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

Following on from part one, which can be found here, I will continue to look at the key footballing concepts that became apparent to me whilst I was reading Adam Wells’ Football and Chess. In part one I have already looked at Connectivity, The Battle for the Midfield, Mobility, Space and Overloading and Stretching.
Let’s kick off (pardon the pun) part two with a look at Defence.

From reading the book I really got a sense that defending was less about talent and individual skill, and more about system and organisation. Though this seems to down-play the abilities of defensive players, it is quite clear that defensive minded players do not require tremendous amounts of skill and ability.

Historically the classic centre back was simply a tall, powerful player that was good at marking, heading and tackling. As the game changes, so this role will change and defensive players will require more and more attacking qualities. If we take Jamie Carragher for example, a legend and icon at Liverpool, and rightly so, but he was very much a player from the old school. No nonsense tackle or intercept and then play the ball away. Even if Carragher had not have retired, I believe he would struggle to fit into this new-look Liverpool team. The centre backs, under Rodgers, are required to do more than just defend and knock the ball long.

Defending, breaking up attacks and preventing goal scoring opportunities is, in my opinion, essentially down to positioning and drills. This can be taught, and because of this the defensive players do not need to be world class in order to function effectively. Note the use of the term “functioning effectively”. This does not mean being the best defence in the world, or even the league, but simply functioning well enough to stay competitive and not concede too many goals.

With the right drills, positioning and training a relatively average defensive unit can perform incredibly well. For example; a very average Chelsea winning the Champions League in 2011/12, similarly an average Inter Milan in 2009/10, and most famously the Greek side that won Euro 2004. Liverpool’s Champions League winning side in 2005 was another example of an average defence performing brilliantly because of positioning and drills. AC Milan’s defence that night was a who’s who of world class defenders, Stam, Nesta, Maldini and Cafu whereas Liverpool had Hyypia, Carragher, Finnan and Traore.

A crucial area of defending is that of over-defending. Teams need to avoid this at all costs, and need to be efficient when it comes to breaking up attacks and preventing goal scoring opportunities. To quote Wells once more, “any defence must be run like the most streamlined of businesses: never should two people be left to idly perform a task that can adequately be carried out by one”.

One of the most genius aspects of Guardiola’s “false nine” position with Messi at Barcelona, was that it forced the opposing team into the position of over-defending. The two centre backs that were tasked with marking Messi were left with simply watching the space, a job that could easily be performed by one player. They were unwilling to be dragged out of position, a topic I covered in part one “Space”, and so both of them sat and did nothing. These two players were then essentially out of the game, giving a huge advantage to Barcelona.

Pressing is an area where I have contrasting thoughts and ideas. What the book seems to suggest and prescribe is that it is best to sit back and wait. With your well organised and drilled defence you can invite pressure onto your team, before breaking it up and launching devastating counter attacks.

Wells’ analysis encourages sitting deep whilst the opponent has possession, invite pressure and wait for the opposition to present a weakness. He believes that high pressing causes you to lose shape, and thus connectivity, and leaves space on the pitch to be exploited. The idea is that you should only press players that are in dangerous areas or are capable of causing damage. Traditionally centre backs are not creative so it is not vital that they are heavily pressed. Closing down a goalkeeper could be viewed as having had your striker dragged out of position, putting you a man down across the rest of the pitch.

In contrast to this advocacy of sitting back, the theme amongst top sides currently is that of high pressing. Giving your opponent as little time on the ball as possible. Football and Chess was written before Guardiola took charge of Barcelona, and effectively revolutionised modern football. This could explain why the author seems to prefer sitting deep to pressing high.

Pressing teams high up the pitch allows you to win the ball back more quickly and enables you to launch an attack further upfield. The pressing aspect of the game is an area which Guardiola focuses on intensely. His desire is for his team to win the ball back as soon as possible and as far up the pitch as possible. This tactic requires high stamina and work rate, and further supports what I mentioned in part one about modern football players needing to be athletes.

Whilst it is now fairly common to see teams pressing high up the pitch, especially when they are faced with players uncomfortable with the ball at their feet, Wells suggests a different approach. Again this could be because of the time the book was written, or it may be because Wells is a fairly cautious chess and football player. He suggests that we should not be automatically targeting the weaker players when attempting to win the ball back. Intense pressure and pressing on opposition players may sometimes result in very favourable outcomes, but it will always mean that somewhere else on the pitch there is a more dangerous and/or creative player being unmarked, and left free.

Wells gives a brilliant example with the use of the Champions League final when Liverpool defeated AC Milan on penalties. AC Milan saw Traore as Liverpool’s weakest player, and though it may sound logical to intensely pressure him, they chose not to. As the weakest player, when he was in possession, there was minimal threat. Why stretch your formation and lose shape to close down the player on the opposing team that carries the least threat. They left him alone and marked, and pressed, every other Liverpool player when Traore had the ball. Liverpool were unable to create any attacks as Traore did not have the abilities or skill to begin one. “Milan were happy to let him have the ball while they marked all the other players”.

Perhaps this is a common tactic with Italian teams, afterall the Italian league is much slower, and more tactical, than other European leagues. This idea gains support from statistics taken in the 2012/13 Champions League. Here it was found that Italian teams were succeeding with “minimal running and possession”. Clearly showing that even though the Italian teams did not have a lot of the ball, they were not pressing high and working overly hard to get it back.

Attacking is by definition, the very opposite of defending. It does not rely on drills and systems, but instead relies on creativity and individual skill. Wells’ states that “whilst defensive organisation and build-up play can be coached to a large extent, coaches are often reliant on attacking players to use their own insight and creativity to solve the specific problems of the attacking phase”. This is why managers spend more money on attacking players than they do defensive ones.

When in possession of the ball the team must remain patient, it must probe and wait for the right attacking opportunity, it should not force it. Once again Guardiola’s Barcelona were perfect at doing this. Controlling possession and passing the ball from side to side, waiting for the inevitable gap to appear.

Possession should focus on the rotation of players and the recycling of the ball, a slower tempo “allows the team to have more control over how the attack will develop”. Teams should be encouraged to attack, or at least build, from the back. You have eleven players at your disposal and all of them need to be used if you want an advantage in the game.

In terms of chess, “the king is a fighting piece, use it”. If we are to translate this on to the football pitch it would be encouraging your goalkeeper and your centre backs to be more active in the game. The goalkeeper would take up a sort of sweeper keeper position and the centre backs would be ball players, dribbling out of defence with the ball. Unless the opposition match your tactics of a sweeper keeper and ball playing centre backs, you will effectively have more men on the pitch, as more will be involved in the game. Defensive players have to be able to attack and it is vital that they have attacking qualities as they are most often the “ones with the most time and space”.

I believe that the value of a player is entirely relative. No player is objectively worth £30m, but he may be worth that much if he is able to fit into the system that your team plays. The recent transfer of Ozil has proven to be a great piece of business despite the high transfer fee, his success within Arsenal’s system justifies the money spent on him. Similarly the transfer of Fellaini to Manchester United has been seen as a failure. I don’t believe that this is Fellaini’s fault however, as with another club, for that same price, he may thrive. Currently though, the system does not appear to be suiting him.

The value of a player only comes when he is played in the right position. In his book Wells gives the example of Roberto Carlos. Each and every game he will readily run up and down the left wing because he is able to take advantage of the space on the flank. If Carlos were to be placed in the centre of the pitch, where there is less space, he would not be as effective.

If your squad contained a very good passer of the ball, it would be sensible to employ this player in the centre of the pitch because he has more options from that location. Look at Pirlo, Xavi and Xabi Alonso. The impact these players would have on a game would be minimal if they were told to play on the wing. The system that is implemented by the manager has to get the best out of his players. The world class talents, and the key men in particular, need to be able to achieve their potential.

There have been, and there will undoubtedly continue to be, numerous cases whereby a manager has paid a large amount for a world class player, only for the player to be considered a flop at the new club because he was played out of position, or was not integrated into the system. Nuri Sahin at Liverpool, Paul Scholes whilst playing for England, and Shinji Kagawa at Man Utd all suffered from being placed in a wrong role and/or system.

Football and Chess has altered my tactical preferences once again. It has given me food for thought on many areas and concepts, and encouraged me to continue to look deeper into the beautiful game. From what I have read, and in line with pre-existing ideas, I would recommend a 4-5-1 formation. Though this formation may change and be altered slightly depending on the opposing teams set up.

The goalkeeper would be used in the sweeper keeper role, being comfortable with the ball at his feet, and rushing out to clear through balls from the opposition. He needs to have this sweeper keeper role because my emphasis would be on possession, high pressing and a high defensive line.

The two centre backs should both be ball playing centre backs, not only comfortable with defensive duties but also comfortable with passing and dribbling out of the defence. Their active role in building and participating in attacks should give the advantage of an extra man. Nobody in this team is simply a defender, or a defensive player. Players should be flexible and be able to adapt and rotate into the positions immediately around them.

The two full backs will act more as wing backs, marauding down their respective flanks, creating overlaps with the wingers ahead of them, and crossing balls into the box.

There would be a central midfield triangle composed of two defensive midfielders and one attacking midfielder. As aforementioned, the midfield battle is key, with three men in the centre this should enable you to win the confrontation. The triangle in the middle allows the necessary connectivity, it covers any opposition player looking to utilise the hole and it gives your own team a man in the hole. As well as this two deep central midfielders invite the opposition to confront them, when the opposing team do go to close them down this increases the space for your attacking midfielder. Arsenal were known to do this by playing Vieira and Petit deep, thus giving Bergkamp more room to be creative. The two defensive midfielders are not simply water carriers, breaking up attacks and laying the ball off. They are play makers, and both should have good passing and tackling abilities.

On either side is positioned a winger. They are 2 of the 4 main attacking players on the pitch. By cutting inside it creates an overload for the supporting full back. The two wingers link up with the attacking midfielder and the striker. These four players are the main source of goals and creativity. They are the main wave of attack, the second wave being the supporting full backs and the passing and distribution of the defensive midfielders, the third wave are the two central defenders coming out with the ball. The striker can either play the role of a false nine, dropping in deep to get the ball, or he can be a quick striker, forcing the opposing team to play deep and looking to latch on to the through balls of the wingers and midfielders.

I shall leave you with a few quotes from some great figures

“I became a coach to find out what the opponent does, to find the answers… Football is like chess. You need to know what the opponent does, their movements, to make adjustments.” – Pep Guardiola.

“Concentration has always been an important message for me. It’s always the last thing I talk about to the players before they leave the dressing room. Football is more and more like a game of chess, and in chess if you lose concentration for a second you’re dead.” – Alex Ferguson

“I play football like chess. You have to think a lot and anticipate what could happen after you make your move.” – Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Oh no: there are so many similarities [between football and chess], especially when it comes to speed chess. In both games you have to think fast. In chess you tend to know all the patterns already, just like in football … Both involve thinking but they are also intuitive; because you train so much your unconscious mind can take over. And in both games if you make one mistake it can be all over” – Edgar Davids


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