Diego Maradona in tactical analysis: what made him a footballer?

Diego Maradona in tactical analysis: what made him a footballer?
Diego Maradona in tactical analysis: what made him a footballer?
I have never seen Diego Maradona play and I still admire him as one of the greatest. It’s probably called a myth.

Maradona’s name always comes up when there is a debate about who was the best footballer ever. He has led Argentina in two World Cup finals and won one, made a top team out of the untitled SSC Napoli, was damn good with the ball. And he scored a goal with his hand. A legend in every way.

Now Diego Maradona is dead, and we at SPIEGEL write about his life with all its ups and downs. Its importance for his home country Argentina. How much his death affects the world. And how crazy his short time at FC Barcelona was.

But what did Maradona distinguish in sport?

I want to track him down and look after him alone for 90 minutes. Argentina won the quarter-finals over England at the 1986 World Cup in front of around 115,000 spectators at lunchtime in Mexico City. In that 2: 1 success he scored the first goal with the “hand of God”, his solo run to 2: 0 was voted Goal of the Century. This appearance is probably Maradona’s most famous ever (here the game can be seen in the video). The team later becomes world champion, it is said that Maradona was at its zenith at the time.

What else did he do besides the hits? I was just a year old at the time and had no idea. In the meantime I can say that it was much more than I had assumed: Maradona was not just a dribbler, but also a football strategist. One who was not only technically and athletically superior to others, but also tactically.

Icon: enlarge

Maradona just before his goal to 2-0, next to: goalkeeper Peter Shilton and defender Terry Butcher


I see the first Maradona moment (at least what I had in mind) after around eight minutes of play. Maradona, small, stocky, a powerhouse, accepts a passport with his chest. An English defender extends his leg, but Maradona pokes the ball past him while still in the air. Then he pushes him forwards with his left hand, he nudges the leather so that it looks like a boxer jabbing at his opponent. I want to count the contacts, but I can hardly keep up, just like the English players.

Then comes Terry Fenwick. This boxer strikes back. The defender throws himself straddling Maradona, apparently not wanting to catch the ball, but the leg. “Cynically brought to the ground,” comments the commentator (in the video from minute 10:55).

This hardness is one of the most serious differences between the football I watch every day and the one from 1986. Back then, the tackle was part of the game like the pass. When Maradona gets the ball, and he often does, she is never far away.

Maradona is a wonderful technician, much better than the other players in this World Cup quarter-finals. And he’s fouled a lot. Neither surprise. In the early stages, however, I noticed something that I had less associated with Maradona: In two game situations he left his real area, the offensive midfield, to help his own team build up. Both times Argentina does not get the ball right from their own third. Both times Maradona drops and fills midfield holes.

As the game progresses, I keep observing it. Maradona gets deep, receives the ball and often passes it on with a contact to another teammate. What Maradona is doing there is now called the “game about the third man”. A concept that aims to resolve stalemates. If the way from player A to player B is blocked, player C steps in as a kind of middleman.

For us viewers on TV screens, such movements look simple. Recognizing in good time on the lawn that they are necessary, however, requires a high level of understanding of the game. And Maradona, so often referred to as a street footballer and instinctual player, seems to see through the game like a math professor through a simple equation.

Maradona’s tricks are so spectacular that the rest disappears behind them

Maradona often plays the ball with the hoe in such scenes, he shows such hoe tricks four times in the first half, whispering the spectators in the huge Aztec stadium. Perhaps this also results in a kind of dilemma in perception: Maradona’s tricks are so spectacular that much else disappears behind them. The sales kick is more likely to be remembered than the smart walk.

It’s hot in Mexico City. You can tell in the footballers. Argentina controls the game against passive but well-organized Englishmen. There are hardly any chances to score. And if so, then thanks to Maradona.

This can be seen especially in Argentina’s goals. In each case, the game situation in front of it is static: the opponent is well sorted, the way to the goal is long, there is nothing to indicate the impending danger. Then Maradona shoots off.

The 51st minute (in the video from 57:19): The Argentines are in possession of the ball, but the game is slow. Maradona drops into midfield, gets the ball, then dances past the first Englishman, the second, he changes direction several times while dribbling, jab, jab, jab.

When Maradona finally passes the ball, there are eight opponents in his vicinity. The ball is gone, but Maradona keeps walking into the box. The ball flies in its direction again. England goalkeeper Peter Shilton climbs up, he wants to catch him; Maradona jumps too, it looks like he’s headed for the ball, but then he throws up his left arm and outwits Shilton.

The English are complaining. Maradona celebrates.

With the words “Un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” he described his hit after the game of a small group of reporters, recalled a Reuters journalist. A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.

Maradona’s feeling for the game situation, his brilliant technique, his ability to dictate the pace of the game and to attract everyone’s attention, all of this made that goal possible.

“Never in my career have I been so close to applauding an opposing player for his goal.”

England striker Gary Lineker over Maradonas 2-0

Even before the 2-0 win, there is little to suggest that a goal will be scored (in the video from 1:01:06). Maradona’s first, second and third contact is perfect, with them he lets the opponents attacking from two sides get out. Before each new hurdle, it seems as if Maradona calculates for a moment what movement is necessary to overcome it. It seems as if he pauses briefly to watch his opponents’ feet. Then he walks past everyone, including Keeper Shilton.

England striker Gary Lineker, who later scored the 2-1 and was to become World Cup top scorer with six goals, said of that Maradona goal: “Never in my career have I been so close to applauding an opposing player for his goal.”

The perfect dribbling on the big stage. Eleven seconds lie between receiving the ball and hit. He covers 68 meters. This is also where Maradona’s magic lies: thanks to his clever movements and the fact that he is Argentina’s fixed point, he often gets to the ball. And his solos mean that he is not only seen more often than other footballers, but also longer. As a viewer, you spend more time with him. Coupled with Maradona’s success rate and his tricks, this makes the ideal entertainment footballer.

Maradona’s dribbling has a kind of hidden quality. You can sometimes seem headless, almost as if he was getting lost, perhaps even out of overconfidence. But this dribbling is always a diversionary maneuver. When the opponents’ attention is only on him, Maradona plays. This can be seen in the video a few times, from around 1:28:16, when he attracts a maximum of many players in order to use the now free teammate at the last moment.

Sometimes he seems to be cornered and yet moves freely. He is surrounded and yet can go wherever he is drawn at any time. A walk-through with the ball on his foot.

Argentina’s quarter-final win over England belongs mostly to Maradona. The team manages 15 degrees. He is directly involved in 13 as a shooter or preparer. He combines the defensive with the offensive, shapes the game, shapes it like no one else on the pitch. Apparently this was no exception. He scored five goals at the 1986 World Cup and prepared five. No footballer has achieved such a World Cup quota since then.

I now understand why many Argentines expected Lionel Messi, in many ways a kind of successor to Maradona, to win the World Cup almost single-handedly: Maradona succeeded too.

Is that still possible in modern football? I doubt it. The processes today are characterized by pressing and counter-pressing, the players have less time on the ball, the teams defend much better and more compactly. Even exceptional players like Messi depend on a functioning offensive concept – not when it comes to winning individual games, but certainly when we are talking about big titles. One player alone cannot win it.

And if you succeed, it would be Diego Maradona.
Icon: The mirror

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