torres initially attacked the penalty with pace, and Keylor Navas tried to counter it by getting into a diving motion slightly earlier than usual. But when Torres went into his hop-step, Navas was already in the process of moving to his left side, so Torres was able to adjust and shoot to Navas' opposite side where his momentum couldn't be halted.
Even without prominent hop-steps, some players have been able to bait goalkeepers into revealing their cards early. Messi, for example, was able to exploit Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais' impatience by baiting him into diving slightly early with a slow run-up.
Messi got Alowais to lean to his left just as he got into shooting motion, and this gave the Argentine star enough time to adjust his body in order to shoot to the goalkeeper's right.
"Once the keeper has already dived, if the taker is still making up their mind on the shot, they're just going to make sure they roll it down into the goal," Harrison said. "They're not going to care if it's right in the corner, as long as it's not in the keeper's side."
Potential shootout stars?
With the knockout rounds kicking off Saturday, fans will likely be treated to several penalty shootouts -- as three of the last four World Cups have seen four shootouts. Although it's difficult to predict which goalkeepers might come out on top, there are some names who could be heroes for their countries.
Spain's Unai Simon is one. Going into the tournament, Simon had one of the best international save percentages of on-target penalties among World Cup starters.
Although Simon seems to have a preference to diving to his right side (he dove to right on six of the nine penalties he faced in Euro 2020), he has a lot of shootout experience at the international level and that could play a role. On top of that, Simon has a good arsenal of diving techniques. He's comfortable power-stepping to dive further and higher across his goal, allowing him to reach shots aimed closer to the corners (such as his save vs. Italy's Manuel Locatelli at Euro 2020); dummy-stepping to one side and then diving to the other (such as his save vs. Switzerland's Manuel Akanji); or staying in the centre of the goal in case a player decides to shoot there.
"If you're doing lots of different things, then those strikers that are trying to read you or those strikers that are thinking about the penalty ... they're going to get freaked out by it and not really know what to do," Harrison said.
Another goalkeeper who could impress is Poland's Wojciech Szczęsny, who is arguably the goalkeeper of the group stage. The 32-year-old has been in inspired form this tournament -- he's saved 18 of the 20 shots on target he's faced, which includes two penalty saves, making him the first goalkeeper to save two non-shootout penalties in a World Cup since the USA's Brad Friedel in 2002.
The best was his penalty save against Messi in Group C's final game. Despite Messi hitting the shot with power and some height (unlike his first penalty vs. Saudi Arabia), Szczęsny was able to stretch his right hand upwards and parry the hard shot far away from the goal. Harrison called it the "best penalty to be saved" at this World Cup, with an expected save rate of just 19%. But the most impressive thing about Szczęsny's save might not be the save itself, but the way Szczęsny was able to read Messi's run-up prior to the shot.
Speaking to Polish sports channel TVP after the game, Szczęsny said: "[I] knew where Messi would shoot. Leo looks at the keeper on some penalties and hits hard on others. I knew that if he was going to hit hard, it would be more to my left. I saw that he was not stopping [his run-up], so I went, I sensed, I defended."
It's this kind of research and ability to accurately predict where a penalty taker may go based on their run-up, coupled with his unwavering self-confidence, that makes Szczęsny a strong shout to be a potential shootout hero.