From a Square Board to a Rectangular Pitch
“You play football with your mind, and your legs are there to help you.”
The above quote was uttered from football’s seminal leader, the unofficial king of the modern game, Johan Cruyff, and it may just be the most important of his innumerable, incessantly quoted adages. If we take the great Dutch master at his word, and indeed look at football as a game of the mind, it only follows logically that it should draw inspiration from mind games across history, and what better place for the sport to start than by studying the most well-known and most popular mind game of all: Chess.
Football is often compared to chess. But, it is commonly used to describe and criticize matches that are cautious and defensive. As a result, a chess approach is seldom compared to the tactical strategy of the game. There are similarities in the objectives of chess and football. As a result of treating the kings as goalkeepers, you perform the attacking move by using your outfield pieces against the opposing king, and the defending move involves protecting your own king. There is, however, one major difference in how characters or pieces are placed at the beginning of the game. A striker, a winger, and a playmaker are the primary attacking weapons in football. These players are generally positioned higher up the pitch, near opposing goals. By contrast, the more valuable, deadly pieces of chess, such as the rook, knight, bishop, and queen, begin from the rear, where they are both guarded and constrained by pawns in front of them. While pawns establish the tone of the game, other pieces make crucial contributions. After all, for a manager, the football pitch is nothing more than a large chessboard, upon which they place their pieces, manipulating them and manoeuvring them in battle.
Let’s take a look at some of the norms of chess gameplay that can be translated into some of the key footballing aspects, and also throw some light on the infamous implementation of Sicilian Defense with a detailed case study.
Control of the board is based on the dominance of the central squares in chess. With the help of more pieces attacking those squares, one can gain a foothold in that area and ensure superiority. A similar comparison can be made with football. An integral part of any tactical plan is controlling the center of the pitch. The best tactical minds in the world today, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, outline two examples of how this can be achieved.
Typically, Liverpool create most of their chances from wide areas with their full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson pressuring high and wide. Nonetheless, it is due to their dominance of the central areas that they are able to accomplish this, which creates space for their fullbacks to operate. Under possession, Liverpool’s 4–3–3 turns into 2–3–5 with the fullbacks pushing up and the wingers coming inside. With Roberto Firmino dropping deep into midfield, the front 5 becomes staggered, rather than flat. Because of this, Liverpool usually has at least one man advantage in the middle. Due to Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane’s tendency to make diagonal runs into central areas, it is also difficult for opposing defences to track his run. Teams hesitate to deploy such a strategy out of concern that they will leave the wide players exposed. A midfield diamond is an alternative to this strategy.
By creating space for the left and right fullbacks, who create quality chances frequently, this effective block of six players creates space when they are in an advanced position in the midfield.
In contrast to Liverpool, who push their full-backs high and wide, with their wingers almost doubling up as strikers, Manchester City and Guardiola do the exact opposite. City’s full-backs typically line up in the midfield area, while the wingers take up positions on the touchline, forcing the opposition defence to bend from a 4–3–3 to a 2–3–2–3 during the build-up phase.
While City create the central superiority a bit deeper, they attempt to draw the opposition onto them before attacking. With the 5-man midfield that has been created, the ball can constantly move before it gets an opportunity to progress forward. The center can be controlled in other ways, even for sides that don’t depend heavily on possession. Even in a deep-and-narrow formation like Burnley, opponents are forced out wide, so they control the center of the pitch even without the ball because their defenders are well-suited to deal with crosses from wide areas.
This picture illustrates the basic concept of a pin. The white bishop is threatening the black knight, which cannot move as that would lead to the loss of the queen. So, the bishop has essentially ‘pinned’ the knight to that square. While there is no direct footballing analogue for the pin, the concept is extremely useful in its application, especially when a team is pushing forward on the break.
In the above situation, the red team has just cleared the blue team’s corner, and are now looking to launch a counter-attack, with number 6 carrying the ball forward. In this scenario, the red number 10 has an extremely vital role to play. He needs to choose which direction to make a run in, and the best decision would be to make the one indicated by the curved arrow.
This will enable him to take the blue number 4 with him, as he cannot be left free. Even if the pass does not come, it opens up a dribbling lane for number 6, shown below:
In this instance, as the blue 4 cannot move away from the red 10, thus leaving him free, he has basically been pinned to cutting off a specific avenue of attack, which is the fundamental concept of the chess manoeuvre.
The concept of forking is a weapon that is often used in chess to force one’s opponent into making a difficult choice or to ensure the capture of an opposition piece. As illustrated above, the pawn attacks the bishop and the knight at the same time.
This is a pattern we’ve seen before; in Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona. Creating passing triangles and midfield overloads consistently is a clear sign of how the fork concept has been applied.
This was Barcelona’s general build-up shape under Guardiola. The integration of the goalkeeper as an outfielder and the positioning of the players across the pitch (Busquets or Mascherano dropping between the centre-backs, the number 9 coming short and the full-backs advancing ) allowed them to form triangles across the pitch, with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi usually forming the most potent trio.
This allowed the player with the ball at any given time to have at least two short passing options, similar to how the fork works. Defending against two avenues of attack, opposition players would have to choose between closing down one of them, allowing the other to receive the ball.
A fork can be used in many ways, not just this system. There are, ofcourse, many examples that coaches can create in specific areas of the pitch, such as the attacking or defensive third, depending on whether they want to play from behind or want the final ball to be more clinical.
Case Study: The Soccer Specimen of Sicilian Defense
Sicilian Defense is so popular and effective opening because it gives a comfortable position to defend the King’s territory while providing scope to counter-attack the opponent. The opening also creates a position that denies an advantage to the opponent, which it usually gains as the match starts. It promises a strong attack from the beginning itself with the sharp variations it has. The players, from the first move itself, are seen to be playing with different goals in their minds, providing a great scope for attack and defence on both sides individually. This prevents the gameplay from being boring and also makes it imperative for each player to keep their guard high while sharpening their swords.
Defending and attacking seems to be of equal importance when playing this opening. In some variations, White and Black are even seen to castle on different sides, making the position even more unstable, allowing both sides to pose incredible threats to the opposition with the help of their Rooks and Queens on the semi-open files available. This opening is also extremely popular among world champions and grandmasters because of the sharpness of this line.
Italy’s 2006 World Cup squad is, in this respect, the most chess-like team in history, and Lippi’s tactical approach during the tournament has been very effective. Attackers were just pawns, not attackers. The real threats were located much deeper. The way Lippi approached the tournament was fascinating. He utilised his squad: expertly, using 21 of his 23-man squad (the exceptions were the two reserve goalkeepers), and amazingly, he selected six forwards i.e. Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, Pippolnzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo LaQuinta, who all found the net. This resulted in goals being shared. In total, Italy scored 12 goals, but only two players, Toni and Marco Materazzi registered more than once, both of which stemmed from set-pieces. Seven different defenders started matches for Italy at the back, but only two goals were conceded in total. One of those is an own goal to the detriment of the USA and the other was a controversial penalty during the final. It was a team effort of the highest order.
The Lippi regiment operated in two formations. 4–3–1–2 and 4–2–3–1. He was widely expected to depend upon the former, and he started with that system before switching midway through the tournament. He chose a squad suited to a narrow 4–3–1–2 and had no tricky wingers for his 4–2–3–1. The absence of exciting wide options was not entirely surprising since Italy rarely produces players of that type. However, Franco Semioli and Marco Marchionni, two of Lippi’s four players cut from his provisional 27-man squad, were obvious examples of traditional wing play. Their attacking impact might have resembled Jesus Navas’ for Spain in 2010.
On the flanks of Lippi’s 4–2–3–1, Mauro Camoranesi and Simone Perrotta were used in their absence. Neither of them had the classic attributes of a winger. Lippi had regularly used Camoranesi as a shuttler in a 4–3–2–1 at Juventus, despite his comfort in a four-man midfield. As for Perrotta, he was an industrious, disciplined central midfielder shuffled out wide. To this day he was not convinced that he took the technically best players to Germany, but he was firmly convinced that he called the ones that could create a team. The parts played by Camoranesi and Perrotta were not magical, but rather controlled and reliable. Their narrowing, occupying of space and blocking of full-backs prevented Italy’s advance. This duo was very different from the wide players used by the other semi-finalists: France’s Franck Ribéry and Florent Malouda, Portugal’s Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Germany’s Berni Schneider and Bastian Schweinsteiger (in his first incarnation as an inconsistent winger), all much more inventive, attacking footballers.
The final featured Italy and France essentially playing the same formation, except their wide players were of differing characteristics, resulting in France playing a more aggressive 4–2–3–1 while Italy played a more cautious 4–4–1–1. Even if unintentional, the implication was obvious: Camoranesi and Perrotta weren’t dangerous attackers. They were pawns.
Despite playing useful rather than spectacular roles, Totti and Toni became Lippi’s first-choice forward partnership. It might sound peculiar to describe the reigning European Golden Shoe holder Toni and the legendary playmaker Totti as functional players, but throughout this tournament, it was true: Toni’s two goals came in one game and otherwise he concentrated on leading the line by battling with his hold-up play, not unlike Stephane Guivarc’h for France in 1998. He didn’t merely hold up the ball, he held back the opposition defence too. Totti, meanwhile, pressed energetically and occupied opponents, particularly the Ukrainian midfielder Viacheslav Sviderskiy, who performed a man-marking role or the Roma trequartista at the quarter-final stage. Totti dragged Sviderskiy out of position, others exploited the space from deep.
In football parlance, Toni and Totti sacrificed themselves for the good of the team. That makes perfect sense compared with the pawn, right? ‘Sacrifice’ is one of the most widely understood terms in chess. At the beginning of a game, you understand your pawns will be crucial in setting the scene, but will rarely last the duration. Sometimes, you launch an attacking move with the specific intention to lose a pawn because it draws the opposition into your trap and enables your powerful pieces to take command.
The placing of the centre pawns determines the topography of a game of chess.” - Alexander Kotov, the Soviet grandmaster.
That’s what Italy’s forward quartet was doing. Fittingly, Lippi had eight pawns — the six different forwards, who were therefore individually expendable, plus Camoranesi and Perrotta. It’s difficult to find equivalents for knights and bishops, but four are easily identifiable. chess pieces in a footballing context are the king, the queen and the two rooks. The king is the goalkeeper, the last line of defence. The queen is the deep-lying playmaker, the most talented and powerful ‘outfield’ piece, capable of spreading play in any direction over long distances. Finally, the rooks are the full-backs, who start on the outside of the backline but scamper forward unnoticed down the flanks.
In the classic numerical values of chess pieces, the queen and the two rooks are the most treasured pieces (aside from the king, who is valueless because his capture ends the contest). In these positions. Lippi boasted the best in the competition: the authoritative king, Gigi Buffon; the gracious queen, Andrea Pirlo; plus energetic rooks in Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta. Italy’s three most dangerous attacking weapons throughout the knockout stages were not the attackers, but Pirlo, Grosso and Zambrotta from deeper positions. Pirlo was the competition’s best playmaker, dictating games from his classic deep-lying position and collecting the man of the match award in both semi-final and final. His diagonal passing range constantly found the full-backs, similar to the queen’s natural relationship with the rooks because their paths theoretically meet in a wide area inside the opposition half. Unlike the queen in chess, Pirlo had the luxury of passing over any opponents or teammates positioned in his path.
“It is always advantageous to exchange your king’s bishop pawn for the king’s pawn.” - François-Andre Philidor, 18th-century French chess player
An amazing number of Italy’s decisive attacking moves came from two rooks, Zambrotta and Grosso. This leads to the seizure of the centre and, in addition, to the opening of a file for the rook. The comparison is obvious. The wide players were nullifying their opposite numbers and helping to control the midfield, and encouraging the full-backs to overlap. Perrotta created space on the outside for Grosso, Camoranesi did the same for Zambrotta. The 3–0 victory over Ukraine at the quarter-final stage summed it up: Zambrotta opened the scoring with an excellent long-range drive, Grosso forced the corner that resulted in Toni’s first goal of the tournament, before Zambrotta charged forward to tee up a Toni tap-in. Everything came from the full-backs, often found by Pirlo. The tighter knockout games against Australia, in the second round, and Germany, the semi-final, were also won by a full-back, Grosso. He earned the controversial crucial late penalty against Australia, converted by Totti for the game’s only goal before breaking the deadlock in the 2–0 victory over Germany, courtesy of a fabulous reverse pass from Pirlo — arguably the greatest moment in the tournament.
Those breakthroughs came extremely late; in the third minute of stoppage time against Australia, and two minutes from the end of extra-time against Germany. As every beginner chess player is taught, the rooks are most devastating in the endgame, where they can take full advantage of the wide-open spaces. The rooks were more subdued against France, pinned back in a cautious final that featured the ultimate checkmate Pirlo scored Italy’s first spot-kick, before Grosso thumped in the fifth and final penalty, crowning Italy world champions. It was perfect that the player who sealed Italy’s chess-like victory was Grosso, the Palermo left-back. Who better to comprise a Sicilian Defense than this reliable component?
“Chess is a matter of delicate judgement, knowing when to punch and how to duck.”- Bobby Fischer
The plans and strategies in chess overlap with football in countless ways. It might be good to treat this article as a primer, a piece that targets enthusiasts and those who have a deeper understanding of these two disciplines than myself.