Open letter to Ronald Koeman, manager Dutch National football team ‘Oranje’

Actueel · Boeken

Dear Mr Koeman,

The European Football Championship is about to start. The undersigned has a lot of appreciation and respect for your coaching contribution to Oranje. However, I think I would do well to inform you about what is probably the biggest hurdle that has to be overcome for the Dutch national team if it wants to achieve success. In one area I believe I can give you well-founded advice. An advice that all your predecessors ignored, with disastrous consequences for Dutch football. It's about the penalty. I realize that facts do not often encourage people to change, but since the year 2000 time has certainly done its work. Younger generations trust that the Dutch players will be well prepared and trained for a possible penalty shootout. The time of excuses and fallacies, especially that it is a lottery and an untrainable factor, is now really over.

The master and the students

The penalty is of course a topic that will appeal to you. You were a master at it yourself and scored around 94% of the penalties you took. A lot better than the players you are training now, who often do not score higher than around 70%. In short, you missed one in 25 penalties, an average Dutch player quickly missed one in three. So it's time to finally pay serious attention to this. I know that, as you say, you make many decisions 'by (gut) feeling'. That is sometimes a wise decision, but certainly not when it comes to taking penalties. As Cruyff said: 'Penalties have little to do with football'. I would therefore like to give you some tips and tricks that will bring you closer to achieving success. It concerns concrete, football-technical and psychological elements. These aspects are based on intensive and worldwide research by many renowned researchers, athletes and journalists. Facts may not change people, but I hope and firmly believe that you and the team can certainly benefit greatly from this. A winning advantage, even.

Background: KNVB mailroom

The fact that I chose the unusual way of communicating via an open letter has a long history. Since the year 2000, I have been trying to inform national coaches about the knowledge available about taking good and successful penalties. All your predecessors ignored this knowledge and advice. In fact, I never received a response to any of the letters I sent to the KNVB headquarters, including to your predecessors Frank Rijkaard, Dick Advocaat, Louis van Gaal and Marco van Basten. I am firmly convinced that this has cost the Dutch team at least one (European or World) title. After all, the Dutch lost in 2000, 2014 and 2022 after taking (very) poorly taken penalties and therefore did not reach the final (or next round). And previously in 1994, 1996 and 1998, the Dutch team had been eliminated from a major tournament after penalties. That can really be improved! In fact, the chance of winning a title without winning a shoot-out during the tournament has now become very small.

The Dutch team, together with England, is one of the worst penalty taking national teams in the world, despite the talent available. This has everything to do with our football culture. As long as we continue to talk about a lottery in the Netherlands when it comes to penalties, the series of losses will continue to grow. In fact, this approach even makes a significant contribution! Players will perform worse if this is the starting point. After all, they know immediately that the chance of missing is high. While a player with the knowledge and skills to take a good penalty realizes that the chance that he/she will score is high. The choice for this is ours, not up to chance.

The code

You can read my story and many other tips and tricks in my recently published English work Cracking the Penalty Code, Winning a Shootout in Football. In English, because I compared the English team and the Dutch team (benchmarking) against successful penalty countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic and Argentina (see the basic data below). If people in the Netherlands do not want to listen, I assure you that the English team now has one (and even several) listening ears. Once bitten, (or should I say, many times bitten?), twice shy. In this open letter I will now give you three tips that will bring you a lot closer to a successful penalty shootout.

Let me start with a score table that clearly illustrates how poorly the Dutch team and England (The Three Lions) perform in terms of the penalty kick. The table shows the scoring percentages of the aforementioned countries at European Championships and World Cups during penalty series.

Vergouw's Penalty Scoring Table©

Scoring percentage          

Above 95%                         Excellent                                             Czech Republic

90-95%                                Very good                                         

85-89%                                Good                                                  Germany

80-84%                               Sufficient

75-79%                                Average                                              Argentina

70-74%                                Below average

65-69%                                Bad                                                     The Netherlands

64% and below                    Very bad                                             England

 

I can explain this table easily. If the Netherlands or England have to take five penalties against Germany, the English will most likely miss two and the Germans will miss a maximum of one. The Netherlands misses one in three penalties, Germany one in about seven. I don't think I need to explain which country wins when five penalties have to be taken. And then I'm not talking about the Czechs, who, by the way, have never missed a penalty in 20 attempts at the European Championships (NB: the Dutch team missed 12 out of 37 attempts).

Preparation and technique

It is up to the coach and the accompanying team to properly prepare the players for a possible penalty shootout. The importance of this has now dawned on all participating countries, in the last ten years almost no title or final place during a major tournament has been achieved or won without winning at least one shootout during the tournament. The last European Championship and World Cup are examples of this, in the latter case by, not entirely surprisingly, beating the Dutch team. The Orange seemed 'prepared' but stepped into the hole it had dug itself. The background to this can be read in my analyzes in the book, but in short, 'making war in the sixteen meters (or 18 yards) box' is not really a Dutch strenght.

The preparation does not consist of having players at their club take 3,000 penalties in wasted hours without proper instructions, as your former colleague Luis Enrique did with the Spanish national team (all players missed their penalty during the last World Cup). It is about giving the players instructions on how and where to place the ball, making the right run-up, and directing the ball with the right strength and technique. These are elements that are easy to train. An example is the Panenka, which I see in many forms in competitions, but rarely performed correctly. Many players believe that a soft, chipped ball through the middle is sufficient, but forget that the 'inventor' of this penalty took a quick run-up of six meters to deceive the keeper. So many players actually only take half a Panenka. That's almost a guarantee of a flop.

In short, clear instructions about how players can and must take a penalty are necessary. You cannot leave this to the players themselves or to players who come to you after the match with the feeling that they 'enjoyed in the match and feel confident'. And also not to players who want to 'take responsibility'. Are they psychologically ready for this, or are they overconfident? That can be determined in advance! And do you already have the list of 26 players in order, based on training data? So that you don't have to run around with a piece of paper after extra time asking players whether or not they want to take a penalty? After all, that increases stress for players, trainers and in any case for 8 million households in the Netherlands. And yes, all players should be included on this list, in order. After all, injuries will occur, players will be substituted, series will become longer, etc. Make sure all players know what is expected of them when it comes to penalties. Before the European Championships!

No lottery

Only in the Netherlands and England is there a prevailing feeling that the penalty shootout is a lottery, which neither players nor coaches can influence. You can read the background to this idea and the reason why this idea is predominant in the Netherlands in my book. It seems to take stress off the player, and absolves everyone of responsibility, before and after. However, it creates an unintentional side effect, unconsciously but no less disastrously. Calling a penalty shootout a lottery actually increases players' stress! If you know in advance that the penalty is nothing more than a lottery, in other words, that you have no influence on it yourself, the chance of you missing increases. How different is it if you are well prepared, then the responsibility actually lies with you and the chance that you will score increases. At least if you are well prepared.

A penalty shootout is only a lottery if both countries do not practice on it, as was the case in 2004 between the Netherlands and Sweden. Then the luckiest team wins. If one of the two countries trains for it, the training country almost always wins. What if both countries practice? That's what I call professionalism and we can look forward to a long series. May the best team win! You can find it clearly in the matrix below.

The Penalty Shoot-out Matrix © Gyuri Vergouw

                                     Germany

 

England

No training

Training

 

No training

 

 

Lottery

 

Germany wins

 

Training

 

 

England wins

 

Professionalism

 

Training for stress

I assume you have logged a lot of flying hours in your career. How would you sit in your seat knowing that the pilot has never practiced for all possible weather conditions and emergencies? 'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard, we're about to take off, I still have to see how everything works, but don't worry, things rarely go wrong?' No, pilots, even if they have been flying for decades, regularly practice in simulators to be well prepared and to function under high pressure and stress. The same applies to police officers who train for riots or hostage situations, military personnel who train for dangerous assignments... it is a matter of life or death. How much stress do you want to simulate?

Would training on a penalty kick be impossible? Stress, because there are millions of people watching? Certainly, but there are five times as many Germans on our planet, don't they suffer from stress? And why not?

There are now many scientific studies that indicate that stress can indeed be trained. Perhaps you can study video footage of Cristiano Ronaldo. After the referee's whistle, you can see that Ronaldo takes a moment to concentrate and takes one or two deep breaths, the best way to gain focus and release stress. (NB: do you also include this element in training? Training without a referee (or someone who takes on this role) makes hardly any sense, the referee determines the moment of the penalty, not the player). 

I can give you many tips for goalkeepers, from focusing on the players' standing leg, waiting when players are running short, etc., but let me not go into too much detail. If you are not convinced, think back to the goalkeeper change with Tim Krul. Presented by undersigned in 2000 in various media (including Barend & Van Dorp) as a winning option (originating from ice hockey) but ridiculed by the 'experts'. They were of course full of admiration in 2014 when Louis van Gaal put this into practice. My positive experiences with the women's teams, which in my experience are more open to change and information that can improve them in the game, can also be found in my new book.

Wrapping up

The Dutch cannot become champions if the penalty kick is not trained seriously. In this article I gave you three main points, there are more and more detailed ones to mention.  My most important point is and remains: the tips bring a possible title a lot closer! Clinging to the “it's a lottery” mantra guarantees anxious players and losses. It is in the interest of Dutch football that you break this vicious circle of fallacies.

I wish you, your coaching team and the players every success during the upcoming European Championship.

Yours sincerely,

Gyuri Vergouw

 

Vergouw has been associated with ManagementSite as editor-in-chief since 1997. In 2000 he wrote the classic football book De Strafschop, to international acclaim. Cracking the Penalty Code was recently published. In this new penalty publication he discusses 25 years of penalty investigation and experience. The book is available as eBook worldwide and as paperback in The Netherlands and Flanders.

Kom met uw praktijkervaringen op het terrein van managen en organiseren

Deel uw kennis, schrijf 3 columns of artikelen en ontvang een gratis pro-abonnement (twv €200)

Word een pro!

SCHRIJF MEE >>

Meer over SportManagement