Mo Salah, penalties and artificial intelligence

Last night, as Leicester City played Liverpool, Mo Salah, current top scorer in the English Premiership, was taken down in the penalty box and then stepped up to take the (correctly-awarded) penalty.

Salah hardly ever misses a penalty. It’s about as nailed on as you can get that he will score. Except last night he didn’t. Something – a badly placed kick, a goalkeeper at the top of his game, a momentary lack of concentration, who knows – meant he kicked the ball into the keepers hands (and then failed to score on the rebound).

Well, it happens. Form is temporary, class is permanent as the saying goes. But what struck me was I knew, I just knew, he was going to miss. Something in the few seconds before he struck the ball made me think he wasn’t going to do it.

To be honest, this is quite a common feeling (for me, anyway). But not all the time. David O’Leary’s famous “the nation holds its breath” penalty never bothered me at all. Never in doubt.

But the thing that interests me here is that I am sure I am the only one who feels this way about penalties and furthermore my belief – untested – is that when I feel that someone is going to miss I am right more times than I am wrong.

An unverified search on the internet says that 70% of penalties awarded in the English top flight are scored, so testing for people’s ability to predict a miss ought not to be too hard – (at these odds a random miss predictor would be relatively easy to spot).

If people can do it through some sort of split-second multiply parallel assessment of the factors – the morale of the team, the state of the game, the look of the keeper and, I think above all, the look and feel of the man taking the kick – the question is then whether we could build a machine that did this too.

What would be the point of that? Well, part from the “it’s interesting” factor there is presumably an arbitrage opportunity out there somewhere that would allow those informed by the machine to bet on the outcome. That, of course, would be of no net social benefit to humanity as a whole and probably isn’t something to be encouraged, but still I do think it’s fascinating.

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