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

Written By Daniel Prayoga on Monday, January 7, 2013 | 3:38 PM

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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