Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ben Lyttleton: A Conversation

Twelve Yards is a new book by Ben Lyttleton, an esteemed soccer (aka football) journalist and co-founder of the Soccernomics consulting agency.  Why am I writing about soccer for the first time on this blog?  Well for starters, I've been a lifelong fan of the World Cup whose interest in soccer has been amplified even further by NBCSN's recent full coverage of the English Premier League.  Despite the severe economic disparities that allow the same 6 teams to finish at the top of the league every year, any result can happen on a given day which makes it fun (in fact, after 5 games big spending Chelsea sit in 17th out of 20th place).

That brings me to the next great thing about the English League -- a sheer abundance of personalities and colorful characters hailing from all over the world.  For example, Chelsea's catastrophic start to the season is more fascinating and amusing as a result of Jose Mourinho, their megalomaniacal manager with a Napoleonic complex who has nicknamed himself "The Special One."  Throw in the unmatched passion of the Brits for their local teams dating back to the nineteenth century and you can see that there is indeed something "special" about the English game. 

I've always been captivated by penalty shootouts, so when I recently heard about Lyttleton's book Twelve Yards which is all about penalties, I read it immediately.  It did not disappoint, and any soccer geek will love this book.  And if you're not a soccer fan, it's a great way to learn more about the history of the game and about some of its current stars.  One other fun element is that many of the penalties that are discussed are available on youtube, so for example when you're reading about England going down in flames to Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, you can easily follow along with the video.

At some point in the future I may do a systematic deep diver into soccer on this blog, and I certainly would like to do more author interviews no matter what the topic is.  In the meantime, enjoy this conversation with author Ben Lyttleton, and please buy his book!  Click here for the book at Amazon U.S. and here for U.K. 

NS: Where did the idea come from to study and write about penalty kicks?

BL: Shortly after I set up Soccernomics with the authors of the book of the same name, we offered a penalty analysis to clubs and national teams before big games. We worked with a professor of game theory who would detail patterns and trends and opposition kickers and GKs and some teams found this very useful. It gave them a competitive advantage, and we even helped Holland before the 2010 World Cup final, which was four minutes from going to a penalty shoot-out. So I had a lot of knowledge about penalty kicks and how most teams approached them (not very seriously). When Ashley Cole then missed a penalty for England in Euro 2012, one month after scoring for Chelsea in the Champions League final, I was convinced there was something in this; he looked so confident for Chelsea, and so nervous for England. So I investigated further, discovered that England were making some fundamental errors in their approach, and that other nations/teams all had penalty traumas of their own.  

NS: Are you a fan of any particular team, either now or when you were younger?

BL: I grew up supporting a team but as a football writer for the last 20 years, you tend to lose the passion for your original team. The rise of social media does not help, because as soon as you write something vaguely critical about another team, even if it’s performing badly, it will be seen as though you are a rival fan. Which is not the case now, all football writers I know have a preferred team but none let that affects their reporting. So it’s just easier, sadly, if no-one knows the team you grew up supporting. 

NS: Do you like the penalty kick system as a way to decide a big match? 

BL: Of course I do! I love it! I think the penalty shoot-out is football reduced to its pure essence; goal, ball, keeper and shooter. What else is there in football? So if you can’t separate teams after 120 minutes, why not have the ultimate challenge in technique and nerve to find a winner. Remember, most players should be able to score a penalty, they are professionals and it’s a clear shot from 12 yards. The fact that many don’t is down to psychology as much as anything else. If you can’t separate the teams on technique, do it on nerve.

NS: I liked Geir Jordet's idea of having the other players (i.e. non penalty takers) in the shootout having positive body language and welcoming a player who has missed back into the fold with open arms, and I was surprised by Rickie Lambert's negative reaction to the idea.

BL: Jordet is a psychologist and Lambert a professional who is brilliant at penalties. He has been there and done it and is entitled to his view. I loved Jordet’s theories but that doesn't mean they are all workable or will guarantee success. I think if you put them together, they will increase a team’s chances of winning. Lambert did like some of Jordet’s other theories – particularly the one about not looking away from the GK after spotting the ball. 

NS: Your interviews were great, and it was really cool that you were able to talk to so many legendary names (e.g. Panenka, Le Tissier, Chilavert, etc).  Did you have a favorite interview of the bunch?

BL: Thanks for saying that – what I found, and I was surprised about, was that so many were happy to really open up about this one facet of the game. It was as though they found this subject as interesting as I did. Panenka was a personal highlight for me as he is a hero of mine for what he did, but I guess he’s the only one who ONLY ever talks about that penalty. Others who were brilliant to me were Le Tissier and Mendieta, both brilliant penalty-takers and the nicest men you could hope to meet. They were really supportive of my project too. It was fascinating spending time with Christophe Lollichon, a man so obsessed with the minutiae of coaching GKs that over one year later, he had still not watched back his finest moment, Cech diving the right way 5 out of 5 (and saving 2) in Chelsea’s Champions League final win. I was also lucky enough to spend time with Dave Brailsford, Sir Clive Woodward and Dave Alred, three brilliant coaches from outside football; it convinced me that football could do with more learnings from outside the game. They were all inspirational.

NS: In general, as a shooter do you think it's best to go down the middle?  Or do you think the goalkeeper dependent method is best (i.e. waiting to see where the goalie dives before shooting)?

BL: I have been asked what my tactic would be if I was taking a penalty in a World Cup final. Assuming this was my job and I had spent 20 years practising for this moment, yup, I would go hard and high down the middle. But I would practise so many times beforehand – and not just the week before, but for years before – that it would become part of muscle memory. Like Andy Murray and second serves to anywhere in the service box. Or Rory McIlroy and eight-foot putts. They don’t get nervous before them because they have practised so often that it’s second nature. 

NS: Let's say that aliens invade earth and challenge us to a soccer match.  You can pick one player (from either today or anytime in the past) to take a penalty with the fate of the world at stake -- who do you pick?  Same question goes for the goalie -- which goalie throughout history would you pick to try and stop a penalty?'

BL: Does it have to only be one? My dream team for a shoot-out would be Le Tissier, Mendieta, Brehme, Panenka and Zidane. I’d probably take Le Tissier (his record was 47 from 48) if I had to choose one.

The goalkeeper is an interesting one, because a lot of the time, GKs have great records because the shooters think they are brilliant, rather than they actually are brilliant. If a GK has a reputation for being a penalty specialist, then the shooter will aim closer to the corner and that will increase his margin for error. So often GKs are expert because of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That wouldn't work with an alien taking the penalty, as presumably he/she/it would not know that the GK had just stopped a penalty from Ronaldo/Messi/Hazard. That said, the best stoppers today are Handanovic, Alves and Leno. I would probably go for Mickael Landreau, who once saved a Ronaldinho (when he was at PSG) penalty by standing next to one post and psyching out the Brazilian, who kicked it straight at him. 


  1. Thanks Nick, I think you just solved one of my Christmas present dilemmas with this book! 'The Numbers Game' by Chris Anderson and David Sallying is also worth checking out; not read it personally but it's got the thumbs-up as an interesting insight by a fan in the family.

    1. Thanks Al, glad that I could help with the Christmas shopping! I'll check out the Number Game -- hadn't heard of it before but looks like it's right up my alley.