Searching for the Bobby Fischer Moment, Part II

In part one of this series, I posed the question: is a moment like the one in Bobby Fischer’s legendary chess match with Donald Byrne possible in soccer? A competition where, against all odds, one side plays in such a way that defies logic, in just such a way to create the perfect conditions for an amazing upset win.

As I outlined previously, finding an instance like this in soccer is tough: while less predictable than chess, so many of the “inner” workings of soccer are on complete display. Tacticians’ musings are played out in real-time; the pieces are constantly moving; the conditions of the game are constantly changing. In chess, the rules, the conditions of the game never change. This static-ness remains a constant toe-hold for competitors throughout the game. There are no red cards or injuries, no own goals or soggy pitches in chess; when you lose control, it’s exclusively your own fault. You can be outplayed, easily, but you are just as capable of outplaying. Reference the great Kasparov-Deep Blue matches, so many of which ended in draws[1].

Thinking about accomplishments like Fischer’s, it’s easier to comprehend a situation in which the young prodigy figures out a strategy (entirely unbeknownst to his opponent) that involves thinking 15 moves ahead, knowing after each move what must happen by the dictates of the game[2]. Needless to say, planning such a strategy in soccer along the same terms is very difficult and (in terms of executing it) very rare. Any tactical surprises or personnel switches are largely known as soon as the teamsheets are released. It’s as if Fischer were to announce his strategy to Byrne before beginning, and then hope that Byrne doesn’t petulantly break a couple of his knights in half.

And yet, I think we have a recent match that comes as close to fulfilling the conditions for a Bobby Fischer moment as you can get: Inter Milan versus Barcelona, the semi-finals of the 2009-2010 Champions League. For most O87 readers, the stage hardly needs be set. I’ll do it anyway (for narrative reasons): Barcelona looked very likely to repeat at least most of the previous year’s sextuple; the white knights of the game, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and company had wowed virtually every corner of the soccer globe with their aesthetically pleasing, tirelessly pressing brand of football[3].

Let’s put it this way: Barcelona had accomplished the impressive feat of representing the best elements of David AND Goliath. They had simultaneously attracted the under-dog-supporting, football-purist crowd, while absolutely destroying virtually everyone who came in their path. Achilles AND Hector. Quail-Man AND Klotzilla. Inter, on the other hand, were the exact opposite. Despite being inferior, few neutral spectators wanted them to win. Jose Mourinho[4] is and was widely despised for his arrogance. While none of the Nerrazzuri were specifically targets of animosity[5], compared to the pretty football of Barcelona, Inter might as well have well been eleven Mussolinis running around.

In order to understand the tie qua Bobby Fischer moment, you need to understand just to the extent Inter were underdogs. In the opening match at the San Siro, Inter defied the odds and scored three goals on a Barca team that was known for choking the life out of games with 75%+ possession. Pep got certain tactics wrong, noticeably starting Zlatan Ibrahimovic, limiting Messi’s creatively and ensuring Barca were slightly weaker down the left-hand side[6]. But that wasn’t the first time that season Pep got his tactics wrong, and yet it was the only match all year that anyone scored three goals against Barca. A handful of teams scored twice against Barca, but not that many. They only allowed 24 goals in 38 La Liga matches! No–Barcelona didn’t lose the first leg; Mourinho’s tactics[7] won it.

An unquestionably impressive feat. But what really distinguishes this Barca squad over the last few years is just how tough they are to beat over two legs. In the three years since Pep has taken over, they’ve won the Champions League two of those. They’ve lost or drawn a few matches in the knock-out round, but, like clockwork, Messi, Iniesta, or Xavi always manage to pull it out. Arsenal and Stuttgart both initially drew them in earlier rounds that year, and both got smoked in the return leg. The same fate awaited Lyon and Chelsea in the previous years’ Champions League. Something about this Barca team just felt so inevitable. I remember watching the tie in Montpellier, France. We all just kept waiting for Barcelona to win. It felt fated to happen. Who were these pretenders to the throne? Surely Mourinho[8] wasn’t that good.

And yet he was. He had a plan all along. He knew that if he could score enough in the first-leg, Inter could hold out in the second. It feels almost too perfect that Inter would have a two-goal lead, as if Mourinho knew Barca would get one back in the return leg. Michael Cox’s prediction in his review of the 3-1 is telling: “in three weeks time [Inter] will quite possibly play the most Catenaccio-esque football we’ll see in Europe all year.” Here’s where the Bobby Fischer moment shows up. Pep believed that Barca could overpower Inter offensively. He must have known Mourinho was planning to park the bus, and yet he played Ibrahimovic, playing right into the Special One’s hands. Like Donald Byrne, Pep seemed[9] bound by the normal, the standard, the default. Barca’s style. Tiki taka. It’s supposed to work, everytime. It wasn’t nearly as glamorous or flashy as Fischer’s incredible combination, but Mourinho saw the one way to win. His tactical thrusts were as numerous as they were successful: starting Chivu as a left winger to corral Dani Alves; how he instructed Eto’o and Milito to contribute defensively after Motta’s sending off; shifting Chivu inside to avoid subbing in a defensive player to make up for Motta; having Sneijder make life difficult for Barca’s deep lying playmakers.

Cox posits that if Pep had left out Ibra and relied on the quick passing and sharp runs of his smaller players, the result could have been different. Potentially–but in the same article he also mentions the famous anecdote involving Arrigo Sacchi and the AC Milan ten versus five scrimmage[10], the point being that Mourinho knew what was necessary tactically to protect the lead. Play defensively; get 10 (or after Motta’s sending off, nine) players behind the ball at all times; limit attacking thrusts. In other words, do the opposite of trying to win the match. Like Fischer’s moving his knight to the edge of the board and his Queen’s sacrifice, Mourinho knew that winning this match would not come from the standard path. He took flack for it, all over the place, like Fischer initially. After all was said and done, he had checkmated the best team for a generation.

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[1] The implication, of course, being that both players played the exact right move every time, creating a constant stalemate.

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[2] This is not to take away from the impressiveness of the feat. What Fischer did then, and what chessmasters do every day, are some of the most astounding mental accomplishments in history. See here and here [under “Early Life”].

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[3] The “Barcelona are boring” criticisms, if they existed at this point, were in their infantile stages.

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[4] [Insert tongue in cheek reference to the Black Queen chesspiece].

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[5] OK, that’s not exactly true.

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[6] I owe most of my tactical insight here to Zonal Marking’s astute description of the tie.

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[7] Don’t give me none of that Eyjafjallajökull BS.

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[8] Not to take anything away from the Inter players, who undoubtedly put in one of the best two-leg performances in recent years. I just find it easier to talk in terms of managers.

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[9] My reliance on empirical evidence is necessary given the fact that I am not yet on speaking terms with Pep.

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[10] For a full description, see here [towards the end].

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