So far in 2022, British football has witnessed three major finals and all three have been decided in the same manner. The Carabao Cup final, the FA Cup final and the Europa League final have all been decided from the penalty spot after the two sides could not be separated over 120 minutes.
After months of tense knockout ties to reach this stage, it still seems bizarre that such an important football match can be decided by a skills contest rather than - well, football. Now, I love the drama of a penalty shootout as much as the next person, but given the importance of these finals, it’s not the right way to find a winner.
In a time-sensitive tournament, such as a World Cup, it is more understandable in the knockout stages - but for a European final, a replay should be used to find a winner. Better still, why not have two-legged affairs so that more fans can see the final whilst also minimising the chance that extra-time or penalties will be needed.
History proves, especially in the Champions League, that two-legged semi-finals provide far better spectacles than the final itself. Chelsea vs Liverpool, Barcelona vs Inter Milan, Barcelona vs Chelsea and Ajax vs Tottenham are just some of the great semi-finals that we have seen this century - while the truly great finals are few and far between.
100,000+ Rangers fans travelled to Seville for the final where the game was played in 31C heat in a neutral venue. Only 9,500 got tickets to the match, while thousands of others watched the game on big screens. A two-legged affair would not only mean more fans got into the stadium, but also that the environmental impact of this travel was massively reduced
Perhaps in the days before performance analysts, penalty shootouts were a lottery, but that couldn’t be further from the truth now. The players are so practised in their technique at this level that it is so difficult for the goalkeepers to make a save. Harry Kane has scored his last 21 penalties, while all five of Eintracht Frankfurt’s penalties were perfect as they won the cup. Only a weak Aaron Ramsey effort down the middle prevented the shootout going to sudden death.
It was the same in last year’s final as well. 21 of 22 penalties were scored with precision before David de Gea missed for Manchester United. Every single outfield player scored. In the Carabao Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea, we saw exactly the same pattern. Every single outfield player scored and it was left to Kepa Arrizabalaga to blast over to hand the Reds the title.
If we’ve reached a point where how good your goalkeeper is at taking penalties is used to determine whether you win a football tournament, it’s probably time to try another method.
In recent times, former players such as Gary Lineker have called for extra-time to be removed completely and for 90 minute matches to head straight to the spot - but that change is taking football even further away from where it should be.
Football’s obsession with player fitness and keeping the team fresh is also part of the problem when it comes to replays. For years, stamina was a huge part of the game. Football would become a war of attrition with players pushing themselves to the limit with only three, one or even no substitutions available.
That meant that managers had to be clever with their changes, and players had to be less tailor-made to a position than they are now. But what this also meant, is that the game would slow down as players tired, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, given it was the same for both teams, and therefore injuries were less likely.
Nowadays, if a final goes into extra-time, teams are able to make a frankly ridiculous six substitutions. That’s 60% of the outfield players able to be replaced, which leads to fresh players coming on to play high-intensity football against tired legs. Or, as we have seen recently to varying success, players brought on simply to take a penalty.
The introduction of replays in finals, or making them two-legged affairs would give us much better, more open contests, without the nerves. Too often, clubs are happy to take their chances in a penalty shootout instead of going out to win the tie in extra-time. Extra-time itself would become a more exciting spectacle if there was a replay at the end of it rather than a penalty shootout as players and managers would be more likely to go for a win.
Changes in football are meant to improve the game and it feels as if penalty shootouts have served their purpose. Elite players are simply too good at them, so perhaps it's time to look to the past for a solution that could suit everybody.