The trouble with dribbling: Why even at Barcelona only Lionel Messi is allowed a mazy run

Sheridan Bird
messi 8 300x225 The trouble with dribbling: Why even at Barcelona only Lionel Messi is allowed a mazy run

Lionel Messi in action for Barca

Fans of all ages love it. Computer gamers are obsessed with it. Managers hate it. Dribbling. It’s the first thing children try in junior matches. Everyone has a favourite goal with a mazy run. Think Ricky Villa, Diego Maradona, George Weah, Ronaldo Luiz Nazario, Terry Phelan*. Why is such an electrifying sight bane of the boss?

Few players genuinely have the ball under complete control during a sinuous run. Unless you are Maradona or Lionel Messi (you aren’t), it is 61% control, 20% adrenaline,  15% luck and 4% “I’m faster than the wind, I’m the greatest” going through your head.

Coaches are aware of this. To them dribbling presents a high chance of losing possession. Would you expect the gaffer to champion something offering opponents the possibility to nick the ball?

A long run may only take a few seconds. That’s enough to give the other side time to reorganise. A blatantly useless dribble away from danger areas gives rivals even more opportunity to regain composure or shape. In British manager speak (minus swearing): “while you’re fluffing around, them lot are marking everyone else.”

Luciano Spalletti became Roma coach in 2005 and transformed a struggling, selfish group into a slick, fluid, total football machine. Spalletti’s finest move was stopping talismanic captain Francesco Totti dribbling. Hitherto the flappy-haired skipper embodied the team malaise with dead-end runs and ball-hogging. His talent flourished in Spall’s pinball passing strategy.

Barcelona play party football, but travel with the ball less than you’d think. Only Messi dribbles regularly. And no coach is going to stop that. It would be like saying to Monet “put all those vibrant, joyous, colours away Claude. Draw a stick man with a marker pen, son.” Andres Iniesta is permitted the odd, glorious dart, but the majority keep the ball moving with snappy, crisp passing.

Dribble chat among English fans leads to nostalgic tears for Wayne Rooney. The cuddly cannonball was a revelation at Euro 2004, but his blockbuster runs are a memory. Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson made him quit. Maybe injuries robbed the United bulldozer of the ability to take the ball from his half and scare defenders into next week. It’s a pity.

Spurs fans will be sad when Gareth Bale leaves. Neutrals would rather he didn’t go to Old Trafford. There is a nagging fear team-first tactics might extinguish his supersonic gallops. “Cut them out, laddy.”

When English football was emerging aristocratic young players at Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse displayed leadership and bravery through individual, egoistic acts. The strength of the Empire was replicated by the courageous act of never passing. The wise old Scots went the other way, creating a style based on passes, putting the team before personal gain.

The greedy or troublemaker stigma lingers. Aside from Messi, several of the 2011/12 Champions League’s top dribblers are viewed with suspicion. Eden Hazard completed 3.8 dribbles per game (second only to Messi). He has been criticised for leaving Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole exposed. Vagner Love, then of CSKA Moscow, comes third in the list. Russian fans didn’t doubt his quality. They did question his application and motivation. Hulk, supposedly a burly prima donna who has given Zenit expensive headaches, is fourth.

Nani is in there. Flighty, unreliable, unloved Nani, allegedly in Fergie’s bad books. Ezequiel Lavezzi thrilled Napoli fans but never scored enough goals. Nothing concrete despite those forays. Even Cristiano Ronaldo divides opinion. Statue-esque team-player or pampered monster unbalancing Real Madrid?

Fans want more dribbling. More Neymar, Messi, and Stephan El Shaarawy. Those in the game would happily ban it. Or limit it to charity matches, Playstations and playgrounds. Another example of the split between spectators and professionals.

*Terry Phelan’s solo goal for Manchester City against Spurs in the 1992/93 FA Cup was a saucy corker. Yes, it is on Youtube. No, it wasn’t typical Phelan.

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  • Brave_Lee_Flea

    For me Ronaldinho at his best redefined what was possible.

  • timmmus

    Was it Wenger who rehabilitated the word “dribbling”. I didn’t hear it for 30 years; since primary school. In between, people were embarrassed to imply the movement of saliva down the chin, when talking football. We used to hear about “skill on the ball” instead. The influx of foreigners to our game has helped to bring “dribbling” back. Of course, the word describes the meandering movement of narrow channels of slow-moving liquid. From a foreigner’s mouth, it sounds ok. But when written, or spoken by a Brit, I still think “please just get a tissue”.

  • Craig Brown

    Great article, you clearly know your stuff. Apply some of that knowledge to your fantasy league team yeah? ;-)

  • j75j

    Bale and Giggs another one that didn’t and don’t dribble they are kick and chase most of the others that have been mentioned do the same! Eddie Gray, Maradona, Stanley Matthews, Best, John Barnes and Steve McManaman ran with the ball stuck to their foot dribbling round players and only Messi does it better then them!

  • decdoyle

    what a load of cobblers. self indulgent navel gazing rubbish. blogs = bull****? in barça, iniesta is the dribbling king.

  • Stuart Hoyle

    For me dribling is going forward through a gap, using the the players skill (application of technique to suit situation), the trick comes in keeping it under and repeating (through another gap using more skill). When a player says, right, I’m gonna ‘dribble’ its usually a fast player using raw pace rather than skill, it should just flow, with skill, then technique and pace in that order. Weah and Brazilian Ronaldo for me..oh go on Iniesta and our very own Suarez?…enjoyed the article….SEAGULLS!

  • Stuart Hoyle


  • SimonG34

    The golden rule about dribbling is: do it where it counts, where if it comes off it will create a good scoring chance. Anything else is just self-indulgence.

  • timmmus

    Eddie Gray of Leeds. He picked up the ball by the corner flag, walked the ball round three opponents to reach the angle of the area, then walked around another three and the goalie, to score.That was against Burnley, who were a top side then. He was a contemporary of Best, but was probably a better footballer. Inevitably, though, with his skills, he was constantly hampered by ankle injuries. These injuries meant he never became the international legend his skill warranted. But he was magic. Unparralleled.

  • timmmus

    see below re eddie gray

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