More on Optimal Sequencing: Soccer Edition


[Cross-posted at: Wages of Wins Journal, 7 August 2014]

This earlier Wages of Wins piece by Shane Sanders (July 29, 2014) generated plenty of discussion. It highlighted the problem of Triathlon deaths in the swim leg. One crucial point to make with many economic policy analogies on which to draw is that sequencing of the legs (or phases) matters – all other considerations aside, the ‘best’ sequence of phases can be optimized according to some objective (in this case, minimizing fatalities).

One such possible economic policy analogy is with respect to unemployment benefits. Imagine a two-phase policy, where in the first six months the recipient is eligible to a relatively unrestricted entitlement of an amount according to some predefined percentage (say 40%) of some benchmark (average weekly earnings or minimum full-time wage). If the recipient is still unemployed after the 6 months have elapsed, a second phase kicks in at which the benefit is now highly restricted thereafter (having to satisfy minimum job search requirements, etc.) and/or reduced in value. Now, many people will disagree as to whether this two-phase policy is too generous or too miserly (or even on the basis of something else entirely). However, one aspect most of us would agree on is that swapping the sequence of these two phases would make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

It got me thinking about other such analogies about sequencing from sport that could be useful in policy circles. Recently, I published an article in the December 2013 issue of Journal of Sports Economics [gated], along with Jan Libich (my colleague at La Trobe) and Petr Stehlίk (University of Western Bohemia, Czech Republic). We took on soccer’s penalty shoot-out problem.  In knock-out matches that are tied after 90 minutes, the following 30 minutes of overtime is often beset with overly-defensive play due to insufficient incentive to attack.   This means that overtimes often finishes goalless, and that nearly 50% of the time, the match is decided via penalty kicks anyway (put differently: in nearly one of every two ties, overtime fails to achieve the one and only thing it is fundamentally there to do).

We show that an alternative sequence – regulation time followed by a penalty shoot-out followed by overtime – improves attacking outcomes. The qualification is that, while the shootout produces a winner – you still play overtime, with the winner of that winning the contest as currently. It is only when overtime fails to resolve the deadlock that the winner becomes the team that had won the shootout already (think of winning the shootout as worth half-a-goal lead at the start of overtime).

Specifically, we show that the probability of at least one goal being scored in overtime rises by approximately 50% (depending on the underlying characteristics of the match). Exactly how we estimate the effect of a policy that’s never existed is outlined in the paper for those of you who are interested to read further.

Coming back to sequencing, why the simple economic intuition (as well as the data) says this rule change will likely work is the following: there will always be one team chasing the next goal, because they will be eliminated unless they do – they have little else to lose. While the other team may correspondingly become more defensive, we show the net effect to be overwhelmingly positive. Furthermore, what you will no longer get are those overtimes where both teams sit back having jointly overestimated the probability that they will win if it goes to a shootout.

Had Mario Götze spurned that chance just minutes from time in the recent World Cup final, and it had have instead gone to spot kicks, the penalty shootout problem would now be far higher on the soccer agenda. Nonetheless, better public policy (optimal sequencing included) should never be far from the agenda, so I hope to see more studies like this make some impact in the broader public policy debate.

More on Penalty Shoot-out Alternative


Following on from my post on 2 July, I had another newspaper piece in the Australian Financial Review (today, Tuesday 15 July), called: “GOAL! A Better Alternative to Penalty Shootouts“. The link is gated as usual (see p.43 of the hard copy if you have it, or e-mail me a request). It further delineates the economic case for shifting the penalty shoot-out to before extra-time.

Solution to World Cup Penalty Shoot-out Problem: ABC Interview with Waleed Aly


I returned to ABC Radio National’s Drive program with Waleed Aly, yesterday evening (Tuesday 1 July, go to link for audio).

The 2014 World Cup now in its knock-out phase (which brings with it the inevitable problem of extra-time and penalty shoot-outs, as well as perverse incentive effects to both teams to over-defend). Shining a light on this, Waleed and I discussed a simple rule-change proposal, based on economic principles, which we believe would produce better scoring outcomes in extra-time and diminish reliance on the game’s cruel version of Russian roulette to decide the winner (among numerous other improvements).

If you’re interested in the economics behind the proposal, you can see the abstract of the article from Journal of Sports Economics (December 2013 issue), on which it’s based, here.

Football Penalties BEFORE Extra-Time? Dr Jan Libich and I Assess the Proposal


I recently recorded a video (description below) that follows from a previous post on 16 July 2010.


FIFA President Sepp Blatter called penalty shootouts in football (soccer) a “tragedy”. Dr Jan Libich interviews me about our study (also co-authored by Dr Petr Stehlik) assessing an alternative rule: to stage the penalty shootout BEFORE (rather than after) extra-time. The study can be downloaded at This video was recorded on 31 August 2012.

If not for Iniesta…


[Archived from: The Sports Economist, 16 July 2010]

With the dust settling on the World Cup Final last Sunday, we are still debating various aspects of the game and the tournament itself, such as those raised by Brian below on July 12.  One of the biggest issues is how to deal with imperfections in the sport, such as badly-designed balls, player simulation, the occasional ‘howler’ by referees and teams going out on penalty shoot-outs.  With this in mind, the good people at ‘The Sports Economist’  invited me to produce a guest-post on the latter.

The 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France brought this ‘tragedy’ (as once surmised by Sepp Blatter) to light once again, even if this tragedy was overshadowed by the Zidane-Materazzi incident.  While Ghana and Japan were the only unfortunates in this installment, we were only four more scoreless minutes from witnessing the same tragedy occurring once again in the all-important Final before Andres Iniesta’s decisive strike.

Along with my colleague Jan Libich, and Petr Stehlík from University of West Bohemia, we were motivated to look at alternative solutions to the penalty shoot-out problem – our objective being to create the right incentives for teams to attack in extra-time, so that extra-time does its sole job of separating the teams.  As economists, we know that incentives are critical here, and that they explain the dismal failure of the so-called ‘Golden Goal’ – because it gave teams precisely the wrong incentives to attack.

We ended up looking at a proposal to merely shift the penalty shoot-out to BEFORE extra-time, with the winner of the shoot-out taking the contest only if the subsequent extra-time remains level.  Such a change would induce the team that lost the shoot-out to attack since they have to score to win.  If they succeed, then the other team also has to score to tie the extra-time, putting them back in the winning position.

We simulate the effect of this rule proposal using actual match data from numerous elite-level knockout competitions around the World (including the World Cup itself) by comparing outcomes from the status quo to scenarios where we believe the incentives to both teams closely approximate what this rule would do.  We find that the rule would create significantly more attacking play and reduce the incidence of scoreless extra-times from nearly 50% currently to under 25%.

The full paper is here.  If you’d prefer a 13-minute podcast version,  you can listen in either iTunes or mp3 formats.  Your thoughts?