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Soccer’s Euro 2012 Finals: Spain vs Italy. Here’s Winning Strategy

– Is Spain’s defensive, yet effective (at least so far) tiki-taka strategy boring?

– What may be the best strategy for Italy to counter Spain in the Euro 2012 finals?

New ideas. New style of play. New Strategy.

Big soccer competitions (World Cups, etc.) were always won by countries introducing a new way of playing the game. Typically, they take on the strategy in vogue in their club football and present it to the world. Think Spain and Barca.

This year it is the defensive style of Spain. But one inferior to Barcelona. Barca without Messi.

Euro 2012 finals: Spain against Italy

Spain vs Italy: Whose strategy is going to prevail?

What is strategy?

You confront many problems in a soccer match, on the chessboard, in a war. You can try to solve them one by one. Alternatively, you can try to create something that produces solutions to multiple problems. Even keeping problems and the enemy from coming to you! It is a system you call strategy.

Strategy is shaping the opponent in such a way that neutralizes his threats. Something that stops the enemy from attacking you. Ideally, to deter his action altogether and obtain Sun-Tzu’s highest aim—victory without bloodshed.

Space and ball control

At a strategic level soccer is very chess-like. Chess is much about controlling space and the same challenge (in a different form) underlies soccer strategy. The key to success is control of the middlefield. The game can be summed up in a word: control. If your team has the ball, the opponent may cause fewer problems to you. The difficulty resides in the technical ability to exercise that control. And that is exactly what sets Spain apart and contributed to its success in recent years.

So how Spain exercises that control? It fields six midfielders or so in a heavy rotation. They play keep-ball, both as a defensive strategy to deny opponents the opportunity to attack, and as a way of breaking down the organization and concentration of the opposing defense by wearing it down.

Football strategy is chess-like

Soccer and chess share the same universal law of strategy: Almira “Chessbaby” Skripchenko,  a French Grandmaster in chess, is a woman of many talents; here she shows us proper ball (er knight) control

Spain does everything through the ball, rests and defends, including wearing down the opposition. Spain completes more passes than any other team. They have just under 70% ball possession. Also they face fewer shots that anyone. All resulting from their ball and space control.

Says the Spain manager, Del Bosque: “We have based our efficiency on good defensive order.” But not the defense as you know it. There is no digging trenches and resisting the onslaught.

When Spain has the ball the opposition is unable to pose threats, let alone score.

“The team is focused on the importance of defending well,” says Piqué. “We know that if we keep a clean sheet one goal is enough and with the control we have and the chances we create, that goal always arrives.”

But to find a way to attack and hurt opponents is not easy for Spain. It is where Spain has actually failed: to employ a productive striker. Hence, low goals tally. Spain’s approach may be pragmatic, yet what brings soccer sophistication and aesthetic appeal is out. One goal – is this your enjoyment from soccer? Do you really want games ending 1-0 every time?

What Spain is missing is what Messi serves up for Barcelona in front of broadly the same midfield. Take Messi out of the equation, and Barca, too, might struggle for goals.

What is a winning strategy against Spain?

In their matches Spain has played against very deep defenses. Confronted by teams scared of opening up, fearing to attempt anything other than survive, just to stay in the game, protect themselves, and hope.

“Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win. By fearing to attempt” –Shakespeare

But it did not work. And it never does. If that strategy blunted Spain’s attacking, it has also facilitated its defending — their opponents can attack it less.  Spain have won 16 of 17 competitive games, drawing the only one against Italy in the first round of the Euro 2012.  Teams may succeed in reducing Spain’s chances but they reduce their own — Spain’s ability to protect through possession becomes greater.

Opponents think that they are hurting Spain with such a defensive approach. Wrong. The only team not to lose to them, the only team to score, was the only team that pushed high, attacked them and competed for possession. Italy.

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Your strategy should never passively react to the enemy’s one. It must always be oriented on the opposing strategy to degrade it. In the Euro you have not seen it against Spain yet. Let’s see whether Italy will repeat (improve?) the only effective strategy it used against Spain in the round one. The strategy Sun Tzu taught us 2500 years ago: Fight the enemy’s system! And it is something Italy should definitely try Sunday.

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Euro 2012 and Strategy: The German Way (Sun Tzu is Smiling!)

German Effectiveness, or something else? What’s going to triumph?

Chess strategy shares the same philosophy across the board with other sports. As universal strategy applicable to any conflict has been a regular guest on this blog, I thought it would be good for us to take a look at it from the football (soccer) perspective as the Euro 2012 is now underway. The opening “Group” stage where each team has played against the other three teams in its group is through. Germany has won all three matches and is the only team with a perfect record.

Let’s see how Germany has applied the supreme principle of strategy in its Euro 2012 matches.

Fussball Strategie und Schach

Check! How to defend against it in Soccer?

Strategic adaptability is the key

In the previous post the importance of “shaping the enemy” has been underlined. Through shaping your opponent on the battlefield you force him to meet you on the terms you choose. You should be fighting his strategy all the time, which is the approach praised by the venerable Sun Tzu some twenty-five centuries ago.

The shaping consists of constant mutual adaptation between the warring parties. War is not the execution of a single decision by a single side in the conflict. A chess master may pursue his own strategy from start to end and receive no resistance only against an amateur, but that simply cannot happen between opponents of about equal strength. Instead conflict involves interrelated decisions and actions of both sides, each trying to impose its will on the other.

Fluidity and Flexibility

Fluidity is an inherent attribute of war with its episodes merging with those that precede and follow. Your success depends on the ability to adapt and proactively shape changing events to your advantage as well as to react quickly to changing conditions.

This is exactly where Germany excelled in the Euro 2012 so far. Die Mannschaft showed an ability to switch systems and style of play to win over all of them in the Group of Death: Portugal, Holland and Denmark. Germany fought the strategy adopted by its rivals every time.

Three different strategies has been offered to it: Holland’s attacking style, Portugal’s strict plan to counter the German midfield (Özil, Scweinsteiger, Khedira) with three deep lying midfielders of its own, and finally Denmark’s stubborn sitting back with a well-organized defense. Yet Germany responded to each one successfully to break it down and exploit faults in it.  Sun Tzu par excellence! A classic example of how to unlock and fight any formation standing before you.

Fußball EM 2012 und Schach

Soccer and chess share the same goal: you must attack the opponent’s strategy to win

To win you have to focus your combat power against the other team’s vulnerability, which if exploited, will do the most damage to their ability to resist you. That’s how Germany midfield identified and exploited weaknesses of the rivals (your strength against their weaknesses!). Against Portugal they sensed the wide space and focused its attack down the wings as opposed through the center of the field. Against Holland they soon noticed the gap left behind Sneijder in the middle (the result of the Dutch all-out attacking style) and used that part of the field for attack, not the wings.

All this required flexibility of thought and movement and “a system of constant mutual flexibility from the players with the intelligence to deduce and solve any defensive riddle,” as Stefan Bienkowski (Bundesliga Football) put it in his excellent piece on the New York Times soccer blog, Tactical Adaptability: The Key to Germany’s Success (though I would rather think of it as strategic adaptability — more about distinction between strategy and tactics here).

* * *

You may prefer a beautiful, fluid and fast flowing attacking style of Brazil. You may also admire the games of Morphy and Andersen, full of sacrifices and fireworks, from the Romantic era of chess (against an unequal opposition though). Anyway, Sun Tzu would be only too pleased with Germany’s interpretation of his “The Art of War” strategy.

As he taught us: You should always orient on the enemy and design your strategy accordingly. Attack the enemy “system”. That’s a  fundamental truth of warfare and the most effective strategy ever devised.

* * *

QUESTION For Reinforcing Your Understanding of the Concept of Strategy

“Portugal will not change strategy, nor its identity.” —Paulo Bento, the manager of the Portuguese team on the Euro 2012, in an interview.

What would Sun Tzu say to this? Would he consider Bento a good strategist?

(This may seem as an old case of Beauty versus Effectiveness dilemma. “The beauty is the promise of happiness,” —Stendhal, and “a joy forever,” —Keats. Should we die for it, or just be complacent with a win?)

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