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.
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.