5 Elite Players with Hidden Football Skills That You Might Not Know About

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 16, 2020

Liverpool's Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk  attends a training session at Melwood in Liverpool, north west England on March 10, 2020, on the eve of their UEFA Champions League last 16 second leg football match against Atletico Madrid. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Every now and then, a football player does something that takes you completely by surprise.

Philipp Lahm cutting in from the left and curling home a beauty for Germany against Costa Rica in the opening game of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Then-AC Milan centre-back Philippe Mexes cushioning the ball on his chest and catapulting an overhead bicycle kick over the opposition goalkeeper from outside the penalty area in a UEFA Champions League game against Anderlecht. Vincent Kompany thundering a 25-yard shot into the top corner of the Leicester City goal to essentially win the Premier League title for Manchester City.

Football's evolution means that even goalkeepers and centre-backs possess the technical skills that were once the preserve of only the game's most talented players. But while it is no longer a surprise to see a goalkeeper execute a pinpoint 60-yard pass or a central defender pull off a textbook Cruyff turn, some players have developed particular skills that might have escaped your attention.


Virgil van Dijk: Free-Kicks

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - APRIL 19: Virgil Van Dijk of Celtic scores a goal from a free kick in the first half during the William Hill Scottish Cup Semi Final match between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Celtic at Hamden Park on April 19, 2015 in Glasgow Scot
Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Virgil van Dijk's first attempt at a direct free-kick for Liverpool was nothing to write home about. Liverpool were 2-0 up at home to Fulham in a Premier League game in November 2018 when they won a set piece in front of the Kop, 30 yards from goal and slightly to the right of centre. Van Dijk stepped up...and curled the ball straight into the visitors' defensive wall. "Back down to the bottom of the queue now, I think," chuckled BT Sport co-commentator Steve McManaman.

But although he failed his first audition against Fulham, Van Dijk showed during his two-year spell at Celtic that he is more than capable of finding the net from set pieces. He curled in an inch-perfect effort at Hibernian in January 2014 and scored two superb free-kicks in the space of four days towards the end of the following campaign, netting against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup semi-finals and against Dundee in the Scottish Premiership.

"It's a fantastic free-kick, and he's got real quality," said then-Dundee manager Paul Hartley after Van Dijk's strike earned Celtic a 2-1 victory at Dens Park in April 2015. Former Celtic midfielder Kris Commons described the Dutchman's set-piece goals as "absolute wonders."

Whereas some set-piece specialist centre-backs go for pure power (think David Luiz or former Chelsea defender Alex), Van Dijk opts for a combination of power and placement, whipping the ball over the wall with his instep in the manner of David Beckham. Since leaving Celtic in 2015, he has continued to exhibit his dead-ball prowess on social media, from crashing free-kicks in off the bar in Southampton training to leaving imaginary goalkeepers grasping at thin air at Liverpool's Melwood base.

As much as he clearly enjoys the exercise, Van Dijk faces stiff competition for set-piece duties at Liverpool, not least in the form of fellow defender Trent Alexander-Arnold. And while he may secretly yearn to add his name to a Dutch tradition of free-kick-taking central defenders that also includes Ronald Koeman and Frank de Boer, he seems content to take a back seat.

"Free-kicks are not my main thing now," Van Dijk told the Daily Mail in May 2018. "We have a lot of good players who can hit one. If you look at Trent, for example, he can hit one! This is not my focus. As a defender I try to keep clean sheets."


Giorgio Chiellini: Long Throws

Italy's defender Giorgio Chiellini throws the ball in during the Euro 2016 group E football match between Italy and Sweden at the Stadium Municipal in Toulouse on June 17, 2016.  / AFP / Rémy GABALDA        (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP via G

Italy were drawing 0-0 with Sweden in the 88th minute of a tight group-stage match at UEFA Euro 2016 when Giorgio Chiellini hurled a huge throw down the left flank to Simone Zaza, whose knockdown allowed Eder to scamper through and score.

The Juventus defender's quick thinking—and prodigious throw—helped to send his side through to the last 16, and he revelled in the role that he had played, sharing a picture on Twitter that likened him to a hulking gorilla. "The super throw-in!" read his caption.

Chiellini started his career as a left-back, which gave him regular opportunities to hone his throw-in technique. Since being converted into a centre-back by manager Didier Deschamps during Juve's season in Serie B in 2006-07, he has not had as much reason to use his secret weapon, but it remains an option in case of emergency.

With Juve trailing 2-1 at Roma in a September 2007 league game, Chiellini lobbed a long throw into the box from the left-hand touchline, and Vincenzo Iaquinta flew in at the near post to head home an 88th-minute equaliser. The only wonder is why he doesn't make use of it more often.


Ederson: Penalties

Manchester City's Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson takes a kick during the English Premier League football match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium in Southampton, southern England on December 30, 2018. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) / R
GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

All eyes in the stadium were on Ederson, and the ball was on the penalty spot. He took a short run-up, fixed his eyes on the goalkeeper and confidently tucked the ball into the bottom-left corner.

The scene was a charity match in Osasco, the suburb of Sao Paulo where Ederson grew up, in July last year, and the opposition goalkeeper was Igor Rezende, a prematurely retired keeper-turned-YouTube star. But although the stakes could scarcely have been any lower, the ease with which Ederson dispatched his spot-kick did nothing to contradict the reports of his penalty-spot prowess.

Ordinarily, a penalty-taking goalkeeper would be nothing more than a training-ground novelty, but Manchester City's spot-kick woes have become so acute that their fans have started to seriously wonder whether Ederson might be the solution. The Premier League champions squandered the last four penalties they were awarded before the season was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic, with Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan and Sergio Aguero the guilty parties.

Ederson grew up idolising Rogerio Ceni, the goalscoring former Sao Paulo goalkeeper, recently describing him as his "inspiration and idol." While he has yet to score a goal in senior football, he went close with a couple of free-kicks he was allowed to take during his formative season with Ribeirao in the Portuguese second tier. After City's fans vainly called for him to take a penalty during a 5-0 win over Swansea City towards the end of the 2017-18 campaign, the Brazilian said he would have been more than willing to step up.

"If the manager had asked me to go there, I would have definitely scored," he said. "I'm not sure if I would be able to do set pieces, but I'm good at penalties, either using power or technique when I'm shooting."

Jesus has publicly talked up Ederson's penalty-taking credentials, and Pep Guardiola recently described the 26-year-old as "the best [penalty] taker we have." The City manager, however, had a broad grin on his face as he pronounced those words, and if his remarks on the matter from 2018 are anything to go by, we should not expect to see Ederson trotting up to the penalty spot again anytime soon.

"That's not going to happen," Guardiola said. "There are other players to hit them. There is respect for the opponent, respect for competitions. In friendlies maybe he can do it, but in a league game, no."


John Terry: Goalkeeping

READING, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 14:  John Terry of Chelsea replaces Carlo Cudicini in goal during the Barclays Premiership match between Reading and Chelsea at the Madejski Stadium on October 14, 2006 in Reading, England.  (Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Im
Ben Radford/Getty Images

In the game's recent history, there have been few more high-profile wannabe goalkeepers than Wayne Rooney. The former Manchester United star was renowned for the eagerness with which he would go between the sticks in training and was once shown donning the gloves in a 2006 Nike television advert.

But was he actually any good? Matteo Darmian, Rooney's former United team-mate, said that the one-time England captain was the best keeper among the squad's outfield players, having been impressed by his goalkeeping cameos in training. Joe Hart's assessment, though, was rather less complimentary.

"He likes spraying the balls and catching balls," the former England goalkeeper told FourFourTwo in a 2014 interview. "But when it actually comes to whacking a ball at him, he's a wimp."

Less well-documented was the goalkeeping ability of John Terry, another member of England's golden generation, who showed comparable eagerness to fling himself around in the goalmouth during his Chelsea days.

"We'd go to warm up, and John would go in goal, and we'd all smash balls at him for like 15 minutes before training started," said Frank Lampard in 2017. "That was his thing. He'd get the gloves on and do it properly. And he was actually pretty good."

Terry filled in between the posts during a game at Reading in 2006 after both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini were stretchered off and helped Chelsea to keep a clean sheet in a 1-0 win.


Jan Vertonghen: Freestyle

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his side's second goal during the Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur at Molineux on December 15, 2019 in Wolverhampton, Un
Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

The fact that Jan Vertonghen has his own trademark goal celebration—mimicking tearing his shirt open to reveal a Superman outfit—tells you that he does not perceive himself as a normal defender.

Tall and elegant, the Tottenham Hotspur centre-back often demonstrates his technical qualities, whether it's daintily pirouetting away from a pair of AC Milan players in a 2015 friendly or almost single-handedly putting Borussia Dortmund to the sword in last season's UEFA Champions League.

The more expansive elements of Vertonghen's game reflect his football upbringing. He grew up playing football on small outdoor courts with his brothers Ward and Lode in the Belgian village of Tielrode, and although he would go on to make his name as a central defender, the player he idolised as a child was Barcelona's bandy-legged Brazilian maestro Rivaldo.

As a centre-back, the meat-and-drink of Vertonghen's day job these days is headers and tackles, but beneath his shirt beats the heart of a showman. He was caught on camera pulling off a textbook knee akka (a complicated freestyle trick) during an Ajax training session in 2012 and held his own in a video shoot with renowned Dutch-Moroccan freestyler Soufiane Touzani on a north London Cruyff Court in 2016.

"I played a lot on courts, and I still like it," Vertonghen said. "I am a defender, but I think the technique from the courts helped me out in situations that were more difficult to solve. I'm not saying I do akkas in games, but there are techniques I learned on the courts playing with my brothers and my friends that help me get out of situations in games."