Sun Tzu’s coaching course

Sun Tzu’s coaching course

The link between war and football can often be tenuous. The fixation with needing a strong general to lead his men into battle has created debates over the England captaincy, a role that doesn’t really matter.

Tenuous does not equal non-existent, however. In fact, a quick read of Sun Tzu’s Art of War (the entire book can be read in about two hours so it’s worth a look) reveals a similarity close enough for Luiz Felipe Scolari to use its teachings in his preparation for the Brazil squad at the 2002 World Cup. Despite being written in 6th century BC, quite a bit before the creation of football, captain Cafu said it gave him the necessary tactical understanding to win the tournament.

When questioned on the subject by FourFourTwo, Scolari said: “I didn’t give them a copy, but I used the lessons in my preparation. And sometimes I asked staff to slip copies of some chapters under the players’ doors in their rooms. Sometimes a different approach like this can help.”

If it’s good enough for a World Cup winner, it’s good enough for me. The 13 chapters, each covering a different aspect of war, are as follows:

  1. Laying Plans
  2. Waging War
  3. Attack by Strategem
  4. Tactical Dispositions
  5. Energy
  6. Weak Points and Strong
  7. Maneuvering
  8. Variation of Tactics
  9. The Army on the March
  10. Terrain
  11. The Nine Situations
  12. The Attack by Fire
  13. The Use of Spies

Many of the chapters’ links to football are obvious by their titles, but we will examine Sun Tzu’s teachings in further detail.

Laying Plans

 1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

Sort of self-explanatory, but worth mentioning when you take into consideration the increased focus on business in football. Although being well-run financially is generally admired, a club can only be seen as successful if it does well on the pitch. The two depend on one another too: Charlton Athletic were seen as well-run, but their poor performances on the pitch saw them relegated and they began to struggle financially.

2. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

Doesn’t really mean a great deal, but the start sounds familiar, no?

3. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

5,6. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

Ruler=manager. Again, pretty simplistic.

7. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

Could refer to part of the season or the state of a pitch. A surprisingly useful addition to the list in reference to football.

8. Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

Space. What makes tactics so useful in football, so basically what keeps this blog readable.

9. The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

10. By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

11. These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.

12. Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise:–

13. (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law? (2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth? (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (5) Which army is stronger? (6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

14. By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat.

Basically listen to the manager as long as he’s any good. If not, you’ll soon find out.

15. The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat:–let such a one be dismissed

Egotistical man, that Sun Tzu. Still reading what he has to say many centuries on to be fair.

17. According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans.

If you’re the favourite, adjust your plans.

18. All warfare is based on deception.

Could be a direct reference to the movement or actions on a pitch during a match – after all, if the defender knows what you’re going to do, he can easily combat it. Do something shocking, and you’ll surprise him and most probably win providing it was a good decision. Could also refer to the likes of Wimbledon, who spread tales of their unprofessionalism to make other teams think they were weaker than they were or AC Milan of the late 80s, whose sheer star power let them win games before they had even played them.

19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

Similar to the last point but seemingly fits in more obviously with counter-attacking.

21. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

Fairly obvious, set your team according to the opposition’s tactics. If they are more defensive, go more attacking. If they are better, go more defensive.

22. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

Latter could reference counter-attacking again, but could also be viewed as quite literal. Marco Materazzi did a good job of getting France’s most dangerous player in Zinedine Zidane sent off because of his poor temperament during the 2006 World Cup final and Italy did alright…

23. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them.

Better teams will often look to ease off and preserve energy for latter portions of games when most teams are tired, you could take advantage of these periods. Latter part is fairly obvious; teams will generally look to cover their teammates whenever possible, try to isolate their players so this can’t happen. Stretching play with width is an excellent example.

24. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.


25. These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

Don’t reveal your plans beforehand as teams will obviously look to defend against your tactic. Jose Mourinho predicted the Barcelona line-up almost player for player in a press conference in 2005 and subsequently beat them while at Chelsea.

26. Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

Obvious again: prepare before. You know what you’re coming up against and things become a lot easier.


Waging War

1. Sun Tzu said: In the operations of war, where there are in the field a thousand swift chariots, as many heavy chariots, and a hundred thousand mail-clad soldiers, with provisions enough to carry hem a thousand li, the expenditure at home and at the front, including entertainment of guests, small items such as glue and paint, and sums spent on chariots and armor, will reach the total of a thousand ounces of silver per day. Such is the cost of raising an army of 100,000 men.

Football’s expensive.

2. When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.

Players get tired.

4. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.

Regardless of how good they are, unfit players are useless.

5. Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.

Substitutes? Tactical changes? Could refer to either, or both.

6. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

Score early.

7. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.

Experience is useful.

9. Bring war material with you from home, but forage on the enemy. Thus the army will have food enough for its needs.

Raise through the academy but buy the opposition’s best.

10. Poverty of the State exchequer causes an army to be maintained by contributions from a distance. Contributing to maintain an army at a distance causes the people to be impoverished.

11. On the other hand, the proximity of an army causes prices to go up; and high prices cause the people’s substance to be drained away.

12. When their substance is drained away, the peasantry will be afflicted by heavy exactions.

13,14. With this loss of substance and exhaustion of strength, the homes of the people will be stripped bare, and three-tenths of their income will be dissipated; while government expenses for broken chariots, worn-out horses, breast-plates and helmets, bows and arrows, spears and shields, protective mantles, draught-oxen and heavy wagons, will amount to four-tenths of its total revenue.

Hello, Arsenal fans.

15. Hence a wise general makes a point of foraging on the enemy. One cartload of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own, and likewise a single picul of his provender is equivalent to twenty from one’s own store.

Mikel Arteta, perhaps? Hmm, probably goodbye Arsenal fans.

16. Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their rewards.

Passion. Passion can be bought with money.

19. In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

Coul very easily be a misinterpretation, but the “taking it game by game” philosophy could be considered part of this. Short term becomes long term.

20. Thus it may be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril.

Roy Hodgson. Kenny Dalglish. Which was better? Don’t let Christian Purslow decide.


Attack by Stratagem

1. Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

The reasoning is different, but defeating a fully fit side is generally more impressive, and will strike fear into the opposition more than thrashing a weakened side. Hello again, Arsenal fans. We’ll try to be kinder from here on in.

2. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

Make it look easy.

3. Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

Lesser teams will generally try to defend, beat them and you impress. The italics may not be useful in football, but sometimes giving up on the unrealistic to save resources can be useful, bear it in mind at least.

5. The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.

Don’t over commit. It makes it easier to counter.

7. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.

Fit players are better, try to keep them so.

8. It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.

9. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.

10. Hence, though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.

11. Now the general is the bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak.

Obvious, no?

12. There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:–

13. (1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.

Play unsuitable tactics.

14. (2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds.

Could be unsuitable tactics again, but also the business decisions. Often not entirely a manager’s fault.

15. (3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.

Picking rubbish players.

16. But when the army is restless and distrustful, trouble is sure to come from the other feudal princes. This is simply bringing anarchy into the army, and flinging victory away.

Players are unlikely to do well with a rubbish manager.

17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory: (1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. (2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. (3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. (4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. (5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

18. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.



Tactical Dispositions

1. Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.

2. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

3. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.

A strong defence is more important than a great attack.

5. Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.

6. Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.

7. The general who is skilled in defense hides in the most secret recesses of the earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete.

Good defensively =/= playing defensively.

9. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!”

Bitterness is often a good sign. Very notable among football fans.

13. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

A manager basically plays the percentages. Gianni Brera said the perfect game ended 0-0…

14. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.

Play attacking football if you are good.



1. Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.

Rotation isn’t the devil’s idea.

2. Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.

Philosophy generally remains the same, regardless of team.

4. That the impact of your army may be like a grindstone dashed against an egg–this is effected by the science of weak points and strong.

Protect your weak points and maintain your strong. Exploit the opposition’s weak points and limit their strong.

5. In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

As Jonathan Wilson would say, goals are overrated. You win the battle on the pitch and you will mostly win on the scoreline too. Can also be applied to direct football in relation to possession style football.

6. Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.

Yeah, possession football is good.

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

8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.


Consider how players work together. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were world class individually, but still remain a hideous thought together to England fans.

10. In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack–the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.

Mix it up. You become unpredictable.

11. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle–you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?

Short passing often opens up space elsewhere on the pitch. Learn to exploit this and it’s devastating.

13. The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.

14. Therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.
17. Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline, simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness postulates strength.

18. Hiding order beneath the cloak of disorder is simply a question of subdivision; concealing courage under a show of timidity presupposes a fund of latent energy; masking strength with weakness is to be effected by tactical dispositions.

19. Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something, that the enemy may snatch at it.

20. By holding out baits, he keeps him on the march; then with a body of picked men he lies in wait for him.

Self-explanatory. Particularly for counter-attacking coaches.


Weak Points and Strong

1. Sun Tzu said: Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.

Start the game well.Don’t be forced into adjusting part way through.

2. Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.

Be proactive rather than reactive. Bear in mind his other teachings of course though, sometimes this isn’t wise.

4. If the enemy is taking his ease, he can harass him; if well supplied with food, he can starve him out; if quietly encamped, he can force him to move.

Pressing. “Harass” is easily identifiable, food = possession and so on.

5. Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.

6. An army may march great distances without distress, if it marches through country where the enemy is not.

7. You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

8. Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.

9. O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.

Again, this is where tactics becomes so useful to football. Although some regard it as intellectualisation of football, really it’s just where players stand. If they are in lots of space, they are probably “not expected” and so have more time and space to do as they like with the ball, thus doing better things with it. Do that frequently and your team will more than likely win.

10. You may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy’s weak points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more rapid than those of the enemy.

Attacks are generally harder to defend if done quickly; players can’t get back and cover.

11. If we wish to fight, the enemy can be forced to an engagement even though he be sheltered behind a high rampart and a deep ditch. All we need do is attack some other place that he will be obliged to relieve.

An example is best here: Milan play a lot of men in the centre of midfield making it hard to beat them there through sheer numbers, but they are susceptible from attacks out wide. Attack them there and you either exploit a weak point, or force men in the centre to cover out wide, making it easier to attack the middle.

12. If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent the enemy from engaging us even though the lines of our encampment be merely traced out on the ground. All we need do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way.

Unique tactics often mean teams aren’t accustomed to playing against them, and thus don’t know how to defend/attack against them.

13. By discovering the enemy’s dispositions and remaining invisible ourselves, we can keep our forces concentrated, while the enemy’s must be divided.

14. We can form a single united body, while the enemy must split up into fractions. Hence there will be a whole pitted against separate parts of a whole, which means that we shall be many to the enemy’s few.

16. The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points; and his forces being thus distributed in many directions, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately few.

17. For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

18. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.

Sounds a bit like the universality argument. Diego Maradona was an obvious strong point of Napoli’s side during the 80s, but Milan’s creator was harder to identify, mark Marco van Basten and you left Ruud Gullit in more space, mark Gullit and you left Frank Rijkaard and so on.

22. Though the enemy be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting. Scheme so as to discover his plans and the likelihood of their success.

A well-organised defence is good. Even better if they know what they will be going up against.

24. Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient.

25. In making tactical dispositions, the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal them; conceal your dispositions, and you will be safe from the prying of the subtlest spies, from the machinations of the wisest brains.

26. How victory may be produced for them out of the enemy’s own tactics–that is what the multitude cannot comprehend.

27. All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.


28. Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.

31. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

32. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.

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

Be flexible.

30. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Again, exploit the opposition’s weaknesses.


We’ll split this into two now because it’s getting ridiculously long. Parts 7-13 will be up tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Sun Tzu’s coaching course

  1. “Attack by Stratagem: 2. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

    I think a point could be made here on the use of mind games. Winning battles without even needing to fight them.

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