Copa America's love affair with shootouts down to a matter of survival
SALVADOR, BRAZIL -- After four quarterfinals in the 2019 Copa America, we've had three penalty shootouts, which is one more than we had four years ago in Chile. If it feels like a lot, that's because it is.
Under Copa America rules, you go straight to penalties if the scores are level after 90 minutes (except in the final, in which you play the customary extra time). That explains why there are so many shootouts in the knockout rounds, relative to, say, the Euros (three in 17 knockout ties in France), the Asian Cup (two in 17 earlier this year) or the most recent World Cup (four in 18 in Russia).
If you want to compare apples with apples and simply count the draws -- i.e. add the games from the Asian Cup, Euros and World Cup that went to extra time (and therefore would have gone to penalties in the Copa America format) -- you stumble upon the fact that there are simply more draws in Copa America football. There were 10 in 52 in the other competitions' knockout phases. Add up the last two Copa Americas and the quarterfinal of this one, and it's eight in 20.
I know the samples aren't enormous, but it's 40% versus 15%, which means you're more than two-and-a-half times as likely to see a draw in a Copa America knockout game.
For reference, the average across Europe's big five leagues last season -- I know, different format, not a knockout, but a very big sample -- was 25.7% (ranging from the Premier League's 18.7 to La Liga's 28.9).
It's tempting to draw a simple conclusion from this: That going straight to penalty kicks makes teams, especially underdogs, even more defensive and more risk-averse. Logic would suggest that the more minutes you play, the more likely it is that the better team with the better players will come out on top.
Football is a low-scoring game. Chance, happenstance and luck matter, but, by and large, most of the time, the better teams end up winning ... if you give them enough time. If you play a whole extra half-hour -- all things being equal (and admittedly, they often are not) -- it should give an edge to the better team. If you don't, it levels the playing field in favor of the underdog. Which is why underdogs get more defensive and play for penalties.
Make sense? All that is good in theory and probably true. Is it what we witnessed in the Copa America quarterfinals?
Yes and no.
Paraguay (from the first minute) and Peru (certainly in the second half) did just that against Brazil and Uruguay, respectively. Venezuela might have wanted to do the same against Argentina, but Lautaro Martinez's early goal meant they had to abandon that plan after the break as the clock ticked on. Chile did not, going at it hammer and tongs with Colombia, and while the game was scoreless, both teams had ample chances to score. In fact, so did Uruguay (who had three goals disallowed) and Brazil (who dominated, especially after Paraguay went down to 10 men with 30 minutes to go).
Would underdogs be bolder if they knew they had to face another half-hour of being battered instead of the relative coin flip of a penalty shootout? (Yes, I know shootouts aren't quite a lottery. You can practice penalty kicks, and there is technical ability involved, as well as mental fortitude. The problem is that it's a substantially different skill set from what is needed to win matches. It's like having a boxing match end in a draw and then choosing the winner based on who can bench press more weight.)
Possibly, though the reasons games are so tight in the Copa America knockout stage run far deeper than the format. Even with VAR, there's a greater physicality than in European football. There's a greater aversion to risk, possibly because many teams (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay are possible exceptions) simply aren't that deep, and they'll have world-class talents alongside guys who play in lower divisions or lesser leagues, which often leads managers to be conservative and avoid situations in which players have to defend one-on-one, which is what can happen when you press aggressively and the opposition breaks through.
Most of all, there's far greater knowledge of the opposition (and better chemistry than you usually get in international football), simply because -- between Copa Americas, World Cup qualifying and the fact that CONMEBOL has only 10 teams -- these sides face one another so often.
When Argentina square off against Brazil on Tuesday in Belo Horizonte, it will be the fifth time they've faced each other in the past four years. But at least there's turnover in those teams because they have plenty of depth (and because Argentina have been all over the place with squad selection). Scroll through five-year-old lineups of, say, Chile (who had five starters with at least 100 caps against Colombia) and Uruguay (who had four against Peru), and you'll see many of the names who are there today.
All of this familiarity leads to rivalries and pressure and mind games and the sort of conservatism that crops up when the stakes are so high -- and when it's about the fact that you've survived, not how you did it.
Oscar Tabarez, the legendary Uruguayan coach, was asked how he felt about the fact that Peru knocked his team out, despite mustering just three shots (none of them on target). He seemed almost nonplussed at the question.
"Sure, we created more chances and had better opportunities, but they won," the man they call El Maestro said. "They slowed the game down whenever they could, they sat deep, they played for penalties and were better at penalties than we were.
"There's nothing wrong with that. You just have to accept it. Goodness knows, we've done the same many times ourselves."
The more you think about it, the more it's clear: Peru would have played the same way if the penalties came after 90 minutes or 120 minutes or 240 minutes. The Copa America is about survival -- by any means necessary.