Remember the last time that we were on the eve of a major international tournament, England had learned how to do penalty shootouts? They had finally won one at a World Cup – beating Colombia in the last-16 in 2018 – then another in the Nations League a year later. Not only that, they had overcome this long-held hang-up thanks to the man responsible for the most painful penalty miss in English football’s history.
Correction: the most painful penalty miss in English football history up to that point. If Gareth Southgate’s failure to convert from the spot in a European Championship semi-final back in 1996 prolonged the many years of hurt, then Bukayo Saka’s miss in last year’s final was perhaps their most heartbreaking moment – particularly for such a young player, particularly when so close to winning a first major tournament in 55 years.
Southgate had enjoyed success in shootouts thanks to an approach based around practice, planning and research but defeat to Italy was a reminder that this is neither a game of pure skill or pure luck. You need both. And if Marcus Rashford’s spot-kick had been a couple of inches to the right, putting England 3-2 up with two to take, that night may have gone differently.
All you can do is put yourself in the best position to get lucky. Southgate has done that through having players practise at the end of long, hard training sessions to recreate the sensation of tired legs, and waiting for a few seconds after the sound of the referee’s whistle in order to gain composure. And rather than asking players to volunteer, it also helps to know who your best takers are in the first place.
Who are England’s best, then, and who should step up if their fate is to be decided by way of a shootout again? The Independent has looked at the senior, professional career penalty records of every player in the squad, plus a few who only just missed out, to assess who may be Southgate’s first five takers.
1. Harry Kane
- Career record: 62/72
- Conversion rate: 86%
- Shootouts only: 5/5
There is no debate to be had: Harry Kane is England’s best penalty taker. Not much has changed since the Euros in that regard, when the Tottenham Hotspur striker stepped up first in the Italy shootout and converted emphatically. That was to be expected given a career record from the spot which, at the most recent count, read 62 converted and only 10 missed. In shootouts, he is perfect: five for five.
But Kane is not completely flawless. It is easy to forget given that he eventually scored on the rebound, but arguably the biggest pressure penalty of his career – in extra time of the Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark – was initially saved by Kasper Schmeichel. The England captain has already missed twice this season at club level, against Nottingham Forest and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Nevertheless, in a squad that is not blessed with a slew of confident penalty takers, Kane will assume spot-kick duties in regular play and is likely to step up first in any shootout too. The first, fourth and fifth penalties are generally considered to be the most important and getting off to a good start is key. With Kane – one of the best and most experienced penalty takers at the tournament – England can be confident that they will.
2. Harry Maguire
- Career record: 6/9
- Conversion rate: 67%
- Shootouts only: 6/9
Harry Maguire has never taken a penalty in regular play but, strangely enough, no player in the squad has taken more in shootouts than his nine. That owes much to his time in the third tier with Sheffield United and midweek nights spent battling through the early rounds of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, as it was at the time.
The Manchester United captain’s record from the spot is a little below average – six scored, three missed – but the most recent of those misses came seven years ago, in a League Cup first round tie away to Accrington Stanley. It’s fair to say that a lot has changed in the years since and there is now enough evidence to suggest that Maguire is a skilled penalty taker.
His kicks in the Euro 2020 final and the Nations League third place play-off in 2019 were both excellent. Perhaps the only question is whether a player who has struggled for form and had to deal with needless abuse – often from his own supporters – will feel confident enough to step up again. Every time he has for England, he has delivered.
3. Marcus Rashford
- Career record: 15/18
- Conversion rate: 83%
- Shootouts only: 2/3
Maintaining the order from the Euro 2020 final, Rashford is next up at three. This is, of course, where it all began to go wrong against Italy. It’s well documented that Rashford has not played for England since hitting the outside of the post with his penalty that night. He hasn’t taken a penalty for club or country since either.
Whether Rashford would be ready to put his hand up for a penalty again is a fair question – and it would be understandable if not, given the abhorrent racist abuse he, Jadon Sancho and Saka suffered after the Euros final – but his record of only missing three of 18 career penalties is among the strongest in the squad.
Rashford endured the most difficult season of his career on the back of his miss against Italy and has spoken recently about how he has “struggled mentally” over the past 18 months but a return to form with United has come at the right time.
4. Callum Wilson
- Career record: 17/20
- Conversion rate: 85%
- Shootouts only: 1/1
It was more Callum Wilson’s scoring form for Newcastle United that helped him win the race to provide cover for Kane and travel to Qatar as Southgate’s second recognised centre-forward but his penalty record can only have helped. His conversion rate rivals Kane’s and he converted from the spot in the 4-0 win over Aston Villa that helped book his spot on the plane.
It’s unlikely that he and Kane will grace the pitch at the same time at any point during this tournament but Southgate has been known to keep substitutions in reserve and bring on his best penalty takers late in games. If Kane stays fit and England find themselves going the distance in Qatar on several occasions, these late, one-kick cameos could be Wilson’s biggest contribution.
There is one unknown, though: Wilson has only ever taken one shootout penalty – for Newcastle against Newport County in the League Cup two seasons ago – and he was not one of England’s five takers in the Nations League third-place play-off against Switzerland, despite having replaced Kane. His record speaks for itself, though, and makes him worthy of consideration.
5. Eric Dier
- Career record: 4/5
- Conversion rate: 80%
- Shootouts only: 4/5
There is a line of thinking that the strongest taker should be saved until last, as it is often effectively a sudden death penalty, and more and more teams seem to be doing this. Jorginho waited until last for Italy at Euro 2020 and for Chelsea in this year’s League and FA Cup finals. Sadio Mane memorably won the Africa Cup of Nations on the fifth kick.
Yet the obvious drawback is that you could be knocked out before your best taker has the chance to step up. That was the case with Mohamed Salah in that same Cup of Nations final. There’s obviously no guarantee of success even if they get to take it, either. Mane missed the fifth kick to win this year’s FA Cup final with Salah off the pitch.
Southgate appears to favour putting his best up first, hence Kane being at one here. His fifth penalty takers in the three shootouts he has presided over have been Eric Dier, Jordan Pickford and Saka. From these three, we would just about pick Dier over Saka, given that he has taken and converted a pressure fifth penalty for England in the past.
Who would come next?
Should it come to sudden death, it’s simply a matter of picking your strongest remaining takers in descending order. At this point, Southgate’s options would largely be restricted to those with limited penalty-taking experience and so the order would lean heavily on observations made in training.
First up, Bukayo Saka (3/4 penalties scored career record). Narrowly missing out on that fifth slot, the Arsenal winger’s decisive miss in the Euro 2020 final was the only one of his five career penalties that he has failed to convert. It was also the first time that he had stepped up to spot – in either regular play or shootouts – during his senior career.
If that perhaps explains why he missed, his four from four since assuming penalty-taking duties at club level shows why Southgate trusted him in the first place. Some players would never put themselves forward again. Saka did and hasn’t failed to convert since. Southgate is a huge admirer of the 20-year-old’s character beyond his years and that shows why.
Mason Mount (4/6) and Kieran Trippier (3/5) would be in contention for the next two places. Trippier has a perfect three in three record in shootouts – and scored the best of the lot in the win over Colombia at the 2018 World Cup – but has missed both of the penalties he has taken in regular play.
Mount’s miss proved decisive in last season’s FA Cup final shootout. A record of four scored from six does not exactly jump off the page either but it is one of the squad’s better ones. After the Italy defeat, Southgate suggested that two of England’s designated takers had already come off the pitch, which was believed to be a reference to Mount and Trippier.
Raheem Sterling’s career record is a coin toss – of 12 penalties taken, six scored and six missed. A better shout might be Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has only stepped up three times – all in shootouts – but has converted them all. Jack Grealish (2/2) also boasts a perfect record from a small sample size. Jordan Pickford (1/1) would be a wildcard choice.
Who could have made a difference?
The undisputed king of spot-kicks among all those who were considered for selection is Ivan Toney.
Only Kane has taken more than Toney’s 35 career penalties but even the England captain cannot compete with a remarkable 92 per cent conversion rate. Toney’s only misses to date came more than four years ago, during his days as League One player with Peterborough United.
Toney would have been much more than a penalty-taker, as his match-winning display in Brentford’s surprise win away to Manchester City this weekend helped demonstrate, but being almost a sure thing from the spot is a big advantage in tournament football. It is one Southgate has opted not to take, seeking other edges elsewhere.
James Ward-Prowse (19/23) narrowly missed out on a place in the squad and is another player often pigeon-holed for his ability on dead balls.
The Southampton captain would have been among the reliable and regular penalty takers in the squad, with his conversion rate sitting at a respectable 83 per cent. Of all those who were considered by Southgate, only Kane and Toney have taken more spot-kicks during their career.
Tammy Abraham (14/18) was the other candidate to cover for Kane alongside Toney and Wilson.
The Roma striker suffered a dip of form at the wrong time, losing a squad place that he had held for much of the last year, but was sharing penalty-taking duties with Lorenzo Pellegrini at club level at the end of last season and would have been comfortable stepping up to the spot.
All three would have been able to contribute if it came to it. Toney would have been an especially interesting selection if he had made the cut but England probably have just enough to get through a shootout without him. This squad is in a moderately stronger place in that regard compared to Euro 2020.
There’s only a slightly wider range of seasoned, skilled takers this time around but in a penalty shootout, even the slightest edge can make all the difference.