How Sergio Ramos became football's foremost expert in Panenka penalties
Let me tell you a few things about Sergio Ramos and penalties.
If he's about to take one against your team, there's an 82 percent chance he'll score -- not bad. If he's taking it for Real Madrid rather than for Spain, that chance rises to 92 percent -- top-notch. Nowadays, there's a 100 percent chance his technique will be identical: six steps back, one to his left, right foot either dragged or cocked back just before it stamps down and then launches the ball off the penalty spot.
And there, in the detail, is the tell. Sorry, Sergio, I hate to reveal your secrets. We'll come back to the tell a little later; goalkeeping analysts, stay tuned.
Ramos has become a fearsome penalty-taker, thanks to a couple of important factors. Brutally hard for keepers to read and someone whose self-assurance, style and celebrations from the spot all add, vastly, to the entertainment factor in elite European football. Those two factors are how the searing humiliation of his shootout miss against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League semifinal utterly changed his thinking on how to score from 12 yards -- and the other, of course, is Cristiano Ronaldo's departure from Real Madrid.
Nature fills a vacuum, and Ramos is a force of nature. Ronaldo out means Ramos in, as far as spot-kick responsibility goes.
This season, for club and country, he's taken 10 and scored every single one of them. A couple have gone to the keeper's left, a couple have gone to the keeper's right, but the majority has been that wonderful, deft, sphincter-shrinking sand-wedge chip over the keeper, which any potential Masters winner would be ecstatic to produce from out of a bunker on the Augusta National 18th hole, now eternally known as a "Panenka."
At the weekend, Ramos scored his 14th competitive penalty, against Norway, and it won Spain three points for which they'd had to sweat and that, if forfeited in a 1-1 draw, would have brought massive negative reaction to coach and squad. Spain had found Rune Jarstein a tough nut to crack. His diving save to his left to paw Alvaro Morata's header round the post was world-class.
When the penalty came, at 1-1, Ramos had to score. No question. Four times from nine penalties this season, the Madrid captain with ironcast nerves had chipped keepers. The percentages told their own story. Jarstein had to stay central and upright, but he couldn't.
I spoke to him postmatch. He's a big lad, 6-foot-3, and his eyes were staring off to a distant place -- not geographical, psychological. When I asked him about the Ramos "Panenka" experience, his answer was a standout.
"Yes, I thought most of the matchday about what would happen if Spain won a penalty against us," Jarstein said. "All afternoon I thought about what I'd do, I've seen how he takes penalties ... I even spoke to a friend for some advice. So I decided that I would stand up straight, that I'd be ready if he tried to chip me. Then, right before he hit the penalty, for some reason I changed my mind and I dived right. ... It was a bad decision."
If you were watching Real Madrid beat Celta Vigo 4-2 in November, then you'll know that Sergio Alvarez and Hugo Mallo, Celta's keeper and captain, understood precisely what Jarstein was feeling. They suffered one of Ramos' other "Panenkas."
Alvarez tried to stay upright, but as he half dived to his left, he realised his error and flapped at the ball, which was gently floating over him into the centre of the net -- about midriff height had he stood still. Mallo, Celta's captain, danced a jig of fury as the ball went in, shouting to his keeper: "I told you ... I told you!"
But there's a basic human, automatic instinct if you're a goalkeeper: You dive. You think of the panels of space to your right and left as your most vulnerable areas, and you train yourself, hundreds of thousands of times per season, every season, to throw yourself there instinctively. It's something that the Czech inventor of this brilliant, emblematic penalty-taking technique, Antonin Panenka, who won the 1976 European Championship final spot-kick shootout against West Germany, always emphasised.
"I'd loved being creative and I tried to be innovative; I'd spend hours racking my brain about how to invent little moves and tricks," he explained last year. "I noticed all keepers always dive to one side or the other, so putting it down the middle might be an advantage.
"Our club goalie was very good at saving penalties in training so I was always losing bets: money, chocolates, that sort of thing. So I started using my little trick and suddenly I started to win the bets more and more often.
"I think Ramos could be my best imitator -- the best 'Panenka' taker since me! Opposition know all about it but he still manages to do it over and over. It's great."
But let's trace Ramos' flood of delicate, clever, cheeky goals to its source.
Ramos wasn't a penalty taker. At least not in matches.
For Sevilla, for Spain and even in these hyper-successful years at Real Madrid, he's someone who'll challenge teammates in training -- sprints, free kicks, penalties, anything. Even though his technique became honed, there was always someone else -- David Villa, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Ronaldo, Raul, Ruud van Nistelrooy, then yet another Ronaldo. His first Liga penalty for Madrid came in November 2010, Cristiano Ronaldo remarkably gifting him the chance, in between scoring a hat trick against Athletic, but Ramos had to wait eight years before he took another for Los Blancos.
Then there's Ramos and penalty shootouts.
When he took Madrid's fourth penalty in the dramatic spot-kick contest against Bayern in that Champions League semifinal seven years ago, his technique was radically different: several backward steps, a longer run-up, no step to the side before setting off, foot planted hard on the ground, like he does now, on the second step, but three more big steps before he struck the ball. He went for power, no "me vs. you" subtlety with Manuel Neuer, no psychology, no thought of anything but explosive impact. The ball soared high over the bar, Bayern slotted the next one and Jose Mourinho's Madrid were out.
From that moment, he studied, developed and thought; he began to emulate Panenka in how much the Czech master planned and strategised over his technique. Nobody but Ramos' brother Rene and his close friend Jesus Navas knew that on the long, bleak night of that defeat to Bayern Munich, he swore that he'd take his next spot kick, no matter against whom, no matter the pressure, in a "Panenka" style. And he did, against Portugal a couple of months later, when Spain won their penalty contest against Ronaldo, Pepe & Co. before winning the Euro 2012 final against Italy.
From that day on, Ramos' technique has been exquisite.
Ball placed on the spot. Six backward steps, one to his left. Eyes trained on the referee to his left. A tiny, swift glance at the keeper, but no prolonged eye contact, no mind games with him, no allowing the keeper to influence him. Then either three or four quick, midrange strides -- depending on his mood -- that will end with his right foot planted hard on the ground near the ball. The next thing that happens will be that he strikes it.
But it's just before that right foot is planted that the tell comes.
Ramos is looking at the ball for most of his preparation. But there comes a time, just as he sets off on his three- or four-step run-up when his eyes are firmly on the keeper. He's looking for movement -- his tell. Most keepers try, really hard, to stand tall and straight. Some try the Jarstein "scarecrow" technique -- big, tall, arms stretched out horizontally left and right.
However, Ramos also tries to influence things.
Just before he plants his right foot, in the split second before striking, he'll often flick his heel backward and upward, as if he's about to kick the ball an instant early, and that's to influence the keeper to dive. If he does that little flick of his right heel back behind him before the right boot gets planted, then he's going to chip. Count on it.
If he really thinks the keeper is completely static and not going to give him any tell, Ramos will drag the toes of his right boot along the ground, instead of that little twitch backward and upward in a donkey-kick action, and that means that the ball's either going low to his left (most likely) or low to his right.
They are just tiny, clever, high-tension tricks, designed to try to carve out even a split-second, millimetre advantage in deciding whether he's chipping or driving it low to the corner. The theatre of the moment is great. He's an artist at work. The pressure mounts with each effort, the legend grows. It's absorbing, technical, cheeky and brilliant to watch.
Unless you're a keeper with shredded nerves, pride in your reputation and the question haunting your mind in the seconds before the referee blows his whistle and Ramos starts moving: "What's he going to try today?" Think like Jarstein and stay upright, but don't react like Jarstein and let instinct send you diving to the corners.
Sometimes right is wrong and wrong is right. Against Ramos, anyway.