The purpose of this blog as a whole is to learn and explore ideas- hence the “scholar” part of the name. In this one I want to focus on exploring what Positional Play means and what it includes. There are numerous sites, videos, and articles that relate to it, but bringing it all together in an organized framework is challenging.
If you’re a US soccer fan, you’ve heard the intent for the US to play “proactive soccer.” Klinsman used this term a lot. It was rarely defined. If Positional Play soccer is defined by a single word, it is being “proactive.”
Teams that play positional play soccer first and foremost looks to impose their will on the other opponent. They want to make the other team play on their terms through subtle manipulation and forced decisions to get them to do what they want. Berhalter often says “use the ball to disorganize the opponent to create goal scoring opportunities.” Positional play is looking to use the control of space and movement to create opportunities.
“PSV always play very compact and well organised soccer. This means playing dominantly in a different sense of the word. I link the term dominant with offensive soccer and playing in the opponent team’s half. I also choose to play like this because we are always trying to excite the public. If you play offensive soccer, the fans are entertained. If you play passively, you are only occasionally dominant.”
Positional Play soccer IS Total Soccer. The three names that never seem left out in regards to positional play are Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal & Pep Guardiola. They each worked to use the ball to move and manipulate their opponents.
Each of these coaches work to use the ball to move the opponent and create space to attack. They have some foundational pieces that are essential and then tools in their toolbox. If these foundations are not working well, the tools or tactics within are unlikely to work.
“The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.”
– Pep Guardiola
Triangles and Diamonds: As such, teams focusing possession will prioritize triangles and diamonds. The first thing I look for when watching a team play positional play, is does the ball holder have at least three options (including dribbling). If they do not, its a team error and not an individual error.
・Zones: Teams focusing on positional play will focus on the use of space and zones over team “shape” or number systems. Below is Pep’s zonal schematic of the field. You’ll see positional play coaches move right backs to center midfielders (Walker for Pep), strikers back to the midfielders (False 9), wingers inside so they look forwards and even center backs up – all to better manage and control the space. They use close passing on one side to open up zones on the other. The idea is to pre-design the movement of players in space to create openings. Total Football is the concept where any player can play any position and interchange. Positional play focuses on using the zones to help identify both their movements and spacing regardless of their “position.” Then depending on the players skill sets and the type of advantage that is desired they can move the players round the field like chess pieces to seek different advantages.
“The main problem I had to solve when my players were in possession of the ball was the one of creating space: searching for, creating and occupying space in the different parts of the field and exploiting that space in an effective and positive way.”
「選手たちがボールを持っているときに、解決しなければいけない大きな問題は、スペースを作り出すことです。ピッチのあらゆる場所でスペースを探し、作り、使い、効果的な前進をするために利用します。」 by ジョバンニ・トラパットーニ
Staggering: Positional Play coaches will avoid shapes with straight lines. They want as many triangles as they can get. A common rule is that no player should be in the same vertical or horizontal line.
When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average … So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.
Numerical Superiority- This is the simplest and most basic. Numeric superiority is an attempt to get superior numbers. This starts in their own half when starting possession and they look for the third man. It is then using the triangles and diamonds to always have a passing option. Then it is an attempt to take advantage of overloads or sets up 2v1s or other combinations in different zones.
・Positional Superiority- where the team has is better positioned than the opposing team in order to achieve an objective. Another way to state it is that the team that has positioned its players so as to be able to receive and use the ball with time and space to gain an advantage. The basic concept is how can a team position their players in zones to control the spaces on the field and manipulate the opponent to get a scoring opportunity. This can include placing your wingers high and wide to pin and hold the full backs, placing a striker between to center-backs to create indecision on who should mark them. It can mean moving a full back into the centerspace to get an advantage of numbers.
・Dynamic Superiority- where US takes advantage of movement through zones
I used this one already in another post but I am going to so again because frankly its easy and clear. Notice there is no obvious quality superority being used. The player is not beating them 1 v1. There is no numeric superority. Its 3v3. There is not positional superiority, as each man is marking 1v1.
So those are all the building blocks. The fun part then is the chess match that managers can do. They can put the pieces in the zones that maximize the quality superiority. They can try to get overloads and numeric superiority on one half the field, so so as to create space (positional superiority) on the other side. They can create movement across zones for dynamic superiority and try to get different 1v1 match ups. If a team marks too closely 1v1 so as to negate 1v1 disadvantages (quality superiority and dynamic superiority), they can use that movement to open up space for for other runners and free up a man.
Its a very complicated but fantastic system to watch and study.
Right now teams that I think run this system include Man City of course with Pep. Sarri will likely run this system for Juventus. Eric van Hag at Ajax and Thomas Tuchel at PSG. Atlanta United in the MLS and of course Greg Berhalter with the USMNT.