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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).

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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.

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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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