SAINT PETERSBURG, Russian Federation, Jul 1 – England have projected this World Cup as a fresh start for a new generation but the team’s record of failure in penalty shoot-outs may not be so easy to forget.
Penalties have been the death of England at six of the last 12 major tournaments and in that time, they have won only once, against Spain at Euro ’96.
Gareth Southgate’s playing career was defined by the shot he side-footed into the hands of Andreas Kopke as England then lost in the semi-finals at Wembley to Germany.
“I have had a couple of decades thinking it through,” Southgate said last week.
His experience has informed his own approach now as coach, with a last 16 tie against Colombia to come on Tuesday and the possibility of penalties looming again.
Southgate was in the World Cup squad in 1998 under Glenn Hoddle, who believed shoot-outs were a lottery, impossible to replicate in training and therefore not worth any form of practice.
England duly lost to Argentina on spot-kicks and missed out on the quarter-finals.
If there is one thing Southgate has been determined to drill into the preparation of his players, it is that penalty shoot-outs are not decided by chance.
“It’s definitely not chance,” Marcus Rashford said from England’s training base in Repino on Sunday.
“It’s a skill and every skill takes time to learn and to perfect. It’s never a chance. It’s just about being able to perform it with pressure.”
England have been practising penalties since March. The players rehearse the walk from the halfway line as well as their shot. Southgate has deployed video analysts and psychometric testing to gauge his most reliable takers.
“There have been occasions where you even tell the goalkeepers which way you’re going so it has to be the perfect penalty,” Rashford said.
England’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has saved five out of 30 penalties faced during matches, a similar record to his two back-ups, Jack Butland, whose record is four from 25, and Nick Pope, who is three from 13.
It is standard practice now for keepers to study their opponents’ habits, even if Pickford was left stumped when Tunisia’s Ferjani Sassi stepped up in England’s opening match.
“The lad who scored it had never taken a pen before. I was struggling with where to go,” Pickford said. “I got fingertips on it and went the right way, which is promising.”
Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois has suggested Pickford, at 1.85 metres tall, carries a disadvantage but Colombia’s stopper David Ospina is even smaller at 1.83 metres.
England might take heart too from Ospina’s record. In spot-kicks awarded during games, he has saved only three out of 38 and one in his last 15. In shoot-outs, he helped Colombia past Peru in the Copa America two years ago by blocking Miguel Trauco’s effort with his legs.
For England, half the battle will surely be mental. How heavy will the past weigh on the present?
“We can’t change the past, it’s gone now,” Rashford said.
“All we can look forward to is what is in front of us and I don’t think we ever think about that type of thing with England. It would put you on a bit of a downer.
“We understand it but that record is definitely not something that is on our minds.”
Rashford said he would be willing to put his hand up, as did Dele Alli when he was asked on Saturday.
Harry Kane, who slammed two penalties into the top corner against Panama, would certainly be one of the five, while Jamie Vardy, who takes them for Leicester, is an option off the bench.
Jordan Henderson, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker could also be on Southgate’s list.
“You have to control it, you have to own it,” Alli said. “I’m confident in myself and what’s meant to be will be.
“We’ve got to try to work hard on the penalties and we have been, we’re trying to own the situation, not let it own us. It’s changed the whole mindset for us.”