England head coach Sarina Wiegman held a piece of paper in her hand and peered down at a black iPad, held by England goalkeeping coach Darren Ward. To her left was her trusted assistant Arjan Veurink. They were confirming the five players to take penalties after 120 minutes of football against Nigeria in the World Cup last 16 had failed to deliver a winner.
“We have talked about the psychology and execution of a penalty,” said Wiegman. “This is the hardest pressure, when you have to take a penalty in front of 45,000 people. The consequences of missing or score, it’s huge. So we have talked about that psychology as individuals and as a team. We just tried to prepare as well as possible.”
The Lionesses have been working on their penalty-taking methods since well before the Euros. Against Nigeria, their process started from the moment the whistle blew to signal the end of extra time.
‘Calm’ and ‘control’ before the shoot-out
The Dutch duo of Wiegman and Veurink went away to talk to the nine outfield players, with England one short following Lauren James’ 87th-minute red card for a stamp on Michelle Alozie.
They huddled together in a circle. Wiegman and Veurink positioned themselves in between the first five penalty takers and non-penalty takers, creating a clear divide.
To Wiegman’s right stood the four non-penalty takers: Lucy Bronze, Katie Zelem, Jess Carter and Millie Bright. To her left stood those on her list: Georgia Stanway, Alex Greenwood, Chloe Kelly, Rachel Daly (who was lying down receiving a massage to her left leg) and Bethany England (brought on in the 105th minute).
Both coaches spoke calmly but emphatically, especially Wiegman who was reinforcing key messages at the heart of England’s penalty-taking process. ‘Calm’ and ‘control’ are buzz words that come back to Wiegman and Veurink: they aim to remain cool on the sideline and transmit that to the players.
Ward, meanwhile, filled Earps’ water bottle and took her aside one on one, holding up his iPad to show her snippets of information about Nigeria’s spot-kicks.
The clear manner of organisation contrasted with Nigeria’s team talk, which extended to substitutes and staff gathered on the touchline, but also England’s most recent penalty shootout against Brazil in the Finalissima in April. On that occasion, the order of England’s takers changed at the last minute thanks to Bronze who told Wiegman to bump Kelly up to the fifth penalty taker. The chosen five were the same as the Finalissima, and in the same order, save for one, Beth England, who took her place instead of Ella Toone who did not play against Nigeria.
Newly appointed captain Bright spoke briefly with Ward before going to take the coin toss to decide the end the penalties would be taken and which team would go first. She won both and chose Earps’ preferred end and for England to take the first penalty (it is a long-established theory that the team who takes first is more likely to win).
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England were proactive in their approach. They were the first team to enter the centre-circle which meant they were closer to the goal and nearer to their substitutes and staff in the technical area. That is important for the team feel but also in terms of communication should they need instructions from the sideline.
When Nigeria came into the circle, they had to adapt to the position of England’s players, who had already set up in a long line. It also meant they had to always walk past the England players when they took a penalty and had a longer walk to the penalty area – all significant small details.
“The staff have spoken about the positioning within the centre circle,” England’s record goalscorer Ellen White told the BBC. “Being more in front rather than on the halfway line, have a stance, celebrating every goal scored, having that togetherness.”
Taking their time
Given Wiegman and Veurink’s attention to detail and meticulous planning, it is no surprise England left nothing to chance.
Given the men’s history of poor penalty performances the English Football Association (FA) “put a really systematic focus on penalties,” former head of team strategy and performance Dave Reddin told The Athletic in 2021.
One finding the FA pounced on was English male players’ tendency to rush their penalties during a shootout. “It often seemed to be the case that the players who missed penalties were the ones who, under pressure, responded to the referee’s whistle as if it was a starting gun,” said Reddin. “It isn’t. It’s a signal that you’re allowed to take the kick. We found that, in terms of the optimum time after the whistle is blown, there was a sweet spot of around three to five seconds.”
Although, at the end of 2020, for the first time, the Lionesses had a separate technical performance strategy from the men’s department, they seem to have taken on these key learnings.
Each Lioness who stepped up took their time, between two and six seconds, and a deep breath.
Time between whistle and penalty taken
“The important thing to tell the players was that they were in control,” said Reddin. “They decide when to take the kick. That’s down to them — not the referee, not the goalkeeper. They’re in control.”
Greenwood was laser focussed. “No doubt about it,” she said in the mixed zone after scoring her penalty. “We practice them in training, I practice personally, and we’ve got some very good penalty takers. We proved that tonight.”
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Mind games and gamesmanship
The mind games are part of England’s process. Mary Earps and Lucy Bronze, big personalities and bold in nature, will lead those – the masters of ‘shithousery’.
“(Lucy) will do whatever she wants, whatever it takes to win,” Earps told The Athletic earlier this year. “We’re both not shy, if we can get an edge in any way then we’ll definitely do it.”
For instance, Bronze took up her position on the far right of England’s line meaning she was closest to the kick-off spot and directly in Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie’s line of sight. She waved her right arm as she waited on the halfway line, doing anything to distract the opposition.
Earps went up to Nigeria’s first penalty taker, Desire Oparanozie, and, later on, also handed her England team-mates the ball, another repeated action that is part of their process and familiar with the men’s team too.
“Body language is one (aspect),” said Wiegman. “And also supporting each other, we stand with each other. They stuck together.”
Even when Stanway missed the first penalty, Carter was there to console her. Equally, when England scored, each penalty taker, even the more reserved characters such as Greenwood, made a point to celebrate hard, not so often seen in the women’s game.
When Nigeria missed, even though Earps did not get a touch to any of the spot-kicks, she came off her goal line, arms outstretched, tongue rolling.
knew england were going through as soon as I saw this pic.twitter.com/Q8DyKMDN1z
— lauren corelli / loco (@corelliLAUREN) August 7, 2023
“I do my own research and I’m not going to reveal it here,” she told The Athletic. “It is a free shot from 12 yards so the striker should score every single time. My job is to make it as difficult as possible and give myself the best chance to save it. We definitely prepared for penalties.”
Kelly’s hop, skip and jump
After missing the first spot-kick, England went on to dispatch three top class penalties. The last was left for Kelly, whose run-up was idiosyncratic to say the least.
After a rub of the lips and a pause, Kelly stood with her left knee high and her right foot bolt upright. She hopped onto her left, took one step with her right, planted her left and thwacked the ball into the back of the net at 110.79 km/h (68.84mph).
“Fire and ice,” said her former Everton manager Kirk last year. “She takes penalties under pressure, definitely has ice in her veins and plays with a lot of fire.”
It is a unique technique and one she has used, says Kirk, ever since she joined Everton on loan in 2016. Indeed it is a muscle movement that Kelly will always complete when she comes on as a substitute too.
“I’m going to score” that is how I look at it,” said Kelly, whose penalty is the fastest shot of the tournament so far, recorded thanks to the technology inside the Adidas Oceaunz OMB ball, although it will not count for official leaderboards as it was part of a shootout.
“Once I win that mental battle – we are good. Anything that’s thrown at us, we show what we are capable of. We dig deep as a group and we believe in our ability. It’s the team. This team is special. We did it in the Euros, we did it in the Finalissima and we did it tonight. And there is more to come.”
(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)