A new perspective on the Manchester United-Chelsea 2008 Champions League final penalty shootout

The new book to be released this week, “Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained,” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, has a truly enlightening story about the penalty shoot-out at the end of the 2008 Champions League final.

The excellent book analyses, as the title would suggest, not only why England fail to win major tournaments but also various other football myths and in the chapter which looks at whether penalties are unfair, describes “what actually happened in that penalty shootout in Moscow.”

According to Kuper and Szymanski, Nicolas Anelka, rather than John Terry, was the key villain in Chelsea’s 2008 Champions League final defeat to Manchester United on penalties.

The story starts back in 1995 with a Basque economist by the name of Ignacio Palacios-Huerta who wrote a paper analysing the science behind penalty shoot-outs. A co-colleague of Ignacio was an Israeli professor who also had a relationship with former Chelsea boss, Avram Grant.

Shifting the story on, the middleman introduced Grant to Ignacio in the run-up to the final in Moscow, and the Spaniard prepared a detailed report on how the Pensioners should approach a shoot-out against United’s Dutch goalie, Edwin van der Sar.

First was the observation that Van der Sar has the tendency to dive to the penalty-taker’s natural side. If the kicker hits with his right, the Dutchman goes right. If the kicker if a lefty, Van der Sar usually goes left. And so the advice was for the kickers to do the reverse.

Second, it was stressed that to beat the keeper, the penalty-takers need to either hit the ball low (below one meter) or high (over one and a half meters). The space in between is Van der Sar’s bread and butter.

The other main pointers in the report included that, on Cristiano Ronaldo’s technique, if the Portuguese takes a break in his run-up then the probability is that CR7 would try and place the ball in the top right corner. And lastly, Ignacio proved the statistic that 60% of teams that shoot first go on to win.

When watching the footage below it is staggering to see how this formula appeared to be applied by Chelsea (save for Ashley Cole) in their penalties – even John Terry went left – and then we arrive to Anelka’s moment of shame when the Frenchman refused to stick to the plan.

By this stage Van der Sar had become savvy to the fact that Chelsea had a system and the Dutchman can be visibly seen pointing to his left just as Anelka was lining up his kick (watch the video below if you don’t believe this). As hindsight has now proven the Dutchman’s kidology worked, and Anelka (a righty) not only shot to his natural right side, but also struck the ball at exactly the wrong height.

To check out whether you agree with the theory, you can relive the 2008 Manchester United-Chelsea Champions League final shootout here.