Enzo Maresca, Chelsea and the chess treatise that explains his vision of football

Pawn Sacrifice has been in theaters for a decade. Sonically, it sounds more like Soho than Chelsea.

But the blue film, it wasn’t. It was also not a huge success at the box office. The film, like Chelsea, underperformed well below its estimated budget. Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber were in the lead roles and are still floundering. But Enzo Maresca enjoyed retelling Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky’s “Match of the Century” for a meeting of the minds as much as he enjoyed the Cold War machinations surrounding a chess match in Reykjavik in 1972.

Towards the end of his playing career, Maresca began studying chess. He found a tutor while in Palermo, and must have learned, in time, the subtleties of the Sicilian defense and the vigatello, deliciously called the “fried liver attack.”

It goes without saying that Chelsea’s managers have become nervous very quickly in the Todd Buhle-Cleric Capital era. Maresca is expected to be their sixth in two years if you count a miserable and fleeting temp like Bruno Saltor, a series of events that brings to mind the Italian term for checkmate: Scacco Matto. “Matu” means crazy, crazy. But we digress.

Maresca believed that learning the basics of chess would prepare him for management. Anyone who wanders into the library at Coversiano, the Italian Football Federation’s training school on the outskirts of Florence, which is to UEFA’s professional licenses what Harvard Business School is to MBAs, can pull out their thesis and read about how to use the Nemzo defense The ultra-modern Indian hailed by every world chess champion since José Raul as the “human chess machine” Capablanca is linked to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

“A coach can only benefit from acquiring the mind of a good chess player,” Maresca said. “The evidence is the development of a number of mental skills” that are excellent for the “prefrontal cortex.”


Boris Spassky shakes hands with Bobby Fischer during their first chess match (AFP via Getty Images)

He listed them as “gaining the dexterity needed to devise tactics and strategy, improving creativity (important for the surprise factor)” not to mention the way the game “facilitates concentration”. As the 44-year-old claimed: “Chess teaches you to control the initial excitement when you see something good and trains you to think objectively when you see yourself in danger.”

No doubt, having paid attention, like Garry Kasparov, to how Chelsea have been managed recently, he still somehow concludes that a potential move from Leicester City could bring down his reputation, regardless of the experiences of Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Mauricio Pochettino. One can only infer that he thought he was playing chess, the kind that outperforms Deep Blue and AI models like AlphaZero, while these guys were playing checkers.

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As the opening jockeying over Maresca’s judgment (or lack thereof) in taking the job comes to a close, the parallels he draws to the game of chess are, in all seriousness, well noted.

“The chess board is similar to a football field, as it can be divided into three channels – a central channel and two outer ones,” he stressed. “In football, as in chess, the inside game can be more interesting because it is the quickest and most direct towards the goal or the king.”

Controlling the midfield is key, as Guardiola emphasized to Maresca during his time at his team, either directly through classic midfielders like Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta or indirectly with inverted full-backs like Philipp Lahm or Rico Luis who act like knights in a chessboard. Build through the middle and the pitch opens up like a board, and the angles of attack become multiple.

In terms of football, the Italian Marisca is influenced by the Spanish game juego de posicion. He cites Paul Murphy, who was similar to Johan Cruyff and Guardiola Fischer, about “the ability to see combinations clearly” and how “the positional game is, first and foremost, the ability to arrange pieces in the most effective way.”

Then there is the element of surprise in the game of chess, which in footballing terms, he could once again be seen as on the cusp of taking over as Chelsea manager as a rookie manager. Instead, Maresca sees it as small tweaks from game to game or within the game that can force an opponent to exploit their weaknesses and lose confidence and time.

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“During a match at the 1991 World Chess Championship, Viktor Korchnoi took an hour and 20 minutes to make his thirteenth move in response to an unexpected change from his rival Anatoly Karpov,” Mariska explained. “Karpov’s move was not a checkmate, but the time advantage he gained by surprising his rival was certainly decisive. Korchnoi needed to reorganize and review his strategy and tactics.

Lots of Soviets feature in Mareska’s thesis, and one imagines that Roman Abramovich and Marina Granovskaia, the former Chelsea owner and chief executive respectively, would have been just as impressed as Bohli and Behdad Eghbali.

He could become the seventh Italian to beat the dugout at Stamford Bridge. Two of them won the league, one the Champions League, and one the Europa League. All of them, with the possible exception of fellow West Brom graduate Roberto Di Matteo, were more experienced than Maresca and had worked within a club with a different owner who spent big but in a more rational and effective manner.

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Maresca is expected to arrive on the back of winning the championship with Leicester after threatening the 100-point barrier. He even came within a match of matching the 104-year-old record for the most League Two wins (32) in a single season. Some call it mariscabal. His supervisor at Coverciano likely identifies him as Marisca’s pawn.

On the face of it, he appears to be part of the new wave of Italian coaching, which has swept Francesco Farioli to Ajax and led Juventus to settle on Thiago Motta. He was at the table at that famous meal in Manchester that included Guardiola, Roberto De Zerbi, Daniele De Rossi and Aleksandar Kolarov – not as Pep’s guest but as one of his lieutenants. The halo effect that comes from working with the Catalan can wow employers. Mikel Arteta’s success at Arsenal after leaving Guardiola’s staff led to Parma offering Maresca a job when he was coach of City’s elite development squad.


Maresca had a difficult time with Parma (George Wood/Getty Images)

That didn’t work.

Maresca inherited a team disorganized by the enthusiasm of the new American owners who spent lavishly (€80 million!) on unknown youngsters from all over the world (especially Argentina and Romania), and, unable to put their finger on what had gone wrong, sacked two players. Managers in their first season. The influx was so great that even players with Joshua Zirkzee’s potential did not shine and Parma surprisingly fell. Maresca was asked to shake things up in the second division and, more specifically, to turn a few dozen individuals into a team. Sounds relatively familiar, doesn’t it?

Despite receiving the highest wage bill in Serie B, Maresca was fired within months. It left Parma with 17 points from 13 matches, narrowly above the relegation zone to avoid the Italian League.

Upon reflection, Mariska still describes it as a “positive experience.” His concerns were a lack of patience (“They gave me a three-year contract, and when you sign a multi-year contract it’s because there’s a project idea behind it) and unrealistic expectations (“No one told me that at first”) We should have gone to Serie A this year “Especially when 15 or so new players arrive in the summer.”

However, he was criticized by the local media for using players like Simon Sohm out of position, and after complaining about too much transfer activity being disrupted, he still had the audacity to insist: “Parma could have been in the play-offs with all three.” “The players we have identified in the January transfer window.”

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The scars he suffered at Ennio Tardini made Maresca think twice before taking over at Leicester City last summer. He told Gazzetta dello Sport: “I was a bit afraid, because it’s like Parma: a big club has been relegated and there was huge pressure to come back straight away.”

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But Leicester set a record and finished the first half of the season with 58 points, evidence of Maresca’s influence but also the kind of spending that prompted the Premier League to refer the club to an independent panel over alleged PSR. The breach and failure to submit their audited financial accounts to the league for the 2022-23 season, when they were still in the top flight.

Autopromotion wasn’t exactly easy. After a 3-1 win over Swansea last January, Maresca was frustrated by King Power’s anger at his tiki-taka style. “Maybe when you win, win, win at home, and keep winning, people think it’s easy. But it’s not easy. I arrived at this club to play with this idea. And the moment there is some doubt about the idea, I will leave the next day. It’s very clear, no doubt.”

He was unable to sign Stefano Sensi on loan from Inter Milan after Chelsea recalled Cesare Casadei and Wilfred Ndidi suffered an injury. In the second half of the season Leicester racked up 39 points, enough to cross the line in first place, but the decline looked like it might escalate after defeats to Middlesbrough, Leeds and Queens Park Rangers in the spring.

Unlike Ipswich Town, who punched above their weight to return to the Premier League for the first time in 22 years, Leicester lived up to expectations. After all, Jamie Vardy’s 18 goals in the Championship was a cheat code even as he is now in the twilight of his career. Meanwhile, Chelsea clearly share Maresca’s view that promotion has not been as easy as it seems. Frankly, it still comes as a surprise that Chelsea and the former midfielder agree on each other.

Returning to chess terminology, neither of them found themselves in zugzhuang: a situation in which any move only weakens one’s position and risks checkmate – but not moving is not an option. Chelsea, for example, did not need to sack Pochettino. Mariska didn’t have to leave Leicester.

Having lost the benefit of the doubt, it’s fair to take a guess at these senior professors.

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(Top image: David Rogers/Getty Images)

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