Move the Opponent, Not the Ball
Sun Tzu wrote in his legendary military work, The Art of War, “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”
Now, before I dive deeper into this idea, I’d like to preface this by stating that I am not comparing football to war. However, football and all other team invasion games are based on the premise of war. Each participating group must invade the opponent’s territory in order to complete an objective. In the case of football, put the ball in the opponent’s goal.
That being said, there are many ideas which can be taken from war strategies and directly applied to our sport. For example, Sun Tzu’s concept of baiting an enemy out is essential in football. My opponent is firmly positioned to protect their goal. There is no space for my team to manoeuvre the ball through. The only solution is to move them. Entice them out with bait which they cannot deny, the ball.
If you were to ask any player in the world what the most important thing in football is, they would all say the ball. Without the ball you cannot win a match, that’s an indisputable, objective fact. So what better bait than the one thing every player wants.
Guardiola understands the importance of the ball, and it’s very evident in his philosophy. Possession is everything to him. Not only that, his teams use the ball as a weapon. They use it to move opponents into spaces to exploit newly vacant spaces. Possession isn’t only used to keep opponents from scoring but they wave it in front of their faces like you’d do to dog and it’s ball. They exploit this innate desire for the ball.
In a recent interview with Sky Sports, Kyle Walker, Manchester City’s right back, discussed exactly this idea. When asked why as a right back playing for Guardiola he tucks in so close to the centre-back, when traditionally that position tends to play right on the touchline. He answers, “The gaffer [Guardiola] doesn’t like more than three metre passes. He likes to keep it short. Just so you attract players. In games, you might see us doing passes. It’s not pointless passes but you might see us just going back and forward. But then all of the sudden you bring people and that creates holes for the dangerous players we got like Kevin [De Bruyne], Raheem [Sterling], or Leroy [Sane] on the other side.”
“Hold out baits to entice the enemy.”
This concept is fundamental to Guardiola’s style of play. When you maintain 60-70 percent of the possession in a game, the opponent is going to start to feel comfortable defending deep. Guardiola’s remedy, deceive them into thinking they can win the ball and exploit the holes they’ve left.
In Jed Davies’ book The Philosophy of Football: In the Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa, he uses a 6v2 rondo to simplify this concept to its principle.
The ball possessor and his closest teammates can pass the ball between each other to attract the closest defender creating space for the furthest player, resulting in a pass which breaks the line of pressure and advances the ball.
If you imagine this same rondo within the context of the game by giving each player positions, it’s exactly the same scenario. Kyle Walker and Vincent Kompany execute short three meter passes to create a passing line and space for Kevin De Bruyne.
The beauty is in the interconnectivity within the system. Two defensive players act in a way which benefits an attacking player resulting in the betterment of the whole. When young players being to see the consequence of their actions or inactivity on the pitch, the group begins to function as a complex entity.
In his book Pep Confidential, Marti Perarnau writes about Guardiola’s core idea, “the essence of a team and its coach, the synthesis between a particular belief system and it’s group stated mission.” When the goal is clear, an understanding among group members flourishes. Well, Kyle Walker and his teammates have it clear: ‘we move the opponent with the ball.’