Positional Structure & Exercise Design
Updated: May 13, 2022
Photo courtesy of Alexy Kljatov
"Over the last several decades science’s view of nature’s lack of structure— its unpredictability—underwent a major renovation with the discovery of deterministic chaos. Behind the veil of apparent randomness, many processes are highly ordered, following simple rules." - Professor James P. Crutchfield
Deterministic chaos - a contradiction in terms. It is the idea that while somethings' behavior would seem to be predictable, interactions with anything else change what will actually happen. Even the slightest interactions can lead to profound changes in behavior. This is also known as the Butterfly Effect - the idea that a butterfly's fluttering wings can have a minor effect on the air around it that could eventually grow to the point where it could alter the path of a tornado miles away. A meteorologist trying to predict the path of the tornado is not aware of such minor effects, causing their predictions to be off the mark. This seeming randomness is what we call chaos.
Chaos exists everywhere in nature. It is unpredictable, but not without order. When various elements or components come together and interact, they form a complex system that at first blush seems random or chaotic, like the Butterfly Effect. Within those interactions, however, there are patterns and self-organization. This is the essence of Chaos Theory, the idea that by looking more deeply into a chaotic event or situation, you will find order.
This kind of organization or order was brilliantly explained by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in his landmark work of 1975 entitled The Fractal Geometry of Nature. Mandelbrot set out to prove that what appears on the surface to be messy, disorganized or chaotic actually has a deeper sense of order. This order can be perceived easily in fractals, which are essentially geometric repetitions "in which smaller and smaller copies of a pattern are successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole." (Stephen Wolfram, The Father of Fractals, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 2012).
A classic example of fractal order is the snow storm. Cold air and moisture collide in the atmosphere and we get snow. When we take a closer look at the snow itself, down to the level of the individual snowflake, things get interesting. Each snowflake has a very organized, orderly fractal structure. This structure is the result of chaotic interactions of many factors such as temperature, atmospheric currents, humidity and air pressure. Specific conditions cause snowflakes to form in repeating geometric patterns. Change the balance of any factor in even the smallest way and the resulting geometric pattern is different. This is why it is said that no two snowflakes are alike, but this statement is not entirely correct. While the geometric patterns of snowflakes are always different, they are all similar in one important respect: all snowflakes have a hexagonal 6-sided radial symmetry.
So what does any of this have to do with football? At the core of any football system or game model is structure, especially in Positional Play systems. A key principle of Positional Play is the concept that players should occupy space on the field in a rational way in order to achieve certain superiorities, e.g numerical, qualitative, positional, socio-affective. Precisely where and how to occupy space is the challenge as it all depends upon many other factors including the quality of the opponent, their system, their tactical intentions, their fitness levels, their speed of thought, their decisiveness, their awareness, their attentiveness, the moment or time of the game, weather and countless other factors. Players must do all of this in real-time, individually and collectively. This is chaos - the seemingly random interactions between two teams on a football field. Although each player understands their individual role and the team's collective tactical plan, when they hit the field each player will interpret and execute differently and at different mental and physical speeds. These differences in positioning, execution and technical consistency have ripple effects causing other players to move and play differently and position themselves differently. In other words, many different Butterfly Effect factors are occurring constantly in the game.
The sequences of positional patterns created by a football team will differ from game to game. Just as no two snowflakes are alike, no two football matches are alike in terms of player movement on the field. However, just as all snowflakes have hexagonal 6-sided radial symmetry, a properly trained football team should always have a high level positional structure - a target structure.
“Even if a team is more fluid in an attacking sense, at the back it’s more structured than ever I would argue. It’s maybe not so much about formations any more, but there’s still a great emphasis on structure....I think that’s to a certain extent why Guardiola’s systems are sometimes difficult to decipher because they do spend so long in possession, therefore they are changing position and being fluid." - Michael Cox
Coaches of Positional Play teams know that formations (e.g. 1-4-3-3, 1-4-2-3-1) are not the driver of a team's game model. The driver is the players we actually have. We opt for a particular formation based mainly on the abilities of our own players and the challenge posed by the opponent. Formations change, but high level positional structure should remain largely constant as a key point of reference for players.
A positional structure is simply the desired positioning of players relative to teammates. The positional structure addresses spacing (the distance between players) as well as location (where on the field players should be). As players move fluidly, the positional structure may stretch or shrink but should stay essentially intact. If the positional structure is broken, then the players must quickly and collectively and adapt to the new situation and just as quickly repair or heal the structure using movement and positioning.
For example, consider the 1-4-3-3 and the 1-4-2-3-1. The organization and position of midfield players is different in each system, but the essential structure of the two systems is the same. It can be described as "7 on the outside and 3 on the inside" (8 on the outside if including the keeper). Using this phrasing consistently with players is key and can help them internalize a visual picture of the target structure. It can also serve as a tactical organizing principle for the entire team and a cultural point of reference.
Notice that the two systems have different internal "crystalline" structures and connection points, but their overall structures are identical. A roughly hexagonal structure with radial symmetry featuring 7 players on the outside (8 including the goalkeeper) and 3 on the inside.
If an outside player moves to the inside or vice versa, the structure is temporarily broken. In that case, players must move to interchange positions and repair or heal the target structure. This is commonly referred to as rotational movement, but we can appreciate the significance of positional rotations better if we see them as self-organizing movements to maintain a target structure in order to continue rationally occupying spaces on the field.
Of course, coaches can design their own target structures to suit their players and tactical objectives. I simply chose the 1-4-3-3 and 1-4-2-3-1 as an easy way to make my point that despite the seemingly chaotic nature of the game, if you look more deeply you can find structure, order and self-organization, if you train it!
Teaching Positional Structure
The essence of positional structure is the positional relationships between players. Accordingly, training session exercises should replicate these structures so that players see the patterns as often as possible and are placed in contexts enabling them to make decisions relating to maintaining the target structure. The challenge is how to intentionally design exercises to teach these concepts and then coach them and fine-tune the details. In the following paragraphs I outline an example progression of exercises intended to specifically teach positional structure.
Without question, the 4v1 rondo is foundational and must be a daily staple of Positional Play training. Among many other things, the exercises teaches the basic picture of teammates positioned on the outside of a defender. Click here for my in-depth explanation of the exercise.
Another progression is the 2v2(+4) positional rondo. In this exercise each team has two inside players. The team in possession plays with the 4 outside players. Again, there are many important details that can be taught in this exercise but it is also very useful to the coach who is beginning to teach positional relationships between inside and outside players. It is also a fantastic tool for training midfield players. Note that in this exercise we do not yet introduce rotational movement of players in the same game moment. In other words, while a team is in possession of the ball there is not yet any positional interchange between an inside and outside player. Also, if a team loses the ball there is no switching of role with an outside player. The four outside neutrals remain in outside positions. On loss of possession, the two groups of inside players change role, meaning they transition from attacking to defending or vice versa. This is a key benefit of this game as it teaches the inside players to transition quickly, almost instantaneously, from attack to defense and defense to attack. The game is continuous. If the ball leaves the area the coach should introduce a new ball quickly to keep the players focused. After 5-8 minutes, the 4 inside players become the neutrals and the original neutrals are split into teams of two players each so players have an opportunity to play in all roles.
When you are ready to begin introducing rotational movement, it is important to explain and train the concept first and then progress to training how it happens in a structural context. One of the best ways I've found to do this is with a dynamic possession game that requires rotational movement. The 8v8 Positional Game with Positional Interchange is designed for 16 players but can be adjusted somewhat to accommodate more or fewer players. The set up is is simple and shown below. The rules of the game are important.
Two teams of 8 players arranged as shown. Each team has 4 players inside the area and 4 outside. Outside players for each team are arranged in alternating sequence as shown.
The objective is to maintain possession.
When a player passes to an outside player, the interaction occurs as follows:
When the outside player receives the ball they must play the ball with only one-touch and then enter the area to become an inside player. Note: playing with only one-touch forces the outside player to be constantly aware, spot teammates' runs and know ahead of time where they will play the ball. This means this game will also work on the spatial awareness of the players.
The player who made the pass quickly takes the outside position of the player to whom they passed the ball.
The positional rotation between the passer and receiver must be quick in order to maintain structure - 4 on the inside and 4 on the outside.
There is no touch limit inside the area, but players should be encouraged to play with as few touches as possible.
If the ball goes out of play, the outside player closest to where the ball went out should retrieve it and return it to the coach. In the meantime, the coach plays another ball in so that one team has a +1 advantage. This will teach players to adapt to broken positional structures and to take advantage of an opponent's broken positional structure.
This game is not only fast-paced and fun for the players, but important for engraining the concept of positional rotation and interchange. It is important to urge players to make the rotations quickly in order to maintain their positional structure.
Once the players have a sense of positional rotation, it is time to put them into a positional game that better replicates positioning in a match. The 7v7(+3) Structural Positional Game is an ideal possession game for reinforcing positional relationships as they will occur in the game. The playing area is arranged as shown. The three interior neutrals play with the team in possession so that the overall situation in possession is 10v7 but the structure is 7 on the outside and 3 on the inside. If the defenders win the ball, their 7-11-2-3 will take wide positions and those same players on the team losing possession will move into the central area to defend. All other players remain in their zones. In this way, there will always be a 2v1 situation in each end zone and a 4v3 in the central zone. In possession, players may dribble into the area. In that event, one of the three neutrals must rotate to an outside position.
In the diagram shown, Blue #4 has space to dribble forward. By entering the central area, the blue team now have 6 on the outside and 4 on the inside. So neutral midfielder #6 rotates to the open outside position to maintain positional structure. After Blue #4 plays the ball (in the diagram shown as a pass to #8) they work their way back to their original position as a center back and interchange with #6 who resumes playing in the central area as a midfielder.
The concept of the 7v7(+3) Structural Positional game can then be extended into a larger format 11v11 conditioned game. The playing area is not the full width of the field in order to increase the technical demand on the players. The wide channels are the edge of the playing area and should be about 6-10 feet wide. The game is played with all normal Laws of The Game with only a few tactical constraints.
In possession, the team must have at least one player in each of the wide channels, but can have up to two players simultaneously in the wide channels.
Outside players may move into the inside area provided that an inside player rotates to ensure the structure is "7 on the outside and 3 on the inside".
In the diagram shown below, the #4 decides to dribble forward to take available space. This is a smart decision but now they are taking on a midfield role. Accordingly, the #6 pivot drops to cover the outside position vacated by #4. The #4 now has two passing options shown. To create a third passing option, the right winger #7 moves into the wide channel - dismarking - and thereby moves out of the cover shadow created by the defender marking him.
Embrace Positional Structure
Whatever your desired system or game model, training the target structure is important. The way you design your training exercises and coach them is one of the variables that will determine whether your team has an effective structure on game day to bring order to chaos. If you are spending a lot of time with players at training dribbling through cones or lining up to take shots on goal, then you are not teaching structure or positional relationships. Your job as a conscientious coach is to design exercises that relate directly to your club's game model and curriculum, comply with your club's training methodology and teach players how to move, position themselves and effectively interact with each other in the flow of the game.
For the Positional Play coach this is even more important because the organizing principle of our style of play is how to collectively occupy spaces on the field and try to achieve numerical superiority wherever the ball is. This cannot be done unless we teach young players about our target team structure and how they can create it, maintain it and repair it . Now is a perfect time to revisit your session plan and think about how the exercises relate to your game model and target structure. Maybe you need to design better exercises!