My Explanation of Positional Play
Updated: May 27, 2020
Positional Play - or Juego de Posición - can be difficult to explain and even harder to coach. As a playing philosophy or game model, it relies on structures and concepts that can be difficult for young players to grasp and, therefore, difficult for coaches to teach. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Positional Play is that while it definitely depends on concrete ideas of structure, the underlying concepts are at once necessary and flexible. As a result, the coach who can successfully implement Positional Play is usually an exceptional teacher. Of course, you can't teach the concepts unless you know them and can explain them to young minds.
I like to think about Positional Play this way: Within the team's desired structure, players use positioning, possession and rapid ball circulation to create superiorities that generate space and allow the team to advance together toward the goal.
There is no single correct structure. The right structure for your team will depend on your players, your objectives and the quality and abilities of your opponent. The starting point is what we commonly think of a playing system, e.g. 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1. But within those formations, structures often vary based on the abilities, characteristics and qualities of the players. For example, if your desired formation is a 4-3-3 using typical principles of width and depth, your players will be positioned wide in possession of the ball and more compact out of possession. That might be your structure. But it could also be different. For example, you could play the same system but require both wingers to stay extremely wide, almost to the touchline, at all times. Or, you might require the strong side winger (the side of the field where the ball is) to be fluid in positioning, but require the the weak side (not where the ball is) to always stay extremely wide. Extreme wide positioning is a great way of manufacturing a "free man" in space who can take advantage of a quick switch in the point of attack. Even without the ball, such wide positioning allows them to occupy the attention of the opposing back. It is critical that players understand the desired structure and that it be at the center of the coach's training session design.
Positioning is not your position. Your position is your initially assigned role on the field, for example Center Back or Midfielder. Positioning is a way of describing a player's fluid and constantly changing relationship to other things at any given moment in time, but always with reference to the team's desired structure. "Playing positionally" is best understood as constant attention to being in the best place to support rapid ball circulation and create or exploit space.
Possession and Rapid Ball Circulation.
Keeping and passing the ball are the most important technical skills for a Positional Play team. In training sessions, a considerable amount of time must be devoted to development of these skills and habits. The habit of possession is critical. Each player and the team as a whole must have the instinct to keep the ball and to win it back quickly if it is lost. A skilled possession team can move the ball quickly in small spaces and draw in defenders, thereby creating space in other areas of the field.
This is a big topic, but let's keep it simple. The best numerical superiority is 1v0, which just means one player has the ball with space and no opposition. Numerical superiority ("there are more of us") simply means outnumbering the rival in the area where we have the ball. For example, when playing out of the back against a team that is pressing with one striker, we can position ourselves to create a 4v1 situation. Or if we are possessing the ball on one side of the field and attracting defenders, a teammate on the other side of the field might be free and in a 1v0 situation. These numerical superiorities can be created all over the field through intelligent positioning.
[Graphics above are from a fabulous article on rondos by Julian Genoud.]
There are other types of superiorities as well: positional superiority ("we are positioned better than our rival"), qualitative superiority ("we are individually faster or more skilled than our rival") and perhaps the most elusive and important one, socio-affective superiority ("we understand each other and situations better than our rival"). This is all about creating mismatches. If my right winger is faster and more skillful than the opposing right back, then a 1v1 situation between those two players really means qualitative superiority despite the numerical equality. If my player is positioned in a key area or an important space, we can outmaneuver our rival. And if my players understand each other, our style of play and can anticipate each other's actions and evaluate situations faster than our rival, then we have a distinct superior advantage.
For me, this is unquestionably the most important aspect of Positional Play. The odd thing to me is that as soccer coaches we have to teach something that is so instinctive to kids in other forms of play. Think about a game of Tag. The objective is not to get tagged so you move into space quickly, away from the player trying to tag you. This is basic animal behavior!
In Positional Play, we want players to create, recognize and exploit space. Creating space can be done in many ways. If a defender leaves an area, that becomes open space. How do we entice defenders to move out of an area? With the ball, of course. If we can keep the ball moving between a few players in a small space, defenders will come thinking they can win it back. Once they come, they leave open space and we need to recognize it. One of our teammates needs to see that happening and position themselves in that space. To exploit the space we just created and occupied we need to pass the ball decisively to that player who will be in a good position to advance the ball up the field.
We referred to this video before, so forgive us for referring to it again. It is a textbook example of using rapid ball circulation to create superiorities and generate space. Watch the video carefully. Pay close attention to the player in yellow at the TOP of the video, the far right of the field. Notice the player in yellow is being marked by a single defender.
Next, you should notice something really important. The defender starts to move toward the action. He is between two players and starts to mark the player closest to the ball. Meanwhile, the player furthest away starts to drift even further away from the defender. This takes 6 seconds to develop.
One second later, the positional advantage is enormous. The player at the top of the area has acres of space and that is exactly where the ball will go as the team exploits the space and advances together upfield.
Watch the video clip over and over. You will learn so much from it. Returning to the topic of rapid ball circulation, notice the speed of the passing and movement. It is precisely that speed of ball circulation that draws in the defenders like moths to a flame.
"[La Volpe] obligates [his teams] to play out from the back, which means players and the ball advance together at the same time," wrote Guardiola in El Pais back in 2006. "If only one [player] does it, there is no reward, no value. They have to do it together, like couples do when they go out together."
In Positional Play, the relative distances between players is extremely important. As the ball advances up the field, every player must advance. In this way, the passing distances between players are maintained so that rapid ball circulation is always an option. This is also important defensively. If the team advances together and the ball is lost, there will be more players around the ball to apply immediate pressure to win it back.
TEN KEYS TO POSITIONAL PLAY
As I explained above, my view of Positional Play is: Within the team's desired structure, players use positioning, possession and rapid ball circulation to create superiorities that generate space and allow the team to advance together toward the goal.
We can break this down a bit further to bring out concepts coaches can use to further develop their game model and write training session plans. For me, these 10 concepts provide a nice conceptual hierarchy.
Pass the ball quickly in close spaces among adjacent players to attract defenders and create a "free man" positioned in space to receive the ball.
Players should position themselves at different heights and depths to create favorable passing angles.
Wide players should be positioned as wide as possible to create space in the center of the pitch. Wide positioning will create advantageous numerical superiorities like 1v1 or 2v1. If the rapid ball circulation and positioning is done really well, then you can create the best superiority of all, 1v0. Watch the video above again and realize that the player at the top of the screen is the "free man" and receives the ball in space in 1v0 situation!
Create qualitative superiorities by positioning players , especially wide players, opposite players who are inferior in terms of speed, technical skill or defensive weakness. When player receives the ball in a 1v1 situation against a weaker player, it can often be the same as a 1v0.
Pass with purpose. Rapid circulation of the ball is for the purpose of moving and attracting defenders in order to generate a "free man" with time and space to receive the ball and advance.
Dribble to attract. When a player has time and space to dribble 1v0, that is a first option, as that will attract defenders and create space elsewhere. If the team is advancing together, when the dribbler encounters pressure they can use rapid ball circulation to maintain possession and create space elsewhere for another player.
The "Third Man" Concept is almost unstoppable. Triangular positioning is how we do this.
The ball and the players travel together, with the goal of setting up camp in the opposition half.
If the ball is lost, we should have numerical superiority around the ball to help us win it back. We must press quickly.
A quick counterattack is a way of exploiting numerical superiority and positional advantage. If we can win back the ball and recognize we have superior numbers and positioning, counterattacking quickly should be the top priority.
Positional Play is, for me, the highest expression of collectivity in football. To play this way requires an intentional method of training. Players who have not been trained or educated in Positional Play will have an extremely difficult time fitting into a Positional Play team. Their technical abilities will be lacking, but most importantly their awareness and understanding will not be fully developed. We see this problem now with the U.S. Men's National Team. Greg Berhalter wants a Positional Play team, but the majority of his players have never been trained this way, going all the way back to their youth clubs, so it is extremely difficult for them to adapt and execute Berhalter's game model. This is a really important point for coaches looking to develop players who can thrive in possession/position based systems, whether it be college, MLS or Europe. If a kid has not been trained this way, it will be much harder for them to adapt and learn when they are older.
As an example, have a look at the USMNT playing against Cuba. The match was played November 19, 2019 and although it was a 4-0 victory, the USMNT struggled mightily with position and possession in almost every category. For reference, study the sequences beginning at minutes 27, 31 and 34.
Now compare the composure and quality of an Eagleclaw U16 team, focusing on technical consistency, positioning and possession. It can be taught.