The Art of War in playing Football

Admit it sports are not different from war:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ – Liverpool’s Bill Shankly

How you use strength and strategy, will lead to you and your team to victory or defeat. There is no middle way – you are not playing to lose or have a draw – both of those are defeats.

In applying techniques from The Art of War, written by the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, to your team you will have a better chance at winning. Keep your mind open, read, think, strategise, practise and just get a move on! Just Do It!

Mistakes are learning experiences – do not be afraid of making mistakes before the big game, make as many as you can in as many creative ways as you can – as long as you learn from your mistakes and understand the strategies (if any) used by you when you failed – that is a learning experience, not a burden, cease regretting your mistakes, be thankful for them, be strengthened by them. And remember when in battle – on the field DON’T MESS ABOUT! DO NOT MAKE MISTAKES!


The Art of War can be applied to any competitive sports:

Sport like war enables the release of deeper human values which often lie just underneath the average human – these values make great warriors and also great sportsmen and sportswomen.

Our ‘warriors’ must be willing to display courage and daring as they battle to overcome the enemy. The warrior shows loyalty to his comrades within his team and obedience to his leader. Competitive sports are an artificial “life and death” situation and calls upon the warrior sportsman to bring to surface those higher noble values.

I will use football as the key to explain strategies of Sun Tzu and briefly explain each of the chapters and how they can be used to carry out a successful – war on the field.

So lets do this.


Chapter I: Laying Plans, Calculations, Detail Assessment and Planning

This is about pre-battle preparation which is the first key element of strategy.  This is essential.

Football is a game of mistakes. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins. – Johan Cruyff

Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.
There are three constant and consistent factors that determines who wins.

These are:
1. The Moral Law (the Coach/Manager),
2. The Commander (the Captain),
3. Method and Discipline (the Team, their disposition and organisation).
When you apply the first factor (Coach/Manager) and expect obedience to that “Moral Law” this becomes the unifying focus (overall goal) that unites your team – just like a nation and an army the overall mission becomes known.

Your mission is to ‘win’ – nothing more nothing less.
The Commander (Captain): who is practicing the five virtues of: wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness must be followed to the letter by the rest of the team in turn the team will be more united, stronger and effective.

The focus of the Captain is to work with the Coach to build an effective, courageous and strong team which leads to…
Method and Discipline (Team): Look at what areas you can improve on and capitalise on each team member’s roles, responsibilities, strengths and yes even weaknesses – plus your backups, those substitutes who may not be playing they must be kept in the loop of everything – as they may end up being your greatest back up resource when least expected.

Also watch out for the complainers and deal with their concerns quickly or get them out of the team.



Chapter II: Waging War/ The Challenge


There’s only two types of manager. Those who’ve been sacked and those who will be sacked in then future.’ – Howard Wilkinson
Sun Tzu said: “In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.
The goal is to defeat your opponent fast, so your team doesn’t become fatigued and you don’t lose your momentum and strength. You are not a manager of a football team now – but their leader, their guide who will carry them to victory.

You need to place all your best efforts to defeat your opponents – the opposing team, fast – so that they lose their confidence and desire to respond and strength to win. You are not looking for personal glory as their leader and each team member should also have the same attitude – the focus is on winning not the individual ego.

You are not playing a game anymore, you are engaged in a war and the goal is beating our opponent decisively.  It is not a simple football game, your focus and the entire focus of the team is on winning and if this remains the teams mindset on the field – its more likely to lead to an easier victory.

Focus on complete victory, quickly, do not mess with seeking personal accolades – complete the mission. Do it! That is your focus. Do not stop to think – carry it through.


Chapter III: Attack by Stratagem/The Plan of Attack


You only stop learning when you quit. – Ruud Gullit

Sun Tzu said: If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Learn from your opposing teams mistakes as well as their successes.

Be stronger in what you practice not just what you preach, have time to think different ways in what ways the battle on the field will go – your team need to know that a good football player must have continuous practice and learn more techniques and skills to achieve a decisive victory – talk about winning without fighting. What this means is that your team has practiced, skilled and prepared so much that when they go onto the field they will win without having to really fight and they will break the other teams will to win. Imagine knowing your opponents every move – this is where the best team will be, your team. This can be achieved when total presence of mind of your players is in the present moment with the sum total knowledge of the opponents strategy and tactics.

With preparation you will be able to do this with your team and continuously look at indirect approaches that will be more effective and less energy-draining in any future games your team engages in.

Look to tire the opposing team out or look or to change tactics midway in your campaign against them on the field as to disorientate the other teams layers. Look on their social media look at what irritates their players. Use strategy and intelligence not just physical assault on the field.

Think before you kick.



Chapter IV: Tactical Dispositions/Positioning

I am constantly being asked about individuals. The only way to win is as a team. Football is not about one or two or three star players. – Pele
Sun Tzu said “Know your enemy and know yourself“.

Everyone have habits, vulnerabilities and areas of limitations – your opponents are human and will have these. Be mindful that the opposing team and players will likely know of your teams vulnerabilities and they will attack where least expected.

Look to use your weaknesses positively and their weaknesses against them. Use different tactics at different points on the field as to confuse the other team – this will cause problems to the opposing teams strategy and positioning.

Sun Tzu said: “He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain“.

Learn from your mistakes and use the opposing teams mistakes against them.

Cristiano Ronaldo Quotes.jpg

Chapter V: Directing/ Energy


I give a lot of instruction in training. It’s difficult for me to do the same in matches, so I need guys on the pitch to read the game, to understand what we want. – Jose Mourinho

Sun Tzu said: There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. 


Combinations start with few things and become combined into patterns of behaviour that may succeed or fail for you. There are only a few patterns in the human genome which are repeated in endless ways that have created human diversity. In the same way in war, sport or business, understand how a few simple things can combine into many possibilities. Look at areas where your team can combine certain patterns in how they can become better players and get them to understand the patterns of the players in the opposing team.

When directing your army on the field – focus their energies.

One of the most powerful sporting technique is visualisation – this can automatically move you and your team to a win through mental focus and surpass those imagined limitations that  may have had. in your head. The players should know when to run, sprint, walk, go slow and where to concentrate their attack and hoe once they move in for the assault on the other team – this is the key to consider when moving in for goals. Combined the energies from all the team. Your players need to commit their strengths throughout the game.

Get your timing right, once you start, keep up the momentum and flow – no excuses.

Chapter VI: Weak Points & Strong/Illusion and Reality


What you learn is that you can’t please everyone all the time. – Gary Lineker

Sun Tzu said: “Strike the weak and avoid the strong“.

When arriving on the battlefield – the stadium, you should have time to settle and survey the ground and go through your positions and routes with your captain and players.

Knowing your enemy well, remembering their weak points, and where you can attack them is something that should have now be drilled in the heads of the warrior players. Being first to attack will put your team in the stronger position and as your team leads the way – this will cause cause desperation on part of the other team who may show strategies and try to gain the advantage – keeping the opposing team on the back foot from this position would be much harder for them recover from and combine this with change of strategies of attack from your team.

Make the other team uncomfortable, let them show you their on-field strategies.

Chapter VII: Maneuvering/Engaging The Force


I don’t have to show anything to anyone. There is nothing to prove. – Cristiano Ronaldo

Sun Tzu said: Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

Your captain must have the command and the respect of your players. The language of your team – from Coach/Manager to Captain/Team must be one and the same for when the battle starts on the field the communication and mutual support will play the major part in scoring the goals. The team must think as one.

You are playing for the team, the team is not playing for you.


Chapter VIII: Variation in Tactics/The Nine Variations


It doesn’t matter who scores the goals, just that we win the games. – Neymar

Sun Tzu said: The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.

Your players need to focused, motivated and ready. War has little time for planning, training and other preparation but this is a different kind of war and your team has trained and prepared to a fault – and now the team will need and move quickly.  If your team vary its tactics on field, you will win. Use direct and the indirect methods of playing and throw the confidence of your opponents. Your players need to disguise their intentions as best as possible and be ready to change tactics on field.

Once on field, let the players do their job – don’t interfere.



Chapter IX: The Army on the March/Moving the Force


When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren’t the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation. – Arsene Wenger
Sun Tzu said: When an invading force crosses a river in its onward march, do not advance to meet it in mid-stream. It will be best to let half the army get across, and then deliver your attack.
As the battle on the field begins – remember its for victory at all costs.

Your opposing team has a strategy and your mission is to destroy that strategy, and ‘impose your will on the enemy and to not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on you’ – to paraphrase Sun Tzu.  Look at how the opposing team comes to meet you in battle, how many are coming towards you and where is their concentration of power? Where are their weak points. Let them come.

Keep cool and focused.


Chapters X: Terrain/Situational Positioning


In this job, you accept criticism and give answers on the field. – Gianluigi Buffon

Sun Tzu said: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.


The opposing players will try to lure your team members out from strong positions, especially if they hold a strong position. Instead lure their strongest players out into open ground, then you can gain advantage.

Remember the leadership of the captain must be followed – failure of this system will leads to problems down the team. Look at how the British army uses what is called ‘the commander’s intent’ – this means, even if troops get separated, the soldiers and officers still use their initiative towards the target that single goal.

Teamwork is a must but the goal remains the absolute.



Chapters XI: The Nine Situations/ Nine Terrains


The toughest opponents for me are the defenders who are tough in the way they play – where you can’t see a way through. – Ronaldinho


Sun Tzu said: Success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating ourselves to the enemy’s purpose. 


On the field your team needs to move easily and quickly to deflect and redirect the opponents to places where you can take advantage of them and beat them. Look at their positions and tactics and what are the temperament of your opponents. Attack their strategies and positions to dislodge them and use their weaknesses against them and with change of strategy/tactics for short periods assault their strengths – this will confuse them.

War is a game of positioning. Where your team players are at any time is critical to the success or failure of your troops – your team. As you travel to these positions, your team remains vulnerable this is why speed will reduce the chance of a successful attack by the opposing players instead drive your opponents to use their weaknesses as defence and strike hard whenever the chance presents itself.

Your battle is on the field – understand the field.



Chapter XII: The Attack by Fire/Fiery Attack


In football, the worst blindness is only seeing the ball. – Nelson Falcão Rodrigues


Sun Tzu said: Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.
Attack your opposing players ruthlessly – yet remain within the confines of the Laws of Football. Your attack must be quick and you must have total attention on winning. Remember that the resources for winning are all around you and with some creative thought your players will gain the competitive advantage. Your attitude and that of all the players should remain consistent but tactics and strategy on-field need to change consistently. Remember that the army who wins is the one that shares the same spirit throughout all its ranks, keeping true and remaining consistent on the attack with a focus to score the goals, tire the opposition and win.

Chapter XIII: The Use of Spies/The Use of Intelligence


Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake. – Johan Cruyff


Sun Tzu said: Hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying and thereby they achieve great results.


The biggest cost in war is your ignorance of not knowing where the enemy is, their morale, their likely action and so forth. The worst action of a commander is action for selfish reasons, without consideration of the men under his command.

In football we need to know what the opposing team is thinking, eating, how are they training, what are they expecting and what is their temperament and last but least what their leadership is like.

How do your opponents play, what are their weaknesses and strengths, talk to people close to them, search their youtubes, social media etc and get videos of their performances. What are their statistics and who is saying what about them.

Don’t believe your opponent – know your opponent.




On closing we must always keep in mind that mistakes are our learning experiences and how we use our failures – we can either grow from them or keep regretting them and end up being stuck in a rut.

On Tuesday 3rd of July 2018 during a world cup match with led to a penalty shootout to enable them to progress to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, Englands manager Gareth Southgate comforted a Colombian player who had missed his penalty.


Southgate remembers – as did a lot of those who hated him when England at the Euro 1996 tournament, it was an England vs Germany Semi-Final that went to penalties. Southgate’s penalty was saved and this gave Germany the chance to go through to the final if they scored their next penalty, which Germany did. The England manager at the time, Terry Venables, hugged Southgate.

22 years later Southgate is Englands Manager and England won in the penalty shoot-out with Colombia – Southgate showed compassion to Colombia’s Mateus Uribe, who missed his kick.


A good leader should show compassion and the coach/manager who can remain in the background not coveting fame and just doing his job to best of his ability and keep his attention on coaching and leading his men are rare individuals indeed.

History remains silent in regards to such leaders, such coaches who quietly and gently move their team to a position to win. Southgate showed his leadership not just to his immediate team, to England but to the world at large in reaching out.

This is real football generalship.

With such leadership and focus of purpose of not wanting to do things for fame or not concerned about entertaining audiences – a football team can go far.

Naturally I want England to win and here I think they have an excellent chance with a good leader – but whatever team wins remember to compare the winning team with ‘The Art of War’ strategies.

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You can contact/keep in touch in the following ways 🙂

Mohammed Abbasi

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