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Friday, July 19, 2024

The art of the nutmeg

“Nutmegs, for me, are a beautiful thing to do,” Javier Pastore, the former Argentina international, said.

“They’re beautiful to watch. In fact, even when I get nutmegged myself I find that beautiful – and that actually happens quite a lot too!”.

Whether using the inside or outside of the foot, or the sole or the heel, Pastore was an absolute master of slipping the ball between an opponent’s legs, creating the illusion that he was running through people at times.

“I think it’s a skill that gives you a lot of possibilities as it eliminates an opposition player,” Pastore, who played for Paris Saint-Germain between 2011 and 2018, said. “I find it much easier to do a little nutmeg and run round the player than to try and dribble around him with the ball.”

(Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Eliminates is a good word. Humiliates would be another.

There are more elaborate skills on a football pitch, for sure, but it’s hard to think of any other trick that brings one player so much adulation and strips another of their dignity in quite the same way as a nutmeg.

When Jude Bellingham nutmegged Conor Coady before scoring in his first England training session, everyone applauded the teenager. Everyone except Coady, obviously. “I thought, ‘I look like a right plant pot here!’,” Coady told the Ben Foster Podcast when discussing the incident.

Clearly, some nutmegs are more flamboyant than others and, naturally, that brings a whole new level of misery to the player on the receiving end.

The good news for Gary Cahill was that Raphinha’s quite brilliant 270-degree turn and nutmeg on him at Elland Road in 2021 came at a time when football was being played behind closed doors because of the global pandemic.

The bad news for Cahill was that the footage went viral the next day.

The word nutmeg has been part of football’s lexicon for as long as people can remember.

According to Peter Seddon, author of the book Football Talk – The Language & Folklore Of The World’s Greatest Game, the origin of the term relates to the exportation of actual nutmegs between North America and England in the 1800s.

“Nutmegs were such a valuable commodity that unscrupulous exporters were known to pull a fast one by mixing a helping of wooden replicas into the sacks being shipped to England,” Seddon wrote.

“Being nutmegged soon came to imply stupidity on the part of the duped victim and cleverness on the part of the trickster.”

All of which fits rather nicely.





Petit Pont.

Whatever the language, the message remains the same – essentially, you’re making your opponent look like a fool by putting the ball between their legs, even if that wasn’t even the motivation at the time.

“I had a bad touch and I got myself into a situation where I had no other alternatives, so it wasn’t planned,” Scott Hiley tells The Athletic.

“When I got control of the ball again, I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t just push it and run past him because he was younger and quicker than me. As I was trying to position the ball, I saw his legs were open, so I just had to pull the ball back and put it through.

“It was me getting myself out of a situation more than me trying to be clever, to be honest.”

Hiley was a non-League footballer for Exeter City at the time and had just nutmegged Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo live on television in the FA Cup. Nineteen years later, his phone still rings about that incident but his trumpet never blows.

“I haven’t dined out on it. But it gets brought up a lot because of the YouTube video, and it’s got bigger and bigger over time because of Ronaldo’s profile,” Hiley adds. “I remember after the game, the newspapers wanted a picture of me with the boot, but I didn’t do any interviews about it. I felt that would be disrespectful.”

At the highest level, the spotlight can be unforgiving for the player who has been embarrassed.

Ask David Luiz about Luis Suarez nutmegging him prior to scoring both of his goals for Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League in 2015 – “I didn’t have a great night,” the Brazilian said with no little understatement – or James Milner about Lionel Messi.

“It’s very hard to run as fast as you can with your legs closed – as I found out,” Milner said in 2019.

Milner was talking about a Champions League game four years earlier, when his Manchester City side played Barcelona at the Camp Nou and his attempts to close down Messi by the touchline ended badly. Messi deftly slipped the ball through his legs, Milner ended up scrambling on his hands, the home crowd roared, and Pep Guardiola, who was the Bayern Munich manager at the time and watching from up in the stands, covered his face. All around him, there was laughter.

“He (Messi) can make you look stupid,” Milner reflected.

Some players appear to be more susceptible to a nutmeg than others.

Data gathered by StatsBomb shows that Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, together with Aston Villa duo John McGinn and Matty Cash, have the dubious honour of being joint top of the Premier League’s “nutmegged” leaderboard this season.

As for the Premier League’s nutmeg kings, it’s a four-way tie between Luton’s Chiedozie Ogbene, Eberechi Eze of Crystal Palace and the Arsenal wingers Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, all of whom should be approached with feet never more than six inches apart.

As silly as that last line sounds, Pastore recalled a Napoli defender coming up to him after a match and admitting he was so “scared” of being nutmegged by him that he had spent the entire game trying to keep his legs together. “That’s why I went past him so easily,” Pastore said.

Probably the most unexpected name on that 2023-24 Premier League table of “nutmeggers” is Everton’s James Garner. The midfielder has a lovely knack of shaping to play a pass down the line, which entices his opponent to step across to attempt to make a block, and then tucking the ball between their legs and escaping. That mixture of disguise and deception opens up the whole pitch for Garner.

In the first example below, he nutmegs Fulham’s Antonee Robinson and then slips the ball through Harrison Reed’s legs straight afterwards too.

In the second clip, Garner leaves Villa’s Pau Torres looking like he is teetering on the edge of a cliff at one point.

Nutmegs can become a game within a game for some players.

When Tony Mowbray was Sunderland manager, their winger Patrick Roberts kept him updated with his nutmeg tally for the previous three matches. “I think we were at about 10 before the Reading game,” Mowbray said last season.

A Twitter account, presumably run by someone with a calculator at hand, was dedicated to keeping count of the number of times that Adel Taarabt – a serial nutmegger if ever there was one – put a ball through an opponent’s legs while he was playing for Queens Park Rangers.

“I’m not trying to take the p**s,” Taarabt said. “It’s a skill, it’s so natural.”

As for Dele Alli, he gave the impression earlier in his career that he saw it as a personal challenge to nutmeg as many people as possible whenever he left the house.

Adebayo Akinfenwa, a powerful lower-divisions striker nicknamed The Beast, was one of Dele’s first victims in professional football and spent 10 minutes trying to chase the teenager around the pitch afterwards. “I just wanted to body him,” Akinfenwa said.

On another occasion, Dele tried to nutmeg Guardiola after the ball ran out of play by the dugout at the Etihad Stadium – he failed but the Manchester City manager saw the funny side.

Then there was the time when Dele had the confidence and audacity to embarrass Real Madrid’s Luka Modric.

Dele, for context, was 19 years old at the time and starting his first game for Spurs having moved from third-tier MK Dons, in front of 70,000 people at the Allianz Arena in Munich, in a pre-season tournament.

“We had a laugh about it in the tunnel afterwards; he (Modric) was very good about it,” Dele said. “He shook my hand and said to me, ‘You little b***er’ – or something like that.

“I didn’t shout ‘Nuts’ when I did it. I used to do that when I was young and got told off for it.”

Dele nutmegging Huddersfield’s Collin Quaner during a league match in 2018 (Craig Mercer – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Shouting “Nuts”, “Megs”, “Keep ’em shut”, or anything else like that, is like a red rag to a bull for someone who has already been made to look silly.

Within the professional game (different rules may apply at your local five-a-side pitch on a Monday night), those kinds of comments are regarded as disrespectful or, to quote one current Premier League footballer who asked not to be identified for fear of being nutmegged, only made by players “really taking the p**s”.

Erik Lamela versus Andros Townsend, White Hart Lane, 2016.

“I thought, ‘Erik, why did you do that?’,” his Tottenham team-mate Danny Rose said a few days later. “I didn’t realise I put my hands on my head until afterwards. It was a brilliant nutmeg. When Andros was here (as a Spurs player), he always used to get nutmegged five or six times in a training session. I was actually thinking throughout the game that he’s done well not to get nutmegged today, and (then) Erik did that.”

Why Lamela did that is a good question. Although Spurs fans raucously celebrated the Argentinian’s party trick, which prompted Rose to react in the way that he described and Townsend to set off on a walk of shame, not everyone at the club was impressed.

“I don’t like it when you try to humiliate your opponent,” Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham’s manager at the time, said. “The supporters enjoy this type of action and that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t create any emotion in me. People tried to nutmeg me when I was playing. But they did it knowing that, afterwards, I would be out to kill them.”

Lamela’s nutmeg crossed that line between being a fantastic piece of skill – he used the sole of the foot, futsal-style, to dupe Townsend – and showboating. It was brilliant and made people in the crowd laugh and smile – as nutmegs generally do. But it also felt gratuitous – there were only seconds of the game remaining.

Does any of that matter?

Diego Simeone once applauded himself, with the ball at his feet still, after nutmegging then Barcelona captain Jose Mari Bakero twice in quick succession.

Bakero’s blood must have been boiling at the time, in much the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson’s was when a young Paul Gascoigne had the temerity to not just nutmeg Remi Moses in front of the Manchester United dugout but revel in the moment.

“He went up to Remi after he did it and patted him on the head,” Ferguson said, incredulously. “I was out of that dugout — ‘Get that little f***ing so-and-so’.”

A new kid on the block nutmegging an established player can quickly light the touchpaper.

“Behave!,” a by then much more senior Gascoigne said to Steven Gerrard after the Liverpool midfielder tried and failed to nutmeg him shortly after breaking through at Anfield. Gascoigne, Gerrard writes in his autobiography, also called him “a little runt” afterwards (apparently that’s not a typo in the book).

Where nutmegs are concerned, that chasm in age and experience provides all the ingredients for a potential flashpoint on the training ground too. A nutmeg in a rondo is one thing – most players will see that as fair game – but it’s quite another in a training match, when egos are easily bruised, especially if someone is having a bad day or senses they are being mocked.

In Matthew Spiro’s book Sacre Bleu: Zidane To Mbappe – A Football Journey, the author tells a story about Vikash Dhorasoo, a gifted playmaker, being ostracised by the France squad after nutmegging 1998 World Cup-winning captain Didier Deschamps when called up for the first time the following year.

Dhorasoo, second from left, in France training in 2006 (Pascal Pavani/AFP via Getty Images)

Although Dhorasoo’s own memory of that incident is hazy – “I hope I did it. For me, nutmegs are the essence of football,” he told Spiro – Marcel Desailly, another France player, was quoted in Liberation newspaper at the time confirming that it happened. “Vikash is an… interesting boy,” Desailly said. “As for the nutmeg on Didier, given the quality of Vikash’s performances in training, I would say it was not especially appropriate.”

An inappropriate nutmeg is an interesting concept and, presumably, captures how Neymar saw things when Weverton Guilherme, a 19-year-old right-back, slipped the ball through his legs with a lovely sole-roll at a Brazil training camp before the Copa America in 2019. Neymar grabbed Weverton by the bib, threw him to the floor and walked away in a huff.

Neymar, of course, has never nutmegged anyone.

What is clear is that the simple act of putting a ball through an opponent’s legs means different things to different people and how they react depends, to a large extent, on the circumstances at the time and even the event’s location on the pitch.

That said, it’s hard to imagine an England manager ever talking about the importance of nutmegs in the way that Lionel Scaloni did after his Argentina side won the World Cup in 2022.

“If I’m constantly telling young players to play two-touch football, I’m taking away their inventiveness – that’s the best asset,” Scaloni said on football interview show Universo Valdano. “Our football culture is about mischief, taking on players, doing nutmegs and looking for one-twos. You can’t manage players with a joystick.”

Mischief and nutmegs sounds like a lot of fun, and it’s easy to imagine what it looks like in Argentina too.

Picture Juan Roman Riquelme famously backheeling the ball through the legs of Mario Yepes in a Copa Libertadores quarter-final in 2000, Lautaro Martinez’s extraordinary pinball skill in 2018, or Lucas Ocampos executing one of the most nonchalant nutmegs you will ever see.

Not all nutmegs need to be a work of art, though.

In fact, there is something deeply satisfying about watching one player effortlessly glide away from another by cutting across, and slipping the ball through, their opponent’s stride pattern.

Expert timing or an element of good luck?

Either way, Luis Suarez was a master of that manoeuvre and it’s also become a go-to nutmeg for the game’s inverted wingers, who will typically carry the ball with their stronger foot and dart inside using the outside of that same boot.

In the example below, which is taken from Arsenal’s 4-3 victory at Kenilworth Road in December, Saka takes two Luton players out of the game with that type of nutmeg.

A popular and alternative nutmeg for inverted wingers is the push-and-run with the instep, which is hugely effective from a stationary position because all the forward momentum is with the attacker, leaving their opponent flat-footed once they are, in football parlance, squared up.

Both Saka, who is shown against Wolves below, and Martinelli have used that move multiple times this season.

Yet it was a nutmeg that was performed on an Arsenal player a month ago that caused a much bigger stir – and not just because of what happened on the pitch.

There was less than a minute of stoppage time remaining when Sergino Dest picked up the ball wide on the right for PSV Eindhoven.

What followed was Ronaldinho-esque – a nutmeg orchestrated by a lovely piece of footwork that bamboozled a defender, luring him into trying to win a ball that was going in a totally different direction to where he thought and, crucially, opening his legs in the process.

As Arsenal’s Jakub Kiwior stepped across, Dest nutmegged him, to the delight of the crowd – except that wasn’t the full story.

In a world increasingly obsessed with reactions, the replay of the responses from those on the PSV bench generated more headlines than the nutmeg itself. Johan Bakayoko’s jaw was close to the floor as he turned around to grab a team-mate in disbelief, while Ismael Saibari looked like he had just witnessed something from another universe.

Naturally, TikTok had a field day.

Branded “absolute filth” on the Champions League TikTok account (that was almost certainly not the phrase used at the 1978 World Cup when Scotland’s Archie Gemmill beautifully slipped the ball through Jan Poortvliet’s legs against the Netherlands), United States international Dest’s nutmeg was approaching one million likes at the last count.

Gemmill is worth referencing here because he said something interesting about that iconic nutmeg, which led to arguably the greatest goal in Scotland’s history — and even features in the 1996 film Trainspotting.

“You can’t plan it (the nutmeg). It’s just instinct,” Gemmill explained. “I didn’t think about putting it through one player’s legs or going one way or the other; you make your decisions when the opposition players make theirs. So when Jan Poortvliet slid in, I just knocked it past him.”

That is certainly true in the case of a lot of nutmegs – Milner’s frenzied chasing prior to confronting Messi, for example, or David Luiz stepping out against Suarez. But what Dest did was different because he provoked Kiwior into opening his legs to be nutmegged.

Now, by the way, is not the time for coaches to ask: “But what happened after Dest’s nutmeg?”.

The fact that Dest’s near-post cross came to nothing is neither here nor there in the social media age.

Never mind the end product, nutmegs go down well on social media regardless and it’s easy to see why, bearing in mind we’re talking about a short clip where one person showcases their talent to prank another, makes them look like a buffoon and everyone laughs at their expense.

From Champions League nights to an unsuspecting member of the public having a ball slipped between their legs while walking through a shopping mall, nowhere is off-limits in an age when everyone has a camera in their hand.

Before you roll your eyes at the dumbing down of one of football’s oldest tricks, it’s worth remembering that no self-respecting parent has missed the opportunity to nutmeg their child at some point, ideally not long after they start walking, and for reasons that can’t really be explained.

Leaving aside the more important debate about whether a shot or a pass through someone’s legs qualifies as a true nutmeg (yes, Leeds fans, we haven’t forgotten that eye-of-the-needle through ball that Pablo Hernandez played against Charlton in the 2020 promotion-winning season or, for that matter, the Spaniard’s double nutmeg on Callum O’Dowda on the opening day in the same campaign), some would question whether a nutmeg really counts if the other person isn’t paying attention at the time.

Not Rio Ferdinand, though.

“How dare you try and get away with it. Don’t even try to go to any link,” Ferdinand joked on-camera after nutmegging Laura Woods, the TNT Sports presenter, on her Champions League debut programme in September as she walked across the pitch.

“Laura Woods has been megged,” Ferdinand continued as the broadcaster showed a replay.

The joke was on Ferdinand the year before, however, when he ran into Jack Downer.

Aged 25, Downer is a football freestyler, internet sensation and two-time Panna World Champion. In other words, he is the closest thing there is to a professional “nutmegger” and has spent more than a decade practising and perfecting them.

Downer had tied in knots and nutmegged Neymar (who reacted with laughter on this occasion), Riyad Mahrez and Patrice Evra before he exposed Ferdinand too.

What a way to earn a living.

“Panna is essentially like boxing, but football,” Downer explained in an interview with UK newspaper The Daily Mirror. “It’s one-on-one, it originated in Amsterdam, and when you compete it’s a three-minute game. Each player has a small goal in a cage and the most goals in three minutes wins. However, if you nutmeg the opponent, that’s an instant knockout.”

Mentally, the same applies in the real game too.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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