Philosophy, Football And War

PHILOSOPHER-coach Tony Mowbray has confessed he is a keen student of influential ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tse and his seminal work ‘The Art of War’. Me too.
It is always refreshing, and surprising, to see a hint of intelligence break through like a shaft of sunlight in a cloistered world usually shrouded in a cloud of willful ignorance, short-sighted self-importance and – let’s be honest – stupidity.


Mogga’s choice of light reading is to be applauded. For someone who wants to deepen their understanding of the underlying mechanics of competition and conflict across a variety of physical and mental landscapes and with a constantly shifting balance of forces and resources it sure beats playing Football Manager.
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The Art of War, the general-turned emperor’s 6th century BC treatise on the dynamics and principles of warfare, is a work that still resonates in the modern world. The warlord’s theoretical approach to achieving success in battle and his development of a set of rules to increase the chances of victory has been a set text at Sandhurst for centuries and has under-pinned the national liberation struggles of the Viet Cong, Fidel Castro and AK47 wielding fatigue wearers everywhere. It is also popular among seasoned boardroom battlers as a guide to advancement in the ruthless world of office politics.
Mogga’s oriental academic bent came to light in his pre-match press conference for the top v bottom clash against Manchester United.
Picture the scene: the hacks are ushered in to be met by the dug-out philosopher sat cross legged on rush matting, possibly with a bamboo flute close to hand, and maybe with a subtle picture of David Carridine as seventies Shaolin monk and crusader for justice, Kwai Chang Caine on a humble artisan crafted desk along with a well thumbed copy of The Analects of Confucius. In the back ground his pupil-coach Mark Venus is studiously preparing steaming bowls of green tea and Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s retro-Chinese concept opera Monkey: Journey To The West is playing.
Asked if he would bid to out-muscle the mighty Manchester United juggernaut he prompted the sound of the assembled cynical hack jaws dropping and the cliche hounds’ dictaphones clattering to the ground as he responded: “Sun Tsu once said you don’t go to war and fight on the other side’s terms.
“You wouldn’t travel 1,000 miles to fight an army who has just eaten when you are out on your feet, ” he continued. “You play on your terms. We can’t go and play in a certain way if we have not got the players to get physical.”
The assembled sports hacks no doubt initially thought Sun Tse was a disappointingly lightweight Chinese utility defender/midfielder once on Man City’s books but Mogga explained it was a reference to the warrior statesman who united the Three Kingdoms.
“I have read Chinese philosophers – Art of War, all that stuff. You can take it as deep as you like but it’s commonsense. If you look at football as a tactical battle then it helps.”
Now, it is easy to dismiss any such signs of esoteric philosophical leanings as useless and irrelevant to West Brom’s current plight and especially after their subsequent 5-0 battering by United. After all, team talks delivered in fortune cookie martial mantras will not get the Baggies out of the basement.
And it is also easy – nay, compulsory – to be deeply suspicious of anyone inside the football bubble who shows any signs of dangerous individualism or, worse, any hint that they may read anything more taxing than Fergie’s autobiography and the Racing Post.
But in fact we should celebrate managers who are willing to take ideas and inspirations from outside the cultural straitjacket of football, who are ready to study other disciplines from both science and arts and mine them for progressive concepts and practices that can enrich the game.
It is not that long ago that Arsene Wenger was being lauded as a revolutionary and visionary with radical insight because he banned bangers from the canteen while the sports psychologists, Pro-zone operators and bio-mechanical analysts viewed as essential in other sports are still seen as just this side of witch doctors in football.
And it not just the mechanical improvements from sports science that football can benefit from. There is a whole world of knowledge out there crying out to be applied in what is a complex and dynamic environment.
And Mogga’s choice is actually a sound one for someone engaged in the active planning or what is in essence a battle. Another fan of Sun Tse is Big Phil Scolari who gave every member of his Brazil 2002 World Cup winning squad a copy of the book as they entered their pre-tournament boot camp (look out for Juninho’s mint copy popping up on eBay complete with “I (heart) Boro” doodle on the inner cover).
Why Art of War? Because it covers in detail many of the messages and habits successful leaders – managers – endeavour to instill into their teams in training and preparation, to foster winning habits and to influence the build-up to every game; issues raised repeatedly on this blog.
We know that the best team – that is the best equipped or strongest army – does not always win. A force that is weaker on paper can triumph in open conflict through conscious preparation, wise choice of tactics and timing and getting the crucial decisions right to take advantage when opportunities arise in the heat of battle.
Sun Tse – who himself repeatedly vanquished greater forces on his way to title glory – distilled the essence of that contradiction into a set of guidelines that he encouraged his generals to study in order to improve their chances of winning. Here are the high-lights:

  • Lay Plans: assess your own position, the venue, your leadership and tactics honestly and evaluate your competitive strengths against your opponent.
  • Do The Maths: understand the economic nature of competition, the resources both sides can call on and limit the cost of conflict. You may need to rest players.
  • Smells Like Team Spirit: the source of strength is unity, not size. The biggest battle is getting your side to believe victory is possible and that the cause and the prize is worth sacrifice and effort to attain. Want it more than they do.
  • Defend And Try To Nick One: “Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.” Defend your existing position and remain undefeated. To win you must take opportunities, not risk all to create them.
  • Find A Spark: well timed creativity can catch your opponent unawares and give you momentum at the critical moments. It only takes a second to score a goal.
  • Exploit Their Weakness: concentrate your attacks on the opponents areas of relative weakness. If they are small at the back, put it in the air for the big lad.
  • Vary Your Tactics: don’t let the opposition second guess you and don’t be predictable or your own forces will go stale; be flexible to suit shifting circumstances and anticipate and plan for those changes. Know what you will do if you go a goal down, or up or are against ten men. Always have a Plan B.
  • Weapon of Choice: use tactics to suit the environment – if the pitch is a cabbage patch, keep it in the air. Use your best weapons where they can do most damage and against the area of greatest weakness – sign Rory Delap.
  • Use Spies: foster good sources of information on the opposition and your own side to best assess the balance or forces, find weaknesses and choice tactics to exploit them. Develop the best scouting network possible.

Gareth Southgate revealed this week he spends many a troubled night wide awake and agonising over team selection and tactics, the resources at his disposal relative to his opponents and wrestling with the frustrating minutae of a club in flux. He could do worse than spend that time studying Sun Tse. Cross-legged. By candle-light.
Next week: Steve McClaren on the dialectical militarism approach of Prussian general Clausewitz and the modern footballing application of his concepts of “total war” and the need to grind down the opposition’s morale and motivation by all means neccessary, plus Harry ‘The Prince’ Redknapp on Machiavelli and media manipulation for political ends.

60 thoughts on “Philosophy, Football And War

  1. Firstly Bullard to Hull now Nolan to that team up there… why dont we ever buy the players that torture us? We will probably wait till their both over the hill like we did with Ray Parlour!
    oh well!

  2. James Emmerson; fair response but when was the last time one of the lesser lights went to the Bridge, had a go and got a result?
    Chelsea have struggled at home this season precisely against these defensive, negative tactics. Away, where the game is more open they have tortured teams. We went with a point and we would have come away with one save for two errors from set pieces. Kids football is very different but fair play and good luck to you and them.
    On Nolan, are we saying he would have left a smallish, struggling club to come to a smallish struggling club? Sadly, playing in front of 50k plus with their ‘potential’ is always going to be a pull.
    Personally, I dont see what Harper will give us that Digger, Gario, Josh Walker don’t but I am in the ‘owt’s better than nowt’ mindset. Shorey would be better although it hasn’t worked out at the Villa. Another in the Luke Young mould IMO and I would think he would strengthen us.

  3. Just checked this seasons stats on Mr Harper. 21 matches plus two substitute appearances, one goal. Skysports rating 5 as awarded by the journalist not the marks fans give. In the Championship.
    Makes the drive up to Teesside all the more worthwhile.
    For those wondering about the length of time we take to seal a deal dont forget the Count only works during the hours of darkness.

  4. Oh well, here we go again, another “MUST WIN” game – just like the must win games against, West Brom… Fulham… Sunderland… Hull… Bolton…Newcastle.
    It seems to me we are running out of “MUST WIN”games. Pretty soon we will only have can’t win games left… Arsenal… Man Utd… Villa… Liverpool.
    I just hope that we are not coming onto this blog on sunday bemoaning another must win game thats passed us by because if we are that’s it, the championship beckons.
    What is it about James Harper? I do not think for 1 minute he is going to make any difference at all to our current plight. Kevin Nolan would have been a much better prospect, nice to see we have our finger on the transfer window pulse…as usual.
    This season is so much like the season we went down with Robbo, we will probably lose to chelsea in the cup final, with them scoring in the first 20 seconds.

  5. Andy, I take your point. The immediate retort about lesser lights taking something would be to say that the Mags managed a point! (And as an aside, was not Joe Kinnear absolute top value with his ‘Charles Insomnia’ gaffe. Hilarious!)
    However, Chelsea at home this season have not just been denied wins by negative and defensive tactics. Every side that have taken something away have done so because a) they had a plan to do something positive; and b) they stuck to their task and executed their plans well.
    West Ham and Spurs played exceptionally well there, and had chances to win the game; Burnley and Southend both scored in their cup-ties. An under-strength Arsenal even won! Winning and achieving starts in the mind and transmits itself through strong self-belief, doing the simple things repeatedly and well.
    I am sure GS had a plan but, as was revealed, it was almost entirely negative and became more so the longer the game went on. Boro fans have seen this over and over again.
    A positive plan would have been to play Emnes from the start, which I certainly would have done if in charge. He’s just scored, he’ll be buzzing, and Chelsea know nothing about him. The fans will approve and will give him every support, let’s show some belief in him and give him the ball in advanced areas.
    GS made no attempt to build on the momentum created by an away win. It was back to dour downplaying, negative talking and negative thinking. It is impossible to conceive that he’s doing anything other than telling the players what he’s telling us – “go on lads, I’m not expecting a win, but a point would be nice.” I am certain I would be giving them a very different message, but when that’s the case, is it any wonder the players perform as they do and keep making the same errors?
    Andy, unless I’ve totally misunderstood you, you seem to be implying that Boro were unlucky not to get a point on Weds, and two set-piece errors were all that undid us. Any manager and player will tell you that one third of all goals scored in football come from set plays. Count them on TV this weekend.
    That is why so much time and training is (should be) devoted to practising them.
    But, for the umpteenth time this season, Boro concede – twice! – from them, which begs all the questions about preparation, both tactical and mental.
    You are of course right that there’s a world of difference between U12’s football and the Prem – in most senses. But in the sense of the mentality and thought processes necessary to get results, there’s no difference at all.
    GS is not doing the business in this regard – the table and the goals for and against columns do not lie. He is leading this team to relegation and needs to start justifying the faith in him by transforming himself and his approach to games. A point a game from here will not be enough!
    Sorry for annoying anyone with repeated contributions, I will stop now but thanks again for the opportunity.
    AV, could we start a separate blog with other suggestions for names Kinnear is likely to mispronounce by the end of the season. How about Michael Going? Mark Palarva? Joey Probation?
    **AV writes: Ohcomegetme Martins?

  6. I think it’s shit or bust today…..
    **AV writes: That’s not quite how I would have phrased it but it is hard to disagree.

  7. AV.
    In order not to affect your delicate sensibilities shall we say that the outcome of today’s match will be either defecation or delirium?
    On mispronounced Newcastle players… Shay Misgivings any body?

  8. Nice one AV. Love the bit about the glass! I actually laughed out loud, not a facebook lol! I don’t know about buying six new glasses, i’m still worrying about paying the peppercorn rent on the stadium.
    That cantona film is really good. I could see Mogga doing that line. “I’m not a man, I am Mowbray”. And can you do a “where are they now” on the fella in the russia shirt off that ZDS clip? Even Roger Tames didnt know what to say!

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