To define our terms upfront: a successful dribble in this context is when a player with possession of the ball takes it past an opponent. This is the definition that Opta uses, as well as sites like Squawka and Whoscored that present Opta’s data.

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‘Dribbles’/’Take-Ons’/whatever your football website of choice calls them are an odd stat in isolation. We can probably assume that a player who completes a lot dribbles is of a certain stylistic mould. Other than that though, there isn’t a lot to be learnt from those raw numbers about where these dribbles take place, where they go and what the players do afterwards.

To illustrate the point let’s compare two players: Manchester City’s Leroy Sané and Huddersfield’s Rajiv van La Parra. Both are wingers who play predominantly on the left and complete a bit over 3 dribbles per 90 in similar minutes (Sané at a 63.5% completion rate overall and La Parra at 53.5%). Their base stats are very similar, however if we map out where those dribbles start/end and the actions they follow them up with we can see a difference.

La Parra is often starting from deeper areas – he has attempted near the most dribbles starting in his own half of any player in the top 5 leagues –  and ends up going inwards surprisingly frequently (most of his completed passes are received by their strikers or other attackers). His post-dribble work, especially in more traditional winger areas, isn’t great. However he does win his share of fouls and generally advances his team up the pitch. Sané, meanwhile, is operating in the opposition’s third and a whole hell of a lot in that cutback area his manager Guardiola loves. He’s already in such a dangerous area to begin with that the simple act of just beating his man is hugely concerning for the opposition to deal with. The rest is just the icing on the cake.

Obviously there is complexity wrapped around all this. Huddersfield are a world away from Man City, especially in terms of wider squad quality. Different players are needed to bring different qualities to different situations. La Parra needs to beat his man in order to help his team’s progression. Sané, who on average receives the ball already in the final third, needs to beat his man in order help his team break down deep blocks. Po-tay-to po-tah-to.  

Below are the top players in terms of their dribble and post-dribble numbers entering and within the opposition box (all stats per 90 for the 2017/18 season. This dataset is missing a couple of Ligue 1 matches). There are clear standouts here: Messi is eye-watering (he already has more post-dribble box passes/shots in 17/18 than in the entirety of 16/17. At 30-years-old!), the Premier League names you’d expect are all there, Leon Bailey is having a lovely season for himself, so on and so forth.

Dribbles Ending In Opposition Box Post-Dribble Passes Ending In Opposition Box Post-Dribble Shots In Opposition Box
Post-Dribble Box Passes + Shots
Lionel Messi 1.88 0.76 0.58 1.34
Eden Hazard 1.00 0.39 0.50 0.89
Leon Bailey 0.61 0.54 0.34 0.87
Kingsley Coman 1.20 0.56 0.24 0.80
Kylian Mbappe 1.21 0.42 0.24 0.67
Raheem Sterling 0.75 0.37 0.28 0.66
Christian Pulisic 0.51 0.45 0.17 0.62
Philippe Coutinho 0.61 0.27 0.34 0.61
Wilfried Zaha 1.16 0.30 0.30 0.60
Riyad Mahrez 0.86 0.14 0.46 0.59
Gonçalo Guedes 1.15 0.22 0.36 0.58
Ángel Correa 0.86 0.19 0.37 0.56
Iago Aspas 0.68 0.32 0.23 0.55
Johan Mojica 0.34 0.54 0.00 0.54
Leroy Sané 1.16 0.29 0.23 0.52
Florian Thauvin 0.98 0.13 0.38 0.51
Neymar 0.83 0.33 0.17 0.50
Mohamed Salah 0.97 0.09 0.40 0.49
Ruben Loftus-Cheek 0.74 0.27 0.20 0.47
Dennis Praet 0.11 0.33 0.11 0.44

We can zoom out further, to take a look at involvement in possessions that go on to reach the opposition’s final 18 yards (both via a dribble or a post-dribble pass), along with a player’s own individual entries to those areas. The added value from the dribbling of someone like a Hazard, a Boufal or whomever is obvious here. The final ball is the eye-catcher but offering a means of progression is important too.

Unique Possessions Ending in Opposition Final 18 Yards Involved In (Via a Dribble That Starts Outside Final 18 Yards) Individual Entires to Final 18 Yards (Via Dribble or Post-Dribble Pass) Individual Entires to Final Third (Via Dribble or Post-Dribble Pass)
Average Vertical Dribble Distance On Those Possessions (Metres)
Eden Hazard 2.39 1.11 0.78 7.71
Neymar 2.17 0.89 0.72 6.73
Kingsley Coman 2.16 1.12 0.48 10.48
Lionel Messi 1.97 0.98 0.67 6.82
Diego Perotti 1.90 0.59 1.03 5.86
Sofiane Boufal 1.78 0.77 0.39 8.40
Isco 1.59 0.30 0.53 8.50
Douglas Costa 1.45 1.16 0.29 11.06
Luka Modric 1.42 0.37 0.31 5.47
Jonathan Viera 1.39 0.22 0.61 5.86
Fede Cartabia 1.38 0.58 0.51 6.51
Jack Wilshere 1.38 0.20 0.69 7.73
Rémy Cabella 1.38 0.72 0.22 6.59
Tanguy NDombele Alvaro 1.31 0.36 0.36 6.10
Ruben Loftus-Cheek 1.28 0.95 0.20 8.11
Malcom 1.28 0.09 0.46 7.62
Andros Townsend 1.25 0.83 0.29 8.10
Christian Pulisic 1.25 0.91 0.45 14.47
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 1.23 1.23 0.48 15.96
Florian Thauvin 1.23 0.68 0.30 6.63
Mario Lemina 1.20 0.28 0.28 8.84
Valentin Rosier 1.18 0.45 0.11 9.73
Gonçalo Guedes 1.15 0.86 0.58 19.56
Naby Keita 1.14 0.43 0.43 7.34
Manuel Lanzini 1.11 0.37 0.50 10.25
Paul Pogba 1.11 0.13 0.39 5.34

The focus shouldn’t be on just pure attackers though. The list below shows involvement in possessions that end in the opposition’s final third, filtered to players whose median dribble location is outside the final third. Sort by percentage of these dribbles that come through the centre (within the width of the penalty boxes, minimum 30 possessions involved in) and this is where some real atypical profiles come up. E.g: Mousa Dembélé. A main point of consternation for Tottenham right now is what the team will look like without Dembélé. He’s an attacking midfielder turned central midfielder with the ability to move with the ball like an AM in congested areas while also holding up as a defensive presence. His dribbles don’t always directly lead to the final third, but they help the team eventually get there (and this has even been a slight down season by his standards).

Unique Possessions Ending in Final Third Involved In (via a Dribble)
% of Dribbles That Occur Centrally
Giannelli Imbula 1.78 87.2%
Tanguy NDombele Alvaro 2.32 77.6%
Mousa Dembélé 2.34 76.1%
Naby Keita 2.36 74.4%
Mario Lemina 2.41 72.7%
Jonathan Viera 2.41 66.3%
Nabil Fekir 2.14 58.0%
Houssem Aouar 1.82 56.3%
Manuel Lanzini 2.35 55.6%
Éver Banega 2.19 55.4%
Radja Nainggolan 1.61 54.5%


It’s a difficult skill set to replace. Do you try to re-train a younger AM like Dembélé himself was? 20-year-old Amine Harit (who just misses out on this list) at Schalke could fit the bill, with similar dribbling tendencies. Or do you go for someone who is doing a similar job at CM elsewhere? Southampton’s Mario Lemina is one of those, and a growing favourite candidate amongst supporters. Outside of the PL there’s Tanguy Ndombele who is doing a stellar job in a messily structured Lyon team. He had 10(!) dribbles against Rennes at the weekend.

The list of prospective replacements could go on but the point is that, while there’s players who rack up more eye-popping dribbling numbers than Dembélé, the type of dribble he’s executing combined with his efficacy is maddeningly rare.

Of course none of this is to knock the dribbles stat entirely, or to say it’s without use. Statsbomb’s own radars use them in what seems like the ideal way: present it alongside the rest of a player’s numbers so as to give an at-a-glance impression of their general ability and style. If two players have high Key Pass numbers but one completes a lot of dribbles and the other doesn’t, that tells you a fair amount right there. 

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That’s all for right now though. Maybe we’ll expand on this and have more fun with it in the future. Thank you for reading. You can find me on Twitter @EuanDewar.

 

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