How The Analysis of Chess Highlights Key Concepts Within Football – Part One

At Christmas I received a wonderful book entitled Football and Chess. It is written by Adam Wells and looks to analyse and compare the two games. It may seem like a bit of a mismatch, but in all honesty Wells couldn’t be more correct in what he says. The book is very well written and each point he makes is explained with examples from real football games, and real chess matches. Within two days I had read the book three times, making notes as I went through. My chess skills, and knowledge, are quite a bit below that of my football skills and knowledge, but I believe that this book has improved my understanding in both of these games. It really is a fascinating book and I encourage anyone interested in either chess or football to pick up a copy.

As I stated in a previous article, I am highly interested in football systems and tactics. That is where I believe the art of winning on the pitch comes from, not the footballers themselves, but the manager that the footballers play under, and the system that they play in. Armed with my Christmas reading material, a pen, and a pad of paper, I began to look at the key concepts that the book highlighted.

This article is heavily influenced by Football and Chess and borrows many ideas from that publication. I shant go into too much detail on each topic as I don’t wish to just re-write Wells’ fantastic analysis work. This is but a taste of what the book contains, and what follows are my interpretations of Wells’ suggestions and analysis. Below are the key concepts that I have taken from the book.

A key aspect of football is the bond the team has, the glue that holds the players together. Frequently teams that are underperforming are said to “not gel”. Perhaps the most important aspect of any team is their ability to work together, their teamwork, and this occurs because of connections between players. A disconnected group of players will not play as a team, they will be play as individuals, and no matter who these individuals are they will inevitably suffer at the hands of a team that is more connected.

Connections can be made between players in a variety of ways, covering for one another when attacking and defending, one-twos, direct passes to each other and moving into space to support. Wells’ describes football as an architectural game, it is about shape and building. In order to build there must be connectivity between the players, and keeping the players together requires a shape i.e. a formation.

To quote Wells once more, “successful attacks in football are not reliant solely on the positioning of players or pieces in attacking positions. There must be connective supply lines that flow from the back, through the middle, and up to the most attacking player”. All too often we see teams playing a known goalscorer, a proven talent, but not being able to supply the striker. The striker is unable to score, the team performs badly and they slip down the table.

As the title of this article suggests, the chessboard should be seen as the equivalent to a football pitch. One of the earliest pieces of advice I received was that in order to control a chess game, you had to control the middle four squares of the board. Similarly, in order to control a game of football, you have to control the midfield. Teams should look to dominate the midfield as it “gives… the most options to develop… attacks”. When you have control of the centre, you have control of the game.

The last decade or so it has become popular to play a central midfield three for precisely this reason. Three men at centre midfield automatically gives you the advantage against a team that are playing two men in that position. Four men in the centre gives you the advantage against three, and so on. Thus a 4-5-1 formation would be superior to a 4-4-2, and a 4-4-2 diamond midfield formation would be superior to a 4-5-1. Be aware though, that playing too many men in the centre of the park sacrifices space in other areas of the pitch, if the opposition can take advantage of this, you will be in trouble.

As the central midfield area is vital to the control of a football game, this is where you see the most intense “fighting”. The midfield battle has to be won and this can be done through outnumbering your opponents or by using aggression to win the fight. It is no surprise that the centre of midfield is where you are likely to find the most aggressive players in a team, Vieira at Arsenal, Keane at Man Utd, Gerrard at Liverpool, Van Bommel for Holland, the list goes on.

Mobility is key in football. A static team will not only struggle to break down the opposition, but they will also struggle to find one another with their passes. The desire for fitter, and more athletic players in the modern game is because the game has become quicker. The players need to be at peak physical condition, and need to be fast enough, and athletic enough, to keep up with the modern game. Premier League players now run on average 11.7km per game, and as report, the mantra of “let the ball do the work” is now dead in the water.

Under Guardiola Barcelona were an incredibly hard working team, their high pressing tactic meant that a lot of running was required. As well as pressing high when they didn’t have the ball, there was a tremendous amount of movement when in possession. Guardiola’s game relied heavily on passing and keeping the ball, and in order to do this his players always had to have an option to pass to. The player in possession of the ball should have at least two or three options to pass the ball to. The mobility of the team, and its players, create options for passing and building attacks. Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund team are a prime example of the hard work needed to perform at the top level, week in and week out. He even takes great pride in knowing that his team run further, and faster, than the opposition.

The mobility of players inevitably impacts, and contributes to another key concept in football, that of space. Wingers should utilise the space on the flanks, creative opposition players should be denied space, space should be closed down, created, exploited. Almost everything in football relates to the space on the pitch. The size of pitches are even adjusted so it more suits the style of play of the home team. On the pitch it should be a priority to exploit what ever space is given to you.

The players not only need to find the space but they also need to receive the ball once they have found it. Once again showing the importance of connectivity. The most creative player in the world, in ten yards of space outside the opposition box, will not impact on the game unless the ball finds a way to him. If the connectivity in the team is correct then the creative, and attacking, players can hunt for space safe in the knowledge that once they have found it, the ball will find them. Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole did this perfectly for Man Utd during the 98/99 season. Time and time again they were able to find half a yard inside the box and await the cross from David Beckham on the right hand side. Beckham to Cole, and Beckham to Yorke proved to be a deadly combination.

At the highest level of football, space is hard to find. Players are pressed, harried, marked and closed down. Wells states that “it is not enough to wait for gaps to appear because they often wont”. Teams have to look to create space, to make gaps, which can then be exploited. One such method is by dragging defenders out of position (not literally quite obviously). By doing this the space they previously occupied is now free. Strikers can drop deep, either pulling a central defender out of position, or finding the space in between the midfield and defence. This position is referred to as “the hole”. Wingers cutting inside means that the opposing full back has to follow the run, this creates space in the position the full back should be occupying. A centre back running forward with the ball attracts the attention of the opposing midfielders, they can’t allow him to continue so they go to close him down, this frees up a teammate in the midfield that was previously marked.

Overloading is a term used when you are forcing the opposition to face two challenges at once. For example when a defensive player is forced to take on two, or more, responsibilities at the same time. A defensive midfielder may be on the field to keep track of an opposing attacking midfielder, he should be fairly comfortable with this role and so shouldn’t struggle.

However, an overload occurs when the opposition striker drops deep, into “the hole” and begins to cause problems for the defensive midfielder. The defensive midfielder is now faced with two problems, the attacking midfielder he was marking in the first place, and now the striker who is dropping deep. A two on one situation has occurred, and if the opposition manager throws on another attacking midfielder, its become three on one.

Another example of an overload would be in a situation where an attack minded player was forced to mark an opposing player. A winger who’s main focus is on creating chances and getting into dangerous areas, may be forced to also perform the job of marking the opposing full back who is very adventurous. The winger is caught in an overload situation because he is unsure whether to find space in an attacking area, or to mark, and follow the run of, the opposing full back. A further example of an overload is when a full back runs beyond a winger, this is known mostly as an overlap, and is the most regular example of an overload on display in modern football. The defensive full back is not only faced with the opposing winger with the ball at his feet, but he is also faced with the run of the opposing full back.

Stretching is a tactic used when attacking, and once again it relates to space. When in possession of the ball, as I mentioned earlier, the need and desire for space is paramount. That is why it is recommended that when a team attacks, the pitch should be made as large as possible. The whole pitch is there to be played on and every inch of it should be utilised to your advantage. Wingers should be encouraged to push wide, not only so that they can advance into the space near the touchline, but also because it creates more room in the middle of the pitch. Full backs should act in a similar way, hugging the touchline and creating overlapping runs.

Width is vital in modern football, especially as more teams look to control the central midfield by playing three men there. Even if the wingers and full backs are not the danger men in the side, it is their positioning and running which creates space, and gaps, for other players to utilise.

When Jordan Henderson played games at right midfield for Liverpool, though he was played out of position and he wasn’t particularly effective, his discomfort in the position worked to Liverpool’s advantage. Not being a winger, or even a wide midfielder, he tended not to dribble forward and beat the opposing full back, rather he sat a little deeper. This invited the opposing full back on to him, who had to leave the back line to go and close him down. By doing so he left a gap at the left back position which could be exploited by other players. This can be seen in Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over Everton in the FA Cup Semi Final under Kenny Dalglish. Henderson played at right midfield, this invited Leighton Baines to come out of the back four. Baines needs no encouragement to get forward anyway and when he went to close down Henderson, Suarez dropped into the hole that Baines left.

In part two I will continue looking at the key concepts of Adam Wells’ book Football and Chess. In the next article I will focus on Defence, Pressing, Attack, The Value of Players and then a brief conclusion and my own tactical preferences.


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