Are penalties a fair way to decide a football match? Are England just plain unlucky? I was reading an article that looked at their poor record (which in passing mentioned a wonderful sounding research paper on The effect of rugby match outcome on spectator aggression and intention to drink alcohol) and noticed a helpful link to a detailed analysis conducted after they made a total "Ashley" of it back in June. What caught my eye was not England's abysmal record (a 14% win ratio) but the almost equally bad record of the Dutch (only 20%).
This should be evidence enough that the problem is not lack of technique. The only slightly better record of the Italians (38%) also shows that familiarity is not decisive either. Italy took part in 8 shootouts over the period analysed (from 1990), compared to England's 7 and Holland's 5. Germany took part in 6 but have a win ratio of 83%. I think we can also dismiss the idea that because England do more running (they don't - this is just an assumption based on the poor technique belief), they are more tired and thus less effective at the end of extra-time. Everyone is shattered.
Looking at the scoring rates, both England and Holland miss 1 in 3 of their penalties, while Germany only miss once in roughly every two shootouts. Conversely, England's opponents only miss 1 in 5 while Germany's miss 1 in 3. On the face of it, this implies that the "problem" is equal parts scoring and stopping. However, the norm seems to be a scoring and conceding rate of about 80%, i.e. you miss 1 in 5 and so does the opposition. Spain and France show that this will produce an overall win ratio of around 50%, which is what you should expect if the shootout were a lottery. Given that England also only concede 1 in 5, this points the finger back at scoring, though this leaves you wondering why Germany's opponents are regularly sub-par.
The evidence, I think, supports the "bottling it" theory, but not in the sense that players simply lack courage. Just being on the pitch requires that. England regularly fail at penalty shootouts because they expect to. It's worth remembering that their only competitive success since 1990 was against Spain in the quarter-final of Euro 96. I happened to be at that game at Wembley (I was a business freeloader), and I think it's fair to say that everyone's expectation was that England would get to the final. It should also be remembered that in the semi-final, England were running well-above their trend level, having scored 9 in a row (4 against Spain, 5 against Germany). Their failure was the result of a single miss at the start of sudden-death against a team that normally doesn't miss until that stage.
Germany's record is unusual in that they have both a good scoring (93%) and conceding (69%) rate. The two don't often go together - e.g. the Czech's have a 100% scoring rate but conceded 84%, while Portugal conceded only 55% but scored an average-looking 75%. Of course, this highlights that teams who compete in only a few shootouts (3 for the Czechs, 2 for the Portuguese), because they make it to the knock-out stage less often, stand a better chance of a high win ratio overall. Brazil, with a 60% win ratio over 10 shootouts, has an average scoring rate (75%) and a good conceding rate (68%).
What I think these figures may show is that not only are the Germans confident they'll go through, but their opponents seem pretty resigned to the same outcome. In contrast, Brazil's opponents seem slightly more confident in the Selecao than Brazil do themselves. England's opponents are not more confident than average (with the exception of the Germans). Since 1996, they have faced (and failed against) Argentina, Portugal (twice) and Italy. Portugal have a good record, but that is entirely the result of their two contests with England.
The recent match against Italy was typical of the pattern. Everyone was pleased that England had done better than expected, but few genuinely thought the team capable of going any further, and that opinion seemed to be shared by the players, to judge by their performance over the game. Being hard to defeat conclusively in a knockout match, penalties are always a likely outcome for England, and they tend to come at the point when the team has run out of ideas and consequently the belief that they can step up another level. Last 8 seems to be the realistic limit of ambition. In that sense, you have to say that penalties are fair.
So, my conclusion is simple and based on irrefutable evidence. England only win penalty shootouts when I'm in the stadium. If the FA would like to fly me out to Brazil in 2014, I would be happy to oblige.