Tag Archives: dribbling

Dribbling v. Carrying the Ball

Andrea Pirlo

I want to give credit to our Head Trainer, Thomas Shenton, who gave me the name for dribbling when you are not necessarily beating an attacker.  Watching the Euros this summer, I couldn’t help but notice Pirlo’s role on the Italian team–he didn’t necessarily beat defenders with the dribble, but he dribbled a lot.  The phrase for how he plays is called “carrying the ball.”  In fact, the Italian team ran their offense through him.  So, if you watched the Italians play, you would see an older, long haired Italian circling around the ball, receiving it, then “carrying” the ball around the field, drawing pressure to him, then distributing.  In the picture to the left, you will notice he is scanning the field with the ball at his feet – a typical Pirlo siting.

For the current Arsenal team, Santi Cazorla is providing a similar service.  It seems, though, that Santi eliminates defenders on the go too (what Opta would consider a “dribble”).  The soccer stat site whoscored.com, as I documented here, is a wonderful site to review statistics for soccer.  I cannot find, however, a stat that measure “carrying” the ball.  So, on whoscored.com, Pirlo is averaging 1.8 dribbles per game.  Given how much he handles the ball in a game, that seems a bit hard to understand.  This season, Santi averages 2.5 dribbles per game.  Another new Arsenal player, Lukas Podolski plays a different style–he “runs at defenders” with the ball.  He is more direct and dribbles forward (primarily).  He is currently averaging 1.5 dribbles per game in the Premier League.

Santi Cazorla

The highest rated “dribbler” for Arsenal currently is Gervinho, at 5 per game.  Walcott is second.  Again, this is not tracking how often he is dribbling, but how often he is dribbling passed a defender.  It is obvious from watching Arsenal that Cazorla has the ball the most.   All stats are taken from the site http://www.whoscored.com/Statistics.

I like all the different styles and am glad to have Podolski on Arsenal because that is something we have lacked (it would be nice to see more long shots too).  If anyone knows a stat that tracks “carrying the ball” or how to use the Opta stats to figure it out, I am interested.  I think “key passes” would be a good indicator for these type players (or passes resulting in scoring chances or even passes resulting in good service).  But, I think it would be interesting if there was a stat that tracked how long a player had the ball during a game (that is what I am looking for and cannot find).  I am sure it is out there.

For example, looking at key passes per game, Santi Cazorla is averaging 4.5 and ranks eight of all players.  Pirlo ranks eleventh with 4 per game.  The top of the list includes these players (some of which I know are not ball “carriers”):


1.  Clement Grenier (CM) – 7/1

2.  Leigthon Baines (LB) – 6.5/1

3.  Adel Taarabt (AM) – 5/2

4.  Antonio Candreva (AM) – 5/1

5.  Hiroshi Kiyotake (M) – 5/2

6.  Wesley Sneijder (AM(C)) – 5/0

7.  Iago Aspas (M) – 4.5/.5

8.  Santi Cazorla (CM/AM) – 4.5/2.5

9.  Aaron Hunt (AM) – 4/3

10.  Andrea Cossu (CAM) – 4/1

11.  Andrea Pirlo (CDM) – 4/2

Stats taken from whoscored.com.  KP = Key passes/game; DRB = dribbles/game.

Interestingly, only one defender makes the list.  I am sure this list will change as the year progresses.

Playing your best passer and ball handler in a position where they will handle the ball more makes sense.  The more this type of player touches the ball, the better your chance that something good will happen.  These types of players tend to include other players and are good passers.  In youth soccer, if I have a player that handles the ball well, has good vision and some tactical awareness, I like to put them in the middle of field where they will involve the other players.  (At the same time, I make everyone play this spot, some just are better at it than others).

Lukas Podolski

While there is definitely value in running at defenders with the ball Podolski-style, carriers of the ball can have great effect in the game by dribbling sideways and backwards, creating space for other players.

Do the US Women Pass too Much?

I enjoy watching the US Women team play.  They are the top of the heap of soccer for women.  And, being American, it is nice to be able to always be the favorite — even when you are playing European teams!  At the same time, I think there is an argument that they could be even better if they handled the ball more.

It was impressive to see the US Women start the New Zealand game with the amount of pressure they applied.  Everywhere NZL went, the US pressed them farther.  That stood out.  What also stood out was the speed of movement when we had the ball — I am not referring to the movement of the players, I am referring to movement of the ball.  Generally speaking, the USWNT exercise one-touch passing.  While all directions are explored, the only real areas they seem interested in are forward and wide.  Almost every pass played backwards is followed by a long ball up.  The right back, for instance, played it long the following times she had the ball played back to her (I only charted the first 33 minutes):

10:34  drop then long ball led to loss of possession

11:19  drop to right back and sent up (long) – maintained possession

19:00  right back played another long that led to loss of possession

21:43  right back played another long that led to loss of possession

27:33  right back turned the ball over again

I only started charting at the seventh minute – in the note on the 10:34 entry, I note that it was the fourth time the backs had played long resulting in loss of possession.   This is all interesting, but not the real point of the blog tonight.  I just wanted to point out that  there is no such thing as playing the ball out from our backs.  And, as I have written before, the argument between territory and possession, I prefer possession unless you can have a shot off the long service.

Getting back to dribbling, there were several instances in the first 1/3 of the game where a player had the ball and space.  Given that situation, why pass?  If the pass is a killer pass, it makes sense, but what if it is not?  What if the player has the ball and space in mouth of the goal (but outside the box)?  At the 16:34, Abby has just that situation.  Rather than press the ball into the throat of the goal (allowing a teammate to cut in behind the defense or allowing a shot), she immediately sends it wide to Rapinoe.  In this particular instance, Rapinoe crossed it immediately back in and it almost resulted in a goal (to be fair).  But, if you have the ball and space, why not require the defense (in front of the goal) to commit to you?  Abby does that at the 28:45 mark – opting to dribble instead of throw the ball wide.  The result was a fantastic through ball up the middle, in front of the goal, rather than away from it.

In the Olympic Edition of Sports Illustrated (August 6, 2012), Megan Rapinoe is profiled.  I had not read this article but as I was telling my wife about what I observed, she recommended it.  Rapinoe was one of the few Americans who at least held the ball at times.  While her moves in the first 1/3 of the game were limited to cuts and turns out wide, she at least handled the ball.  Interestingly, she is viewed as an “un-American” player.

“Truth be told, Pinoe is the most un-American player in the U.S. women’s soccer, and that’s a compliment.  For decades that U.S. has thrived on strength and speed more than skill…Rapinoe relies instead on clever dribbling, fluid movement and visionary passing…The key to her creativity, she says, was playing under Danny Cruz, her club coach at age 13 with Elk Grove United in Sacramento.

‘I don’t think he ever really told me how to play. . . He was really good about letting us make mistakes and play free. . . There are a lot of really bad coaches in the U.S. who maybe don’t focus on the right things. Sometimes creativity is stamped out at a young age.'”  (Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, August 6, 2012)

Funny thing — Sam Snow, US Youth Director of Coaches, says the same thing — we are coaching the game out of the players!   Do we give our players the same opportunities?

Back to the game against NZL, the first goal was created after an excellent ball through the defense (from right to left, diagonally) with which Alex Morgan held onto it.  She challenged the defender to the left of the goal, in the box.  The defender had to retreat, giving Alex space to send a superb cross (shorter range).  Abby finished it.  This was in the 26:28 minute of the game.  Alex’s challenge to beat the defender 1v1 created her space to send the cross.

And, to answer the question about passing too much.  The default in soccer, I understand, is that if there is an open teammate, we should send the ball there.  We should stretch the defense with width (and length).  But, watching Pirlo play for Italy in the Euros, there is something to be said for at least “carrying” the ball (not necessarily beating people off the dribble, but drawing defenders to you then distributing is en effective way of managing the midfield.)  If you pass the ball too quickly, it may have the opposite effect on the defense — they do not have the time to commit so they just stay in place.

We used to use a similar strategy in basketball.  At high school, while our basketball team was above average, we competed at the highest level of Texas basketball (5A).  Our coaches’ philosophy was to play zone – we usually played a 2-3.  We allowed the opposing team freedom of ball movement anywhere outside our zone — we used it for breathers.  At the same time, penetrating dribblers challenged our defense – requiring us to commit and move.

I hope that, going forward, as a new generation of soccer players are developed, that we do not default back to the strength and speed philosophy.

Dribbles per Game, Germans, Tiki-Taka, and Overhead Slams

What role doees dribbling have in the modern soccer game?  Watching the US Women play New Zealand today in the Olympics reminded me of how we can teach and coach dribbling right out of the game.  Every licensing course I attend the instructors lament the lack of creative, playmaking ball masters, while at the same time we seem to assembly line produce one touch passers.  And now, since Spain and Barcelona’s success, everyone assumes it is the style of game that is the most successful.  In fact, if you ask most people to describe the Spanish or Barcelona style of play, the one word that you would hear most is passing or Tika-Taka.  I can think of a few more (movement, pressure).

At whoscored.com, you can sort stats for teams and individuals in offensive and defensive categories.  One of the categories is “dribbles per game.”  The date is collected by Opta Sports.  They define their dribble state as follows:


This is an attempt by a player to beat an opponent in possession of the ball. A successful dribble means the player beats the defender while retaining possession, unsuccessful ones are where the dribbler is tackled, Opta also log attempted dribbles where the player overruns the ball.


So, at the professional level, what teams succeed at this category?  Surprisingly, of the top 10 teams, 9 of them compete in the Bundesliga,  Only Barcelona, number 9, is ranked in the top 20.  The Bundesliga not only made of 9 of the first 10, but only one other team made it in the Top Twenty.  Here is the list:

R Team Tournament Shots pg Shots OT pg Dribbles pg
1 Hamburger SV Bundesliga 13.2 4.8 16.6
2 Hoffenheim Bundesliga 13.4 4.3 16.6
3 Werder Bremen Bundesliga 14.9 4.6 16.4
4 Bayern Munich Bundesliga 15.7 6.3 15.7
5 Schalke 04 Bundesliga 13.7 5.6 13.9
6 Mainz 05 Bundesliga 12.6 4.4 13.9
7 Borussia Dortmund Bundesliga 16.6 6.3 13.4
8 Bayer Leverkusen Bundesliga 12.9 5.5 13.4
9 Barcelona La Liga 16.5 7.6 13.2
10 Freiburg Bundesliga 12.1 4.3 12.9
11 Hertha Berlin Bundesliga 11.1 3.8 12
12 Hannover 96 Bundesliga 12.2 4.1 11.9
13 Nurnberg Bundesliga 12.6 4.1 11.9
14 Augsburg Bundesliga 11.3 3.9 11.9
15 VfB Stuttgart Bundesliga 13.9 5.7 11.8
16 Kaiserslautern Bundesliga 12.6 4.1 11.7
17 Borussia M.Gladbach Bundesliga 13 5 11.3
18 Wolfsburg Bundesliga 12.4 4.8 11
19 FC Cologne Bundesliga 8.9 3.3 10.6
20 Lecce Serie A 11.3 3.6 10.3

When I first saw this, my first thought, cynic that I am, is that they must be keeping better stats in Germany.  Or maybe they are more consistent with their record keeping.  But, assuming the statistics accurately reflect what is going on in the game, it seems apparent that their are more one on one dribble challenges occurring in Germany.  Notice the one team that makes it in the Top 10 – pass-happy Barcelona.

The German trend is also reflected in the individual stats.    Like the team stats, I sorted these according to the dribbles/game column:

R Name Team Pos Apps G A SpG KP Drb
1 Gökhan Töre Hamburger SV M(R) 16(6) 6 1 1.9 5.3
2 Lionel Messi Barcelona AM(R),FW 36(1) 50 16 5.5 2.5 4.8
3 Ryan Babel Hoffenheim AM(CLR),FW 28(3) 4 2 2.1 1.2 4.2
4 Franck Ribéry Bayern Munich AM(L) 27(5) 12 12 2.2 2.1 4
5 Jefferson Montero Betis AM(LR) 26(6) 1 3 1.9 0.9 3.6
6 Juan Guillerm… Lecce D(R),M(R) 32(1) 3 2 1.8 1.2 3.4
7 Raffael Hertha Berlin AM(C),FW 30(1) 6 8 2.2 1.6 3.3
8 Andre Schürrle Bayer Leverkusen AM(CLR),FW 30(1) 7 4 2.2 1.4 3.1
9 Marco Reus Borussia M.Gl… AM(CR),FW 32 18 9 3.2 2.3 2.9
10 Joaquín Malaga AM(CR) 19(4) 2 3 1.2 2.1 2.9
11 Roberto Firmino Hoffenheim AM(CL) 26(4) 7 1 2.1 1.5 2.9
12 Jonathan Biab… Parma M(CLR),FW 27(11) 6 4 1 1.1 2.8
13 Claudio Pizarro Werder Bremen AM(C),FW 28(1) 18 8 2.9 1.8 2.7
14 Jefferson Farfán Schalke 04 AM(CR),FW 19(4) 4 8 1 2.7 2.6
15 Daniel Caligiuri Freiburg AM(CLR) 18(7) 6 4 1.5 0.9 2.6
16 Ashkan Dejagah Wolfsburg AM(CLR),FW 24(2) 3 7 1.6 1.3 2.6
17 David Hoilett Blackburn AM(CLR) 34 7 5 1.9 1.3 2.6
18 Stevan Jovetic Fiorentina AM(CL),FW 27 14 3 4.5 1.4 2.6
19 Julian Draxler Schalke 04 AM(L) 21(9) 2 3 1.1 1.2 2.5
20 Ezequiel Lavezzi Napoli AM(CL),FW 25(5) 9 5 2 2 2.5

While  not all the players on the list are Germans, many of the non-Germans play in the Bundesliga.  Interestingly, Leonel Messi is ranked second.  Combined with Iniesta (not far out of the Top 20) and Xavi, they make up the heart of the Barcelona squad.  I have stated on here before — it is not pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, shoot for Barca or Spain.  Rather, it is pass, pass, pass (lots of off the ball movements), penetrating dribble, pass, carrying dribble, shoot.

So…what role is the dribble in the modern game?  Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, the future of England, is a dribbler. So is Jack Wilshire.  Both are flexible and can play lots of positions.  Better yet, what are we doing in youth soccer to encourage this?

This is where we get to Overhead Slams.  I grew up playing tennis.  I played competitively in my youth and had the benefit of some instruction. When you are taught the overhead slam in tennis, you are not taught it the way we all love to hit it — slamming it straight down, watching the ball careening high into the air.  Rather, you are taught to hit it deep.  Hitting overhead slams deep requires more skill, timing, and practice than just slamming it straight down.  It also makes life difficult for your opponent.  The idea is that if you learn the harder approach, you can always slam.  The same is true for passing.

If you can dribble real well, you usually can control the ball too.  Kids that excel at dribbling usually do well at juggling and receiving the ball.  And, if you want to teach passing, you have to teach reception before you can pass.  In the book The Spanish Soccer Coaching Bible, Vol. 1, Laureano Ruiz (2002), Mr. Ruiz talks about “contiuning to dribble” in his chapter “Reaching a Higher Level, 14-16 years old.”   He states:

“Although I am constantly telling the players that soccer is all about passing, at this age they are encouraged to make individual runs,practice dribbling, feints and dummies. Remember, only the most outstanding players are able to influence a match by performing individual skills or moves. . . I know some soccer coaches will be asking: ‘Can soccer be played without dribbling?’ I do not think it can. When the opposition has closed down all the space, when it is impossible to play triangles, when the opposing team is pressuring intensely, then the best solutions are dribbling feints and dummies. These should also be used near the goal in classic one on one confrontations.”  Page 180-181.

Those instructions above are for 14-16 year olds.  If you spend the time to learn to dribble, passing comes much easier as effective passing requires not just proper weight, angle, and vision, but it also requires ball control.

As I have quoted here multiple times, here again is a quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: ”Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.’”  (Page 68).  In other words, they teach ball mastery and encourage dribbling first, passing second.  Do we?

As Ruiz states, the advantage to dribbling is that it puts the defense under pressure.  I think teams can sometimes move the ball around too fast.  Quick ball movement player to player may not force a defense to adjust.  By contrast, a player with the ball and some space who challenges the defense, requires the defense to react to her.  This reaction can cause a domino effect throughout the defense.  To add even more advantage, if the dribbler is able to beat a defender with the dribble, then she has eliminated a player and created space for her and her teammates.

Out motto for our teams is “take him on.”  This is a quote from Peter Kirkley, who has been with the Wallsend program in England, a top youth academy,  for 40 years.  He noted that the junior club was not formed to create professional players but to “give local lads and lasses a game of football, help them grow and love the sport.”    The club emphasizes punctuality, politeness, and discipline.  And, what they teach has been referred to as the Wallsend Way — love of the ball.

“I was involved in Newcastle’s youth set-up for years, and I don’t think any kid they signed at eight has ever made it through to 16, never mind the first team. I go to academy matches and all I hear from the coaches is ‘pass, pass, pass’. I long to hear someone say: ‘go on son, take him on.’”

So…are Germans the most advanced dribblers now?  What part of Tiki-Taka is dribbling?  And, if you learn to dribble, you can then learn to pass (or slam you tennis ball straight down!).

Spain – Barca Style is Not Just about the Pass

What do you think of when you think of Barcelona or Spain?  I assume it is passing.  Movement of the ball in small boxes – combination play in tiny areas and domination of possession.  All of that is true and beautiful to watch.  Gary Williamson, an instructor in the National Youth License course and technical director of North Texas Youth Soccer Association (and an incredible teacher), demonstrated their system without saying a word:  he used his hands to demonstrate how a cobra attacks (sway, sway, sway, sway, strike).

While the Spaniards and their training schools excel at teaching passing and movement, to reduce their philosophy to just passing and movement is a disservice to the wonderful ball players and teachers in their system.  To me, what they excel at his ball mastery.  Here is quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: ”Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.’”  (Page 68).  How about that!

It makes sense, though.  Think of players you know who excel at ball control, trapping the ball and passing.  Are they also you best dribblers?  In my opinion, dribbling is a great way to learn to catch and pass.  Dribbling is a great way to learn “mastery over the ball.”  So, then, according to my theory Barcelona players or Spanish national team players should be great dribblers too.  Well, they have a stat for that.

I have been largely unsuccessful at finding a database of dribbling stats for European players, but you can find things here and there.  If you go to the site http://www.whoscored.com/Statistics, you can find a wide range of statistics.  I share this with you as a gift – it took me hours to find a site that had dribbling statistics, etc., for all players.   Anyway, just google dribbles/game and Messi or Iniesta or Villa or Silva or even Xavi.  Here is what I found:

Successful Dribbles/Game

  • Messi 4.8
  • Joaquin 2.9 (Malaga)
  • Iniesta 2.2
  • Iker Munian 1.8
  • David Silva 1.1
  • Fernando Torres 1.1
  • Cessc Fabregas 1.0
  • Xavi (less than 1)

Cristiano Ronaldo, by contrast, averages a little more than 1.5/game.   Now, these stats are based on the 2011/2012 league games, not international games.  Interestingly, of the top 50, 11 are Germans!  Here they are:

  • Mario Gotze (6) 3.5
  •  Andrea Schurrle (9) 3.1
  • Marco Reus (10) 2.9
  • Sidney Sam (13) 2.9
  • Aaron Hunt (17) 2.6
  • Daniel Caliguiri (19) 2.6
  • Ashkan Dejegah (20) 2.6
  • Julian Draxler (23) 2.5
  • Ilkay Mundragon (33)  2.3
  • Marko Marin (39) 2.1
  • Lars Stindl (49) 2

You do have to consider the position they play when looking at this, but it is interesting considering all leagues in Europe are represented in the stats.  And, if you are following signings this time around, the top of the list above is a who’s who of of European players.  Eden Hazard, by the way, comes in at (30) with 2.3/game.

Great site on the stats.  Have fun with it.