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Twelve Yards by Ben Lyttleton

Release date: 05th June, 2014
Publisher: Bantam Press

List Price: £14.99
Our Price: £10.49
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If there’s one consolation to take from England’s abject surrender in Brazil it’s that at least we didn’t have to contend with the collective agony of a penalty shoot-out.

Hiding behind the sofa and peering optimistically at the television screen as we go agonisingly close to victory is no way for grown men to behave. In any event, England supporters should, by now, be used to the perennial disappointment of a miss from twelve yards; after all, since 1990, the national team has been eliminated from six major tournaments on penalties (the World Cup in 1990, 1998, 2006 and the European Championships in 1996, 2004 and 2012), none of which we’ve looked like winning.

And there’s there rub. As Ben Lyttleton points out in Twelve Yards, the more frequent your penalty success, the greater the likelihood of being successful next time. The statistics prove this: a team that has won its last two shoot-outs has an 89 percent chance of winning its next one, whereas a side that has failed in its last two shoot-outs has only a 57 percent chance of success.

Twelve Yards is full of similar, easily digestible stats. For example, most fans know that it’s much better to take the opening kick in a shoot-out rather than go second – Lyttleton calculates that the odds are around 60:40 in favour of the team taking the first spot kick. He’s also discovered that the probability of success when a player is taking a penalty to save the match is only 62 percent, whereas when striking to win a match, it rises to 92 percent.

Even strong, mentally tough characters miss penalties – though not if they’re German – and Lyttleton’s timely psychological references complements a well-paced narrative that avoids descending into psychobabble.

Goalkeepers are the penalty kick’s forgotten men – unless they save them – and Chelsea ‘keeper Petr Cech offers evidence of how this is achieved. He looks for one (or more) of 13 different signals when faced with a penalty taker which might identify the ball’s ultimate direction. Lyttleton supplements this by calculating that the optimum time a goalkeeper should keep the penalty taker waiting is between 1.7 and 4.5 seconds.

Supporters agree that penalty kicks are an unsatisfactory method of settling a match, but for drama, tears and joy, there’s no better denouement. Thank goodness we Englishmen don’t have to face it this time.

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