Dribbling is a very important component of football. Truth to be told, apart from scoring goals – which clearly is the most entertaining aspect of all – dribbling is the action that most makes supporter jump on their feet, leaving defenders in the dust and becoming viral on the internet. And since the Premier League is known as the most entertaining league of all, we asked our very talented friends at L’Ultimo Uomo to find the four most-addictive dribblers in the English championship. Don’t miss them!

 

Saint-Maximin must do more than dribble

by Daniele Manusia

Allan Saint-Maximin joined Newcastle last summer after three seasons of first-team football in Ligue 1. He is only 22 years old but has been playing as a pro since he turned 16. In 2013, he became the youngest player ever to play for Saint-Etienne, where he learned his trade. Then he went to Monaco, which farmed him out on loan for two years to Hannover and Bastia, before his transfer to OGC Nice for €10M (the most expensive signing in the club’s history, before the arrival of Dolberg for 20 million).

His father, a driver at Diderot University in Paris, remembers that he began walking and talking early. Saint-Maximin is super-gifted physically. As a child, he excelled in gymnastics and won cross-country and decathlon competitions, but he was also a perfectionist who wanted to do well in all subjects, perhaps thanks to his mother, a teacher.

By the time he was 12 he was already known nationally within youth football, always playing with boys older than him by two or three years and he was two or three years underage at Saint-Etienne. All the scouts and coaches who saw him as a child agree that he was exceptional. Saint-Etienne’s scout Dominique Fernandez, said: “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 20-year career.”

Yet, Allan Saint-Maximin couldn’t establish himself at Monaco (where it must be said, he had competition from people like Bernardo Silva, Martial, Lemar, Mbappé). Even today people feel that he lacks that extra ingredient to make him a top-class player.

Dribbling has always been his speciality. Perhaps to emphasise this, in an interview with the Telegraph Saint-Maximin said he had “not been trained” in it, because in the youth teams you are taught to play one or two touches. Instead, he dribbles a lot. We could even say that dribbling is almost all he does.

In fact, at the moment, rather than a rough diamond his path seems to be that of someone fated to struggle to meet expectations, of a potential phenomenon that for now is just entertaining to watch. “I know that fans like dribbling, but I also want to finish with goals and assists”, he said in another interview, on Newcastle’s TV channel. “Because you don’t win games by dribbling.”

Since the start of the season he has attempted a total of 61 dribbles (Zaha weighs in at 84 but with twice as many minutes on the pitch), 9.6 every 90 minutes, of which the majority were successful (5.7, against 3.9 unsuccessful). These are impressive figures, especially for a rookie in the most frenetic and toughest championship in Europe, but Saint-Maximin has yet to produce his first assist or score his first goal. He came close against Aston Villa with a nice angled shot, in a game where he attempted even 15 dribbles. However, since most of his shots start from outside the area (1.4 out of 2.4 on average every 90 minutes), the coefficient of difficulty is always very high.

It goes without saying that Saint-Maximin needs to improve his decision-making and that perhaps a defensive team like Newcastle, which has only scored 11 goals so far this season (the second-worst attack in the league), in which he is practically the only player who dribbles (on average Newcastle attempt 10.2 dribbles per game), is probably not helping him. However, it is also perhaps his dribbling style that is making his life difficult.

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As mentioned above, he played one of his best games against Aston Villa, but he also missed a one-on-one chance against the goalkeeper and wasted at least one counterattack, when after covering about 50 metres he laid on a poor pass that Almiron found too difficult to control. Villa’s defenders (like all those in the Premier League) struggled to catch him, but on more than one occasion Saint-Maximin came up against his limitations.

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Starting from the left, he can take the ball with his right, continuously threatening to turn infield, moving fluidly with frequent touches. If his opponents let him run down the line, he stretches the ball, and then finally stops and crosses with his right. His close control, the powerful legs with which he protects the ball well and quick turns in tight spaces, rotating left to keep his opponent behind him, means he can release the ball in almost any situation. His trickiest opponent is the throw-in line.

Starting a move on the left, he veers right and takes the ball maybe for a few dozen yards, before pulling up in front of an opponent and moving out left again using the inside of his foot. Then he stops once more, pirouettes and darts diagonally to the right.

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And yet, this continuous improvisation is a double-edged sword. This is because while he finds the space to close, other spaces also close, maybe including those for an assist. His teammates also struggle to anticipate where he will go, and when they do, it is hard to keep up with him. So, when it is time to raise his head and knock the ball into the area, Saint-Maximin still tries to be creative. He can slip from omnipotence to impotence within a fraction of a second.

The action that perhaps best exemplifies this side to his game is the one illustrated above. With an opponent on him, on the right side of the pitch, Saint-Maximin appears only able to use his left foot to cross. Otherwise, he has to drop back. Instead, he takes a very skilled and explosive touch using the outside of his right foot to burn off his opponent on the place. In the time it takes for his marker to turn Saint-Maximin is already in the penalty area, almost on the far touchline.

From there, in theory, he could play one of the most dangerous balls there is, a pass back to an attacker, but his touch is heavy and inaccurate, so the ball just slams into one of his teammates before bouncing off out of the area. At the start of the move, Saint-Maximin did superbly to open a seemingly almost inexistent space, which probably only he could find, but a moment later he failed to make the pass that many players less technical than he would have managed. A total of 1.7 key passes (always on average over 90 minutes) would also be a good figure if Saint-Maximin did not appear to be mentally drained by the time it comes to the final pass. At that point, improvising and deciding what to do at the last moment the ball is inaccurate or too strong.

Matches are not won by dribbling and football is not a sprint race. Saint-Maximin knows this well, and he knows what he lacks. Can one of the most entertaining players in the Premier League also become one of the most effective? It won’t be easy, but if he succeeds, he will be really unstoppable.

 

Pépé has yet to fit in at Arsenal

by Dario Saltari

Nicolas Pépé is certainly not enjoying the triumphant entry to the Premier League that he perhaps expected when Arsenal signed him last summer for almost €80M. The Ivorian winger has only scored one league goal so far. After a difficult start to the season, Emery dropped him from the starting line-up in the last three Premier League games. The whole Arsenal club is going through a crisis, of course, but so is he in his own game, which is so obsessively based on one-against-one, in a championship where defenders are faster, more athletic, and more technical than in Ligue 1.

Nevertheless, if we want to see the glass as half full we can look at his dribble success rate. Despite all these difficulties, Pépé is still a top dribbler. He succeeds in 4.3 dribbles every 90 minutes out of a total of 6.5 attempts, fewer (among players with at least 250 minutes on the pitch) only than Boufal, Saint-Maximin and Zaha. Pépé successfully executes almost exactly two out of three dribbles, so perhaps we can hope that his situation will improve when Arsenal start to play better.

Nicolas Pépé is 24 years old and has been plying his trade at the top-level for three years, yet he still looks like a street footballer. This is not necessarily a bad thing. With the ball between his feet, Pépé has some original ideas. His version of dribbling is extravagant and ornate, which at its best is wonderful to watch, especially in the Premier League where extreme athleticism and ever greater tactical organisation seem to level out players too much of a muchness.

Pépé’s dribbling is mainly about waiting for the defender to commit, on giving the impression that he has effortless mastery of the ball, and on trusting his ability to whip it away at the last moment. In this sense, his game is first and foremost based on trickery. He beats his man in the same way that carnivorous plants attract insects into their jaws, by making them think they can go there safely. For example, he can shift the ball at the last second with the outside of his foot or quickly pass it with two touches from one foot to another, or also draw it towards himself with his studs to evade his opponent’s attempted tackle.

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The distribution of Pépé’s attempted dribbling this season.

However, unlike a carnivorous plant, the defender can end up devouring Pépé, which often happens, for example, when he cannot control the ball when running or when his close technique is not up to the lofty ambition of his dribbling. And this is why when watching him the dividing line between excitement and frustration is much subtler than for other footballers.

In his best moments, however, Pépé is one of those players whose moves from a single game can fill an entire YouTube skills video. His technique in tight spaces allows him to use every part of the foot in a single move. And this can only be good news for Arsenal fans, waiting for him to mature all the other aspects of his game, starting with the end product. He needs these aspects if his technique and dribbling are going to serve the team in a way that makes the most of his qualities.

 

Wilfried Zaha and the price of creativity

by Emanuele Atturo

In June, like every summer, Wilfried Zaha’s name was bandied around the transfer market websites. Manchester United, Inter, Napoli, and Arsenal approached him. However, in the end, as usual, he stayed at Crystal Palace, which fended off any offers by valuing him at close to 80 million pounds. The reason for the interest in Zaha is easy to see: for years he has been one of the best specialist dribblers.

In an era when the search for space on the pitch is more and more pressing, dribbling has become fundamental. It is both increasingly sought after and at the same time rare. Dribbling is one of football’s more instinctive aspects, not a skill that can be learned and trained. It is all about your relationship with the ball, and with that highly mysterious football gift, a sense of trickery. To summarise, the two main ways to dribble are either using technique or athletic skills. The first is indispensable in tight spaces and the second in wide areas. Zaha excels in both. He can dribble past his opponent at will: accelerating by stretching the ball or with tricks in tighter spaces. Sure, he is not an elite technician, but Zaha compensates with extraordinary creativity, which his team demands in a rather extreme way.

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Zaha’s many (successful) dribbles.

Indeed, Zaha’s style of play is strongly conditioned by Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace system. They are a reactive team who love to attack with long transitions where the Ivorian winger is always the first outlet. Hence his consistently impressive statistics. This year he has attempted 6.8 dribbles every 90 minutes, with a very high completion rate of 4.7. Zaha starts from the left and guides the ball with the outside of his foot. Then he usually performs a feint – a stepover, a touch of his studs – before heading off elsewhere. In typical Zaha fashion, even when he has a man on, he is still dangerous, with his rather refined use of his studs. Zaha’s flair and creativity plus an ability to continuously create numerical superiority, mean that he is an indispensable resource for a team like Crystal Palace, not hugely talented going forward and that must rely on his individual qualities

Zaha, therefore, has a lot of responsibility within his team’s system, but at the same time, he is very productive in terms of assists. Last season was his best in terms of the end product, with 10 goals and 5 assists. This was a lot but perhaps not enough to justify Crystal Palace’s valuation. This season some of his early performances have been a bit laboured and so far he has recorded just one goal and one assist. Nevertheless, in recent days he seems to be finding his feet, playing superbly against Liverpool. Zaha is not yet very productive playing in a system where wingers are asked to make a very specific contribution. However, it is not clear whether this is down to his qualities or to a system that requires him mainly to receive the ball on the touchline.

In January, Zaha may not stay at Crystal Palace, and at 27, it is probably time to see him in a system that forces him out of his comfort zone.

 

Sofiane Boufal – dribbling with no great turn of pace

by Emanuele Mongiardo

In the summer of 2017, Sofiane Boufal was the most expensive signing in the history of Southampton. After some excellent seasons at Lille, expectations were high, but the Moroccan failed to establish himself. The Saints were caught up in a relegation battle, and Boufal even ended up out of the squad at the end of the season. He refused to warm up against Chelsea and, as a punishment, Hughes sent him to train with the U23s.

In the summer, he went out on loan to Celta Vigo, another dysfunctional team involved in a relegation fight. Despite a gritty season, in over 2000 minutes, Boufal completed 6.2 dribbles every 90 minutes. These are remarkable figures that say a lot about his most brilliant feature, namely his dribbling.

Returned in England during summer, Boufal seems now intent on making a name for himself at Southampton. Hasenhuttl is a different type of coach to Hughes. He aims for a more structured style of football both in terms of pressing and offensive build up. Boufal started for the first time in the line-up on matchday 4 against United, partly because of injuries to Djenepo and Redmond. In the 3-4-3 employed by the Saints, attacking midfielders need to alternate movements towards the wings to help the lateral chains and reception in the half-spaces. Boufal can be used for both types of play and can adapt his instinct for dribbling to different areas of the pitch.

Everything comes down to his extraordinarily skilled feet, which can dominate possession even in the tightest spaces. His technique is clearly above average. We can see it in how, with each touch, he adjusts his distance from the ball, both when running and stopping. Between the lines, he tries to beat a man with his first touch. If he has turned his back, he anticipates the pressure of his opponent to direct the ball into the space freed by his exit and gain a view of the goal.

When he receives face-on, he can beat a man in so many ways. Boufal is not particularly fast, but his light physique makes him agile when shifting sideways. He deftly changes direction. He doesn’t need to hare off suddenly. His control of ball and body when turning allows him to steal time from the defender even when he is well-positioned and able to follow him. Boufal is always in control when one-on-one.

If there is not much space to change direction, then he uses all his evasive skills to make his opponent lose balance or to drag him out of position. He shimmies with his pelvis and legs to fake a dribble or a turn in an attempt to make the defender commit to one side and invite him to tackle. If the player takes the bait, then there is room for a change in lateral direction. At that point, he easily shifts the ball and beats the man.

Besides the ball, then, Boufal can manipulate his opponents’ decisions. This is not just handy when directly facing someone one-on-one, but also when attacked from the side or behind. Both on the wing and in the middle, the Moroccan easily turns towards goal. If his opponents are short, however, they need to cover less space to come back on him. Boufal could drive on but has neither the pure speed to leave his opponents behind immediately nor the strength to win a shoulder to shoulder duel. Aware of his limits, he slows down, invites the marker to block him from behind or from the side and then suddenly sets off again. He makes a turn and takes advantage of his lateral agility to cut up his opponent, slip in front of him and between him and the ball. Then once he is past him, he can run again.

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Boufal can run on goal, but he sees that Winks is recovering and may force him to stop.
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Then he stops for a second to catch his breath. Before Winks makes contact, Boufal arches over the ball and cuts through infield: so he puts himself in front of the Englishman who cannot get to the ball.
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Boufal finally leaves Winks in his wake.

Boufal’s dribbles are an excellent lubricant for the Saints’ move. He beats his man 5.7 times every 90 minutes and is number one in the Premier League among players who have made at least five appearances. This is especially useful for Hasenhuttl. For us spectators, on the other hand, it is a pleasure to see his dribbling technique and talent, and the creativity typical of North African attacking midfielders. The former Lille man can control the ball on the inside, on the outside or with the sole of his boot and also has no problem using his weaker foot (the left).

His awareness shines out especially in close spaces, where without technique there are no escape routes: Boufal wedges himself into tiny spaces and accompanies the ball into the free corridors, moving it faster than the defenders’ legs can react. His quick control is why he so often searches for the tunnel, an unexpected solution that with him becomes the rule. In Boufal’s dribbling, in the attempts to pass the ball between the defenders’ legs, he enjoys the primordial pleasure of feeling better than others, as if he were still in the playground.

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