Hybrid Players and the Riddle of the Sphinx
Half-attack, half-defense, these modern-day hybrid creatures terrorize the flanks of soccer fields all over the world.
By Bob Bjarke
Ancient mythology introduces us to the Sphinx: a creature with a human head, a lion’s body and the wings of a falcon, devouring those who can’t answer its favorite riddle. And from the Pyramids at Giza to the Santiago Bernabeu, soccer-playing Sphinxes like Dani Alves, Marcelo, or Trent Alexander-Arnold continue to ask unanswerable questions of opponents.
Fig. 1: Assyrian protective deity Lamassu was built for the Champions League
Other mythical hybrids go by names like Lamassu, Anzu, Manticore or Ziz--names that would look equally at home sewn onto the backs of Brazilian national team shirts as they do in mythology books.
Humans have long believed in the power of hybrid creatures. Ancient civilizations told tales of mythical beasts with the combined powers of humans and animals, and contemporary soccer follows this pattern: players that combine the destructive powers of defense with the creative genesis of attack are an increasingly influential element of the modern game and often create a spectacular array of non-goals. Mythical hybrids have gone by names like Lamassu, Anzu, Manticore or Ziz--names that would look equally at home sewn onto the backs of Brazilian national team shirts as they do in mythology books.
One early mention of a hybrid beast comes from the Roman writer Aelian who describes the mythical Manticore as a human-lion-porcupine combo said to "devour human beings ... and lie in wait not for a single man but would set upon two or even three men, and alone overcomes even that number." In soccer we've seen plenty of Manticore-like players in the past--like goal-scoring defenders Ronald Koeman or Sergio Ramos--that devour teams on both ends of the field with brute strength and power. But one of the the most intriguing hybrid creatures in recent memory is what's been called the "modern fullback." While technically listed as defensive players, modern fullbacks are just as creative as a typical midfielder or striker, flying up and down the flanks of the field (and increasingly occupying central space typically reserved for midfielders) to create or assist in attacking moves. And just like the riddle of the Sphinx, these players confound opposing teams, flustering the opposition with a devastating combination of skills.
A definitive modern fullback is Dani Alves, who has been seen running up and down the right sidelines of European soccer fields in Spain, Italy and France for the last 20 years. Essentially a human heatmap, Alves spent equal time in the attacking half of the field as the defensive half and was a key part of FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus teams from 2009-2019.
While Alves has scored plenty of goals, it's Alves' ability to combine with attacking geniuses like Leo Messi that made him a non-goal factory. In the above compilation you'll see Alves act as a creative instigator and collaborator, a decoy, and a release valve all in the same trip down the field. Like the Assyrian protective deity Lamassu, Alves could defend just as well as he could attack. In this video, you'll see Alves sprinting back from an attacking position to save a goal or close down on an opponent to begin a counter-attack. His brilliant passing, movement and versatility defined the kind of non-goals soccer-playing Sphinxes are known for and players like Alves are just as likely to create a non-goal on either side of the field, giving them an insanely high non-goal per game average (NGPGA).
Just as brilliant and Brazilian as Alves is Marcelo. Playing on the opposite side of the field, on a stylistically opposite yet equally great team, and with curly locks flying above his head in contrast to Alves' super-short cut, Real Madrid's Marcelo has shredded European game plans since 2005. While Alves excelled at combination play, Marcelo's individual skills and audacity mirror those of legendary hybrids. With the ball skills of an elite attacking player, Marcelo routinely executed advanced displays of attacking prowess in his own half. Imagine beholding the power of a mythological Anzu as described in ancient Mesopotamian religions--a lion-headed eagle that personified the southern wind and the thunder clouds--mounting a counter-attack from his own box with a flurry of technical skills and tricks usually reserved for the most flamboyant of goal-scorers. Absolutely terrifying. The winner of 4 Champions League championships and several La Liga trophies, Marcelo made getting the ball up the field as exciting as most goals and has earned his place in non-goal history as a result.
If Dani Alves and Marcelo are specimens of too ancient a vintage for you, there are two more recent examples that constitute a new evolution of hybrid player. Liverpool's own Trent Alexander-Arnold and Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies (born in a Ghanian refugee camp before settling in Edmonton, Ontario) are the latest hybrid creatures roaming the sidelines, looking for less tactically advanced teams to destroy.
Fig 2. The Great Sphinx Trent Alexander-Arnold
Alexander-Arnold is known for his impeccable delivery of aerial attacks, whether from deep in his own territory or in the final third. In addition, his preternatural awareness and gamesmanship has shattered the hearts of many opposing fans in recent years. He’s a hybrid to the core, sporting two hyphenated names across the back of his shirt to remind those left in his wake of his mythical duality.
Davies' incredible speed has established him as the quickest hybrid in the game, moving from defense to attack faster than the recently discovered Anzu wyliei--a real fossilized dinosaur discovered in the present-day northern United States with powerful legs, wing-like arms and feathered tail. Similar to how Davies is comfortable in attack or defense the Anzu wyliei didn't discriminate--as an omnivore, it would consume any opponent in its path.
Ancient sculptors depicted the Lamassu with five legs (see Fig. 1 at top). From the front, these guardian creatures appear to be standing firmly, but when seen from the side they appear to be striding forward. Much like the hybrid players of today, these mythological creatures excel at both defending and attacking, creating endless amounts of non-goals on the way. How can you beat a player that is equally at home in attack as in defense, on land or water, attacking from the air or blowing past you like a gust of Zephyr-powered wind? Unfortunately for their victims, Oedipus hasn’t yet arrived on the scene to solve the Sphinx’s riddle.
Fig 3. The Lamassu was used as the emblem of the British 10th Army and is now the official legendary hybrid creature of Non-Goals FC