Have you ever wondered about the data behind dribbling? Of course you have, and now you’re in luck because we’ve delved into the stats from the past 10 seasons to provide you with the definitive guide to dribblers.
Dribbling; perhaps the purest form of football artistry and one of the chief identifiers of technical prowess, it’s been the trump card of many of the sport’s all-time greats.
It’s a skill as old as the game itself and yet still rarely fails to get bums off seats and fans shouting “olé!”, “wheey!”, or whatever emotive, short-syllabled colloquialism that conveys amusement in your language.
But in this age of unprecedented football data comprehension and stats consumption, it’s probably an area that gets overlooked in favour of goals, assists, expected goals, and so on. Well, goals, assists, expected goals, and so on, are overrated [editor’s disclaimer: Opta does not endorse the views of this writer] – sometimes all you really need to watch is a majestic pint-sized Argentinian dance their way past three defenders, even if they end up just passing it 40 yards back to the goalkeeper.
As admirers of dribbling and dribblers, we thought it would be fun/interesting/a means to justify our existence if we waded into the seemingly less-explored realm of dribbling and take-on data from the past 10 seasons (so, excluding 2023-24) across Europe’s big five leagues and considered what questions the numbers can answer.
Why the past 10 seasons? Firstly, why not? Secondly, we needed a timeframe. And thirdly, it’s a nice round number.
So, grab a napkin: it’s time for some dribbling.
Who Dribbles the Most?
Okay, let’s get this out of the way now: expect quite a few references to Lionel Messi in this article. No, we aren’t a part of his so-called “PR machine”, it just turns out he’s been a fairly ludicrous footballer in his career and dribbling proved to be a pretty major weapon in his arsenal. Who knew?
So, with that addressed, we can reveal that Cristiano Ron… Just kidding. Obviously Messi topped the charts for the most take-ons over the period of August 2012 until June 2023 in Europe’s big five leagues with 2,586.
That’s 505 more than any other player over the same period. Of course, he benefits from being old enough to have featured prominently in each of the 10 seasons in our study, but that’s just the way this particular cookie crumbles.
Now, try to guess who’s second to Messi… And if you’ve skimmed ahead then you’re disqualified…
The answer is Wilfried Zaha. The Ivory Coast winger, who was at Crystal Palace before joining Galatasaray in the summer, is the only other player to attempt 2,000 or more take-ons over the period in question, with his total at 2,081.
Closing out the top five are Neymar (1,987), Eden Hazard (1,582) and Raheem Sterling (1,522), though it’s fair to say the former two would’ve tallied far more had they not endured a lot of injury problems over the past few years.
Who Completes the Most Take-Ons?
Attempting to take a player on and succeeding are entirely different things, however – even your gran can try. But now we want to know who’s registered the most successful take-ons.
Well, given he’s attempted loads more than anyone else, it’s not going to be a huge surprise to see Messi at the top of the leaderboard again here with 1,509 completed take-ons – he’s actually the only player to break the 1,000 mark.
Hazard retired recently after a miserable few years, and considering the incredible talent he was, the fact he sits one shy of 1,000 delivers a pang of sadness – but then again, this 10-year period is fairly arbitrary, so he probably won’t lose any sleep over it.
Of course, as already mentioned, players who’ve featured in the qualifying leagues for the entire 10-season period are at an advantage, so we can level the playing field somewhat by looking at the data on a per-90-minute basis (minimum 100 dribbles, 1,000+ minutes played). Messi does still rank pretty high with 4.1 successful take-ons every 90 minutes, but he is just outside the top 10 (13th).
Adama Traoré is top of the pile here, with 6.1 completed take-ons per 90; the other particularly high-volume dribblers filling out the top five are Jérémy Doku (5.4), who is currently dazzling at Manchester City, Sofiane Boufal (4.9), Allan Saint-Maximin (4.8) and Jérémie Boga (4.5).
Who Has the Best Take-On Success Rate?
Tallying the most take-on attempts or the most successful take-ons is all well and good, but we also want to know which players had the highest completion rates as that can give us a better idea of a player’s reliability when trying to dribble past an opponent.
Now, there’s several ways of approaching this. Obviously there were some players over the period we’re looking at who achieved a 100% success rate but from, say, nine take-ons spread over 10 seasons. Those aren’t really the players we want to focus on; we care about those for whom dribbling is at least a semi-important ability, or those whose playing styles encompass a reasonably high reliance on their twinkle toes.
So, for our first round of results, we filtered out players who attempted fewer than two take-ons per 90 minutes and played under 4,500 minutes over our chosen period; that still left us with a sample size of 972 players, so there’s plenty to go off.
In this group, former Tottenham and Belgium midfielder Mousa Dembélé boasted the leading take-on completion rate (78.1% – 406/520), perhaps unsurprising to anyone who witnessed his graceful ability on the ball in the Premier League. He was slightly ahead of former Paris Saint-Germain star Marco Verratti (77% – 421/547), but what makes the Belgian stand out a little more was that dribbling was arguably a more important – or more utilised – asset to him, as he attempted 3.2 take-ons per 90 compared to the Italian’s 2.2.
But what’s clear from this group is the presence of central midfielders; they dominate the upper echelons of the leaderboard. PSG’s Lee Kang-in, ranked 23rd (66.5%), is arguably the first non-central midfielder, and even then he has been known to play in fairly central positions during his career.
We get a greater positional variance in the data when increasing the attempted take-ons criteria to four per 90, and we start to see a few more names we might associate more closely with such artistry. Messi (58.4%), Nabil Fekir (58.6%), Hazard (63.2%) and Traoré (66%) all enter the top 20, though it’s still a couple of – admittedly attack-minded – midfielders who occupy first and second, with former Brazil international Diego (69.3%) ahead of Tanguy Ndombele (67.8%).
Another way of looking at completion rate would be to simply focus on players who’ve been bona fide high-volume dribblers over several seasons; so for argument’s sake, those who’ve averaged at least six take-on attempts per 90 and played 6,500 minutes or more. This now starts to look like a list of names you’d expect to see, with Traoré, Messi and Allan Saint-Maximin in first, second and third respectively.
The table below then covers a broader spectrum of players and their dribbling habits, allowing you to sort by your desired metric.
Who’s Attempted the Most Take-Ons in a Single Season?
Just as dribbling can be great fun to watch, many players obviously get a kick out of it too – and we don’t mean in terms of rough treatment from defenders. Then there are the players who seem to only want to dribble.
When delving into the data over the seasons we’re focusing on, finding out who registered the most take-ons in a single season felt like a must, and it chucked out a name we weren’t expecting, mostly because he disappeared from European football four years ago.
Remember Yacine Brahimi? The former France youth star, who went on represent Algeria, was great fun to watch during his time in Europe and is the sort of player who has YouTube highlights reels as long as your arm.
In the 2013-14 season, when playing for Granada in La Liga, he was determined to show his fancy footwork on a regular basis – he attempted 354 take-ons, which is not only the most in a single season over the last decade, it’s also the most by a player in one campaign on record across the top five leagues.
Real Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior went close to surpassing Brahimi’s haul last season with 348; the only other players to break 300 in this period are Messi (335 – 2014-15), Neymar (318 – 2016-17), Karim Bellarabi (315 – 2014-15) and Zaha (308 – 2019-20).
Who’s Attempted the Most Take-Ons in a Single Match?
It’s almost like this person knew what we were working on this week.
We’ve already spoken a little about take-ons per 90 minutes, and how Traoré’s average of 6.1 completed take-ons in a single season was very good for a high-volume dribbler.
Hopefully that will provide some of the context that highlights just how mad some of the stats in this section will be.
The answer to the title question may not be that surprising; it’s Vinícius. However, his figure of 27 take-on attempts in April’s 4-2 defeat to Girona is anything but expected, even for him.
That is four more take-on attempts registered in a single match than any other player over the 10 seasons we’re looking at, yet he only managed to succeed with eight of them. In fact, his 19 failed take-ons in one match is also a record over the period in question, with the next most being 14.
As for the question posed in the X post mentioned above, the most successful take-ons by a player in one match is 17; this was recorded by former Germany international Karim Bellarabi for Bayer Leverkusen against Werder Bremen in February 2015.
This was during the aforementioned 2014-15 season when Bellarabi attempted 315 take-ons over the course of the campaign.
Those 17 successful take-ons were from a possible 23, giving him a very commendable 73.9% success rate for the match… His Leverkusen side still lost, though…
Who Provides the Most Attacking Value with Their Dribbling?
For some, just enjoying a player’s ability to skilfully evade a defender isn’t enough; they need to see end product as well. Football is about goals after all, so it stands to reason.
Thankfully, we can attribute value to a player’s dribbles and take-ons by looking at those that lead to a shot, a chance created, an assist or a goal. Spoiler alert, Messi tops all four categories.
Now, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise by now. We’ve already highlighted how Messi has attempted more than anyone else, so he obviously has a greater data pool than everyone. A fairer way of looking at it might be to see what percentage of each player’s total take-ons led to a tangible end product; so, that’s what we did.
Edinson Cavani boasted the best record over the period in question for proportion of take-ons (minimum 300) leading to a shot or chance created; 17.3% of his take-ons (53/306) led to one or the other. He was ahead of Carlos Bacca (56/369 – 15.2%), Jamie Vardy (75/498 – 15.1%) and Cristiano Ronaldo (145/977 – 14.8%), while Messi, on 11.1%, ranked as low as 33rd (287/2,586).
This obviously isn’t to say a player only adds value to a team’s attack if they take a shot or create a chance. For instance, Messi might take on six players, pass to a teammate who then sets up another colleague to score – that’s still value, so we recognise the limitations here. However, in most cases, shots, chances created, goals and assists are at least a decent way to quantify efficiency to a degree.
When we look at the greatest proportion of take-ons leading to goals or assists, the same player leads the way. Cavani is top with 4.9% (15/306) of his dribbles leading to a goal or an assist. Wissam Ben Yedder (3.9% – 22/570), Carlos Tevez (3.6% – 12/338), Bacca (3.5% – 13/369) and Vardy (3.4% – 17/498) close out the top five. Messi ranks 17th this time (2.5% – 65/2,586), but we feel it’s necessary to highlight how he shoots up to second when his numbers are considered in the context of other high-volume dribblers (minimum 900 take-on attempts), behind only Kylian Mbappé (2.7% – 31/1,147).
In Which League Are Take-Ons Most Prominent?
Many of the world’s best domestic leagues have been associated with one stylistic aspect or another over time. For years, Italy was seen as the home of defensive football, the Premier League was deemed to be all about brute strength and physicality, La Liga possessed many of the world’s best technicians, and for a while the Bundesliga was strongly tied to high pressing.
Perhaps some of these perceptions are a little less common or generalised these days as there’s an argument top-level European football has become stylistically homogenous. Either way, dribbling’s never had quite that same association with a specific league – at least not in modern times. A simple explanation could be what this piece has hopefully accentuated: it’s such a difficult skill to master and provide tangible results.
As the table directly below shows, over the past 10 seasons in the top five European leagues, no competition has reached an average take-on success rate of 60% in a single campaign – and that’s despite us setting a fairly low bar with our filtering (players with a minimum of 10 take-on attempts in a season).
Over the course of those 10 seasons, the Premier League has the highest average success rate (52%), while La Liga (47%) has the lowest. But the overall averages have been steadily decreasing, as the graph highlights.
The apparent decrease in take-on success rates in the past few years hasn’t seemingly coincided with a dramatic increase in players trying to beat their markers, however. The graph below suggests take-on attempts per match have pretty much flatlined and this highlights a particularly big swing in the Bundesliga; last season, Germany’s top flight saw 34.3 take-on attempts on per game on average, 25.6 fewer than in the 2013-14 season for instance.
It stands to reason that an increase in passing frequency is a contributing factor across the board. The 14 campaigns across the top five leagues in the past 10 seasons that averaged under 860 passes per game also averaged 38.8 take-ons each match. Whereas the 16 campaigns that averaged over 900 passes per game saw take-ons reduce to 35.8 each match. Similarly, the latter group of seasons were generally more recent, with only five of the 16 being 2018-19 or earlier.
So, although the Bundesliga (38.1) has averaged the most take-ons per game over our 10-season period, there’s been such a fluctuation that it would feel unfair to declare one league to be the home of dribbling.
What’s The Most Take-Ons Leading To A Goal?
It all got a bit serious then, didn’t it? Well, let’s end on a more fun note as we look at the ultimate dribbling accomplishment: taking on several players before scoring.
Across the 10 seasons we’ve looked at, the most opponents any one player dribbled past before scoring was four, and it happened six times. But the instance we’re going to focus on is the one that combines the take-ons and goal with the longest ball carry.
All hail Sofiane Boufal! The Moroccan winger scored an incredible goal for Southampton against West Brom in October 2017 that saw him take up possession in his own half, quickly evade two defenders and then charge into the Baggies’ half. The third successful take-on in this sequence resulted in two West Brom players comically crashing into each other, and then his fourth occurred just inside the penalty area before slotting home at the end of a 62.2-metre run.
Boufal’s Southampton career may never have reached the heights hoped when he first joined, but we (dribbling aficionados) will always have that goal.
And even if dribbling does continue to decrease, it’ll only make those rare flourishes even more special.