The Art of War

Posted by BazC on August 2, 2008, 12:05:45 AM

‘What is of extreme importance in war is to upset the enemy’s strategic plans.’ (Sun Tzu)

In the time Rafa has been our manager we have seen criticism from all angles of the media, and lately from our own fans, about the way he approaches the game. Zonal marking, rotation policies, formations and the perceived lack of attacking ambition are the main points of contention, but I’ve heard some other snippets of comedy; “he’s so stubborn, he won’t listen to anyone else”. Righhht. Instead of listening to the oracles of tactical football such as Andy Gray, Richard Keys and chums, I thought I’d try and make sense of Rafa’s strategy by going back a couple of thousand years. Sun Tzu and The Art of War is a famous treatise on, well, the art of war, here I’ll look at transposing the ideals to football, and specifically our team under Rafael Benitez.

The basic philosophical premise of Sun Tzu is to win a battle with wisdom rather than force. Strategic thinking and manoeuvring is the path to success. The Art of War is split up into thirteen short chapters guiding the General on how to win his battles and the considerations he must take. Although I won’t stick to the text religiously when using it to analyse Rafa’s strategies (I have taken a few liberties when extrapolating The Art of War to the beautiful game), you will see Rafa’s own philosophy of football will hold similarities with Sun Tzu and his ideals of war.

Chapter 1: Estimates (Strategic Considerations)

Sun Tzu outlines certain factors and elements that need to be considered when setting out for war. By comparing such factors between the two warring states, a winner may be predicted. In football at least, things may not be so simple. We can go from the most detailed and meticulous of planning but end up on the losing side. That’s football. In this case, it may be worth bearing in mind that whatever the degree of planning, the game that is the platform of the war is such, that a winner, however likely, is never definitively the winner until those ninety minutes are up. Rafa will plan to the n¬¬¬th degree though, for I believe his principle is of extreme preparation. He will have an idea of what to do in the contingencies that arise during the game, but also how to set out his team from the start.

Chapter 2: Waging War

The war should be over quickly, says Sun Tzu, in order for your state to be spared economic difficulties involved and your men, the morale depletion. In our case, the quicker a game is won, the quicker that state of ‘cruise control’ can be reached. Of course the eagle eyed will note the contradiction between the previous chapter here. The game of football is more often than not, ninety minutes long. We have seen numerous times though, that the quicker the goals are scored, the easier it becomes to control the game and attack. Does Rafa set the team out to win the game as quick as possible? In my opinion, we’ve seen the team set out to gain control of the game as quickly as possible, and then turn that control into goals and the victory. The faster the game is put under our control, the more time the team has to push on from that and get those vital goals.

Chapter 3: Offensive Strategy

Sun Tzu said; "Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself your chances of victory are equal. If ignorant of both the enemy and yourself you are sure to be defeated in every battle".

We can see here that great importance is placed on the opposition and knowing their weaknesses and strengths compared to our own. Rafa pours over videos of upcoming competition and plans his strategy to defeat them by using that information. By knowing the qualities of our own team, he is able to outline his plans- which of our players will best exploit their weaknesses? Which of their players would exploit our weaknesses and what can we do about it? I feel that the depth of our squad and the rotation Rafa employs as well as the changing of positions and formations is rooted in this philosophy of Sun Tzu. Rafa rotates, in part, to make our strengths stronger and negate our weaknesses- all the while taking into consideration our next opponent.

Chapter 4: Dispositions

As Sun Tzu points out: "The skilful warriors in ancient times first made themselves invincible then awaited an enemy's moment of vulnerability."

This goes back to controlling the game- but not just the importance of doing so quickly, but the importance of why it is to be done. Rafa sets out with the mind to grasp the control of the game- win that midfield battle as quick as possible. In that midfield we have a concentration of top players who are able to hold their own against any midfield in the world in terms of skill and strength. By controlling the midfield, our players can that look at keeping the ball and creating chances when the opportunities present themselves. I’d like to see Rafa push this further up the pitch. Instead of looking to control possession around the middle third of the pitch, we should be looking to do it in the opposition third. By keeping calm in possession and not forcing the issue in this area, we pressure the opposition into revealing their vulnerabilities, and are in a better position to quickly exploit them. With Agger making his return, Skrtel establishing himself in his absence and the human homing missile that is Mascherano, we have the players to best protect our own vulnerability in such a situation; the counter-attack.

Chapter 5: Posture of the Army

"Generally in battle, use the normal forces to engage and the extraordinary to win".

This particular Sun Tzu-ism is very apt when talking about our ‘match-winners’- those extraordinary forces. In my opinion, the teams at the top are closely matched in terms of their normal forces- the players that fight it out. It’s our extraordinary players who will win us the league; to some extent, the normal players will just provide them with the platform to do so. That sounds like a dismissal of most of our team; Kuyt, Finnan, Carragher, Voronin and the like. But the fact that they provide the platform for Torres, Gerrard and hopefully Keane to make that difference holds as much, if not more, importance. In Torres and Gerrard we have two of the greatest footballers in the world, but they wouldn’t be able to reach the top of their game if it wasn’t for the work of players like Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt and Carragher. In signing Robbie Keane for big money, I feel Rafa is planning to introduce another extraordinary force in our team- so we can win more of those battles.

Chapter 6: Void and Actuality

I’ll start this with another Sun Tzu quote… (Bear with me!)

"Appear at places which he is unable to rescue; move swiftly in a direction where you are least expected"

By taking into consideration previous principles of knowing the opposition and yourself, and controlling the possession, this ideal is a progression. When Rafa is considering the next opponent he will be looking at their weaknesses, but at the same time he will be looking at ways in which to catch them off guard. Juventus at Anfield in 2005 is an example of how Rafa set the team out to batter the unsuspecting Juventus team. It has also become a criticism, in my opinion valid, in recent times that our attacking players are sometimes to lethargic and predictable. The more unpredictable our play is in attack, the less the opponent will be able to prepare for it. Again, I feel Rafa’s rotation is, to some extent, based on this principle- by constantly changing his team (and every now and then leaving it as it is) he makes sure the next manager is unable to second guess him. Now is the time to take it that step further. By freeing up the attacking players to express themselves a bit more and be less organised, that extra level of unpredictability will be introduced. The versatility of Gerrard, Keane, Babel, Benayoun and Kuyt means we may just get to see such a volatile attacking system.

Chapter 7: Manoeuvring

The formation. Whether it’s two out and out strikers, a lone striker, three at the back, attacking fullbacks with holding midfielders… Rafa will know what to do at what time. He has the options to manoeuvre his team in various ways, and will change it depending on the players he has fit and the team he is facing. This has been a point of contention amongst the fans during his time here- fans who think we should stick to the one system and suppress rotation. But what is important, according to our man Sun Tzu, is that there is no disorder amongst the team. As long as the players know what to do in the system, who to communicate to and when, then there should not be a problem. As long as Rafa puts the players in positions they are able to play well in, then success should come. It is at times when players make mistakes out of character, when they may sulk when played out of position or when Rafa may make the mistake of playing a player in a position he should be in is when it isn’t a good idea. With the depth of our squad and versatility of our players, the latter is unlikely- Rafa’s intelligent enough not to make such mistakes often, but there were questions about mentality of certain players last season. This will need to change.

Chapter 8: The Nine Variables

Instead of looking at the nine variables I’ll consider Sun Tzu’s points towards the end of this chapter:

“There are five qualities which are fatal in the character of a general: if reckless he can be killed; if cowardly, captured; if quick-tempered, he can be provoked to rage and make a fool of himself; if he has to delicate a sense of honour he can be easily insulted; if he is of a compassionate nature, you can harass him.”

Why does Rafa distance himself from the players? We’ve heard how Rafa isn’t the ‘arm around the shoulder’ type manager and I think this passage may make sense as to why. Rafa keeps utmost professionalism at the forefront of his philosophy- that way the relationships he has with his players are on the same level and they all know what to expect from each other. Rafa expects his plans to be carried out as well as possible by the players, and the players expect Rafa to provide them with the guidance to better themselves and win trophies. We see players talk of how Rafa’s training sessions are hard and how he pushes his players all the way, but at the same time, the players acknowledge how good his influence is.

Chapter 9: On the March

In this chapter Sun Tzu talks about various situations and signals on the battlefield which should be considered when positioning the army. I’ll take this chance to consider zonal marking.

Initially the system was shaky, but it quickly developed into the best way of defending set pieces in the League. The strict organisation and positioning of our players kept out goals and has seen our defence become one of the meanest around. Until last season. Last season, we saw more goals being conceded through these set pieces than at any other time under Rafa. Points were lost due to the breakdown of this system. Although the leaky defence got patched up to some extent by the end of the season, in my opinion I thought it was a significant scare to consider the system and why it had all of a sudden become, to some extent, a liability. Did other Premier League managers figure out the best way to attack our system? If so, it’d be Rafa’s signal to re-position his team when defending in certain situations.

Chapter 10 and Chapter 11: Terrain and The Nine Varieties of Ground

In these chapters Sun Tzu talks of the differences in terrain- mountains, swamps, forests and such like and how to approach the different situations strategically, whilst also considering how the enemy is set out. Now, whilst the JJB and Stamford Bridge resemble swamps, I don’t think looking at the small potholes and strategising the navigation of them would be that beneficial- I don’t think Rafa goes that far! Rather, I’ll look at these chapters to understand the different formations and strategies we come up against. This goes back to previous chapters- and the link can be made between how Rafa sets our team out in response to how he believes the opponent sets out. We’ll face teams who come to Anfield to defend and nothing else. In this situation it’s important to keep control of the ball, and probe the opposition defence into giving that opening. Now that we have top attacking players, we should be able to do just this. Ryan Babel, whilst showing flashes of his lightening potential; that thunderous shot or electric pace, wasn’t consistently a threat. Next season, he will need to step his game up, keep the ball better and be one of the players who help us break the stubborn defences of Steve Bruce… and any other inert attacking teams.

When we face quality teams with good defences, we’ll need to fully utilise the qualities of our attacking players. The midfield needs to step up to the plate in this situation.

Chapter 12: Fighting with Fire

I’m going to take a bit of creative allegorical license here and talk about our support and Anfield and what it means to the way we play our football. Whilst this isn’t necessarily in the control of Rafa, he can use the Anfield factor.

“Those who use fire to assist their attacks can achieve good results; those who use inundations produce a powerful effect.”

The sheer noise and sweltering red sea in Anfield on the day of a big game is legendary. When we have our big games, we need every advantage we can get, and we all know the power of our support. When at Anfield, Rafa can red line our attacking play, for he knows that not only does the support spur on the men in Red, but it also intimidates those lining up against us. There are many examples through the history of our club when our players have used that adrenaline burst to get past teams apparently so much better than us. In the coming season, with the new additions to our squad, I expect the team to win more games at Anfield and turn it back into the fortress it was in Rafa’s second season here.

Chapter 13: Use of Spies

“Spy operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.”

In this section we could consider Rafa’s highly sophisticated methods of gathering data on his players and his opponents in order to formulate his strategies. I’d like to talk about his worldwide network of scouts, gathering information on the possible transfer targets. 

The transfer targets Rafa outlines will be mostly from his scouting reports. In the age of big money in football, where there are a few teams able to buy any player in the world, it is of utmost importance that Rafa’s scouting network works more creatively. By searching out the lesser known players who are likely to inject that quality in our squad, we will build a title winning team. We have seen it not only in the purchase of younger players; recent Northern Reserve League and two time FA Youth Cup winners, but on purchases for the first team. Daniel Agger, Ryan Babel and Martin Skrtel are cases to illustrate the point. One could even point to Vidic- who was earmarked for a move to Liverpool but ended up at Old Trafford and has turned out to be a good acquisition for a good price. In order for our team to carry on building such a squad, the scouts at Rafa’s disposal need to keep producing the goods. I mean, any person can spend £50m to purchase a Kaka… it takes an efficient system of scouts to buy that ability on a shoestring budget.


So, we can see that Sun Tzu’s philosophies may be extrapolated to football, and some of his ideals resemble, or at least explain, Rafa’s strategy and thinking when it comes to our team. I don’t mean for this post to advocate that Rafa’s approach to the game is right, I just mean for this post to try and make sense of it. Instead of listening to the sub standard, and in some cases, biased, punditry, I thought I’d listen to a bloke with a bit of wisdom- it’s the least Rafa deserves after the work he puts in with our team.

Under Rafa the team has subjectively and objectively increased in quality. Under Rafa, the youth and reserve teams have also increased in quality. Unfortunately, under Rafa, the emergence of a hyper-rich club in Chelsea significantly raised the bar which constitutes the required level of quality required to win the Premier League title. Manchester Utd have been the only team to challenge Chelsea in the league since, however, they have also spent big money on the little areas in their squad that needed improving. In the last couple of seasons we have been able to spend the money in more concentrated areas. Torres, Mascherano, Keane and Babel have cost a lot of money and have also improved the first team.

In my opinion, the increase in quality in our first team, and the increase in quality the reserve and youth teams shows that Rafa is doing as much as he can to win that Premier League title. I believe that under our current management, we’ll win it. I mean, Sun Tzu said so:

"The general who heeds my counsel is sure to win. Such a general should be retained in command. One who ignores my counsel is sure to be defeated. Such a one should be dismissed."

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