The Mystery of Chessboxing

Posted by BazC on July 12, 2009, 01:05:22 AM

A blend of the elegant and the brutal. One of severe mental calculation and physical expression of strength. A weird and mysterious amalgamation of precision and stratagem combined with fluid prowess of a dynamic attack.

I am, of course, describing… chessboxing.

Chessboxing is an unbelievable concept where competitors will engage in the mental challenge of strategy on the chess board, then trade the blows of pawns and rooks that dwell in imagination, for the physical blows on the canvas. It may have its roots in the cult following of a cartoon strip, but the duality of the mental and physical challenge isn’t a new one. In this guise, it just happens to be a test featuring two extreme examples of mental agility combined with raw physical expression.

This beauty and the beast juxtaposition has come to prominence in a more familiar sport recently; football.

The rise of the battling forwards is embodied by our very own Dirk Kuyt. The industrious, relentless and merciless energy that oozes from him isn’t going to make him the most fashionable of players, or indeed, the dreaded phrase ‘commercial appeal’ isn’t likely to apply, but he is a manager’s and fans' favourite.

But I digress, this isn’t about the merits of players like Kuyt- there are many articles and posts about just that, but rather, how the team as a whole has evolved its brand football, by embracing the physical and the elegant in equal measure. That’s why I’ve brought up chessboxing.

A chessboxing match consists of eleven rounds- five boxing rounds and six rounds of chess. The contest is decided if there’s a knockout in one of the boxing rounds, a checkmate in the chess round, retirements in either round or a referee’s decision in the boxing round. The key is absolutely to be good at both sides of the sport- it’s no use being good at either one or the other. The versatility is a fundamental requirement to succeed.

That requirement is what’s interesting nowadays amongst the top teams. In order to win major titles, there’s now a need to be good at not only the elegant passing football, but teams need to hold their own physically. We see teams with proficiency in one area and lacking in the other; Arsenal take the term 'beautiful game' to heart too much and perhaps, too literally. The lack of a physical presence in the heart of their football is noticeable.

I’ve picked out Kuyt, as many would, but it was a curveball.

Instead, step forward Messrs Gerrard, Mascherano and Alonso.

This trio of players represent the finest example of a central midfield in the Premier League, and one of the finest in Europe. It’s because the balance between the sublime and the merciless is embodied not just within the trio, but within the individual players of the trio.

Xabi Alonso is undoubtedly one of the finest passers of the ball the game currently knows. The sublime touch and lightening quick turns lay the foundation for pinpoint accuracy and perfect weight of pass be it over 3 yards or 30. It would, thus, be easy to tick Xabi off as the ‘sublime’ player and place him neatly in a category of our elegant playmaking midfielder and move onto describing our next subject. Not so. What we see in Alonso is that footballing elegance that people would pay to watch. But there’s a grittier side, a physical side… he may be a master in his mind and pick out a pass before the ball is two passes away from him, but he can hold his own in the physical side of the game. The strong block tackling and the relentless 50-50 tackles which have seen him on both ends of long term injuries are every bit a part of Xabi’s game as his feathery touch and artistry on the ball.

Javier Mascherano. The tenacity, the hard hitting and no holds barred tackling and of course, the homing missile runs which snake to and fro before exploding into a sliding tackle. He’s the finest example of a sweeper; the player that protects the defence and makes space for his partner to conjure his magic. That’s not it though is it? Mascherano shows the majesty of Alonso on the ball when he receives it and is able to throw in the odd 20 yarder himself. Occasional lapses in concentration aside, Mascherano isn’t categorised into the ‘physical’ player just like Xabi Alonso isn’t just the ‘sublime’. Mascherano has the silver lining to his dark cloud of destructive power just as Alonso has the grittier side of launching himself into 50-50 challenges.

Both players are specialists, world class players in their chosen brand of fighting style. Crucially, however, both has a significant ability in the other’s speciality and this overlap allows for the perfect fit. Not only that, but by playing with each other, both will have learned more about each others game and used it to improve their own.

Then there’s Steven Gerrard. The true force of nature in world football. The fallacy of his “jack of all trades, master of none” was apparent long ago when you’d see him put in a lung bursting run and sliding tackle and throw himself into the physical side of football as well as he could pick a 50 yard through ball with perfect weight and precision, then go on and be on the end of such balls and stick them in the net. It’s no surprise that he’s the focal point of our triangle of midfield control.

Just as Xabi and Masch have an overlap, you can see that Gerrard has a significant overlap with his two mates, but this time, he’s as good at both sides of the game- the physical drive through midfield and the perfectly placed shot in the top corner is exactly a thing you’d expect Gerrard to come out with.

These three form a midfield triangle which offers us a substantial engine room to the side. They offer us a mental advantage; quick to pick a pass, quick to intercept a pass, quick to score the goal… they offer us that physical advantage; the strength, the tenacity and the drive. It’s an amazing basis from which to build a team around and almost as perfect as you are likely to make it, at least as perfect as you can make it without a bottomless pit of cash. Sure you could swap Xabi for Xavi or Iniesta, but I’d wonder how many tackles they’re going to throw themselves into let alone top the tackling stats. You might even want to swap Gerrard and get Kaka in, but again I’d wonder if the pretty boy would be capable of a darker side along with his sublime talent on the ball- as well as the bursts forward, would he burst toward his goal to stop an attack? Mascherano’s deftness on the ball when he’s dribbling away is hard to imagine along with another player who can home in on a world class attacker over 30 yards and stick an accurate tackle in and avert the danger.

This is why it’s quite crucial to keep these three together for next season. Recent speculation is annoying, but not as annoying as the job of having to replace the versatility and specialism within our midfield if they go.

Our midfield trio is a great example of the recent changes in English football, where the emergence of specialist central midfielders over the box to box powerhouses has dominated. They not only give you defensive protection but attacking prowess- a solid instigation and protection unit for the team's football.

Another example of versatility can be seen by casting our eyes at the back of the team. I won't go into massive detail here because it's largely been done beforehand (Yorkykopite's This Season's Defence- an Attack).

We can see that the lines between attack and defence become blurred. Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel represent a fine defensive triangle which directly protects the goal. Not only, however, are they defensively solid- but when they cast their eyes to the opposition goal, their's a whole new dimension to their football that becomes apparent. Reina's attacking ability comes from his quick thinking and passing accuracy, which have seen a number of assists these last couple of seasons. We all know about Daniel Agger's 30 yard thunderbolts, but the way he carries himself on the ball to get to those positions is every bit as elegant as the finest midfielders in football, and he'd need to be if he's going to ghost through a midfield. Martin Skrtel has shown that there's an attacker there somewhere- he's able to dribble his way through midfield and finds himself on the end of a lot of corners and freekicks... but he hasn't scored a goal yet. I'm sure that'll change next season.

All three of our defensive unit show the versatility of the three midfielders in front of them. Of course, there's room for improvements to be made, especially in the area the players aren't strongest in, but under Rafa, those improvements will occur.

So, the mystery of chessboxing… well, it isn’t really a mystery at all, but makes perfect sense. Not only does it make perfect sense, but it requires the expertise of two usually distinct tests of endurance- the extremely mental and the equally extremely physical. The winning competitor requires the intelligence and the physical power to come out on top. At the moment, we’ve got just that in our midfield and defence; the spine of our team is riddled with versatility and blurred lines between attack and defence, the elegant and the industrious, the mental and the physical. 

If we keep those players in that spine, I think we win the league next season. It’s a bit bold and a bit presumptuous, but then it's something I believe. It's not the type of 'belief' that's peddled out nowadays as the token show of arbitrary and meaningless faith... but actual belief in all it's sincerity.

Why? Well, we've got a spine of chessboxers in our team for a start.

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