By John Cartwright

What does Dribbling represent to you?  Is it the use of nimble footwork — is it the ‘bogus’ use of feints with various parts of the body – or is it running with the ball followed by changes of direction…….. or is it something else? All of the aforementioned can be described as dribbling but what must be emphasized when discussing this important skill is……..which of those dribbling methods causes most problems to a defender and his supporting players? In my opinion it is the skill of running with the ball with changes of direction.


It is time to delegate the long over-visualized ‘picture’ of the ‘Dribbler’ to the dustbin. The fixation about dribbling that relates to over-complicated and generally unnecessary feints and fancy footwork should be cast aside. Oh yes, there are the occasional times in a season in which a player extricates him/herself from a tight situation that is pleasing on the eye, but these rarities are so inconsequential in general play that time spent learning a multitude of tricks etc. is time mis-spent.

When I was a youngster playing football in the street or in the school playground where space was limited it taught me the importance of running with the ball ACROSS defenders and not taking the ball AT them………. Lionel Messi, is the modern exhibitor of this dribbling skill.  When confronted by an opponent an attacking player must attempt to move him in order to go past him. Going directly at an opponent simply sends him backwards amongst additional supporting colleagues thus lessening the possibilities for the attacker. Good defenders have acquired better defensive qualities than their counterparts in years gone by; they have much improved athletic ability and more tactical appreciation of their defensive roles.  Defenders today concentrate more on the ball rather than be distracted by feint plays and in so doing they have acquired the ability to ‘guide’ attackers thus becoming a ‘dictator’ to them. More than any feint play it is the movement of the ball that will move a defender. When an attacker takes the ball ACROSS a defender that defender is forced to move accordingly. The movement ACROSS a defender as opposed to a movement AT a defender produces two immediate problems for the defender; his balance is affected; and he leaves space as he vacates one area and is moved into another area on the field……. the attacker  now ‘dictates’ to the defender. The attacking player, now ‘in the driving seat’, must  maximise the advantage he/she has achieved. The skill of running with the ball and ‘screening’ it from an opponent must be used to restrict a tackle from being made. Equally important, the attacker must be aware of the space he/she is from the opposing player. This space awareness allows an attacker to make decisions whether to accelerate past the opponent or change direction quickly and turn back before the opponent can recover.

Many playing alternatives become available to an attacker and his team if movements ACROSS defenders are used. As already mentioned, the balance of an opponent is affected and this provides an attacking player with several options to use;  a defender can be ‘nut-megged’ far easier as he/she are forced to move across than if attacked in a direct way — space from which a defender is drawn away from can be filled by supporting players of the attacking team — plus there are numerous combination plays such as ‘take-overs’ – ‘wall passes’ – ‘overlaps’ – and ‘set-up passes’ to be used.


The game has moved on from the days of Sir Stanley Matthews, the original ‘Wizard of the dribble’.  Defenders have become better athletes and are more tactically aware. We must continue to consider dribbling as an important part of the game and encourage young players to develop the ability to beat opponents and link other playing alternatives to their dribbling skill. But in order to make this happen we must change our perception of dribbling and the way it is introduced to future generations.

28 thoughts on “Dribbling

  1. Did anyone see the extended highlights shown on Eurosport last Friday of Manchester United U-19s v. Sporting Lisbon U-19s played in Singapore as part of the Lions Cup competition? Here, in a nutshell, was the evidence of how our young player development has ‘progressed’ during the last 40 – 50 years. The Manchester United boys were all from the “get it, give it” generation. No one ever attempted anything clever or original on the ball, or showed any spark of individualism. This was particularly disappointing coming from Manchester United, because over the years they are one English club that has made a concerted effort to develop players in the first place as individuals and they have often employed overseas coaches who specialise in this type of work.
    Whether Man Utd have discontinued this type of work in their Youth Academy I do not know, but the contrast with the young Sporting Lisbon players was stark. The Portuguese youngsters were full of dribbling skills and cherished possession of the ball. Their minds were correspondingly bright and alert and they presented Man Utd with problems almost every time they had the ball. The priority of almost every Man Utd player was to get the ball and then move it on as quickly as possible. Sometimes you have to do this and is relevant, but as the game went on it became clear that they had no other skill or technical ability to do anything else. Sporting Lisbon were able to dominate the game because their superior indvidual skill gave mastery of the ball and so were able to dictate the game. They ran out 4 – 1 winners and it could have been more.
    Until we start to develop the young player as an individual in the first place, and so work on his dribbling skills as outlined by John Cartwright in the above, then we shall never make any progress and we shall remain stuck in the third tier of international football ranking. In fact, the signs are at the moment that we are likely to drop even lower.

    • Hi Steve. The quality in our game through all levels is alarmingly poor. There is a robotic ‘sameness’ in playing style and individual abilities. Creativity has been disregarded in favour of mind-numbing ,negative possession passing by players who have no idea as to real reason for ball possession. Pass-pass-pass is ultimately followed by the long ‘punt ‘ upfield as an end product by unimaginative players who have been schooled to the level of mediocricy… and told that this is great! Don’t anybody tell me we’re producing players anywhere towards greatness …. i don’t see it .. i don’t beleive it !!

  2. Hello all. I’ve mentioned before that I’m lucky enough to see a lot of academy level football. Now we’re mid-way through the season its apparent that every club has their own way of playing, some a lot more different than others. I won’t mention names but the playing styles of 2 premiership teams from north London couldn’t be more different. One of them (a club with a liking of young french players) play a real pressure style of game with lots of high pressing from goal kicks, lots of very fast a physically mature players and lots of direct play. Their rival on the other hand are all about the individual. All players are encouraged to run, dribble, express themselves skillfully without being pressured to pass the ball al the time. What happens is that the first team mentioned tend to win all of their games and the other team lose all of their games. As we all know at a youth level (U9 – U13) physicality will nearly always win, but then as boys fully mature, technique, brains and skill tend to even things up (and then overtake). What is also now very clear is that all teams have different ideas when it comes to coaching – Some team coaches are very vocal from k/o through to the final whistle, where as some do not talk to the team at all during the game. they will use breaks between games to get the message across.

    The team I follow ( a league 1 set up) are in the very beginning of their new philosophy. The club owner wants to see a high tempo passing style of play with the players being allowed to express themselves on and off the ball as individuals. Taking risks is encouraged, as well as trusting team mates i.e. just because a player is marked doesn’t mean you can’t use him, and the one I particularly like is sometimes its safer and quicker to run with the ball out of defence rather than play it long straight back to the other teams defence. The coaches are now starting to adapt all academy teams to play in the same format so boys can slot into older or younger age groups when needed, and they should (in theory) be able to fit straight in. Coaches tend to be very un-vocal as they want the boys to make decisions individually, and also learn from mistakes they make. The club also seem to be more patient with some of the younger teams as they understand that an 8 year can’t be compared to a 12 year old. It’s a long term education, similar to what we expect from our schools. But the most refreshing thing for me is that the actual first team manager and first team coach are frequent visitors to the academy, with both being involved in training the younger lads every now and then.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there does seem to be more of a cultural change happening, all be it very slowly. However the problem I foresee is patience, especially in our grass roots level, where risk taking is a big no no. We have some regular contributors to this blog who obviously run their youth set ups in the correct manner. I believe that we aren’t going to see a complete change in mindset for another 10-15 years, until all of the kick and run managers are too old to manage at grass roots anymore and the youngsters of today will be basing their style of play on our European counterparts or from what they’re learing from the likes of Mr Haslam, Mr Seagull and of course John and Roger.

    Lets not lose the faith in 2013 as all of the English football dinosaurs are a year closer to retirement!!

  3. Hi Matt. The loss of valuable time is inexcusable — it cannot be replaced! More time loss means yet more loss to our game of thousands of young players, all capable of playing quality football but denied the chance to shine because of the ‘head in the sand’ attitude and gross incompetence of those in control of development.

  4. I am interested in what John says about running across opponents with the ball, to move them and create space.This is far more important than rehearsing numerous tricks and feints to beat an opponent.This has always been the Coerver Skills Method and must have confused as many people as it educated, in the number of movements which were involved . In my experience, this dribbling method always involved running AT an opponent which, as John explains, does not create anything like the same amount of problems as running ACROSS him.
    The over-abundance of different feinting and dribbling skills lead to more and more drill-type practices. The numerous Coerver videos and DVDs are proof of that. If we take the realistic, game-like Premier Skills approach and build the dribbling element of going across opponents to create and exploit space, either to be used by the dribbler or team mates, then we have a far better chance of seeing dribblers returning to our game in England after their very long absence. Also, the game-like methodology forces the dribbler to recognise whether there is space for him/her self to exploit or whether he/her must turn away to seek a different route.

  5. To expand on this theme on what is effective dribbling and what is ineffective dribbling, I think that this has certainly influenced the amount of time that coaches at all level of football have given to the coaching and encouragement of dribbling.
    A certain belief grew up in England over many years that dribbling was all about tricks and was therefore just for ‘fancy dans’. I had a friend who coached in grass roots and amateur football for many years and who was suspicious of the dribbling art because in his time he had seen many dribblers from South America who, having dribbled their way around four or five players, would then go back and attempt to dribble around those same four or five players again. Being an arch pragmatist this, to him, was a sin and so anyone with dribbling ability in their locker, was given little encouragement.
    We must therefore be clear in our minds that the dribbling ability we see each week on our TV screens from Lionel Messi, is not the over-indulgent, show-off variety that has made so many of us intolerant for so long in this country, of a skill that, when done properly, creates havoc and panic in opposition defences. John’s observation and description of Messi’s ability to run across opponents with the ball and move them, can be exploited by either himself or he can use the space created to deliver a pass to set free a team mate.This is a million miles from the ‘flash Harry’ whose tricks are simply for the purpose of personal attention seeking.
    I think that it is vital that all the coaches of junior teams in England and their army of volunteers, are clear on this issue and that it is recognised of being of critical importance. If we are to create and develop a new generation of outstanding players then the re-birth of the dribbler in this country is paramount.

    • Err, I think the constant reference to messi in regards to dribbling is like stating the bleeding obvious. You are talking about a unique phenomenon the likes of which has never been seen on the planet. Players that are not gifted with superhuman speed and touch simply can’t get past a defender running at an angle.Messi doesn’t do many feints simply because he has never had to. The kid is lightning over 10 yards and his left foot is a magic wand. How many times does he dribble with his right foot? Virtually never. He doesn’t need to.

      • Hi Dan. If it’s so obvious why don’t we see it taught here. Are we saying we have nobody able to run as fast as Messi, so don’t teach it? No the problem is lack of insight within our development structure and this is causing mediocrity to flourish.
        Wouldn’t it be great if we could produce a player or players who could use both their left and right foot in the same way as Messi. Yes, at the moment he is unique, but good coaching is about taking the present forward and not accepting that improvement is impossible in the game. We could produce Messi’s, stacks of them, but our total disregard of creative development methods and the ‘fightball’ infrastucture that introduces our kids to the game denies individualism to flourish and promotes mediocrity……. stacks of it!

  6. Hi Steve. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Antiquated Dribbling beliefs are a horrible reminder of the lack of game understanding on the part of football’s coaching hierarchy. ……….ok in the classroom with their stats. and computers, but lost on the grass when it comes to the game itself!

  7. I would think no harm on learning a variety of ball manipulations to enable the dribbler to be effective as he runs across people or angles inside before going outside as an example.

  8. Hi Brazil94……
    I would agree that the more the dribbler has in his/her armoury, as with all players, the better. However, for the dribbler to be effective in modern football, and to make a comeback in the English game, speed, both in thought and deed, is vital. Messi executes his runs across defenders at pace and so exploits the space he creates, in fractions of a second. The time spent in various juggling tricks could be counter-productive to the chaos that Messi’s dribbling creates. But to take the initiative in a game, a team must control the pace of a game, and so there are times when the team can slow the game to walking pace and still maintain its control of the game. It is a fault of English football that we always want to play at a constant high speed instead of varying the pace.

  9. Hi Steve. We play ‘Bulls in a China shop’ football. ‘Smash – crash – wallop’; no style, no imagination, no creativity ————- no thought. It’s not just the players who should be criticised, what about the people who have ‘coached’ them?

  10. John wrote – “It’s not just the players who should be criticised, what about the people who have coached them?”
    This statement came to mind yesterday, when I was watching 17 year old Will Hughes playing for Derby County in a Championship fixture at Charlton Athletic.
    Without doubt, Hughes has a lot of talent. He has vision, a nice touch on the ball and takes up good support positions when not in possession. He also works hard to help his team regain possession when the opposition have the ball. But where are the extra special qualities which boys like Messi, Maradonna and Best displayed when they first burst on to the scene?
    This was the first time that i had seen Hughes and he played for about an hour, as a result of having to be substituted in the second half after taking a knock. So I cannot comment on how he has performed in Derby’s youth teams or for any representative teams at youth and schoolboy level. But I understand that he has been playing quite regularly for Derby’s first team this season and, in fact, when he first broke into their side he was still at school. My feeling is that he could do much more and I wonder if he is being held back by the Derby management/coaching staff.
    My suspicion is that he is being encouraged to give off ‘easy’ passes and just play within himself within the team structure, instead of being given free rein to display the full range of his talents. John has pointed out that when the documentary of Messi was screened about a year ago, the most striking feature was that the little Argentine was scoring the same type of goals as a 10 year old in Beunos Aires on a threadbare junior pitch, as he was doing now for Barcelona in the Nou Camp.
    It has been said that it is not what Barcelona have done for Messi, it is what they have not done. That is to say, they have not taken away the invention, imagination and creativity which he learned on the streets and waste ground of Buenos Aires during his childhood by ‘negative coaching’, but allowed those qualities to blossom through a coaching programme designed to see every player fulfill his maximum potential.
    My first observation of Will Hughes is that he is being made to fit into the team ethic at the expense of his individualism. In England, at all levels, we have always said that “football is a team game” and for years this has been at the expense of individualism. Messi, Best, Pele, Maradonna and many others would never have become great players had restrictions been placed in their way. Today talent is thin on the ground, so what we have we must nurture and develop to its full potential.

  11. HI Steve. Three cheers for the excellent points you have made. As i have printed on the cover of my book — FOOTBALL FOR THE BRAVE — ‘Football’s not simply a team game, it’s a game about INDIVIDUALS who combine with eachother when necessary’.
    Happy New Year to everyone.

  12. Thanks John for identifying and carrying the fight for the ‘beauty’ of the beautiful game that is still to be played consistently in Britain and her subsidiaries.

  13. I urge you to watch a compilation of ronaldo from brazil titled ronaldo, brazil impossible technique and dribbling skills posted by shosamronaldo on you tube .
    For me it’s clear that the there are national traits that are obviously cultural the way brazilians will use a host of ball manipulations and tricks as compared to Argentinians . Both are effective it comes down to personality encourage all things limit nothing , embrace individuality and imagination
    I have said before that my kids have learnt to play in a community based scheme set up to keep kids out of gang related trouble in the Croydon area. No coaching goes on the kids are given balls and nets and set up there own games and play as they want the only limits are their imaginations… I would regularly see Wilfred zaha playing with his friends he is exceptional . But the key thing her is all the kids would play in this way a mixture of what you see the messi , ronaldinho, ronaldo Portuguese , zidane and players of this nature do and try.. Sure the things that premier skills are trying to instill having a pro telling you time your run practice with both feet etc are missing game understanding.. But it tells me the talent is their … It’s our system, our culture the adults that don’t have the imagination and ability to nurture these kind of abilities
    I have a daughter who plays in this way has been in the centre of excellence system for 3 years and I can tell you that the system extinguishes this type of creativity for the pass pass pass ordinary team player above individual development… I am trying to insure this does not happen hence my getting my self educated in the premier skills coach education methodology as well as other methods…

  14. Hi Brazil 94 and Robbiewizz. I fully agree that a compilation of ‘tricks’ can be used but these create more problems for defenders if introduced when going across opponents. Balance and space against opponents are the vital issues that must be achieved by attackers. When ruuning AT modern defenders the affect is less positive than when defenders are taken sideways with ‘tricks’ used as supplements. Messi, has two such ‘tricks’ he uses —- he ‘feints to shoot or pass the ball, or he ‘nut-megs’ defenders as they open their stride to cover his movement acrooss them. Note also how Messi, creates space for ‘give and goes’ as he drags opponents across the field leaving space for him to pass and receive returns in.
    Be careful about the amount of time and number of ‘tricks’ used —– it’s clever footballers’ we need not elaborate ‘ circus clowns’ !!

  15. Hi Robbiewizz…
    I am interested in what you say about the community-based scheme used in the Croydon area to give kids some healthy activity in areas where they could potentially fall into the temptation of gang-related crime. A few months ago i was at Selsdon Rec, being asssessed for football coaching school employment, and i noticed in a corner of the sports field there was a kind of concrete pen enclosed by wire netting. It provided a tight area for kids to play football and other games, organising themselves and introducing their own game conditions as you outline.
    The tight area meant that they would learn to play under pressure, with time and space constraints. This provided similarities to the environment which existed in the days of street football and produced many players, who developed so much better in these tight, pressurised conditions than has proved to be the case with the introduction of spacious playing fields, 3G astro turf and multi-use sports halls.
    I remember your daughter taking part in a Premier Skills Level 1 Course in Essex last year and I well remember her enthusiasm in working on the many aspects of individualism which the course provided.

    • Hi Brazil 94. Going across defenders can mean running the ball for small or long distances, the important feature is recognition of space that is being achieved in which a change of direction or pass become possible. Maradona’s goal is an example of quick visualization of situations and adapting to them. He takes opponents sideways for only short distance before unbalancing them to go past.
      It’s all about time and space recognition and the ability to exploit them.

  16. Hi Steve my daughter enjoyed the practice play level 1 sessions that she took part in .. During the course.
    In the football in community project the coaches generally use two thirds of a full size pitch and set up 2/3 pitches depending on the numbers and age groups.. So pitch sizes vary some times big . The kids would generally decide on size … Sometimes watching Wilfred zaha and friends they would make the pitch smaller but have maybe 8/10 a side and play into an end of a 5 a side goal .. Their empasize would be on keeping possession playing a predominately short passing game with the ball mostly on the floor and skill was the emphasize.. Some of their games were fantastic to watch the ability to play in tight areas and Wilfred’s speed of feet were incredible to watch close up…
    On one estate my daughter and her friends will play in a cage which is a little smaller than the prem skills standard pitch size and they enjoy playing in tight areas… Making up their own games …
    It is a great catchment area for talent as long as the community schemes are funded
    Steve I would like to come and observe some of your sessions if that’s possible

    John I take your point about running across players giving opposing players problems as opposed to always running straight at opposition and this should be factored in when coaching at all times to make players aware of the possibility ..

  17. Hi Robbiewizz….
    I think that the important point is that your daughter has been playing regularly for some time in tight areas. You mention also that you observed Wilfried Zaha playing games where there was little space and so he developed the ability to protect the ball under pressure. I think that this is where we need to improve in this country and i think that all young players must be left in no doubt that , to make it to the top these days, then they must be able to play under pressure. So our coaching must be directed towards reducing space, as the players improve technically. Thinking time when on the ball gets less and less, and so, as the Premier Skills terminology puts it, the players must ‘play in the future’. They must always be looking and planning ahead.
    The coaching sessions which I think would contain the best work, are Thursday evenings at Coldharbour Leisure centre, Chapel Farm Road, Mottingham, London SE9 (6.30 pm until 7.30 pm) and Saturday mornings at Selsdon Primary School, Foxearth Road, off Addington Road, South Croydon CR2 8LQ (9 am until 12 noon, recommencing January 12th).

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