Isn’t football beautiful? Such a simple objective yet how we achieve it can vary so widely. I have always felt that sport, and particularly football, is an art form in that how a team, manager, or player decides to express themselves is entirely up to them. Furthermore, how one finds success on the pitch can differ immensely as we have seen in the past couple of years. We’ve seen teams like Atletico Madrid, Leicester City, or Iceland play defensive minded football with powerful counter-attacking. On the other hand, we’ve seen their conceptual opposites like F.C. Barcelona, Dortmund, or Spain play possession-based football with well-orchestrated and organised attacks. And like in art, neither is better than the other, they are simply different expressions.
What’s most intriguing is how a manager decides how their team is going to play. Like the famous philosophical question ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’, there is a debate as to what decides a team’s style, do the players’ qualities dictate the style or does the style dictate the players needed? Personally, I feel a manager should have a preference as to how he or she likes to play, their style, and how they should modify their style to the specific characteristics of their team, their game model.
So it’s no secret that there are a handful of managers who are huge proponents of positional play. When people hear the term positional play, they immediately bring to mind its poster boy, Pep Guardiola. However, the style has been around for decades without specifically being named. Legendary coaches like Rinus Michels, Gusztáv Sebes, Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal, Juanma Lillo, just to name a few, have utilised and created concepts we now see in modern day positional play.
So returning to the modern day positional play, how exactly do we define it? For me this style can be described as a series of patterns, movements, or actions executed throughout the pitch, in attack and in defence, to correctly and rationally position the team in order to create certain advantages with the ultimate goal of exploiting said advantages. The name positional play is derived from the idea that the collective way in which the team occupies space will eventually result in superiorities.
As I have mentioned, the most important concept of positional play, and quite frankly without it would lead to failure, is the idea of collectivity. It’s the notion that the team is an organism that requires each of its parts to serve its purpose with the objective of achieving a communal aim. One cannot pretend to play positionally without first having a created a social environment where each player recognises their role within the entity, and more importantly accepts and understands each movement has a direct and indirect consequence. It doesn’t matter how insignificant the movement may seem, it has an effect on the team. It could be as minute and minimal as standing still that could give way to creating space elsewhere. It’s respecting the benefactor-beneficiary duality; my action benefits you and vice versa.
The British philosopher, Alan Watts, describes a Japanese term ‘Jijimuge’ as “every one event implies all the others”. He is of course not referring to football but nonetheless, it can be applied to our social sport. He continues, “There are no separate things, it’s all a single unified process no longer divided in the ‘I’ or the ‘you’”. I hold this idea of a ‘unified process’, as something that cannot be separated, and I can’t help but think how perfectly this applies to our sport and the necessity of selfless teamwork.
Taking Watts’ ‘unified process’ to positional play, we begin to see the need to create a whole organism with like-minded movements. This is the beginning of a successful construction. We must begin with a well-distributed, rationally occupied structure. Juanma Lillo talks about the importance of understanding what the rules explicitly and implicitly state. Yes, we all know that the offside rule restricts any movements behind the second-to-last opposing player. He states that this rule tells us, without explicitly stating it, that because the opposing team dictates the amount of space we are allowed to play in, the team must find alternatives to create more space. The use of wide players is his solution and an important part of positional play. When creating a rationally distributed structure, the most important thing is to create as much space as possible and to do so requires wide players.
It’s also important to mention that although many teams which play this type of style utilise formations like a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, the formation is not important. What it boils down to is an understanding of where the strengths of your team lie, and creating the correct structure which amplifies said strengths. As long as the structure provides depth and width rationally occupying the field, it can be used to play positionally. The following images show some organised structures at the highest level. Notice the depth and width each one of them has. This is the cornerstone of a good structure.
During the creation of the team, the structure is when a player must respect the benefactor-beneficiary duality and be selfless in his or her actions. It takes a lot of self-restraint to abstain from moving closer to where the ball is. However, maintaining a wide position with the understanding that it will provide space for a teammate is vital.
Once having constructed the structure, the team can begin to understand the relationships between players and where those interactions take place.
At a basic level, there are two general spaces which we must decipher to understand the relationships. First, we have the space of intervention or mutual help which can be described as the space near or around the ball possessor. In this space, we have the ball possessor and the direct supporting player. They each have distinct roles and responsibilities they should provide. For example, the ball possessor should utilise the ball as bait to lure out defenders from certain spaces in order to create space for direct supporting teammates. They can do this by attacking or dribbling at defenders to make them leave their designated area. At this point is when the direct supporting player would intervene. They do so providing the necessary support to the ball possessor to maintain possession of the ball, all the while giving continuity to the team’s attack through correct body orientation.
The second space is called the space of cooperation, and within this space is where the indirect supporting players maintain the team structure. Although these indirect supporting players may not appear to have many responsibilities, they have the obligation to attract opposing defenders by simply being correctly positioned. For instance, a winger on the opposite side of the field as the ball must be patient and stay in his position. In doing so, his direct defender must be vigilant of his movements, therefore creating more space in the area of mutual help.
The following images show certain zones in specific moments of a team’s attack. As it was so intelligently pointed out to me by a fellow ESDF writer, we could add a third zone, the intermediary zone. However, to keep this article at a manageable length, we will leave this for a Twitter discussion.
I have also added a video which visually represents the player responsibilities.
Types of Superiorities
Lastly, with a correct structure and good understanding and awareness of the each player’s responsibilities on the pitch can we begin to see and generate the superiorities which will pay dividends in matches.
The first and simplest is numerical superiority. It’s easily defined as having more players than your opponent. Of course, I don’t mean the opposing team receiving a red card, but instead creating group situations within a match in zones of intervention where our team is in 2v1, 3v2, or 4v3 situations. This is done by attacking certain spaces with more players than are defending. The following video gives you an idea by providing real examples you might see at the highest level.
The second superiority a team can look for is positional. This one might be more difficult to identify because it requires the knowledge of the playing field and how players are facing. One example that you might see quite frequently in a match is an attacking player getting in behind a defender. This is a perfect example of positional superiority. If the attacker has started a breaking run behind a defender when the defender is facing the opposite direction in which they have to run, then the defence are at a positional disadvantage. The following video depicts several instances in which attackers exploit a defender’s poor stance or lack of awareness.
The last superiority is qualitative. This is as simple as saying that one team or player is better than another. For example, if my winger is incredibly gifted with the ball at their feet and his or her direct defender is deficient in 1v1 situations, then my winger has the qualitative superiority, thus as the coach, I should exploit this advantage by creating 1v1’s. The following video shows several situations in which we can clearly see that although the player might be in a numerical inferiority, they have qualitative superiority.
In the end, positional play is another form of playing our sport, and although personally this style resonates with me more than any other, I understand that there is no right or wrong style. Recently, Juanma Lillo was asked about which formation he would use at his new position as the manager of Colombia’s Atletico Nacional. He brilliantly answered “It doesn’t matter. In reality, it’s not about whether you use 3 or 4 defenders or whatever, those numbers don’t exist. What exists is the game. So what’s more important is rather than playing positions, we should play the game.” With this, I remind you that whatever style you choose, make sure your players learn to play the game.
Because this was a very quick overview of such a complicated topic, I welcome you to engage with me on Twitter (@ijasport) to clear up any further questions or concerns you may have.