How Marcello Lippi used chess tactics to guide Italy to victory at the 2006 World Cup
It’s extremely common to find comparisons to chess within football coverage—indeed, two fine examples were featured in Issue 12 of The Blizzard. The associations between the games are generally considered either inbroad terms strategically, or to describe and criticise cautious, defensive-mindedmatches. You seldom hear of a particular side’s tactical strategy compared to a chess approach, however.
Football and chess aren’t disimilar in their objective. If you consider the kings as goalkeepers, the attacking involves using your outfield pieces to defeat the opposition king, and therefore the defending is about protecting your own king. The ‘eight by eight’ features heavily in both — in chess it’s the playing surface, in football it’s the goal.
One of the major differences, however, is the starting placement of players, or pieces. In football, the primary attacking weapons — strikers, wingers, playmakers—are generally placed high up the pitch, close to the opposition goal. In contrast, the most dangerous, valuable chess pieces — rooks, knights, bishops and the queen —begin from the rear, where they are both protected, and restricted, by a row of pawns ahead. The pawns shape the contest, but the other pieces provide the most eye-catching, crucial contributions.
In this respect, Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning squad, and the approach used by Marcello Lippi throughout the tournament, is the most chess-like team in football history. The attackers weren’t attackers— they were pawns. The real threats were located much deeper.
Lippi’s approach throughout the tournament was fascinating. He utilised his squad expertly, using 21 of his 23-man squad (the exceptions were the two reserve goalkeepers), and amazingly, he selected six forwards — Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, PippoInzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta—who all found the net. Therefore, goals were shared around — Italy scored 12 times, but only two players registered more than once— Toni and Marco Materazzi, with set-pieces crucial in both instances. At the back, meanwhile, seven different defenders started matches, but Italy conceded only twice: a freak own goal against the USA and a controversial penalty in the final. This was a superb squad effort.
Lippi employed two formations: 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-3-1. He was widely expected to depend upon the former, and he started with that system before switching midway through the tournament. The problem, however, was that Lippi had selected a squad suited to the narrow 4-3-1-2, and lacked tricky wingers for his 4-2-3-1.
Italy rarely produces that type of player, so the absence of exciting wide options wasn’t entirely surprising. However, two of the four players cut from Lippi’s provisional 27-man squad were obvious exponents of traditional wing play, the outside-rights Franco Semioli and Marco Marchionni, who might have provided an attacking impact akin to Jesus Navas’s for Spain four years later.
In their absence, Lippi used Mauro Camoranesi and Simone Perrotta on the flanks of his 4-2-3-1. Neither were classic wingers. Camoranesi was comfortable on the right of a four-man midfield, but Lippi had regularly used him as a shuttler in a 4-3-1-2 at Juventus. Perrotta, meanwhile, was essentially a hard-working, disciplined central midfielder shoved out wide. “To this day I am not convinced I took the technically best players to Germany,” Lippi told Glenn Moore of the Independent in 2008. “But I was firmly convinced I called the ones that could create a team.”
Neither Camoranesi nor Perrotta provided moments of magic, and instead played controlled, reliable roles. They narrowed Italy, occupied space intelligently and prevented opposition full-backs advancing. This duo were markedly different from the wide players used by the other semi-finalists: France’s Franck Ribéry and Florent Malouda, Portugal’s Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Germany’s Bernd Schneider and Bastian Schweinsteiger (in his first incarnation as an inconsistent winger), all much more inventive, attacking footballers. In the final, Italy and France were essentially playing the same formation, but the difference in the characteristics of the wide players meant France were termed 4-2-3-1, Italy a more cautious 4-4-1-1. Even if unintentional, the implication was obvious: Camoranesi and Perrotta weren’t dangerous attackers. They were pawns.
Totti and Toni became Lippi’s first-choice forward pairing, and also played useful rather than spectacular roles. It might sound peculiar to describe the reigning European Golden Shoe holder Toni and the legendary playmaker Totti as functional players, but throughout this tournament it was true: Toni’s two goals came in one game and otherwise he concentrated on leading the line by battling with his hold-up play, not unlike Stephane Guivarc’h for France in 1998. He didn’t merely hold up the ball, he held back the opposition defence too. Totti, meanwhile, pressed energetically and occupied opponents, particularly the Ukrainian midfielder Viacheslav Sviderskiy, who performed a man-marking role on the Roma trequartista at the quarter-final stage. Totti dragged Sviderskiy out of position,others exploited the space from deep.
To use a common football expression, Toni and Totti ‘sacrificed themselves’ for the good of the team. What is that, but the perfect comparison to the pawn? ‘Sacrifice’ is one of the most widely understood terms in chess. At the beginning of a game, you understand your pawns will be crucial in setting the scene, but will rarely last the duration. Sometimes, you launch an attacking move with the specific intention to lose a pawn — because it draws the opposition into your trap, and enables your powerful pieces to take command.“The placing of the centre pawns determines the ‘topography’ of a game of chess,” said Alexander Kotov, the Soviet grandmaster. That’s what Italy’s forward quartet were doing. Fittingly, Lippi had eight pawns —the six different forwards, who were therefore individually expendable, plus Camoranesi and Perrotta.
The valuable pieces
It’s difficult to find equivalents for knights and bishops, but four easily identifiable chess pieces in a footballing context are the king, the queen and the two rooks. The king is the goalkeeper, the last line of defence. The queen is the deep-lying playmaker, the most talented and powerful ‘outfield’ piece, capable of spreading play in any direction over long distances. Finally, the rooks are the full-backs, who start on the outside of the backline but scamper forward unnoticed down the flanks.
In the classic numerical values of chess pieces, the queen and the two rooks are the most treasured pieces (aside from the king, who is valueless because his capture ends the contest). In these positions, Lippi boasted the best in the competition: the authoritative king, Gigi Buffon; the gracious queen, Andrea Pirlo; plus energetic rooks in Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta. Italy’s three most dangerous attacking weapons throughout the knockout stages were not the attackers, but Pirlo, Grosso and Zambrotta from deeper positions. Pirlo was the competition’s best playmaker, dictating games from his classic deep-lying position and collecting the man of the match award in both semi-final and final. His diagonals constantly found the full-backs — not unlike the way the queen has a natural relationship with the rooks, because their paths theoretically meet in a wide area inside the opposition half. Unlike the queen in chess, Pirlo had the luxury of passing over any opponents — or teammates —positioned in his path.
An amazing number of Italy’s decisive attacking moves came from two rooks, Zambrotta and Grosso.“It is always advantageous to exchange your king’s bishop pawn for the king’s pawn,” said the legendary 18th-century French chess player, François-André Danican Philidor. “This leads to the seizure of the centre and, in addition, to the opening of a file for the rook.” The comparison is obvious — the wide players were nullifying their opposite numbers and helping to control the midfield, and encouraging the full-backs to overlap. Perrotta created space on the outside for Grosso,Camoranesi did the same for Zambrotta.
The 3-0 victory over Ukraine at the quarter-final stage summed it up: Zambrotta opened the scoring with an excellent long-range drive, Grosso forced the corner that resulted in Toni’s first goal of the tournament, before Zambrotta charged forward to tee up a Toni tap-in. Everything came from the full-backs, often found by Pirlo.
The tighter knockout games against Australia, in the second round, and Germany, the semi-final, were also won by a full-back, Grosso. He earned the controversial, crucial late penalty against Australia, converted by Totti for the game’s only goal, before breaking the deadlock in the 2-0 victory over Germany, courtesy of a fabulous reverse pass from Pirlo — the tournament’s greatest moment.
Those breakthroughs came extremely late: in the third minute of stoppage time against Australia, and two minutes from the end of extra-time against Germany. As every beginner chess player is taught, the rooks are most devastating in the endgame, where they can take full advantage of the wide open spaces.
The rooks were more subdued against France, pinned back in a cautious final that featured the ultimate checkmate. Pirlo scored Italy’s first spot-kick, before Grosso thumped in the fifth and final penalty, crowning Italy world champions. It was perfect that the player who sealed Italy’s chess-like victory was Grosso, the Palermo left-back. Who better than this reliable part of a Sicilian Defence?