Football is increasingly becoming a team game, where the efforts and cohesion of elven players outweighs the skill and dynamism of one. Managers have become wise to this and now many are employing tactics that require the team to work as one.
Barcelona are the obvious example. Their brand of tiki-taka, a hybrid of the traditional pass-and-move and total football, depends on the determination of the whole team. If Xavi places a ball to Iniesta in tight space, the recipient can almost guarantee that Xavi has found space for a pass back. It creates options, makes space and occasionally it will produce a goal. Today is the era of the short pass.
Swansea were applauded for their brand of tiki-taka and the way in which they avoided a reliance on long balls. When defenders are pressured while in possession they use passing triangles to start an attack; it shows confidence in a system which has worked for the best team in the world.
The major drawback to this new pass-and-move generation is the depletion of dribblers. Players like Messi and Suarez have the ability to take on players but they are a rare breed; even Ronaldo prefers step-overs. Players who try and dribble past opponents are cheered when they succeed but they are called ‘greedy’ and ‘individualistic’ when they fail. The option of a simple pass has encouraged players to avoid confrontation.
It used to be one of the thrills of football; watching a trequartista at full pace, beating player-after-player before slotting a neat ball past the goalkeeper. Few moments invoke the blood-pumping adrenaline that a thrilling run induces. Arguably the best World Cup goal, Maradona famously beat six England players in ’86 only moments after the Hand of God goal.
One of the few examples of teams who do possess natural dribblers are Wigan. They avoided relegation last season with a successful form of counter-attack that relied on the abilities of Victor Moses. The now-Chelsea winger was ranked as the best dribbler in the Premier League by Opta, completing a very impressive 95% of his runs. A failed opposition corner would lead to him tearing down the field and attacking the weakened opposition defence.
The player who ranked second was Junior Hoilett; who spent last season at Blackburn, another team who focus on counter attacks. It comes as no surprise that teams who featured lower in the league would rely on counter attacks given their limited time in possession and, as there is much space between the two boxes, it is only natural that those teams would employ a quick dribbler to exploit those rare opportunities.
When enjoying a majority of possession it is riskier to try and dribble past an opponent rather than just pass it; you are not counter attacking and therefore they have many men behind the ball to get past. Perhaps this is why the top ten teams don’t have many natural dribblers.
It is among the most challenging skills in football. Theo Walcott enjoys blazing speed but he has come under criticism for the nature of the runs; often he dribbles down blind-alleys. The vision and perception to find free space is rare talent. Hatem Ben Arfa attacks the flanks for Newcastle and with his pace and skill he occasionally cuts inside and darts past players; a talent which has earned him many plaudits.
The intelligence to choose the runs, the knowledge of when to release the ball and the movement to beat players are crucial to being a successful dribbler.
The latter of those skills can also be influence by genetics. Is it a surprise that Lionel Messi (5ft 7) and Diego Maradona (5ft 5) are two of the most creative dribblers of their generations? Both utilise their compactness to weave through defences and the lower centre of gravity helps them keep their balance.
On the other hand, Dennis Bergkamp wasn’t small and he wasn’t particularly fast but he used his extraordinary technical ability to out manoeuvre players, the same way Suarez does and Zidane did.
Pele was one the best but for me there is only one: Garrincha. While Pele watched from the sidelines the ‘Angel With Bent Legs’ was winning the ’62 World Cup single-handedly. He controlled the ball with vigour, showed the imagination and dynamism to beat many, but most importantly he could create from nothing.
So many legends have displayed an exceptional dribbling ability, so it comes as a loss to football that that way of playing has been ostracised. Defensive shrewdness and pass-and-move may be the latest fashion but what of the unpredictability of the dribble? Football is remembered for amazing moments but few display the grace, the impulsiveness and the sheer brilliance of a dribble.