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England Players Banned From Discussing Penalty Tactics At Euro 2024

The Football Association’s determination to relieve pressure on England at Euro 2024 has led them to throw a veil of secrecy over the team’s approach to penalties, underlined by players being blocked from answering questions about the squad’s shootout process.

It is understood there has been unhappiness within the FA at former staff members lifting the lid on the heavily detailed psychological work done to alter England’s tortured relationship with spot-kicks. There have been pointed remarks from Gareth Southgate, who has driven much of the change, and officials were reluctant to allow any insights to leak out after the nerveless shootout victory in Saturday’s quarter-final against Switzerland.

Countless hours have gone into ensuring that a discipline once viewed as a lottery is treated as a science. Chris Markham, the FA’s former game insights lead, spoke about England’s strategies in an interview for a book about penalties by Geir Jordet, a Norwegian professor of sports and psychology.

Southgate was tight-lipped on England’s process before their last-16 tie against Slovakia. “Everybody else who used to work for the FA seems to have done that over a period of years,” the manager said. “We’ll keep our counsel and prepare as thoroughly as we always do.”

Jordan Pickford’s heroics in goal against Switzerland, combined with excellent conversions from Cole Palmer, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Ivan Toney and Trent Alexander-Arnold, provided the latest vindication of Southgate’s methodical work. The FA’s research had found that England’s players previously rushed their penalties, and examined where takers should stand while waiting for their kick and where shots should be placed.

The randomness has been stripped away. Before Southgate was appointed in 2016, England had lost shootouts in 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012. A triumph over Spain at Euro 96 was followed by Southgate famously missing the vital penalty in the semi-final against Germany.

As manager, he has sought to remedy England’s mental frailties from 12 yards by drawing on a variety of psychological strategies. During these Euros, though, FA press officers have stepped in when journalists have asked players about their mechanisms.

Questions to Marc Guéhi and Ezri Konsa have been blocked and a member of the FA’s media team stepped in when Pickford, who produced the decisive save from Switzerland’s Manuel Akanji, was asked about his shootout strategies on Saturday night. Pickford had notes about the habits of Switzerland’s takers written on a bottle by his goal. He used delaying tactics before diving left to save Akanji’s effort.

It was also noted that Switzerland’s manager, Murat Yakin, addressed his entire squad before the shootout. Southgate spoke only to the players still on the pitch at the end of extra time. There were suggestions that England used a “buddy process”, where one player would be assigned to a taker to support them and offer congratulations after their kick. Pumped-up celebrations after each successful take are also designed to increase the positive vibes.

In Jordet’s book, Pressure: Lessons from the Psychology of the Penalty Shootout, Markham talked about how he helped Southgate after first being consulted by him in 2017.

“From a psychological perspective, speaking about a lottery takes ownership away from the players,” he said. “And that was the thing for me to give them back. To take control of not just the kick itself but the whole process. Initially it was about the perceived control. How can we increase the level of perceived control for the players and the staff and everybody? Talking about run-up steps, angle, pace, you know everything from breathing techniques, optimal areas of aiming, goalkeepers, looking at gaze masks and goggles.”

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England have previously consulted Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a pioneering professor at the London School of Economics about penalties, and there is detailed insight contained in a new book about Southgate’s reign, Dear England. The authors, Rob Draper and Jonathan Northcroft, focus on the victory over Colombia in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup, noting that Jordan Henderson did not slump after his penalty was saved by David Ospina.

Southgate’s methods have not always worked. He was criticised after England lost on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 final. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were brought on to take penalties just before the end of extra time, but both forwards were cold and failed to convert their efforts.

Italy would go on to win when Saka’s kick was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma. “We got absolutely crucified for the one we lost and that’s always going to be the case because it’s outcome-based,” Southgate said on Saturday. “We refined that process a little bit.”

It seems lessons were taken on board. Unlike Rashford and Sancho, Toney and Alexander-Arnold had enough time to get warm after coming on in extra time against Switzerland.

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