• Amos Murphy

Bad luck or poor strategy? Manchester City penalty curse unravelled

It’s a story that’s been told one million times over. A Manchester City player stands over the ball from 12 yards out, face scrunched up, shoulders tense, knees wobbling, before squandering a penalty and turning away amidst a cloud of disappointment.

 

The relieved cheer from opposition supporters seeps into the stadium air, as Pep Guardiola slumps to the floor in desperation. A story that’s been told one million times over, right? Well, sort of.


Since the beginning of last season, City have been awarded 25 penalties, with seven of those either saved or missed. Amongst the missed-penalty culprits are some of Europe’s most talented footballers, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and even record-goalscorer Sergio Aguero having failed from the spot.

Photo courtesy of Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Of course, seven failed spot-kicks doesn’t sound too detrimental on the face of it, but when you compare it to Liverpool’s record from 12 yards, discrepancies began to show up. In that same timeframe, Jurgen Klopp’s side were awarded 18 penalties, while converting 16 of that total.


Considerably more potent from the spot, Liverpool have reaped the rewards of penalty success this season alone, with both their League and FA Cup triumphs coming from penalty shootout victories.


Klopp will have you believe it’s down to strategy, with the Liverpool boss pointing towards a newly-appointed neuroscientist as the reason behind the victories. The more emotionally inclined within the game will make the case for penalty successes being more down to luck than spreadsheets, while the truth most likely resides somewhere in the middle.


But how does this go any way to deciphering City’s supposed misfortune from 12 yards? It seems remarkable that the side consistently topping the scoring charts in the Premier League has such difficulty converting penalties.

Fortune tends to favour the attacker, with penalty takers having around a 75% chance of scoring before they even place the ball on the spot. Granted, there are factors that will swing that probability either way, but on the whole, it does feel as if there is a psychological barrier preventing City players from operating with confidence when taking a penalty.


With the latest slip-up from the spot coming from repeat offender Riyad Mahrez, who after missing at Anfield during the 2018/19 campaign embarked on a redemption journey that saw him establish himself as City’s regular taker, attention has once again turned to why City struggle to score penalties.


Parried away by West Ham United goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, Mahrez's missed penalty denied City a chance to complete a remarkable comeback against the Hammers and all but secure a sixth Premier League title.

Photo courtesy of Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It could just be that City have been on the wrong side of some pretty remarkable bad luck, and their difficulties from 12 yards are nothing more than a strange anomaly.


Perhaps, but there is also something to be said about the philosophy of boss Guardiola, whose idealistic approach to football revolves around complete control over every element of the game.


It’s no secret Guardiola favours a system that looks to tame the uncontrollable. Be that through a goalkeeper whose job it is to not only prevent goals from going in, but also one that is skilled at starting out attacks from their own 18-yard box, or filling as many positions on the pitch with players who are capable of dominating possession from the referee's first whistle.


So, when you reduce the situation in a game to a one vs one between attacker and goalkeeper, where the tangible elements of football disappear immediately, maybe then the penalty problems begin to become a little more understandable.

If you were to hand Guardiola a blank sheet of paper and ask him to write down the rules of football from scratch, it’s hard to imagine the Catalan would opt for penalties to be part of the game, given the sheer unpredictability they present.


While the odds may be stacked in the favour of the attacker, a penalty isn’t something that can be understood by logic, and no amount of practice on the training pitch can replicate the environment of taking a spot-kick, especially when the pressure of three points, or even a Premier League title, sits on the line.


It may look like a simple and controllable aspect of the sport, but penalties are inherently chaotic experiences, so for City to succeed from the spot, should they just embrace the chaos a little more?


Who knows, perhaps the arrival of Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund will bring about renewed success from penalties for City, with the talismanic striker having netted all eight of his spot-kicks for the Bundesliga outfit this season.

Photo courtesy of INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

After all, it’s not as if City have struggled from the spot in the past, with both Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure boasting 100% records from penalties during their time with the Blues.


But for as long as City players continue to miss from 12 yards out, the groans and rumbles from the Blues faithful will continue whenever the referee points to the penalty spot in favour of Guardiola’s side.

 

Written by: @AmosMurphy_