Positional Play in Motion

I recently wrote a piece for These Football Times on a football coach's style, and why he or she shouldn't be asked or expected to change it.  Personally, I feel positional play is the most attractive style of football which achieves winning results.That being said, although I have a very clear and defined style that doesn't mean I expect you to agree with me or to adopt this style of play.

Given my preferred style, I love to watch teams like Sevilla F.C. or Las Palmas. They wholeheartedly embody what positional play is to me. Many times when I rewatch and truly analyze one of their matches, I see small details that give the team its identity. The following characteristics are examples of crucial concepts in positional play.

Space between lines


In football creating and finding spaces means more time on the ball. This is a general principle of football and a general characteristic of positional play. As we can see in the previous sequence, the midfield line finds space between lines, but more importantly, we have to focus on what they do when the ball is played into the zone which they are occupying. Although they initiate their runs at the same level, they then move to different levels. Simultaneously, some players come back towards the ball, while others run away from the ball. Not only does this make it difficult to defend but also, when the ball arrives it creates options which lead to progression up the pitch, as well as forming triangles between players. This requires perfect timing and coordination within the team.

As the coach, you must have it perfectly clear what you would like your players to do when your team is progressing up the field. The clearer you have your concepts, the better your players will implement these ideas. No matter what type of exercise you're doing at your training session, focus on the timing and coordination of runs.

Supportive Positioning


Providing supporting positions for the ball possessor is vital to the first principle of football: maintaining possession. In this sequence we can see the player on the ball with several supporting options. What we must emphasize is to provide support at a distance which alleviates pressure but not too far away to make it a difficult pass.

In a match setting, the center backs should always provide support for midfielders when they cannot progress, yet they must maintain possession. They should provide depth, and in some instances, width. To create this habit in the CB's, you can use small sided games but place the CB's as support players on the ends of the area of play to help them see how important providing support really is.

Expanding Shape


Positional play requires space in the center of the pitch. In order to achieve the most space possible, wing players must make it a habit to expand all the way to the touchlines as soon as possession is won. Especially for younger players, this can be difficult because they might not see as much of the ball as they would like. They have the sensation they are not doing anything to benefit the team, but in fact they are the most important piece to the puzzle. Without wide wing players, there is no room to work with in the middle.

Training this can be difficult and meticulous because it requires players to be mentally engaged in the match at all times. They cannot check out during transitions (ATT->DEF, DEF->ATT) as is common for many players. As a coach, constantly emphasizing the transitional periods of any game situation is crucial to keep the players mentally aware of their offensive and defensive duties.

Taking Advantage of Space


As I have mentioned, and will continually bring up, football is all about the relationship between space and time. Of course the first step to gaining more space is to create space by making supporting runs, as well as runs to lose your mark. However, making runs are useless if other players don't take advantage of the newly created space. In this sequence, the midfielder makes a supporting run and draws out the opposing midfielders. The ball is circulated to the other side and then the ball is played into the newly created space. We call this exploitation of space.

Shadow play, or unopposed play, creates a great foundation to the habit we want to create in our gameplay. It shows players the movements which can be done in order to create space, but more importantly, they will see the space which they are creating by simply leaving it.

Short passes to create


This characteristic is similar to creating and exploiting space, except in this scenario we use the ball to lure a defender out of a space rather than the run. Many coaches fail to see the importance of short passing. When watching teams which have possession based styles, we see many short passes that don't seem to go anywhere. However, short quick passes lure out defenders and create space which can be exploited. The concept of the 'third man' is based around this idea; two players execute a combination of passes to draw out a defender only to find a third player (the third man) free and available to take advantage of the space.

Like in the case of making runs to exploit space, this characteristic can be improved by shadow or unopposed play. Once players understand the basis of this concept, then small sides games with directional play are perfect to further develop creation and exploitation of space.

Positional rondo


Every one of us has seen and are familiar with rondos on the training pitch but when we are watching a match we fail to see the rondo in action. In this sequence, Sampaoli's men create a rondo mid-match in order to maintain possession and escape the Leicester City pressure. In order to play quick, short, one-touch passes, players have to orientate their body to face the play. They shift their hips to face both the source and the destination of the pass.

Using rondos in training gives players the right tools needed in order to develop the skills for quick and purposeful passing. Having said that, don't think that because you did a few rondos over the course of a season, your team will be passing the ball like Sevilla F.C. It's a process which takes years.

Read: Positional Play Series


Positional play is a style of play which cannot be defined by one phrase, but instead it's a series of actions that make part of the bigger picture. They are patterns in play that encompass how a team is looking to achieve the ultimate objective of scoring; this article has covered just a few of those. Nevertheless, I implore you to watch your favorite team and examine their identity and the small details of their movements and play.

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