The stutter run-up is Euro 2024's trending penalty technique - but why do players do it? (2024)

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There’s no real correct way to take a penalty. Some like to force the goalkeeper into making the first move, others disregard the keeper entirely. Some like to place their shot, some like to blast it. Some have long run-ups, some have short run-ups. Some have weird affectations that appear to have no actual purpose, some have extraordinary techniques few others can match.

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But there’s one technique that’s currently sweeping Europe.

Before the semi-finals, 36 penalties had been taken at Euro 2024: 11 in ‘open’ play, one of which was a retake, and 24 across three penalty shootouts. Of those, 13 — a little more than 36 per cent — saw the player use a stutter-step approach to the ball.

From Kai Havertz to Cristiano Ronaldo to Robert Lewandowski to Jude Bellingham, it seems risky, it seems obtuse, but some of the best players and the most reliable penalty takers at the tournament have been trying to gain an edge with a little pause in their run-up.

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Ronaldo about to strike his shootout penalty for Portugal against Slovenia (Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

Havertz scored both the penalties he took for Germany using this approach. Bellingham scored one, with supreme confidence, in England’s shootout win against Switzerland in the quarter-finals. Portugal’s Ronaldo missed one without the stutter, then scored two with it. Lewandowski had one saved against France, but Mike Maignan was adjudged to have moved too early, so it was retaken, and the Polish striker scored.

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It’s not perfect. Both Slovenia’s Benjamin Verbic and Joao Felix of Portugal tried this method and failed.

It’s also (mildly) controversial. Every now and then, you will hear people say it should be banned. It was actually banned for a short while in the 1980s, but these days the laws of the game specifically state that a stutter — or ‘feint’ — is allowed. What isn’t allowed is ‘feinting to kick the ball once the kicker has completed the run-up’. Which essentially means: you can’t stop, you have to keep moving forward in some way.

Because your run-up is considered to be complete when you stop, and once you stop, you have to kick the ball. If you stop, pause, then strike the ball, the goal (assuming you score) is disallowed, and you get a yellow card.

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There aren’t too many examples of this happening, but one of the more high-profile instances was Lionel Messi, taking a penalty for Barcelona in the Champions League group stage against AC Milan in November 2011. Messi stopped about a yard before the ball, halting his momentum to the point that, when he did actually have to put some forward force into the penalty, he fell backwards slightly.

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Goalkeeper Christian Abbiati was duly fooled, but he immediately protested, and with good reason. Referee Markus Merk disallowed the penalty, booked Messi and made him take it again. As you might not be surprised to learn, Messi scored with the retake.

Something similar happened to Paul Pogba earlier the same year, when he was playing for Manchester United in an FA Youth Cup tie against Liverpool. Like Messi, he stopped in his run-up before stroking the ball into the net, and, like Messi, he was booked for his unsporting conduct. However, it was a little worse for Pogba: that was his second yellow card of the match, and so he was sent off.

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The stuttered penalty goes way back to the days when Pele was in his pomp. He was fond of the ‘paradinha’ (literal translation: little stop), as it’s known in Brazil, as was one of his successors, Romario, who stuttered when scoring his penalty in the 1994 World Cup final penalty shootout win against Italy.

There have been some pretty high-profile misses: Spain went out of the 2002 World Cup in part because Joaquin missed a stuttered run-up penalty in their quarter-final against South Korea. England’s Jamie Carragher, brought on in the last few minutes of extra time specifically to take a penalty in the shootout against Portugal at the same stage of the next World Cup four years later, stuttered and missed.

Another Englishman, Marcus Rashford, missed his penalty in the final of the previous Euros against Italy three years ago, but you could argue that was less to do with the stuttered run-up and more that he departed from his previous, pretty successful routine. “I tried a different penalty style from the ones I normally do,” Rashford wrote in his autobiography. “I did a stuttering run-up, where I paused a little bit on my way to kick the ball, trying to get (goalkeeper Gianluigi) Donnarumma to move early and make the penalty easier.” Donnarumma went to his own left, Rashford sent the ball to the other side of the goal, and… hit the outside of the post.

The ploy has been fairly successful at Euro 2024, though.

Or, at least it’s been about as successful as any other technique: if we’re including both of Lewandowski’s penalties, 13 have been taken with a stutter step, of which 10 have been scored. Of the rest, the ‘non-stutterers’, the record is 23 taken, 17 scored. In percentage terms, that’s 77 and 74 respectively: not really much in it, given the sample size.

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Also, defining what a stutter-step penalty actually is can be tricky.

It is not — repeat, not — simply a slow run-up where the taker waits for the goalkeeper to commit themselves. That is just the goalkeeper-dependent penalty technique, the perfect example of which came on Messi’s penalty against Saudi Arabia in the group stage at the 2022 World Cup: he crept up to the ball, keeper Mohammed Al-Owais foolishly tried to fake right…

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…before diving left incredibly early, allowing Messi to roll it home.

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A stutter-step is also not whatever Simone Zaza was playing at during Italy’s shootout against Germany in the last eight at Euro 2016. That was just a bizarre affectation, a strange impression of a dancing horse that offered basically nothing constructive, and ultimately made his eventual miss look five times as stupid.

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Zaza did actually score a penalty with a true stutter-step a couple of years earlier, for Sassuolo against Milan, and a couple of others by just running up and hitting it, but for some reason decided to debut this tippy-toe technique during a European Championship quarter-final.

Actually, the perfect example of the stutter-step penalty came elsewhere in that match, and that shootout, from his team-mate Leonardo Bonucci: he ran up, pausing briefly, before striking the ball. Bonucci scored from the spot during the game, but saw his effort in the shootout saved by Manuel Neuer.

Another Italian, Jorginho, is — or at least was — one of the more prominent stutterers, even if his version was more of a hop. He had a sensational record with his stutter/hop technique, but has modified it since missing a couple of high-profile penalties for his country.

The question is: why bother? Why complicate something that is already quite hard? To which the answer is, it’s just one of many ways the penalty taker is trying to gain the upper hand over the goalkeeper in this most pressured of situations.

Much of a penalty taker’s routine is trying to fool the keeper about where they are going to aim their kick, whether that’s through eye contact, body shape, run-up or whatever.

But the stutter or feint is slightly different: rather than where the kick is going, this is designed to fool the goalkeeper about when the kick is going to happen.

“Their goal is to get you to move early, so you expose a portion of your goal in the process for them to exploit,” says The Athletic’s goalkeeping expert Matt Pyzdrowski, who played professionally in the United States and Sweden from 2010 to 2018. “I always found a no-nonsense shooter who would just run up to the ball and strike it easier for me to time my dive, because I could essentially count their steps in the run-up and get myself ready to pounce. The stutter-step makes that so much more difficult to do.”

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A good, if slightly counterintuitive example of that working is the first Lewandowski penalty mentioned earlier, even if he didn’t score.

The Barcelona and Poland forward’s technique combines a version of Brentford and England counterpart Ivan Toney’s approach, staring at the keeper rather than at the ball, and the classic stutter-step, feinting just before taking the kick.

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Against France, this worked on Lewandowski’s original penalty, as, although Maignan saved it, he was fooled by the dummy and moved so early that the referee decreed it should be retaken — as you can see from the image above.

As ever with penalties, it’s a question of nerve.

“When facing a shooter who prefers to stutter, it’s key to hold your ground as long as possible,” says Pyzdrowski. “A lot of times, shooters will be waiting for you to move; then, when you don’t, it causes them to panic and they stress, or flub their attempt.

“The stutter typically means the shooter sacrifices power and accuracy for flexibility in their strike, but when you get someone who can do both, that’s when you know you’ve got someone special. They are rare but they do exist.”

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Portugal’s Ronaldo is another interesting example. He has fluctuated in his approach over the years, but it was interesting that the penalty he missed in Euro 2024, in extra time of the last-16 tie against Slovenia, was just a fairly standard kick, with a quick-ish, straightforward run-up, and was saved fairly easily by Jan Oblak down to his left.

However when it came to the shootout that night, once he had wiped the tears from his eyes, Ronaldo reverted to the stutter-step, and buried his penalty into the opposite corner.

And then in the quarter-final shootout against France, he actually stuttered twice, to the point where he must have been pretty close to being punished by the referee for actually stopping. But it worked, the penalty once again rammed into the bottom corner.

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In the end, everyone takes penalties in the way they feel most comfortable.

Is the stutter approach somehow a more admirable one, because in theory it takes more nerve than just running up and whacking the ball? Is it merely a flex, some of the best players in the world showing off because they can? Does it really make much of a difference?

Maybe not. But it’s certainly enjoyable.

(Top photo: Richard Pelham/Getty Images)

The stutter run-up is Euro 2024's trending penalty technique - but why do players do it? (2024)

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