Crash Course to Positional Play: Part 1 of 4

It’s not about moving the ball, it’s about moving the opponent.
— Juan Manuel Lillo

As some of you may know, I have recently written an article for These Football Times on one of my footballing heroes, Juan Manuel Lillo. For me, he is one of the most inspirational and innovative characters in modern football. He is not only considered one of the founding fathers of positional play, but he founded it in a way which went against the current of football at that time.

During the process of writing my Lillo homage, I exhaustively researched his ideas through interviews, articles, and essays, to better understand the man that has been so influential to how football is played today. Naturally, in my research I came across countless concepts regarding positional play. This led me down the rabbit hole of the ambiguity that is ‘Juego de Posicion’.

During my time in Spain, I have studied and worked with some brilliant coaches who are proponents of positional play. However, through all the chats about matches, training sessions, theory classes, etc, I have never organized my findings into a structured article like the one which I am about to write. I have books, powerpoints, articles, and notebooks full of separate ideas and concepts on the subject from many sources (in Spanish), and I felt that it would be beneficial if I created a place which contained some of the basic ideas on the subject in an easy to follow manner. This was the origin of this project.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be releasing an introductory series on positional play where I will cover the basic concepts necessary to embark on this playing style.

Along with Lillo, another sire of positional play is Paco Seirul•lo. Although his playing background doesn’t include football, he is accredited for F.C. Barcelona’s methodology which is heavily based on positional play. Initially, the methodology was created for Barça’s Handball team in the 80’s and 90’s but with the arrival of creative minds like Johan Cruyff, it was transferred and successfully applied to football.

Seirul•lo, Lillo, and many other footballing pioneers agree that football is a complex process which cannot be separated into distinct parts (attack, defense, etc). In the words of Seirul•lo, “the game is a continuum of complexity”. Oscar Cano Moreno describes it in the following way, “when training, coaches must recognize the inherent complexity of the game as a means to adapt to the necessary context.” In this way, going forward we must embrace the complexity of football and avoid separating it, for there are no isolated moments, only the game itself.

Within the subtleties of positional play, we can divide this style into three objectives which need to be met in order to achieve success. In each of the upcoming parts of this positional play series, one of the objectives will be discussed comprehensively. Today’s article will briefly introduce each of the objectives.

Read: Organized Structure (Part 2)

This is the basis of positional play. It’s the foundation upon which the implementation of this style is built on. It’s essentially where the name comes from. Pep Guardiola, positional play’s most popular spokesperson, said, “One must occupy the right positions, and the positions depend on where the ball is located.” He’s referring to the spaces where his players must be at any given time, and as he has mentioned, it’s based on the movement of the ball. It’s not a fixed formation as many believe. Many coaches presume that because they are replicating Barça’s 4-3-3 or Sampaoli’s 3-5-2, they are using positional play. This is a common misconception and one that we will fully dive into to begin to understand how the shape and formation of a team is both the cause and effect of its players’ characteristics.

Read: Players’ Relationship with the Ball Possessor (Part 3)

‘Rondos’ are a staple of positional play. We have all seen the videos of Guardiola’s team producing football magic as they whip passes around a circle keeping it away from an unfortunate duo stuck in the middle of the playing area. However, do we actually know what is happening in terms of positional play? Football is played with one ball, yet there are 22 players on a pitch. That being said, 21 of those players have some kind of relationship with the player on the ball, whether it is an adjacent or distant teammate, or a direct or indirect defender. When training it’s important to know the roles and responsibilities of each player, along with what each player provides the team’s tactics. As Cano Moreno states, “we become free as we collectivize ourselves.”

Read: Generate Superiorities (Part 4)

This objective is where we see the fruit of our labor. At this point in the process, the players must have mastered the first two objectives otherwise these numerical, positional, or qualitative superiorities will not appear. Not only does the apparition of these advantages need to be worked on but so does the awareness to identify them, and ultimately use them to approximate the team to scoring a goal.

This is just a basic introduction to the three main objectives which I will be covering over the next couple of weeks. I look forward to embarking on this journey into the beginnings of positional play. I welcome you to interact with me along the way via Twitter (@ijasport), email (ijasport@gmail.com), or Facebook (It’s Just a Sport).

To learn, we first need to understand what we want to learn.
— Jose Antonio Marina
David Garcia