By Andrew Misra
Sports psychology aside, football is a game predominantly played with your feet. Cheers, Geoff. But really, most of the time it’s predominantly played with one foot. Go to the nearest recreational football ground at the weekend and this will become abundantly clear not just visually, but verbally too.
The right-back tracking the tricky opposition left winger will routinely be told to “show them onto their right”. Then there’s the keen parent on the sidelines of the children’s pitches who dispairs as their young starlet clumsily swipes a right-footed air shot across their body. “Use your left foot”, the father tuts in dismay.
Maybe this should be expected at the amateur level. Laterality refers to the preference of humans for one side of their body over the other. Approximately 80% of the population is right-footed and it’s largely true in Sunday League that left feet are “for standing on”, something else you’ll hear on that weekend park stroll.
But what about the professionals? Surely they have honed their craft to such an extent over the years that they are equally adept off either hoof?
Well, it’s not really that simple. Let’s take a closer look.
Towards an ambidextrous definition in football
We see ambidextrous abilities in other sports – Ronnie O’Sullivan famously plays shots with either hand in snooker, switch-hitting in cricket is a regular feature of the modern batsman’s array of shots, while backhands and one-handed backhands have long been a staple in tennis.
So, ambidexterity, as applied to football, would be to use the left and right feet equally well.
Already, we can see how this might be problematic. If only 1 in 100 people are ambidextrous we can’t necessarily expect the prevalence of genuinely two-footed players to be any greater than 1% either.
There is a gap in the academic literature regarding this topic, with just a handful (footful?) of studies investigating the idea. In many ways, this reflects the lack of attention paid to two-footedness by fans. We’d much rather eulogise about a ‘wand of a left foot’ that could ‘open a can of beans’ than encourage playing off both feet.
A 2009 study into two-footedness was led by Dr Alex Bryson, Professor of Quantitative Social Science at University College London. Considering the relationship between being able to use both feet and salary in European players, the study suggested that 18% of players are two-footed. This is a great deal more than the aforementioned 1%.
In contrast, a 2001 paper led by David Carey from the School of Psychology at Bangor University reported much lower figures. Less than 1% of studied players at the 1998 World Cup were found to be two-footed. Carey et al. essentially found that the footedness of professional players was more or less similar to the wider population:
“Our findings indicate that World Cup players are as right-footed as the general population (~79%).”
Clearly there is a large discrepancy between the two studies, which Football Technical Lab have attempted to unpick. They note that the papers use different definitions of two-footedness. While Carey considers “equal use” of either foot, Bryson considers “equal strength”. This explains the difference, as use and strength of feet are not necessarily related in any way.
What this highlights is how ambiguous the concept of ambidexterity in football is. While there may be exceptions, as we will see, it seems unreasonable and in many cases will be unrealistic to expect any footballer to use both feet equally.
Part of the problem with these studies is that football is not an exact science, as Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri proclaimed.
At this stage, it seems that a definition is problematic so let’s consider a few case studies.
Not so weak feet
Let’s start with a few players who are as close to two-footed as you can realistically be. Jokes about Lee Cattermole’s tackling aside, there really aren’t many.
Whenever I raise this topic of two-footed players with friends/fellow students of the game/taxi drivers/anybody who will listen, one name crops up above all – the diminutive Spanish wizard, Santi Cazorla. While he is a naturally right-footed player, it is no exaggeration to say that you genuinely can’t tell which foot he prefers to use. He says that it’s a quality he honed after an injury to his right foot in his early years, but something that he continues to work on.
The most satisfying manifestation of this is that during his time at Arsenal, Cazorla would frequently take corners off either foot, depending on which corner he was delivering the set-piece from.
There’s even a ten minute Youtube compilation of him purely consisting of him using his ‘weaker’ left foot:
Cazorla was a joy to watch and was highly thought of even among opposition fans due to this feature of his game. There was widespread sadness when a horror injury led to a 636-day absence which ended his Arsenal career. Arsene Wenger described it as the worst injury he’d ever seen, requiring eight operations and a skin graft from his forearm to his ankle. Cazorla is thankfully finally back demonstrating his dual-footed dynamism again for Villarreal this season in his native country.
Adam Hurrey’s 2015 history of ambidextrous footballers details Andreas Brehme, a German left-back. His confidence in his ability to use both feet was supreme.
So supreme that after scoring a left-footed penalty in the 1986 World Cup, he used his right foot four years later to score the winning penalty to claim the 1990 World Cup for his country. Some feet.
As Hurrey says, nobody really knew which foot he was stronger with. Franz Beckenbauer knew Brehme for 20 years and was still none the wiser about which side he favoured.
Then there’s Paolo Maldini. He was naturally right-footed yet forged a glittering 25-year career for AC Milan and Italy largely spent at left-back.
Despite his shirt-removing tribulations at Manchester United, Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan displayed frankly ridiculous shooting ability off either foot, launching rockets from both sides. Thriker.
There seems to be a distinction between the genuinely two-footed, who are characterised by (almost) no difference in strength of feet. Then there are the players who have strong weak sides but would always look to use their dominant side where possible.
Admittedly this is a cloudy area to define, but there are some other interesting subjects who give food for thought.
Liverpool’s Adam Lallana is mainly used off the bench for Jürgen Klopp’s side these days, where he’ll incessantly Cruyff turn off either side for half an hour or so before the whistle goes for another three points. His ability with the ball at either foot and those elegant turns lead to him often being lauded as having a continental style which looks like he could have been schooled at La Masia.
Pedro was a regular feature of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering 2010-2011 Barcelona side. Seemingly equally adept at finishing off either foot, he scored at an impressive rate of almost one goal every three games during his time at Camp Nou.
These days, Barcelona have precocious French starlet Ousmane Dembele in their ranks who also exudes confidence off either foot. It’s a good sign when you find yourself searching for which foot a certain player prefers to use.
Dembele brings us his own spectacularly inconclusive answer to that question in this interview:
Son Heung-min is an industrious forward in a mould not dissimilar to Pedro who is showing how comfortable he is in finishing off either foot this season. His stock continues to rise and Spurs fans will worry about his absence in the second half of January as he departs for the Asian Cup.
Pavel Nedved is another fondly remembered by Juventus fans for his propensity to dazzle with either peg.
Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder was regarded as one of the best players in the world in 2010 and his two-footedness was a key facet of his game.
There are other worthy candidates to join this list but these are some of the most heralded exponents of two-footed ability.
If we return to aiming for a definition of ambidexterity in football, these players indicate that we should be looking for the ability to carry out most tasks on the pitch to the same level with either foot. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they always will use their weaker foot in such situations, but they can when needed without any noticeable drop in standard.
But does it really matter?
Is being able to use both feet that much of an advantage? Sure, it looks aesthetically pleasing, but does it significantly increase the overall effectiveness of a player?
Indeed, the word ‘effective’ is one which is frequently used to describe Dutch winger Arjen Robben. He’s been predictably cutting in from the right wing and firing home with his trusty left peg for years now at Bayern Munich. But still, he continues to do it.
That’s mainly due to the fact that he basically has no right foot. Seemingly though, it doesn’t hold him back much. His initial influence on the growth in popularity of the inverted winger arguably has served to prolong his own career. Robben has been a very successful elite player in world football for an extended period of time despite only really providing any attacking output off one foot.
A slightly less glamorous example is Antonio Valencia, the captain of Manchester United. The winger-turned-right-back doesn’t have much of a left foot at all, just as former England left-back Wayne Bridge had little influence off his right foot.
Managers often like having full-backs who are comfortable off either foot as it gives the logical benefit that they can be deployed at left or right-back. The most obvious example of this was Maldini, but Brazilian full-back and sometimes winger Adriano was useful to Barcelona for many years because he was able to play on either wing with no discernible change in his playing standard.
The danger of being ambidextrous is that it can move you into utility player territory as a ‘jack of all trades’. Elite level off one foot continues to be valued above very good ability off both.
There are ways, though, in which dependence on one foot can be worked around. Angel Di Maria was Man of the Match in the 2014 Champions League Final for Real Madrid. The left-footed Argentine doesn’t offer much off his weaker side at all but frequently deploys the rabona manoeuvre to get around this.
While Luka Modrić was at Tottenham, Alan Hansen remarked on Match of the Day that it simply didn’t matter that Modrić seldom used his left foot as he had 360° ability off his right.
Ricardo Quaresma has seemingly made it his career ambition to leave his trademark trivela move indelibly stamped on the game. Like Robben, Quaresma has played right-wing for most of his career. Instead of cutting inside and switching onto his left foot like the Dutchman, however, Quaresma cuts across the ball with the outside of his right boot. He’s been doing it for well over a decade and showcased a reminder of it to the world with his goal against Iran at the 2018 World Cup. What left foot?
The balance and poise of a two-footed player is aesthetically pleasing, enchanting even. But to put it bluntly, the need to use a weak foot decreases if you can cover all angles with your stronger foot.
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Andrew Misra is a founder of 5WFootball, presents the weekly podcast and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here. He has also contributed to The Anfield Wrap and you can follow him on Twitter here. He also maintains a general sports blog.