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October 2016
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The beauty of lefties


By Tim Charlesworth

Amidst the joy of the Man City game, (and forgetting the one that followed it) one interesting aspect got slightly overlooked, and that was the influence of the left footers.

Left sidedness is an advantage in lots of sports. John McEnroe and Raphael Nadal are the most obvious examples in tennis. Both players benefit from the fact that their shots come from different angles from those expected. Of course the left handed player has plenty of opportunities to get used to playing the right-handed player, and getting used to the angles that result.

The right-handed player has less opportunities to get used to playing the left hander.

The sport that you see this effect most obviously is cricket. There are a bizarre number of left handed batsmen in cricket. When you look at this more closely, you find something surprising.

If you go back and watch one of England’s most sumptuously talented left handers, David Gower, you might be surprised to see him throw the ball right handed. He is in fact right-handed. The same is true of Graham Thorpe, Alistair Cook, Mark Taylor and Brian Lara. All of these players have found that batting left-handed is sufficiently advantageous to make it worth their while learning to bat the ‘wrong way around’.

The same phenomenon is apparent in baseball (a major global game not widely played in the UK). Left handed pitchers are prized, and some very talented players teach themselves to be ‘switch-hitters’, meaning that they bat left handed against a right handed pitcher and right handed against a left handed pitcher.

It’s a bit surprising that a simple trick like being left footed/handed is capable of fooling a professional sportsman and conferring a long-term advantage. After all, opponents know that Mesut Ozil is left footed and Raphael Nadal is left handed. It is hardly a surprise.

It seems that the advantage for lefties is something to do with angles. All balls sports require phenomenal subconscious mathematical calculations. In order to volley a ball passed through the air, the brain needs to carry out a series of degree level mathematical calculations. You need to do these calculations in a fraction of a second. And yet, a well coached seven year old can be taught to do exactly those calculations.

The point is that it is subconscious. So however much the conscious brain knows that Mesut is left footed, the subconscious brain, on which players rely to calculate angles, struggles to adapt. Football is a game played with instincts, not the conscious mind.

A surprising number of the current Arsenal team are left footed. This is not easy to spot nowadays, as most modern footballers are good with both feet. However, even the best have a preference.

According to Wikipedia, 81.5% of people are right footed. So with 10 outfield players, you might expect slightly less than two to be left footed (Petr Cech is left footed, but surely this is irrelevant in a goalkeeper?). However, in the current team, Ozil, Giroud, Monreal and Campbell are all left footers. And this shows us another interesting pattern.

It is usually an advantage for an attacker to be left footed. I see no such advantage for defenders. This is presumably because the ‘surprise’ element is valuable for an attacker, but not so much for a defender. (of course left backs are often left footed for different reasons).

It is worth having a look at the goal Giroud scored against City, because the defender got his positioning subtly wrong. Firstly he had the pass from Ozil covered. If Ozil had hit that pass right footed, Otamendi was in a good position to cut it out before it got to Giroud. But Ozil is left footed, and so the ball came across Otamendi at an angle that he was not really prepared for.

He then basically allowed Giroud to go outside him in the left channel. This is quite a safe thing to do with a right footed player. The type of shot that Giroud produced is a difficult skill, hitting powerfully across a moving ball at a tight angle to the goal. A right footed player is not very likely to pull this off, so the channel that Otamendi allowed Giroud to run in, would normally be a relatively safe one.

Interestingly, Toure’s goal was also a left footers goal. If you watch it again, Flamini is perfectly positioned to block the right footed shot. Toure simply allows the ball to drift across him to his left foot. Flamini is instinctively positioned to block Toure’s right foot, and cannot react quickly enough.

Toure has a clear shot. Only a left footer is likely to get that kind of opportunity. Actually, Toure is right-footed, but enjoys the same benefit as Cazorla, that he is very strong on his wrong foot, which makes him even harder to defend against.

So being left footed is surprisingly advantageous in football. When we look at some of the great all time players, it is surprising how many are left footed. Think of your ten best players of all time.

Remember, statistically, just two of them are likely to be left footers. How many of the following were in your top ten? Lionel Messi; Diego Maradonna; Mesut Ozil; Pele; Ferenc Puskas.

If you have any doubt about the advantage of being left footed, have a look at some clips of Diego Maradonna. He is actually comically one footed, and goes to ridiculous lengths to ‘run around’ his right foot. Watch the famous goal that he scored against England in the ‘86 World Cup (the second one). In that long run, he never touches the ball with his right foot, but the England players constantly position themselves as if they expect him to.

And the best news of all is that my sumptuously talented six year old son (future Arsenal player obviously) is left footed!

Two from the 70s

  • 27 December 1971: Nottingham Forest 1 Arsenal 1.  It was Alan Ball’s debut for Arsenal, having been brought in from Everton to bolster Arsenal’s attempt to retain the FA Cup and League title won the previous year.
  • 27 December 1972: George Graham sold to Man U for £120,000.  Having had the temerity to protest to Bertie Mee about being dropped to the bench he was one of the players to suffer Mee’s policy of brooking no interference in his policy making

…and the 12th instalment of Arsenal in the 70s Part 12: Jan to June 74. Farewell Bob, hello Liam.

12 comments to The beauty of lefties

  • Al

    Yes, left footed/handed is a huge advantage. Even in boxing, south paws are very awkward opponents.

    To counter the advantages of being left handed/footed it would require the other player to be left footed/handed too, as naturally the brain will process the danger to be expected to come from the right channel when it’ll in fact come from the opposite channel. So left v left counters that. And according to your stats over 81% of the population are right handed meaning there’s a 4 in 5 chance a left handed player will be at an advantage. The same doesn’t quite apply when left footed players face right handed ones simply because they’re so overwhelmed by right footers they learn to adapt to dealing with this kind of opponent more than the other way round.
    I think you left Gibbs out in your list of left footed Gunners 🙂

  • Dec

    Fascinating topic Tim, certainly thought provoking stuff.
    I’d suggest that there’s not a position on the pitch where judging multiple angles, assessing comparative speeds of several players in relation to the ball and your current/achievable position and the speed/swerve on the specific type of ball in the prevailing conditions is more vital than that of goalkeeper. When you consider the processing that the brain does in a fraction of a second it is startling.
    That Petr is left orientated may give him a slight benefit in reacting correctly. It’s the infinite number of variables involved that makes football so wonderful.

    Football focus the other day had a story about how he learns the languages of his defenders in order to communicate more directly with them individually, talk about commitment and fine margins!
    Maybe we should sign a non English speaking Welsh or Irish defender, just to challenge him a bit? 🙂

  • goonersince72

    Excellent observation! But then what is an opponent to do when he faces Santi Cazorla who is equally adept with either foot? Not much,lol. Watching Santi weave his way out of trouble, moving the ball from foot to foot is one of the the joys of watching AFC. How often to we see players miss an opportunity by trying to get the ball onto his stronger foot? Too many. Thanks for a great read.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Another fascinating read Tim. Learn new stuff every day, didn’t know that about those cricketers.
    Left siders are also more likely to possess genius, or so I have heard

  • Pete

    Wilshere also.

    I also am led to believe that left handed/left footed people are more creative than right siders?

    Other sports where left sidedness is important include boxing, other racquet sports, other field sports (e.g. rugby, hockey). Only question I have is that I thought left sidedness was about 1 in 10 rather than 1 in 5? Perhaps it is more of a continuum? Not sure if Santi is genuinely ambidextrous – or just practised so hard on his wrong (left) side that he really has equalised it?

    From my playing days I became reasonably competent at passing with my left, less competent at shooting but the one skill I found really hard to master on my wrong side was tackling. I will have a close look at future matches to see how often players tackle on their wrong side.

  • Tim Charlesworth

    Pete – interesting observation on tackling. Researching this article was surprisingly hard. Very little information is available on whether players are right or left footed. I ended up watching a lot of YouTube footage. In particular I took free kicks as evidence, as a player will always take a free kick with his preferred foot. Santi was a player for whom I really needed free kick evidence to convince me that he is right footed. Tackling was also a bit of a giveaway. I was surprised how often Koscielny uses his right foot to tackle when his left would be more efficient.

  • Tim Charlesworth

    Pete and Mandy – the idea that left handers are more creative or have genius is often repeated. I am not sure if this is correct. Do they just appear to be more imaginative because they are coming from different angles or doing things that right footers find inexplicable? Having said that there may be some truth in it, as left handedness results from differences in brain hemisphere organisation.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Not sure on the genius and creativity of left handlers Tim, but must declare a bias on this issue!

  • Gord

    I don’t think it makes a difference about being left footed in facing a left footed attacker in large. What most people are exposed to in learning the sport, are right footed people.

    If people were “solving the equations of motion” in their heads, I think footedness would be less of an issue. But, most people don’t solve problems that way. They come up with heuristic rules. To me, this is a table lookup method of solution. They pick the table entry closest to what is presented to the, and do what is appropriate. A short time later, they may re-examine the situation and do another table lookup. And so on. This kind of method can work well.

    I see no reason why footedness might not be an advantage to goalkeepers. I think most people can jump better in one direction than the other. Likewise their eye-hand and eye-foot coordination is not likely the same for both right and left. Shooters are used to right handed/footed goalkeepers, and probably try to shoot accordingly. Shooting a Cech, they are shooting to his strengths, and not his weaknesses.

    As you said, it is instinct. They are not consciously choosing to for the weak side of a right handed/footed goalkeeper, they instinctively do so.

  • Gord


    I don’t know if that is quite the correct word. But, in a world where all directions are intended to be read by right handed people, the left handed person will always need to “reflect” some of the instruction.

    In terms of medical studies, for years all diagnoses were intended to be for male patients, and probably white Caucasians at that. I don’t know if this idea carries over to right handed instruction (intended for men), because in large part men (supposedly) don’t read instructions. But this might explain why most instructions are not accurate, they are written (once) and never edited because men don’t read instructions. Even instructions they wrote.

  • ClockEndRider

    “baseball (a major global game not widely played in the UK”.
    Really? As far as I’m aware it isn’t played in Europe to any decent level. It’s big in America, some Central American countries and Japan. Anywhere else?

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Liam Brady was another whose left leg was awesome . And as for cricketers , watching a leftie batsman like Gower caressing the ball to the fence was always a treat.
    As for switch hitters , there were quite a few of ‘them’ that came out of the woodwork in the previous post to try their luck , but were smashed away by the regulars .
    I believe that most of ‘them’ use neither their left , nor their right brains , as most of them are devoid of any intelligence .