Alternatives

Before we can think about the strengths and weaknesses of replacements to the penalty shoot-out, there is a more important over-arching question that must be addressed first. Should the result of the tie-break be known before the game starts, or emerge as the game is being played, or be determined after the game has ended?

This question is so crucial because the decision has a critical role in shaping the nature of the game that is played. At the moment, games are played with the two teams usually not knowing who has the advantage in the tie break. One notable exception occurred in semi final of the 2006 World Cup when the Italian team believed that they would lose to the Germans in the penalty shoot-out. They threw everything at the Germans, hitting the post and bar in the first two minutes of extra time and played with an exciting reckless abandon that eventually saw them get goals in the final minutes of extra time.

This semi-final was frenzied, exhilerating football that recalled an earlier game in the tournament, Australia vs Croatia, in which only the winner would progress to the next stage. Sadly, this game is remembered by most people for Graham Poll's refereeing blunders, but this was another helter-skelter ride and probably the best game in the competition. This game is crucial to our discussion of penalty shoot-outs, because this was a game with only two results: a Croatian win would see them progress, a draw or an Australian win would see them through. There was imbalance from the start and it resulted in a fantastic spectacle.

This idea of imbalance is denied by the penalty shoot-out as it offers a third outcome; i.e. settling the game in a method that some regard as a lottery. The problem of this approach is that if both teams lack confidence or the ability to break down their opponents, they can find refuge in the shoot-out. It is a way for them to proceed without having to beat the opposition. This seemed to be the case in the last 16 fixture in the 2006 World Cup between Switzerland and the Ukraine in which the most exciting feature of the game was watching the grass grow. Switzerland set a new record for being the first team to be knocked out of the World Cup without conceding a goal.

The alternative to these extremes is to let the tie-break emerge during the game as a reflection of what happened during the game. Technology in this area is moving ahead with startling speed. At the end of the game, the TV channels instantly flash up match statistics which include number of corners, shots on goal, and time of possession. The beauty of this emerging technology is that it offers a tie-break solution based on crucial features of the game being played. However, it is controversial and not without problem. Imagine how much the footage would be examined in tight games to determine whether a shot on goal was actually on target or not. And it might encourage players to alter the way they play the game. For example, they may try to win corners, rather than beat an opponent.

This analysis suggests to us that there are three fundamentally different ways of settling the results of drawn fixtures and these three methods can have a major impact of the nature of the football played in the tournament:

  • Determine the result of the tie-break before the game begins
  • Determine the result of the tie-break as an assessment of the game
  • Determine the result fo the tie-break at the end of the game

The rest of this page is devoted to an analysis of the alternatives clustered under these three headings. If you can think of other alternatives, please let us know.

Unbalanced games

Although unbalanced games might seem unusual, they are a common feature in the European Champions League and other European tournaments as the ‘away goal counting double’ has the effect of unbalancing the tie as soon as a goal is scored.

Most goals scored

The most obvious way of creating an unbalanced game is to give the advantage to the team who has scored the most goals in the competition. A few years ago, teams from some confederations were quite weak and this wouldn’t have been possible. But these days, standards have evened out and goals tend to be scored by attack-minded teams of quality. This approach has the huge advantage of increasing the likelihood of attacking play throughout the tournament. There is a theoretical objection; the result of the tie-break is determined without reference to the game that is being decided. This approach is discussed in more detail by Eamon Maher on his blog: click here

Best goal difference

An alternative to the ‘most goals scored’ method is to award the game to the team who has the best goal difference in the competition. This has the benefit of giving value to the defensive side of the game and removes worries about two qualified teams playing out an 8-8 draw in a ‘dead fixture’ to improve their chances later in the tournament.

Best record

Another alternative is to award the game to the team with the best record in the tournament. This would be calculated in terms of the number of wins, draws and loses. The main drawback with this approach is the fact that this measure will frequently not split the teams.

Fewest cautions

Another alternative is to count the number of cautions in previous games (and possibly add on the number of cautions in the game that is being decided). The big problem here is the variability of referees. In the past World Cup it really seemed like the luck of the draw whether your referee would dish out no cards, 16 cards, or lose count of the number of cards given.

Multiple deciders

One of the benefits of the unbalanced games mentioned so far is that they can be stacked so that if the two teams are level on one measure the next can be used. For example, imagine that best goal difference has priority, but the teams are level. Then the next decider might be the number of goals scored, and if that is equal, the best record and then the number of cautions.

First goal counts double

Loosely based on the 'away goals count double' way of deciding a drawn game, it would be possible to give greater emphasis to one of the goals in the game. To promote attacking play from the start, the team that scores the first goal could be awarded the game. The danger here, of course, is that the team that conceded the first goal would then have a mountain to climb.

Last goal counts double

To offset the problem with the mountain, the last goal could be given extra weighting. The problem here is a sense of fairness. Imagine a team scores early and dominates the game only to be caught in the last minute by a sucker breakaway goal. Although they would have extra time to make good, it seems a bit unfair.

Countback

Borrowing an idea from chess called 'board count' where the wins and loses are weighted by the board number, it would be possible to add together all the goal times for each time with the lowest number winning. For example, let's go back to the France vs West Germany World Cup semi-final of 1982 that ended 3-3. France scored in the 26th, 92nd and 98th minutes, making a cumulative total of 216. West Germany scored in the 17th, 102nd and 108th minutes for a total of 227. Using this system, France would have beaten West Germany 216-227.

Geographic remoteness

An interesting idea is to award the game to the team whose country is farthest from the venue of the match. This is used in rugby (usually after try counts) to counteract home field advantage. The problem is that these days of relatively low cost air fares and sports tourism, geographical remoteness is not that good an indicator of ‘home field’ advantage. Ever been to a Test Match in the Caribbean in which England are playing?

Assess the tied game

When there is a drawn game, what could be better than assessing the play of the two teams and awarding the game to the better team? This is exactly what happens in boxing, although interestingly, in amateur boxing following some appalling decisions, human judges have been removed in favour of a more systematic and objective approach of counting punches. And it seems to work. Importantly, amateur boxing has been changed for the better with more punches being thrown; what gets measured, gets done. Football has many different ways of calculating the ascendant team.

Woodwork

Award the game to the team who has hit the opponents post and crossbar most times. The beauty of this approach is that it is not something teams try to do, or would not try to do if it became the tie-breaker, but something which signals at one and the same time marginal failure (not scoring) and a sign of successful attacking play. It also has the advantage of being relatively easy to measure as a TV referee should be able to make assessments and the dynamic score is easily relayed to the players and the audience. One catch seems to be moments when goals go in off a post, or if a ball hits the post and crossbar, or both posts, in the same attempt on goal. Hence, it would be necessary to limit the count of ‘woodwork hits’ to one for every attempt on goal and if a goal is scored on that attempt at goal, no ‘woodwork hit’ would be registered. Another catch is that if this is successful, why not apply it to all games of football so that every game has major and minor score outcomes.

Corners

Whereas someone (or something) has to determine whether the woodwork has been hit, it is a piece of cake to count the number of corners. However, there is a big problem with this approach; determining the result of drawn games in this manner will alter play during the game. Instead of trying to beat an opponent, it will be too tempting to play the ball off an opponent for a corner. Anyone who has played hockey will know the frustration of conceding a corner when no deliberate misdeed has been committed.

Attempts on goal

Counting the number of attempts on goal or the number of attempts on goal on target seems logical, but there is quite a high degree of subjectivity in assessing what was an attempt and what was on target. And this subjectivity is certain to cause controversy and disagreement. Another problem is that this solution will encourage some ‘worthless’ attempts at goal (e.g. shots from the halfway line) and thereby distort the game for the worse.

Goalkeeper touches

It would be relatively easy to count the number of times the two goalkeepers touched the ball and to award the game to the team whose goalkeeper touches the ball the fewest times. If nothing else, this would cut down on the number of back passes. But the drawbacks are obvious. It would have a profound effect on the nature of the game with players doing everything to avoid involvement from their goalkeeper and to cause their opponent’s keeper to get involved such as speculative shots from a long way out. There would be other occasions when indecision would cause mistakes. All things considered, this approach has too many problems to be possible.

Cautions

Counting the number of cautions is a commonly-heard alternative to the penalty shoot-out. But such is the subjectivity of cautions, that it seems impractical. In addition, it would surely increase the amount of diving and the number of rubber-legged footballers who fall to ground as soon as there is a breath of wind.

Time of possession (1)

Such is the sophistication of the computer analysis of games these days, that it is possible to calculate the length of time each side has possession. Besides issues to do with the calculation of the result, there is a danger that teams would be tempted to play in ‘safe’ areas of the field and not try to make progress towards the opponent’s goal. If badly abused, this could lead to some immensely dull games.

Time of possession (2)

An enhancement on the time of possession approach is to calculate ‘time of possession in the opponent’s half. This is a measure of penetration, controlled attack, and pressure. But it is not trouble-free. There are calculation issues and it may alter the nature of the football.

Referee decides

In professional boxing the referee decides the result of many bouts. Perhaps the same could be done in football. The difficulty is finding a suitable place for the referee to hide for the rest of his or her life. And given recent Italian refereeing scandals…

Panel decides

The same is true for various panel decisions. Votes from members of the media or a panel of experts are all flawed and subject to abuse and anger.

Audience decides

Given the times we live in, why not simply organise a phone-in vote with the monies going to charity? Okay, it’s a pretty stupid idea, but would you bet against it ever happening? Imagine England versus anyone. The economies of Scotland and Wales would be bankrupted.

Post-match tie-breaks

These are ways of determining the result of drawn games once the game is completed. Something new is done to separate the two teams. The big drawback with this approach is that some teams may prefer their chances in the tie-breaker rather than in the game and the presence of the tie-breaker means that success in the game is not paramount.

Replays

In many ways the best way to settle the result would be to replay the fixture at a later date. But this is clearly impractical given television schedules, the impact on future fixtures and the tiredness of players, and the logistical practicalities. The one occasion when a replay might be possible is for the final. Ending major tournaments seems very unsatisfactory. Why not simply replay the fixture four or five days later? They would be some difficulties, but just think of the extra ticket sales, extra advertising sales, and extra TV revenues, let alone the satisfaction of another top quality game of football.

Endless extra-time (type 1)

When the game ends level at the end of 30 minutes of extra-time, why not play another period of 15 minutes? And if the game remains tied after that, play another period of 15 minutes and so on until one period ends with a decisive result. This solution has three important advantages. First, the winner has to score a goal; defensive play is important, but it mustn’t be at the cost of all attacking intentions. Second, ‘normal football’ is used to adjudicate the result. Third, problems associated with the ‘sudden death’ nature of golden goal forms of extra-time are avoided. But there are some important disadvantages of this solution. It might reward fitness and the judicious use of substitutes, rather than footballing ability. There is a danger that the players simply run to a standstill and the situation gets a bit farcical. But it is perhaps the effects of this approach that condemn it. The game could, quite literally go on all night, especially with two timid or fearful teams. Imagine watching many hours of Switzerland versus Ukraine. People might never watch football again. Even more importantly, players involved in such games increase the risk of injury and may be exhausted for future fixtures. Despite the weaknesses of this approach, it is analogous to the way baseball and Wimbledon tennis matches find a result. In baseball, it becomes a battle of relievers and substitutes, whereas at Wimbledon the longer the games go, the more the drama intensifies.

Endless extra-time (type 2)

A twist on the above is start playing golden goal extra-time once two ‘normal’ periods of 15 minutes are completed without the deadlock being breached. The threat of endless extra-time might encourage teams to be more attacking minded than the previous experiment with golden goals, but there is still the problem of ‘the sudden death’ finale that proved so unpopular amongst players, managers and administrators.

Endless extra-time (type 3)

An interesting variation on the endless extra-time approach is to remove players at regular intervals. The reasoning is that with fewer players on the pitch, there is more room and a greater likelihood of a decisive goal being scored. One version is to play 10 minute periods with each successive period being played with one fewer players. The result would be assessed at the end of each period to avoid the problems with golden goals. The downsides of this approach include the heightened risk of injury and exhaustion and the untested nature of the approach.

Endless extra-time (type 4)

This version is the same as the one above, but with golden goals to shorten the amount of time being played. This might be a strength, but it is also a weakness, and an untested one at that.

One-on-one confrontations

When the USA took an interest in football in the seventies, they eliminated draws. If the game finished level, rather than hold a penalty shoot-out, they held a variation in which the attacker picked up the ball 35 yards from goal and tried to beat the goalkeeper in a short period of time thereby the replicating the moment in a game when an attacker is through one-on-one against a goalkeeper. Just like a penalty shoot-out, five players from each team would have a go, alternating between the two teams. The advantage is that it replicates a ‘real’ piece of football, instead of the artificial set piece of the penalty kick. But it is unpopular and few have repeated it.

Corner competition

Why penalties? Why not use corners with a particular number of players? The benefit is that it replicates a regular feature of football games and it involves players performing a team-based event where they play normally. The problem, of course, is that it might take a long time before someone scores. And when a team must score to level the competition, the frenzy in the box might be unrefereeable.

Free kick competition

Goals are more likely to come from free kicks than corners. But how would you set them up? And aren’t they just a poor substitute for penalties?

Races

Perhaps the problem with penalties is that directs attention on kicking a ball into a goal past a goalkeeper. Why not utilise another footballing skill such as fitness or speed? Why not hold a race? Once around the pitch. If nothing else, it could give us a reason to include Theo Walcott in the squad.

Beep tests

Any one who has taken part in sports to a reasonably high level will know all about the delights of the beep test. This is a test of speed and fitness in which the participants line up and run to another line in a given time. Then a beep goes off and they have to return to their starting position. Then the beep goes again and the participants return from whence they came. And so on. The catch is that the beeps get increasingly close together meaning the participants have to travel the distance quicker and quicker. Any one who has done one of these things will know what an excruciating death the beep test triggers. And that is the catch. With something as important as progression to the next round of the World Cup at stake and after 120 minutes of football, a beep test could, quite literally, kill someone.

Lotteries

There is something horribly unsatisfactory about tossing a coin to determine the result. At least with penalties, the players have some involvement. But the fact the lotteries have been, and are, used to determine the results of some ties in football means they need some consideration. There is one major advantage; both sides having an even chance. There is no danger of hidden biases favouring one country. However, there is one important problem with lotteries; some might associate them with gambling, which is prohibited by some religions and in some countries.

Hybrids

In addition to the pure forms of decision making above, there are a series of possible hybrids that attempt to combine the best features of some techniques and minimise their weaknesses. The first two of these argue that there is a better way to hold a penalty shoot-out to improve the quality of football in the fixture.

90 minute penalties

An interesting idea is to take penalties before extra-time, but still play the extra-time. If the extra-time ends in a tie, the result of the penalty shoot-out is used to determine the result. This solution has several advantages over the current system. First, it will encourage attacking play in the extra-time as there will be an imbalance. Second, it offers an opportunity for redemption to those players who miss their penalties. Third, players take their penalties when they are fresher, so misses are more likely to be down to skill and technique, rather than exhaustion. Fourth, it minimises managers making tactical substitutions for the penalty shoot-out as the players will have to play the extra-time. However, the big drawback is the interruption in the football, which could be in excess of thirty minutes. It is likely to make the extra-time seem rather surreal and detached from the earlier game.

Zero hour penalties

Even stranger than taking penalties at 90 minutes, is to take them before the match. Presumably there are two advantages over taking them at other times. First, it means that there is imbalance throughout the game, not just in the extra-time. Second, the penalty shoot-out could be completely disconnected from the game and could even be taken at a different place and time for maximum media build-up.

Prior goal difference (or goals scored) and woodwork

Determining the result by assessing the teams’ comparative goal difference (or goals scored) has the advantages that attacking play is encouraged earlier in the tournament and the knockout game starts with an imbalance in scores that ensures that one team must attack. However, the big theoretical drawback is that it doesn’t involve any measure of the performance of the teams in the knockout game or involve a competition between the two teams. To get round this problem, the idea is that every time a team hits the woodwork in the knockout game, they get one added to their goal difference. One technical rule is required: one attempt at goal can only attract one reward. So, a shot going in off a post, only counts as the goal. A shot hitting the post and bar, only scores one towards the goal difference. In the event that a player rounds a goalkeeper and hits the ball repeatedly against the post before knocking it in, only gets the goal. This seems a very attractive way to settle the result as it is dynamic, encourages attacking play in previous games, rewards attacking play in the fixture, and is easy to calculate and monitor. The disadvantages… are there any? There is a risk that the game could still finish level and with the tie-breaker also tied. A series of alternative tie-breaks would be needed.

Other methods

Several other methods have been advocated. Some are almost sensible; the others are certainly not.

Goal size

These days it must be possible to change the size of the goals in extra-time. The idea here is that there are likely to be more goals if the goals are bigger. The problem, of course, is that teams will become more defensive as they feel more vulnerable.

Texas Hold ‘Em

Given the television coverage of poker these days, and the apparent predilection of footballers to gamble, assessing the result by holding a multi-table Texas Hold 'Em tournament would be very attractive.

Supermarket sweep

In an attempt to give England an advantage in the tie-breaker, it has been suggested that the results should be determined by having the WAGS (wives and girlfriends) compete in a 15 minute supermarket sweep in the nearest town with the highest total spend winning.

Phantom of the Opera

But our favourite is to turn the decision into an eight-week television programme with a weekly phone-in vote which Andrew Lloyd Webber can override regardless of what the phone-in vote says.

What do you think?

How should we replace penalty shootouts? Click here to record your opinion.