Sunil Chhetri – The Science and Psychology behind his penalty kicks

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The entire nation enjoyed when Sunil Chhetri dragged a jet-lagged Pakistan dirty at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium with a hattrick. For him, it has come a complete cycle as Pakistan were the opponents when he scored the first of his 90* international goals. He remains the only Indian footballer to score a senior hattrick since the turn of the century.

For his third goal, Chhetri didn’t even have to break a sweat. It was a long ball and he was through. He checked his shoulder, saw that there is no support, just kept himself between the ball and the defender and won an easy penalty. The whole evening Pakistani defenders were giving out easy set pieces – the skipper played the pattern to his perquisite.

Sunil Chhetri scored two penalties in his hattrick against Pakistan
Chhetri with a penalty kick against Pakistan [AIFF]

He stepped up to give India an irrevertable lead over Pakistan and himself an irreversible lead over Mokhtar Dahari (Malaysia) in the all-time men’s scoring list. As usual, he took a short run-up, slotted it into the keeper’s right, gave a few low-fives, and went on about the business. While he breaks and establishes new records, the man remains unfazed by all the buzz around. In a team where a lot of noise sometimes plays wrong for the players, he stands out and it’s just one of the reasons why he stands out.

He has long defied the concept of ageing. His number one fan Gurpreet Singh Sandhu occasionally refers to him as ‘Benjamin Button’. But the 2021-22 season of ISL turned out to be a nightmare for the Bengaluru FC skipper. His two penalties at the beginning of the tournament got saved and the piling pressure saw him go 11 games without a goal.

Before that season started, Sunil Chhetri had scored 12 out of 13 penalty attempts in the ISL. As per Sofascore’s pictorial data representation, 61% of them were on the goalkeeper’s right whereas 39% of the thirteen shots taken were exactly on the goalkeeper’s right bottom corner. There were a few brilliant panenkas. One of them went wrong when Albino Gomes opted to stay on his feet. But it’s a clear depiction that for Chhetri, it’s either his bottom left corner or a panenka.

Goalkeepers seemed to have learned that. Both Kamaljit Singh (Odisha FC) and Mohammad Nawaz (Mumbai City FC) dived to their right and got pumping results. Soon, he was benched by Marco Pezzaiuoli due to his growing struggle on the pitch. Following an impactful substitute appearance against Mumbai City FC, he was handed a start against FC Goa where he finally paid off with a goal. It took him 12 games to open his account but after he finally found his scoring boots, he ended the campaign with four goals and an assist in the last nine league games.

The final round of Asian Cup qualification started three months after the final league game against East Bengal. Thirteen minutes in, Liston Colaco was brought down and India earned a penalty. Chhetri turned up, three steps, bam! He blasted it to the keeper’s right. The Cambodian could only look up to the evening sky, thinking, “I COULD have… SHOULD have saved that!”.

Sunil Chhetri - The Science and Psychology behind his penalty kicks images 9 1
Chhetri with a penalty kick against Cambodia [HT]

That was (one of) the last instances of him taking more than two steps in his penalty run-up. The next time he stepped up for a penalty kick was at Kochi against Kerala Blasters. His approach had a significant change this time. The run-up was significantly shorter, the eye direction was more direct, and he allowed himself to judge the keeper’s movement till the very last moment. Prabhsukhan Gill dived to his right but Chhetri, with his eyes grained on his former teammate, put this one on the opposite side.

In the ISL Final, he had the chance to cancel the lead ATK Mohun Bagan had taken. Again, same pattern: One step, eyes grained on the keeper, wait till they react, and slot it accordingly. Golden Glover Vishal Kaith stood no chance. In the shootout, he again sent Kaith the wrong way. In the semifinal shootout, Phurba Lachenpa, composed enough, waited for him to take a shot before committing. He may have won the waiting game but Chhetri still scored.

Post-match, his former Bengaluru teammate Erik Paartalu talked to him on Star Sports and asked about his new run-up. Chhetri went, “I wanted to go slow. (See,) I missed two penalties last year not looking at the keeper. I’m going to look at the keeper, I’ll look at the keeper. If he saves, he saves. (But) I know he’s not going to jump till the last moment.”

Psychologically, the 30s bring a greater sense of self-awareness. This is probably why Chhetri completely changed his penalty-taking approach. At the age of 38, he realised that he needs to update his system to stay in the game. He knows that penalties are an important element of his overall game. His conversion rate is over 90% throughout his career.

Taking penalties under pressure can even make subconscious movements conscious. Experts call it ‘paralysis through analysis’. One of the benefits of a short run-up is that it cuts out the movements.

Coaches nowadays often try to sneak in penalty data to their goalkeepers but it wasn’t common around the 2006 World Cup. There’s this great story that shouldn’t go unmentioned. Esteban Cambiasso took the decisive penalty against Germany in the quarterfinal. Lehmann had a piece of paper that completely shattered the Argentine. He had already lost the grip of the competition when he walked back with his back towards the keeper. One never shows the back – be it a war or penalty shootout. A loose penalty saw Argentina out of the World Cup. The piece of paper in question is now kept in the Museum of German History.

When the striker comes to know that the keeper is aware of his patterns, they may go into a vicious spiral of overthinking.

The shortening of his run-up has happened over the years. In the AFC Cup game against Kitchee SC (2016), he took a long run-up before chipping it through the middle. He doesn’t travel that long anymore. Short run-ups have psychological as well as physiological benefits. Those help in maintaining better control and accuracy over the ball. The added effect of sudden movements may catch the keeper by surprise and give him the advantage of an extra few milliseconds. This explains why even with 185 cm tall keepers going full stretch, they are unable to reach the ball.

He has also adopted the approach of slow run-ups over the years. These types of run-ups help create uncertainty and psychological pressure on the goalkeeper. With the increased wait, the keeper is more likely to give away. The skipper did it against Thailand in the opening game of the Asian Cup campaign when he easily deceived the keeper into going the wrong way.

The approach is very popular amongst top penalty takers like Paul Pogba and Lionel Messi. They make the keeper wait and overthink more, resulting in them committing before they should have. Whereas some players like Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo like to be a brute force and go for power. It’s a thing of preference. The short and slow approach to the spot tells that Sunil Chhetri goes for precision over power.

Sunil Chhetri - The Science and Psychology behind his penalty kicks images 7
The two Indian Football royalty share the same training ground [BFC]

The best penalty striker in India gets to train with his best counterpart, Bengaluru FC and India’s #1 Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. “We train almost every single day – me and Chhetri bhai. It’s an art for Chhetri bhai, to keep scoring whenever the chance comes. He wants to keep reinventing his technique. For me, when you have him shooting penalties makes my life difficult. I have to face that challenge and stay tough,” he told The Indian Express.

“If a player like, for example, Greg Stewart, he’s going to take a pen and he is coming slowly in his run-up, it’s most likely – guys like Greg, Bart Ogbeche, Sunil Chhetri – all these guys will look at the keeper and wait for the keeper to go one side and slot it on the other side. So that’s the most difficult part for any striker to do and a goalkeeper to judge,” he further put his input.

In an era where everything is out in the world, it’s brave of Chhetri to stick to his usual targets. He for sure has evolved his technique over the years but he hits them in the same area. Does that make him predictable? Yes. But he seems to have mastered that same hit. In a psychological battle like this, it’s not only about the end, it’s about how each step is undertaken. He seems to do those right. There is no other explanation for why he makes those penalties despite people knowing the most of his patterns. Automatism training may be playing a role where the body gets accustomed to something due to regular physical practice. They subconsciously gain expertise in those.

Sunil Chhetri - The Science and Psychology behind his penalty kicks IMG 20230622 180152
[AIFF]

Sunil Chhetri has entered the 90s. Cricket fans have suffered a lot with the nervous nineties. Will the football fans? Please don’t make them suffer, skip!


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Chetan Anand
Chetan Anand
Radars Football, Cricket and Motorsports

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