Sun Tzu was a Chinese military commander who is considered to have profoundly influenced the development of military strategy. His book The Art of War was a source of inspiration for many military commanders, and nowadays is a must-know for any business strategist.
But what’s that got to do with football?
Football has been used, throughout the ages (as yearly as 4000 BC) as a game to serve different pagan beliefs. It has also been used by the Romans and Chinese as a kind of military training. It was considered to be a game that keeps the body and mind fit for the time both would be put to use—war time.
If we look into the tactics used by the football managers around the world, we would notice a lot of striking similarities with Sun Tzu’s strategies for war.
Let’s not keep you waiting. I’ll let Mr. Tzu do the talking with his book The Art of War:
“You have to believe in yourself.”
It is probably the most obvious thing of all. No win would come to a team without a solid amount of self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. There are plenty of teams out there that have all that is needed to be a great team, but they are found wanting when it concerns this vital attribute.
That exact thought of Sun Tzu could easily replace the “You will never walk alone” slogan on Liverpool’s crest. They are a team that have proved more than once that Sun Tzu has the right recipe for victory.
“Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.”
I doubt if there is a football manager in the world that does not know this rule.
If your team has a good defence, they will concede fewer goals; if your team has a good attack, they will score more goals. But it is the balance that most work to achieve. Being a good defensive team will not bring glory in modern football.
Ask the many Italian football clubs that concentrate their efforts toward a defensive style of play. Ask technically-inclined teams that have plenty of attacking power, but also have failed to meet the necessary defensive requirements.
“Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.”
The essence of football is to outplay the other team tactically. It is the path to victory in football. We have seen many times how less talented teams have taken it all and have beaten stronger teams by using the right tactics and strategy.
A football team is much like an army. The correct executions of the general’s strategy, the manager in this case, would lead to victory. The best teams know how to adapt their game to that of the opposition.
“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”
Rule No. 1 when it comes to life, not only football. The surest way to defeat is by not knowing the opposition or yourself. The football team must know their own weaknesses and what to do to protect themselves; they must know their strengths, use them to attack, and apply them in the most appropriate way.
If a football team is weak in the air, then it is better for them to avoid crossing the ball, keeping it on the ground while attempting to close in the opposition’s wingers on defence.
If a football team lacks technical players, then they should attempt to neutralise the opposition's technical players by being more physical. We have seen this work to the advantage of weaker teams many times.
“To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”
Only a selected few even attempt to try their hands at this. Even though a “fight” cannot be avoided in modern football due to its strict schedules, the resistance of the opposition can be broken even before the start of the particular match.
Sir Alex Ferguson may be considered to be the typical example of the application of this rule. We have seen him play mind games with other managers frequently. His attempts to disrupt the opposition has been extremely successful on multiple occasions.
“All war is deception”
This rule is embedded into most of the tactics that the football managers use on the field. The constant swapping of positions, tricks of the players, and deceptive passes are all an inseparable part of modern football.
Six quotes from Sun Tzu; six rules; and the similarities do not end here.
Football is just a reflection of life, or of what it has been before. People like Sun Tzu, who have found ways to improve different aspects of life have also improved exactly that—more than one, different, aspect of life.
Football has not been left behind.
Sun Tzu, with his book The Art of War, has given the world not only the basic strategies for successful warfare, but he has also given the modern football managers the formula for success. Sun Tzu would have been a great football manager.