Drooling at the Dribblers!

Drooling at the Dribblers!

Mon 08 October 2012

Football development


Let me ask you, what was your ultimate football dream as a kid? Mine was to score the winning goal in a World Cup Final. I would get the ball in the last minute. I would dribble from my goal to theirs, getting past any member of their team who dared to stop me before beating the keeper. My team go wild, the fans explode, a nation rejoices. As a result I get the hottest girlfriend in the world and ultimately a statue of me is built outside Red Star Belgrade’s Marakana stadium. I was about 4 years old.

I felt this was a common dream for a boy wanting to be a footballer, a cheesy Hollywood film about me played by me. Besides, it was the era of one Diego Armando Maradona and his regular single-handed displays of slays of the opposition summed up why he was the best in the world. Give him the ball and he can sort it out. It was pure individuality within a team. Like Michael J Fox in Teen Wolf. When he was the basketball playing werewolf his chubby teammate would have a snack during the game as Scott ‘The Wolf’ Howard destroyed the other teams on his Michael J’s. He won games shooting hoops alone. The lone wolf.

Fast forward to 2012 and you find a 29 year old blogger whose dreams now involve this blog being read by more than just immediate family and one friend about a niche football matter. The beautiful game is far too often missing the most beautiful of all skills, the dribble. I am concerned it is a skill that is not seen or encouraged often enough. Yes it is celebrated when we witness it, but when it’s not around how many players, fans or experts have you heard say, “Tell you what we need.. a dribbler”? Yes we get requests for commanding keepers, big defenders, pacey forwards, wide players, ball winning midfielders, leaders, passers, tacklers, finishers but when a team is struggling how often have people seen that their problems could be solved by having an individual, an artist, a game changer, a game winner?

The performance of Moussa Dembele at the weekend for Fulham vs Manchester United was world class. Full of weaving runs, creation and danger. Stunning. Not seen enough. The threat of 17 year old debutant Raheem Stirling for Liverpool was full of excitement as he moved with the ball going at a Kolo Toure in need of his wife’s slimming pills again. The fans were hoping, they were dreaming that Stirling would get the ball and win the game for the Reds. The anticipation and thrill of youth had the Anfield army on the edge of their seats. The Raheem Dream.

It’s a thrill that isn’t felt often enough. There are a few consistent great dribblers today, such as Lionel Messi.  But how many others players get the ball and the crowd, in attendance and at home, buzzing with possibility, even probability, of exhilaration. And I am not talking about guys who knock it past an opponent and run. That is basic. I love to see a player go at another player not just trying to make space for a cross or shot (Ashley Young) but to get beyond that defender and then see what the next option is from a better, more advanced position with one defender less to conquer. It does not require complex circus tricks either. It is a mix of balance, agility, quick feet in tight spaces and acceleration. Pure speed can help but without ball control it won’t be very reliable. Not naming any names Theo. It doesn’t have to be used in the final third exclusively either. In the middle of midfield getting past your opposite number can lead to oncoming scrambling covering defenders to leave space elsewhere. As more space appears the final pass or shot becomes easier. Something Dembele demonstrated at The Theatre of Dreams.

The Red Star team that I dreamed to be a part of growing up had Stojkovic, Prosinecki and Savicevic in one side. They were three elegant magicians. In one team. Today you don’t have three in one league! Each could glide past players in any area of the pitch. It’s not only wonderful to watch but effective too, and when it happens we are all off our seats and everyone praises the play. However, out of sight seems out of mind.

Most of the best players of all time had guess what in common? Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane, Puskas, Matthews, Messi Eusebio, Garrincha, Best, Original Ronaldo. Their dribbling left us drooling. So why not try and derive skills based on versions of the very best rather than the average players?

The game has evolved of course. Better athleticism and tighter organised defences have become more astute at closing down space as displayed in recent seasons by the ultra defensive Inter and Chelsea sides at the Nou Camp. Jonathan Wilson wrote in Inverting The Pyramid:

“The dribbling technique of Garrincha or Stanley Matthews doesn’t exist in today’s game, not because the skills have been lost, but because no side would give them the three or four yards of acceleration room they needed before their feint became effective. Would they have been great players in today’s game? Probably, but not by dribbling like that”

Wilson himself states a solution to such tight marking would be the space an attacking full back may have. Again, at Barcelona they have the great example of Dani Alves and in the summer Spain used Jordi Alba. Attacking full backs shouldn’t just be overlapping onto the ball, they should be encouraged to take players on in attack. A special mention to Glen Johnson who is England’s best dribbler today and his play deserves more praise.

There is a negative slant that contributes to the distrust of flair players. They are deemed clowns, luxury players, selfish, greedy and indulgent. Yet while we’ve all played with a greedy, glory hunting teammate (not exclusive to dribblers) they are not all like that. Some of my best friends are dribblers.

It’s vital to trust it, encourage it and stick with it. Take Aaron Lennon, often justifiably criticised for his final ball. We’ve all seen him take on a left back get past him and then fail to pick out a teammate. The moans and groans that are directed at him after such a passage are that of total disappointment. The successful dribble is forgotten and only the bad ball is remembered. Therefore the inference that dribbling is pointless is not far off. When a dribble succeeds we all praise it, yet when someone attempts and fails they get pilloried. How do you get to the success we all love if you won’t accept some failure along the way? To put it simply:  you won’t. And gradually you will erode that skill and intention. Compare it to a reaction to a fizzing cross that is swung in yet not within five yards of a target. That will get adulation and forwards would even get the blame for ‘not being there’! Such a train of thought has only one destination; Dumb Town. If a useful skill, intended at the right moment doesn’t  come off, that failure shouldn’t mean the act is retired but instead should be retried until it is done better, like all aspects of the game.

There are players that used to carry the ball forward in the early part of their careers like Scott Parker at Charlton who nowadays almost takes pride in not doing anything technically good or exciting. A player like Damien Duff used to be as joyful as any when he was at Blackburn but now when he gets the ball the only dribbles he does are ones going backwards towards his own goal. As if scared by oncoming defenders he ends up killing any momentum the attack had. Yet no one has pointed out their receding abilities. The best examples are two teenagers who lit up the world stage like no other Englishmen in the last 20 years. The individual runs that frightened the whole world by Michael Owen at France ‘98 and Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004 have become practically extinct from their games as  their careers have developed. The fact they went on to score lots of goals has obscured the fact that they never quite fulfilled the promise of those two summers. No amount of goals will capture the imagination like one magical individual spell.

It’s not just in the UK that a lack of dribbling is alarming. Even the mighty Spanish team, easily one of the best international teams of all time, lack serial dribblers. Based on the brilliant Barcelona model the one glaring difference between the two sides is the lack of that magician Messi. He is widely accepted as the best in the world yet how many players are encouraged to try and copy his style of play? Granted, it’s harder to replicate but a slightly less good Lio would still be a fearsome player.

A possession based game today is one we at four6zero advocate but the emphasis on ball control has meant fewer individual risks taken. An example is in order. How many times have you seen a player faced one on one with a full back and instead of taking him on he takes the safe option and turns back to recycle possession?  Although players are shut down more efficiently when you see such situations arise you worry that the skills may have been lost. If you are not going to take on a player when you are one-on- one when will you? A dangerous dribbler will likely draw attention of more than one defender ultimately leading to more space for other passing teammates.

So the modern game has affected how dribblers operate. Left footed wide players play often on the right and vice versa, like Arjen Robben, cutting inside rather than out. A wide defender’s instinct is still to show him inside so attackers have exposed this tendency.  A positive improvement which has negatively impacted dribbling may be modern pitches. They have helped with passing for sure but I’d argue they have negatively affected the ability to get past a player one-on-one. We’ve all seen the old footage of George Best beating defences on quagmire pitches in the 1960’s.  Today if there’s a boggy pitch players are in fear of being caught in possession. Yet it is the flat reliable ground that makes it easier for a defender to twist and turn to stay with an opponent.

One mantra that has been around for a long time is talented dribblers being told to expect being kicked and many accept it as part of the game. That suggests that it is somehow deserved for being that much better skilled than an opponent. A ludicrous logic that needs to be stamped out. Well let’s start a new campaign Kick Out Kicking Out.


So where does it all leave us. How do we get the dreams of these young future stars realised? Encourage it because it is a basic skill that most kids learn playing with their friends in the street. It’s almost as if it is coached out of players the longer they are in the game. How many of you that have played serious footballs have been involved in regular dribbling drills in training?

So as I approach 30 I may not have scored that World Cup Final dream goal, but I at least have the hottest girlfriend in the world (she edits my blogs). There are also reports of my statue being seen on Sunday morning pitches across the West London area.  However every time I see a player like Messi fulfil his potential I feel like that 4 year old kid again running around a park in Belgrade with a ball at my feet.

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