Sun Tzu - Football Consultant

Sun Tzu. Master Splinter. Gordon Gecko. This is IBWM. This is Iain Macintosh.

If you want to get ahead in life, get a copy of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art Of War’. Gordon Gecko taught us that in ‘Wall Street’ back in 1987.

“I don't throw darts at a board,” he sneered at Charlie Sheen. “I bet on sure things. Read Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”

It was a theme that Master Splinter returned to in an episode of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Having watched three of his pizza-munching students calamitously fail to deal with an out-of-control washing machine, the sewer-dwelling sensei implored Leonardo to ’know his enemy’. Suitably inspired, the last turtle standing threw one of his swords at the plug which quickly cut the power but, frankly, was the kind of response that would have given Health & Safety palpitations. Still, they all survived and that’s the key. Oh yes, both Splinter and Gecko knew that Sun Tzu had all the answers. But do today’s football managers?

Roberto Mancini might. Having watched his Manchester City side have their pants pulled down around their ankles during their opening exchanges with Arsenal, the Italian boss took immediate action. “If your enemy is superior, evade him,” taught the old General. Mancini listened and City’s attacking instincts promptly hauled up a large piece of turf and slipped underneath it, invisible to all but the most eagle-eyed of viewers. Entrenched and protected, Mancini escaped with a vital point.

José Mourinho must have read it as well. After all, its key premise is that ‘all war is based on deception,” which is the kind of thing that a man who hides in laundry baskets would appreciate. Anyone who watched his Internazionale team striding to European glory last season will also reflect on another pivotal quote.

“The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.”

However, Mourinho may have been less than amused by Sun Tzu’s warning for those who fight too long.

“When your weapons are dulled, your ardour dampened, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage.”

In retrospect, perhaps it was Avram Grant who read the book and not Mourinho at all.

Another ex-Chelsea boss, Luis Felipe Scolari, was a devotee of the work, handing out copies to every member of his Brazilian World Cup squad in 2002. Now, admittedly, there’s a fair chance that Ronaldo tried to eat it and Romario tried to fuck it, but it was a nice idea all the same. And, given where the trophy ended up, it obviously didn’t do any harm.

As Chelsea continue to deteriorate, perhaps the good book has a warning for Roman Abramovich as well.“He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign,” it states presciently. Imagine how far Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrow would rise if you read that passage to him.

But these are isolated examples. At a time when Harry Redknapp and David Beckham have been held up as a serious suggestion for the future of the English football team, the need for greater tactical sophistication at all levels has never been greater. This is not to say that Redknapp is a bad manager. His achievements throughout his career are impressive. But I don’t recall Sun Tzu saying, “He who puts a smile on the faces of his soldiers and tells them to get out there and enjoy themselves and keep it simple will smash seven shades of shit out of all comers.” What he actually said was, “If you know yourself and not your enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer defeat.” Given Rafael van der Vaart’s revelation that Redknapp’s clipboard is often left blank, perhaps we can see why Tottenham keep slipping in and out of the title race.

There are lessons in Sun Tzu’s work for all of us, though probably not in Chapter Nine which focuses mainly on getting across salt marshes. That said, have you seen Colchester’s pitch when it rains? But I digress. ‘The Art of War’ is a seminal work.

Had Brian Clough read, “if soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive,” he would have lasted a lot longer than 44 days at Leeds. “When the common soldiers are too strong and the officers too weak, the result is insubordination,” would have helped Ruud Gullit deal with Alan Shearer.

Like Jermain Defoe, ‘The Art of War’ is short and simple. There’s simply no excuse not to read it. If I was working at the FA, I’d follow the American military’s lead and get this book on the required reading list for every coaching course. Not only does it seem to be working for Mancini but, perhaps more pertinently, does anyone really want to be on the wrong side of an ideological debate with Master Splinter?

Iain is a football writer for The New Paper (Singapore), and also authors a fantastic blog. You can follow him on Twitter @iainmacintosh.