Oh Canada, you big, golden beauty!
For the first time in Canadian soccer history, our women’s national team has won Olympic gold. The Canadian women’s soccer team defeated reigning silver medallists Sweden in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic women’s soccer final on penalties.
Despite trailing during the match and for most of the shootout, Canada rallied back whenever adversities arose. They needed just a single round of sudden-death shootout football to clinch the gold medal; the shootout winner was scored by the aptly named Julia Grosso.
The history books will remember this victory for Christine Sinclair. The Burnaby, B.C., native has been a regular member of the senior national team ever since she made her debut as a 16-year-old in 2000.
Sinclair has made more than 300 international appearances for Canada since then, and she’s scored 187 international goals — a FIFA record across the women and men’s sides of the sport.
Yet, the legendary attacker had never won a major trophy for her national team. She had come close — most notably in the Olympics via bronze medals in 2012 and 2016. But close just wasn’t fair for such a legend of the sport. She needed a championship, not for her legacy, but because football owed it to her.
This summer, football finally paid its due.
Sinclair couldn’t do it on her own, though. Alongside her experience and leadership, Canada relied on several young talents. Jessie Fleming, for example, scored vital penalties in regular time against the United States and Sweden, and Deanne Rose scored the equalizer in the fifth round of the final’s shootout.
There was also excellent play from other national team favourites, like Desiree Scott, who never seemed to get exhausted despite being one of the oldest starters on the team. And off the bench, Adriana Leon instilled creativity into Canada’s midfield and frustrated opponents throughout the tournament.
And of course, every great team needs a great goalkeeper, and Canada had that in Stephanie Labbé.
The International Olympic Committee doesn’t have an MVP award to give to its top Olympic competitors — what’s the point when the most valuable performers are usually the ones winning the gold medal? But if there was an MVP award, it most certainly would’ve gone to Stephanie Labbé.
The Edmonton native had one of the best Olympics we’ve ever seen from a goalkeeper. In five starts in the Olympics, Labbé conceded just three goals. She never conceded more than once in a match, and she only conceded a solitary goal in 330 minutes of knockout football.
On top of that, Labbé was among the Olympics’ leaders in saves made. Per OneFootball, the Canadian goalkeeper faced 23 shots on target across the Olympics and made 20 saves. She averaged around four saves a match, making her one of the Olympics’ busiest goalkeepers.
It’s no wonder that following the final, Labbé’s position on Wikipedia was edited from goalkeeper to Canada’s National Minister of Defence.
But for as bright as Labbé shined in open play, she excelled the most in penalty situations.
In fact, of the 12 penalties she faced across the Olympics (regular time & shootouts), Labbé conceded just five penalty goals and saved five others.
Her tournament penalty save percentage of 50% (excluding off-target penalties) is absolutely astonishing, especially when you consider that most top goalkeepers average between 30% and 40% of penalties saved in a single tournament. (For reference, Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma saved 37.5% of the 8 on-target penalties he faced at Euro 2020.)
Though I don’t have the statistics in front of me, I’d go as far as suggesting Labbé had the best performance across multiple penalty scenarios we’ve ever seen in a recent major tournament.
With that being said, I started to wonder: What is her secret? How does a goalkeeper face 12 penalties across a five-game span and still post such a low penalty-goals-conceded-rate of 41.6%?
That’s what inspired me to write this goalkeeper analysis piece. In honour of Labbé’s MVP-worthy tournament, I’ve identified a few key tactics Labbé used that gave her, not the shooters, the advantage in penalty situations.
Some of these points are obvious, while others are a bit subtle. But all played a role in Labbé’s historic, gold medal-winning performance.
The mind games
Statistically speaking, penalties don’t favour goalkeepers — not even close. In fact, according to an InStat analysis of nearly 100,000 penalty kicks between 2009 and 2018, roughly 75% of penalties were scored, and only about 18% of penalties were saved by the goalkeeper.
It might be one of the most unfair plays in all sports, and it’s not uncommon for a goalkeeper to fail to save any penalties in a single shootout. (For example, 21 of the 22 penalty takers in the 2021 Europa League Final’s shootout converted their spot-kicks.)
But while the statistics are not in a goalkeeper’s favour, what usually benefits the goalkeeper is the mental side of penalties. Because shooters are expected to score their penalties more often than not, the pressure is usually on them to convert their spot-kicks. The expectation is rarely on the goalkeeper to save a penalty given its low probability.
Knowing this, most goalkeepers will turn to mental warfare in order to unnerve shooters and lead them to mishit their attempts. This is one of the key things Stephanie Labbé did during shootouts in this year’s Olympics.
The first weapon in Labbé’s mental arsenal is an intriguing one. As her opponents walked up to take their penalties, Labbé wouldn’t place the ball on the penalty spot or pass it to them, as some other goalkeepers would do. Instead, she’d sometimes leave the ball where it was following the last penalty — usually somewhere around her goalline or within her six-yard box — and force the opponent to walk up to her, pick up the ball herself, walk back to the penalty spot, and place the ball down.
This is a tactic Labbé used during both the Brazil (fourth shooter) and Sweden shootouts (second and sixth shooters.)
At first glance, this seems insignificant. OK, she didn’t pass the ball to her opponents. So what?
Well, by doing what she did, Labbé forced her opponents to spend more time thinking about their penalties. She also got them to contemplate the pressures of taking such a penalty for a little while longer.
One of the most difficult parts of taking a penalty in a shootout isn’t the shot itself, it’s the walk-up to take the shot. It’s quite the walk from the halfway line to the penalty spot — the distance can be anywhere from 38 yards to 52 yards. As legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel once said, it’s a long walk for penalty takers.
As a taker walks up to the penalty spot, the only things going through their mind are the shot, the context of the shot, and the pressures associated with it. And the more they think about their penalty, the more likely they are to over-think their attempt and scuff their shot.
This is why penalty takers are told not to waste time with their penalties. The standard advice for shooters is to pick a spot to aim at, stick with that spot, and don’t waste time over-thinking it or changing your mind. This advice keeps the player focused, even in a pressurized situation, and prevents them from trying a shot or run-up they wouldn’t normally attempt.
As an example of this, take a look at Julia Grosso’s gold medal-winning penalty. The camera barely had time to switch from a close-up of her to the standard TV angle before she completed her run-up. She didn’t want to risk over-thinking her attempt, so she almost immediately ran at the ball after the whistle was blown.
Even when Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl dove in the direction she was aiming at, Grosso didn’t fret. She stuck to her guns and avoided the temptation of trying to aim at a different part of the goal at the last second.
In my opinion, this contributed to her converting the penalty.
Bringing this back to Labbé, by keeping the ball close to her goal and forcing the shooter to collect it herself, Labbé is giving the player more time to think about their shot. Instead of walking to the 12-yard line, the player now has to walk another 5 or so yards to collect the ball, then another 5 yards or so back to the penalty spot. That’s around 10 extra yards to think about the penalty — and the possibility of messing it up.
Labbé is using her opponents’ own thoughts and fears against them by letting them swim in their heads a little while longer. It’s pretty mischievous, when you think about it.
Unsurprisingly, two of the three times Labbé used this tactic ended with a save.
But Labbé didn’t just rely on subtle tactics to throw her opponents off of their game. Like most goalkeepers, she used her body to cast doubt into her opponents’ minds.
Take what she did for most penalties. After her opponent collects the ball, Labbé would follow them as they walked towards the penalty spot. She’d eventually stop at the edge of the six-yard box, where she’d stand there with her body extended, her arms stretching outwards and her eyes fixated on the shooter.
This way, when the shooter takes their first glance at the goal, Labbé appears bigger than she actually is. Already, she’s playing into their fears that the net is too small and the goalkeeper is too big.
After the referee tells her to retreat to her goalline, Labbé takes her actions up a notch. She’d start jumping from side to side and swinging her arms up and down.
She’d do this up until the shooter is about to strike their shot.
These are standard gamesmanship tactics that Labbé employed.
For starters, swinging her arms up and down makes Labbé appear bigger than she actually is. By women’s football standards, Labbé is a goalkeeper who’s slightly taller than average — Labbé is 5 ft 10, and the average women’s goalkeeper is around 5 ft 9. So to female shooters, she already appears to be a sizeable figure in goal.
But if you factor in her wingspan, which is usually equivalent to a person’s height, you get a goalkeeper who looks even taller to a penalty taker.
And as the animal kingdom has taught us, an opponent looks more intimidating the bigger they appear to be.
On top of that, Labbé’s constant movements from her left and right sides makes her appear to have every inch, every angle and every side of her goal covered.
A shooter will often use a goalkeeper’s position to identify pockets of the goal to shoot at and away from the goalkeeper. But if a goalkeeper like Labbé is jumping between different parts of her net, it becomes difficult for an opponent to identify a side or a corner of the goal that a part of the goalkeeper is not covering. One minute it might seem open for a shot, but the next, a part of goalkeeper is blocking it.
Factor in the erratic nature of Labbé’s hops — she’s not following a particular pattern, such as left-right-left-right — and it becomes difficult for the shooter to deduce where she’ll jump to next.
If Labbé’s movement was following some sort of pattern, then the shooter could pick up on it and time their shot to exploit Labbé’s jump. For example, if they know she’ll jump to the right side after jumping to the left, they could just shoot their penalty to the left as she jumps to the right. But because Labbé wasn’t following some sort of pattern, the opponent couldn’t rely on an educated prediction to beat her.
As an opponent (like Caroline Seger) ponders which side of the goal Labbé will jump to or whether she’s still bouncing at all, they’ll lose focus of their attempt and potentially scuff their shot at the last second.
This is how mind games can work in favour of the goalkeeper, even if the hard statistics predict a different outcome.
Speaking of Caroline Seger’s penalty, I want to focus on that spot-kick for a second.
When Seger stepped up to take the penalty, it looked to be the end for Stephanie Labbé and Canada’s quest for an Olympic gold medal. Two of the Canadians’ three missed penalties had been stopped by Hedvig Lindahl, and Labbé had only saved one of Sweden’s (though Sweden had hit the post on another.)
All Seger had to do was put the ball past the Canadian goalkeeper to clinch a gold medal for her country. The odds were in her favour — remember the InStat analysis I cited earlier? And for once, the pressure was on the goalkeeper, since Labbé could not allow Seger to score if she wanted the shootout to continue.
Given everything I’ve said, you would think Labbé would be the one feeling distressed, not Seger. But when the cameras zoomed in on their faces, Seger looked to be on the verge of tears and Labbé was smirking.
Labbé’s smile is one of the lasting images from the women’s Olympic football tournament. Throughout the shootouts against Brazil in the quarter-finals and Sweden in the final, Labbé could be seen smiling and smirking at her opponents as they prepared to shoot their penalties.
Here she is smirking at Rafaelle Souza prior to Brazil’s fifth penalty, which Labbé saved.
And here she is smiling ahead of Sweden’s third penalty. Unfortunately, she didn’t save this one.
These smiles and smirks, though seemingly minor in the grand scheme of the game, have a big impact on both the team and the opponent’s morales.
In terms of the benefit to the team, Labbé’s smiles give off a feeling of confidence and composure. Her smiles don’t look fake or forced — it appears she’s truly enjoying the moment and she believes she’ll come out on top.
This is something she alluded to in an interview with CBC Sports.
Now, imagine if you’re one of her teammates. You’ve just seen several of your other teammates fail to convert their penalties. Two of your team’s penalties have been saved by the opposing goalkeeper, who appears to have all of your moves memorized.
You look over at Sweden’s players and they’re giggling and giddy. They’re on the verge of victory, and you’re on the verge of losing a heartbreaking final.
You look at your goalkeeper, expecting to see her shoulders slumped, her head hanging and her demeanour accepting defeat. But instead, you see her smiling and smirking.
What message does that send to you? What message does that send to your teammates; that your goalkeeper, in one of the most anti-goalkeeper situations in sports and with the numbers against your team, is smiling at her opponents, challenging them to beat her?
It makes you feel like you have a chance — a fighting chance, a legitimate chance — at coming back.
Without Labbé’s composure, Canada would not have made it past the quarter-finals, let alone won the gold medal. After all, Christine Sinclair, our nation’s captain and greatest ever footballer, failed to convert her penalty in that shootout against Brazil. Imagine the effect on team morale that had on the squad, seeing their captain walk back from a missed penalty ripping her jersey.
It’s a blow seeing your leader and nation’s GOAT in such a state, just ask Argentina’s 2016 Copa América Centenario squad. But luckily for the Canadians, they had a confident, focused goalkeeper in Labbé between the sticks.
This is why goalkeepers are considered to be the average team’s emotional leader, whether they wear the captain’s armband or not. With a single action, be it a save, a claim or even a smile, they have the power to turn a team’s morale 180 degrees.
And with a similar action, they can destroy any shred of hope, no matter how large, their opponents have.
Remember earlier when I highlighted some of the ways goalkeepers play with the nerves of an opposing shooter? This is yet another side of the gamesmanship die goalkeepers like Labbé gamble with. By giving off a feeling of confidence, Labbé is not only telling her teammates that she’s got this, she’s telling her opponents she’s got this too.
Goalkeepers will display their confidence in a number of ways, such as through trash talk. They might insult them by mocking their penalty routine or their shots, or they might try to intimidate them by telling them they know where they’re going to shoot (which casts doubt in an opponent’s mind.)
We saw a prime example of this during this year’s Copa América. In Argentina and Colombia’s semi-final shootout, Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez shouted at Yerry Mina, one of Colombia’s top penalty takers, throughout the latter’s attempt.
“You’re nervous, eh? I can tell you’re nervous,” he said. “I know where you’re going to shoot. Watch and see how I’m going to eat you up.”
To Mina’s credit, he still stuck a strong penalty to Martínez’s left side. But the Argentine goalkeeper anticipated Mina’s shot perfectly.
Note Mina’s face before and after the penalty. Prior to the shot, Mina was smiling and firing back at Martínez. He was trying not to let Martínez’s trash talk intimidate him.
But after Martínez’s penalty save, he was in complete shock. His hands were on his head, and he looked as if he had seen a ghost.
Now, imagine what Colombia’s other penalty-takers, most of whom probably weren’t adept at scoring penalties as Mina, felt after seeing what happened to him?
Though Labbé’s smiles and smirks weren’t as pointed as Martínez’s verbal barrage, they still had the same effect on her opponents. They made the Swedish players take note of Labbé’s confidence, and that in turn played into doubts they had about their own capabilities.
And when these displays of composure were followed by a save, Labbé’s opponents — both the shooter and their teammates — felt inferior, powerless and destined to lose.
As Labbé told CBC Sports, the smiles and smirks were part of her effort to “put the pressure back on the players and hopefully have them feel that pressure.”
Given how some Swedish analysts and former players reacted to Labbé’s actions, I think it’s fair to say her gamesmanship worked.
The final penalty-saving tactic I want to touch on is what I call the bait technique.
When a goalkeeper sets themselves up for a penalty, they usually position themselves in the centre of the goal. This is considered to be the optimal starting position for a goalkeeper in a penalty situation because it gives the goalkeeper an equal chance of saving a shot aimed at the left or right sides of the goal.
If a goalkeeper positions themselves on the right side of the goal, for example, they’ll expose more of the goal on the left. They’ll also make it more difficult for themselves to save a shot aimed near the left side of the goal. The same is true for vice-versa.
Stephanie Labbé knows this (obviously. She’s a professional goalkeeper.) This is why she doesn’t position herself directly near any of her posts on any of her opponents’ shots.
What she does do, though, is she takes up a position slightly closer to one post than another — about a step closer. By doing this, she’s not completely centred, and she’s exposing slightly more space on one side of the goal than the other.
Why does she do this? It’s so she can bait her opponent into aiming at that slightly more exposed side.
As I’ve hopefully made clear so far, saving penalties is a tough task for goalkeepers. Everything from the numbers to the distance between the penalty spot and the goalline favour attackers.
Even some of the rules are advantageous to shooters. How many times have we seen a goalkeeper’s penalty save get called back because their foot was an inch or so off of the line, which makes little difference in the save but is illegal according to the rulebook?
Given everything working against the goalkeeper, any sort of advantage they can get is useful. Again, that’s why goalkeepers will turn to things like gamesmanship and trash talk; it’s something that can give them the upper hand.
Still, those require a goalkeeper to predict where a penalty taker is going to shoot their attempt. And while goalkeepers these days are much better at reading shooters than in the past, shooters are also better at reading goalkeepers.
That’s where the bait technique comes into play. Part of the beauty of a good bait is that it lures the attacker into shooting at a specific area of the goal. By making one area of the goal appear slightly bigger than the other, the goalkeeper might trick the shooter into thinking the bigger area of the goal gives them a greater chance of converting their spot-kick. Thus, the shooter may be more inclined to strike their penalty there.
This would play right into the goalkeeper’s hands. The goalkeeper would be expecting the shooter to aim at that area of the goal, so they could react towards that side slightly earlier.
Obviously, this technique doesn’t guarantee a save — just because you can lure an opponent into shooting at a specific side doesn’t mean you can also predict their shot’s height and power.
On top of that, there are some cons to this tactic. Position yourself too close to one post, for example, and you’ll make it too obvious to the opponent (subtlety is a key part of this move’s success.) But position yourself too centrally and neither side will look more exposed to an opponent.
Furthermore, if you commit too far to one side, you’re not going to give yourself much of a chance to save a shot aimed at the opposite side. Even if you expect the shooter to go there, you’re not going to be able to get to that side in time to make a legitimate save attempt.
But if a goalkeeper is willing to roll the die, the technique could work in their favour, as it did for Labbé on two of Sweden’s penalties.
In the first example, Sweden’s first penalty, Labbé does some of the things I highlighted earlier. She smirks at Kosovare Asllani, then hops between the left, middle and rights sides of her goal while waving her arms around.
But just as Asllani goes into a shooting motion, Labbé takes up a position slightly closer to the right side of her goal. By doing so, Labbé exposes more of her left side of the goal. It’s Labbé’s attempt to lure Asllani into shooting to her preferred side.
The bait works. Asllani opens her hips up so that she can shoot to the left side of Labbé’s goal. But by the time she strikes the ball, Labbé is already moving to her left side.
In fairness to Asllani, she does exactly what a shooter should do in this scenario. She aims her shot near the edge of the goal because that’s an area Labbé barely has a chance of getting to in time, even if she expected Asllani to aim her shot to her left side. And as we see in the replay, Labbé — who might’ve overcommitted to her right side by a half of a step — would not have reached the shot had it been aimed slightly closer to Asllani’s left side.
Still, a miss is a miss, and it’s fair to give Labbé credit for tempting Asllani to shoot to that area of the goal. After all, it’s possible the Swedish star wasn’t even considering aiming to Labbé’s left in the first place.
Labbé’s tactic also came in handy on Sweden’s sixth and final shot.
Again, Labbé employed some of the same tactics she had used throughout the tournament. She got Sweden’s Jonna Andersson to pick up the ball near her goal, which forced her to think about the penalty for a little while longer; she smirked at her opponent as she retreated to her line, which was an open, confident invitation to try to beat her; and she hopped around with waving arms, which made her appear bigger and the goal appear smaller.
Then, as Andersson approached her penalty, Labbé set herself slightly closer to the right side of the goal. Similar to the first penalty, this made the left side of the goal appear bigger and invited her opponent to strike her penalty there.
And like Asllani, Andersson bit. She swung her shooting leg across her body and drove a low penalty to Labbé’s left side. And similar to the first penalty, Labbé anticipated that her trap would work and dove to her left — only this time, she saved the shot.
Like an expert hunter, Labbé laid the bait in plain sight for her opponents, set herself up in a subtle manner, and then watched as the penalty-takers fell right into her trap.
Stephanie Labbé’s performance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is an incredible story on its own. But when you consider the context of her career since the last Olympics, you can’t help but feel even happier for her achievement.
In 2017, a year after backstopping Canada to bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Labbé dealt with depression. Her demons were largely inspired by feelings of unworthiness, particularly at the club level. At one point, Washington Spirit coach Jim Gabarra even told Labbé he didn’t think the team was playing for her, that they didn’t want to win for her.
“I took (Gabarra’s claim) negatively, as you can imagine,” Labbé later said. “My self-worth had been taken from me. I broke down in the parking lot. I fully lost control of myself. I was so removed from who I was, it was like I wasn’t even in my own body.”
Eventually, the Spirit put Labbé on a medical leave of absence for the rest of the 2017 NWSL season.
Labbé would eventually conquer her depression and return to the sport she loved. She continued turning up for the Canadian national team, and she regained her confidence thanks to stints in Sweden and with the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage.
Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic took a stab at ending Labbé’s international career early. The goalkeeper had been open about her plans to retire following the Olympics — back when they were supposed to be in 2020. But after the event was postponed to 2021, the Canadian was forced to make a decision: hang up her international boots like she intended and miss out on the Olympics, or train — much of it by herself — for a year in the hopes she could improve on her 2016 bronze medal.
Thankfully, for herself and for Canada, she chose the latter.
With Canada now Olympic champions, the next step is to develop more talented women goalkeepers — and footballers in general — by investing in women’s football, both at the grassroots level and the professional level.
“I hope that we’ll see some investment in the women’s game,” said captain Christine Sinclair. “I think it’s time Canada gets a professional league or some professional teams.
Labbé won’t be around forever — she’ll turn 35 later this year. And given her phenomenal performance at the Olympics, I’m sure she’s inspired many young girls into becoming goalkeepers themselves.
But if we want to make sure all of the future Labbés have the means to go professional and build on what Labbé and this batch of Canadian talents have accomplished, women’s sports must be better supported, both at the financial and the fan levels.
Mouhamad Rachini is a journalist and goalkeeper enthusiast. You can find him on Twitter via @BlameTheKeeper.