The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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The Sinister Ones

Being left-handed helps athletes in one of two ways. If you are a left-handed batter in baseball, most of the pitches you see, because most pitchers are righties, start away from your body and come towards you. The angle works in your favor: you don’t have to turn your head as far, you get a better and longer look at the ball. That’s the less common kind of advantage, and perhaps confined to baseball and (maybe?) cricket: the more common one is simple unfamiliarity. Left-handed pitchers with mediocre stuff can make a living in the majors for a very long time because there aren’t that many of them: right-handed batters may get the angle-advantage but they don’t see a lot of lefties and so are less comfortable batting against them. Similarly, when Manu Ginobili has the ball for the San Antonio Spurs, the other team’s coaches immediately start shouting, Don’t let him go to his left! Not that defenders don’t know this already; but they play most of the time against righties, and muscle memory seems to work against their conscious intentions. Again and again Ginobili manages to get past them while driving to his strong hand. Coaches throw up their hands and curse. Doesn’t he know the guy’s gonna go left??

How much of an advantage is it to be a left-footed soccer player? A pretty big one. The soccer equivalent of Ginobili is Arjen Robben, one of those inside-out wingers Jonathan Wilson has called our attention to. He makes the same move several times in every match, dribbling towards the goal from the right wing, then planting his right foot hard in the turf and cutting in, preparing to launch a rocket with his strong left foot—and again and again defenders get caught leaning the wrong way. Coaches throw up their hands and curse. Doesn’t he know the guy’s gonna go left??

In these situations Robben is dribbling left-footed to start with, and pressing generally leftwards, all of which tends to make defenders, defenders who spend the great majority of their time dealing with right-footed players, wary of a sudden dart to the right—so when he just goes harder to the left they can quickly fall a step behind. Likewise, many of Messi’s most dangerous and disruptive attacks start from the right: he dribbles left, slows just a bit, then punches the ball again to the left as he accelerates—and sometimes he does this three or four times in a single sequence of dribbling, stuttering his way horizontally across the pitch, with the result that when he finally does fire off a shot he’s made his way to the opposite side of the goal. (The first highlight here is a pretty good example, though we might need Richard or Brian to come up with a different soundtrack for it. Also, in the legendary Maradona-Messi Matching Marches of Mayhem, both of them zag their way consistently leftwards: Maradona does zig once near the end, though, famously, the ball never touches his right foot the whole run. Messi, cutely, plays against type by finishing a la derecha.)

Because habit and muscle memory work so consistently against defenders of left-footed players, I wonder if it’s not even better to be a strongly left-footed player than to be ambidextrous. The most ambidextrous players I can think of are Cristiano Ronaldo—surely the most powerful off-leg in the world—and David Villa, and while both of them are aided tremendously in attack by their range of options and unpredictability, there’s something about the left-left-left moves of Messi, Robben, Maradona and their like that seems uniquely effective. It’s sort of like playing rock-paper-scissors against someone who always throws rock: you keep thinking, Okay, this time he’s got to throw paper—but he never does. You’re going to have to adjust, because he’s not about to. Why should he? He’s beating you every time.

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The Sinister Ones

by Alan Jacobs · March 7, 2011

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