November, 1775: Boston, Massachusetts. American General and bookstore owner Henry Knox led a select group of soldiers through 300 miles of rough, snow-covered terrain to bring badly needed cannons south from Fort Ticonderoga to the hills surrounding Boston. The Americans were desperate to expel British troops from Boston, where the redcoats had hunkered down earlier in the year, and fortifying Dorchester Heights outside of the city would give the Americans the advantage they needed to drive the British out. Knox, who was not trained as a soldier but had studied military strategy from the shelves of bookstores he’d worked in since he left school to support his family at the age of nine after his father’s death, commanded his expedition as they moved 60 tons of artillery through ridiculously impassable terrain using an inventive combination of boats, sleds, and oxen over frozen rivers and through swamps and forests to strengthen America’s position in Dorchester Heights.
"My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months."
This was an unconventional but highly successful move. Revolutionary War winters were generally not times of great troop activity, with armies preferring to make camp and endure freezing temperatures and limited supplies without adding battle to their list of challenges. Some winters, like the winter of 1780, were so cold many troops were on the verge of starvation, which makes Knox’s 3-month run to Ticonderoga and back (also known as the “noble train of artillery”) all the more exceptional–big, bold moves during the winter months of the Revolutionary War were rare. While most of the army waited out the weather, Knox fought the New England winter. After retrieving the cannons from Ticonderoga, Knox and company repeatedly beat the season at its own game–constructing bespoke sleds that carried the artillery over the heavy snow (over 2 feet in one day was reported on Christmas Day) and even adding water on top of a freezing river to accelerate the thickening process.
After Knox returned with the artillery, the Americans began their secret fortification. Overnight, as artillery from another Continental Army base fired on the British occupation in Boston, American soldiers lugged Knox’s cannons to the tops of Dorchester Heights. In the morning, stunned British General William Howe declared, "My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months." Seeing the improved position of the Americans and their reinforced artillery, the British immediately retreated and evacuated Boston without firing a single shot.
Almost 250 years later the British are still vulnerable to a bold move during a dull moment, even if the attacks are coming from their own countrymen on a soccer field. Another band of redcoats, similarly looking to hang on to an era of global domination while away from home, faced a rag-tag group of under-funded and seemingly overmatched troops on a late-spring day in 2022. Manchester United, one of the most successful European teams in the last 50 years, faced little Brighton Hove Albion with United expecting to win on Brighton’s turf. In the 14th minute Brighton summoned their own noble train of artillery, using the usually quiet moment of a throw-in to better their position and eventually strike through United’s unaware defense.
Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea.
Throw-ins: there’s probably not a less exciting moment in a soccer game. The ball rolls out of bounds, the player closest to the sideline saunters over to the ball, walks back up the line, stands around for a bit looking for open feet to throw to and then tosses the ball back into play. Sometimes the ball ends up out of bounds again and the routine is repeated. But for smaller teams like Brighton looking for any possible edge against perennial powers like Manchester United, throw-ins are an opportunity to fortify their armies and prepare for a bold move. Known for his unconventional coaching methods, Brighton manager Graham Potter led Brighton into this battle like George Washington would have: no tactic was left unturned and the element of surprise was often utilized (for example, striking while the enemy slept was a classic Washington tactic, used over and over again as the Americans flustered and frustrated the British).
Caicedo’s movement gives Brighton a better position from the throw-in.
After marching listlessly through the first 13 minutes of the game in Brighton, United eventually misplace a pass that rolls out past the sideline. Brighton cunningly take their time retrieving the ball, and as United takes a moment to catch their breath the Brighton midfield advances to take better field position. An astute viewer will even notice Potter gesture his players forward with a subtle pushing motion toward the United goal. The throw comes in and as the ball bounces off of a United defender’s head, Brighton midfielder Moisés Caicedo advances 20 yards to win the ball back and begin Brighton’s attack. United are a bit slow to react and before they’re able to organize their defense Brighton has crossed the ball into United’s box. United manage to clear the ball away, but Brighton continue their forward pressure. Caicedo again advances into a position just outside of the United penalty area, controls the ricocheting ball and fires it into the goal from the top of Dorchester Heights. The TV replays focus on the goal, of course, and the commentators turn their attention to narrative: it’s Caicedo’s first goal for the team, the mighty United have fallen from grace, etc. But it’s another non-goal before the goal that makes the play really interesting. It’s Brighton’s bold movement during the dark night of the throw-in that gives them the advantage and it’s their re-positioning during a sleepy passage of play that puts Caicedo in position to strike. The goal itself is ok–it’s an accurately hit ball into the low corner–but Potter’s Knox-like expedition is the best part of the play. And, like the noble train of artillery, Caicedo’s bold expedition forward works out well for the scrappy underdogs. Brighton continued their Washingtonian surprise attacks and ran United out of town, the redcoats waving the white flag without even mustering an strike of their own–eventually losing 4-0.
Brighton manager Graham Potter preparing his next Washingtonian scheme.