The truth about Manchester United's penalties and the big Bruno Fernandes mistake

Manchester United lost the Europa League final on penalties and failed to apply subtle data insights. Gdansk was supposed to host and delive...

Manchester United lost the Europa League final on penalties and failed to apply subtle data insights.

Gdansk was supposed to host and deliver Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's first piece of managerial silverware as Manchester United boss on Wednesday night but instead, the Red Devils left empty-handed after losing to Villarreal on penalties.

A shoot-out after 120 minutes of football is commonly deemed to be the cruellest way in which to lose a final; Solskjaer stated after the contest that 'anything can happen' in those situations, with popular belief suggesting that the winners are determined by little more than pot luck.

The lottery of a shoot-out is unavoidable, but subtle edges can still be gained around penalties if the relevant insights are known and applied beforehand, which requires a degree of trust in the power of data.

After the final whistle was blown at the PGE Arena, Bruno Fernandes won the coin toss and decided that Villarreal should kick first, which is actually recognised as an advantage beneath the surface.

Professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta - who is Athletic Bilbao's former head of talent identification - has conducted research on the topic in the past, and he was once employed as an enemy of United in the build-up to the 2008 Champions League final.

Palacios-Huerta worked at the request of Avram Grant - who was in charge of Chelsea at the time - for a period of around two weeks and was tasked with conducting a report using data attached to United's penalty takers, in case the upcoming meeting was undecided after extra time.

The professor of economics found that two of Sir Alex Ferguson's players showcased specific biases, with those being Edwin van der Sar and Cristiano Ronaldo; the former had a very strong tendency to dive towards the right for right-footed players and the left for left-footed players, whereas the latter would almost always shoot to the right when he stuttered in his run to the ball.

Although the Blues eventually lost the shoot-out, Palacios-Huerta was correct regarding his two predictions, with Nicolas Anelka missing the decisive penalty after going against the data and shooting towards the side of his favoured foot, allowing Van der Sar to make a stop.

After the contest in Gdansk, Solskjaer stated: "I've not asked Bruno who won the toss, I let him get on with it, we had penalty-takers with confidence, we made some changes to get them on and take the penalties."

If United had applied penalty findings to the clash, perhaps Fernandes would have been informed that roughly 60 percent of teams who kick first tend to win the shoot-out.

According to Palacios-Huerta, that is because of how the leading and lagging asymmetry affects performance; it is simply better to be leading than to be chasing.

Moreover, David de Gea's weakness when it comes to preventing penalties is well-known, with the Spaniard now having conceded each of the last 40 spot-kicks that he's faced dating back to Romelu Lukaku's attempt for Everton in 2016.

Solskjaer entered the final 30 minutes of the game with each of his six substitutes intact, but he opted against using Dean Henderson, who has showcased a promising penalty saving record in recent times, and could have studied each taker beforehand while sat on the bench.

Ex-United boss Louis van Gaal made such a bold move in the World Cup in 2014, removing Jasper Cillesen from proceedings on the 120th minute for Tim Krul, who entered the fray purely to stop penalties.

After the plan worked and Holland progressed beyond Costa Rica, Van Gaal explained his thinking, stating: “We thought it through. Every player has certain skills and qualities and they don’t always coincide. We felt Tim would be the most appropriate keeper to save penalties. You would have seen that Tim dived to the right corner twice. We’re a tiny bit proud that this trick has helped us through.

“We had discussed it with Tim. He knew about their penalties because he needed to be prepared. It worked out. If it hadn’t, it would have been my mistake.”

Rafa Benitez is another who has profited, with his most successful night in charge of Liverpool happening largely thanks to the application of penalty data in Istanbul; the Reds managed to defeat AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final after Jerzy Dudek made a series of vital stops.

Speaking years later, Benitez said: "Of the five (Milan) penalty takers, only Jon Dahl Tomasson we didn’t have penalties of, the others, we had the penalties. We won the Champions League and people say ‘oh, you were lucky’ but no, we did it because we had more control of the shoot-out."

United will reach many more finals in the coming years, and although they will try to avoid relying on data surrounding penalty shoot-outs by securing the result in normal time, applying such details can prove to make the difference when the margins are fine.

Minimal gains won't always enforce victories - as shown by Chelsea in 2008 - but they certainly help when it comes to getting one up on the opposition.

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