Mbappé, Culture & the Superstar Curse

Why France lost on penalties – and why it may happen again

The fall-out whenever France is eliminated from a major tournament is always fascinating. All sorts of reasons were put forward for last week’s dramatic defeat on penalties to Switzerland: compared to 2018, France were not as unified or as scintillating; they had lost their insouciance and gained more egos; their families were feuding and the tactics were unsettling.

Photo: Getty Images

All good reasons, but one was conspicuous by its absence. No-one mentioned the penalties. Actually, that’s not quite true, as this is what goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said after the game:

“We gave everything, we left it all out on the pitch. Penalties are a lottery. We did not have the luck.”

This view was reinforced by coach Didier Deschamps, who used the same words. “Penalties are a lottery.”

Pardon the pun, but I think I’ve got déjà vu. Well, I’ve certainly heard that ‘penalties are a lottery’ excuse before. Six times before, in fact; after each of England’s six previous eliminations after a penalty shoot-out. My opinion? The coach who calls penalties a lottery is the coach who doesn’t prepare for a penalty shoot-out.

It’s England’s good fortune that it now has as coach someone who understands that penalties are a trainable skill that can be improved. Of course, Gareth Southgate learned this the hard way, with his miss against Germany in 1996. A look at France’s penalty missers down the years shows such that France is unlikely to have a similar situation: Didier Six, Maxime Bossis (1982), Michel Platini (1986), Reynald Pedros (1996), Bixente Lizarazu (1998), David Trezegeut (2006) and now Kylian Mbappé.

In the case of Six, he always felt he was never given a fair chance at becoming a coach in his homeland (he is currently coach of Guinea) because people who remembered his miss felt he was mentally weak:

“I was pissed off with it all my life. At a certain point, it gets too much. You are 45 but people still see you as missing the penalty. The toughest to deal with, it's not evil, it’s what happens when you try and live your life in your own industry, by that I mean football, and avoid any obstacles in your way. Because I missed a penalty, we can say this world is ungrateful, perhaps it’s even wrong too. I struggled to get my coaching qualifications, I had difficulty finding a job, because they said, ‘That one is unstable.’ And all of that has come from this missed penalty kick.”

France’s penalty defeat encapsulated three of the key messages in Twelve Yards:

1. Kicking second is a disadvantage (which I explored after Villarreal beat Manchester United in the Europa League final)

2. Superstars miss more penalties

3. Rushing your penalties can be disastrous

The Superstars research study was carried out (of course) by the magnificent Prof. Geir Jordet, who found that high-status players – those who have been recognised and won individual awards – have lower shoot-out conversion rates than mid- or low-status players. Also, that the same players score in shoot-outs at around 90pc pre-recognition, which drops to nearer 60pc once they reach the high-status. Look at Platini in 1984: the best player in the world missed his penalty against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final! As Jordet explains: “With high status comes extra high expectations, and this may cause some players to under-perform.”

Then there is the reaction time after the referee’s whistle. This has been mentioned often since Twelve Yards came out – even Declan Rice was talking about it last week – and it was interesting to note the French players’ reaction times to their penalties after the referee blew his whistle. Once again, Prof. Jordet has done the heavy lifting here:

Mbappé waited just 0.2 seconds to start his run-up. Did no-one tell him that it’s better to take your time? If not, why not? And if so, why did he ignore them? He seemed nervous, twice looking at the referee as he waited for the whistle. There’s also the fact that he was kicking fifth in the order. As one former French international player put it: “Mbappé would not have been kicking fifth if Mbappé did not want to kick fifth.” Who picked the order for these players?

I wrote earlier in the tournament that some goalkeepers should be subbed on in case of penalty shoot-outs, and the French team was a prime example. Mike Maignan is a penalty specialist. Yes, it’s a punchy call with Lloris the captain, even more so as he excellently saved a penalty from Ricardo Rodriguez in the game.

The super-observant Darren Tulett noticed Karim Benzema telling Lloris where to dive. Rodriguez scored for Wolfsburg in the Champions League against Benzema’s Real Madrid in 2016 – did Karim really remember that?

It was ignored that was Lloris’s first penalty save for France in 16 attempts – his last save coming NINE years ago against Spain’s Cesc Fabregas. And it was ignored that for Switzerland’s five penalties, he moved the wrong way on four of them. He did get close to one (number four from Vargas) but he failed to save it because his first movement was so late. Out of the five Swiss penalties, four were struck GK-Independent, and three went to the kicker’s natural side.

Here are the Switzerland penalties:

1.Mario Gavranovic: GK-Independent, natural side; Lloris dives non-natural side

2.Fabian Schär: GK-Dependent, non-natural side: Lloris dives natural side

3.Manuel Akanji: GK-Independent, natural side; Lloris moves non-natural side early, and scrambles across the goal, not even diving

4.Ruben Vargas: GK-Independent, natural side; Lloris dives natural (but late)

5.Admir Mehmedi: GK-Independent, non-natural side; Lloris dives natural side

That is how France lost, but it’s not why they lost. I wondered if a look at their previous shoot-out defeats could give us a clue for this. The 1982 defeat – in the Battle of Seville, against West Germany – was as iconic for France as England’s 1996 defeat was. The injustice of Harald Schumacher staying on after injuring Patrick Battiston (and the fact the French were 3-1 up and were pulled back to 3-3) rankled strongly. In the 2006 World Cup final, there was a similar sense of injustice before the defeat to Italy; the dismissal of Zinedine Zidane took all the attention and energy away from the shoot-out, which was more of an afterthought in the ensuing post-mortems.

France’s previous penalty defeats being overshadowed by this sense of injustice plays into the Lloris/Deschamps narrative that penalties are a lottery. This sense that referees are unfair, that you are expected to score (or stop) a penalty when everything is stacked against you; how can you possibly prepare for penalties in such an unfair scenario?!

This is a dangerous path. The stronger this belief, the less likely France will ever get over its penalty problems. I’m told most people in France accepted the lottery excuses and focused on the other issues that were going on; continuing to believe that penalty shoot-outs are a lottery will only end in one way – more defeats.

When Twelve Yards first came out, not many people who believed that penalties can be trained and improved. Now England players are publicly sharing strategies for penalties that are mentioned in the book. It’s a slow process, but things are looking more awkward for the ‘lottery brigade’. A few more French defeats on penalties, maybe even one to England, might be the only solution to getting Les Bleus to change their mindset.

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