This article is an exerpt from my book “Pep Guardiola’s Positional Grid”. The book focuses on using Pep Guardiola’s positional grid to teach positional soccer. But the real ideaof the book is give coaches an insight behind how Guardiola’s positional grid can be adapted to teach the style you want to play. If used correctly, the grid will serve as a cognitive roadmap for players, helping them in their understanding of the game, increasing their soccer IQ and making their decision making slightly easier.
Explanation of Guardiola’s Positional Soccer
Positional soccer provides a set of guidelines and structure for the attacking phase of the game. The positional soccer field is divided into vertical and horizontal zones that indicate positional responsibilities for the players. The interesting thing about positional soccer is that the player’s options to some extent are predetermined by the position of the ball. The central theme behind positional soccer is to create superiority of numbers in a specific area of the field, using mainly shorter range passing. If a team can fully shift the opponent by drawing them to one side of the field with short passing, the opportunity to attack the weak side becomes the objective. Guardiola spoke about this aspect of positional play saying, “the objective is to move the opponent, not the ball. The secret is to overload one side of the pitch so the opponent must tilt its own defense to cope. When you’ve done that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball with a clear intention. Draw in the opponent, then hit them with the sucker punch.” The tactics Guardiola speaks about sound simple but in order to accomplish this way of playing, the team structure must be correct. Guardiola believed in order to build the proper team structure, the team would need to complete roughly 15 passes, this would fully create an attacking team shape. In tactical periodization this would be called the attacking organization phase. Once the teams positioning in attack was established, if they lost the ball, the players are already in a good position to press the ball to win it back. This is one of the important aspects of positional soccer that makes it so effective. The former Barcelona great, Johan Cruyff was asked, how do Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? He replied, “It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 meters as they never pass the ball more than 10 meters.” That statement alone sheds some light into the secret of positional soccer, with and without the ball. The secret in possession is positioning and the secret on defense is positioning.
Positional play is an important aspect that has influenced Guardiola’s tactics over the years, but to fully appreciate Guardiola, you must grasp an understanding of the ideas behind positional soccer, tiki-taka soccer, total football and the Barcelona way. In fact, when Guardiola was leaving Barcelona as the manager, he credited his work to, “being built on the shoulders of giants.” What Guardiola meant was that he didn’t create the way Barcelona played, he only put his influence on what was already built, because long before Guardiola, the likes of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels helped forge the style of Barcelona. Johan Cruyff is most commonly credited with creating the Barcelona style of play, but it was Rinus Michels that influenced Cruyff’s soccer ideas. Michels coached Cruyff at Barcelona from 1971-1975, and also in 1974 for the famous Dutch national team that introduced “Total Football” to the world. Michels stressed the importance of interchanging positions, attacking with the pass and the dribble, and relentless defensive pressing. When Cruyff became the Head Coach of Barcelona in 1988, he built on the ideas of Rinus Michels, developing the Barcelona philosophy even further. The style Cruyff developed became known as tiki-taka soccer, and it brought Barcelona instant success. The tiki-taka style was later adopted and used by the Spain national teams, under Del Bosque and Aragones. After Cruyff, it was Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard who further developed the Barcelona philosophy of play. Rijkaard made adjustments to the tiki-taka system, mixing it with positional soccer, as Barcelona continued to be one of the world’s best teams. After Rijkaard left Barcelona, in came the new manager Pep Guardiola. Guardiola revolutionized Barcelona in 2008, as they won almost everything between 2008-2012. Pep brought his own version of tiki taka, positional play and extreme pressing to Barcelona. However, Guardiola had something nobody before him had at Barcelona, Lionel Messi. Messi brought another dimension to Guardiola’s tactics, a dimension that made Barcelona almost unstoppable. Opposing coaches could pick the perfect defensive game plan, but in the end, no game plane could contain Messi. Pep would go on to win everything at Barcelona and later move onto to Germany and then England.
When Guardiola moved to Manchester City in the EPL, he was forced to reinvent his tactics. The English Premier League is not Spain or Germany, it demands speed and power, along with the ability to play in many types of challenging environments. At Manchester City Guardiola selected players with exceptional speed to play across the backline, especially at wingback, his wingers were also very fast, along with pace at the striker position. Guardiola chose a defensive center midfielder with mobility, toughness and speed, while the other two center midfielders were his most technical players in the team. The amazing thing about this Manchester City team was how they were able to play Pep’s new version of positional soccer, made specifically for the EPL. You could see the individual players getting better every week in the system, as the team started to play exciting and entertaining soccer. However, this Manchester City team was more vertical then his teams at Barcelona, they looked to get in and behind the opponents more than any Barcelona team had. The other incredible factor is that at Barcelona most of the players had been groomed in the system of play their entire careers, while at Manchester City Pep taught the team from scratch. In my opinion, Manchester City might have showcased Pep’s greatest work as a coach. It proved that positional soccer could be taught and perfected in a short time frame at the highest level.
The positional grid is like a cognitive road map for players when in possession. Depending on where the ball is located, players are responsible to fill a specific a location in the positional grid. The end result is that a team shape or structure will develop in possession, resulting in a positional soccer style of play. However, the game of soccer has unlimited ever changing situations and variables, so there will always be freedom within the provided positional structure to make adaptions. The positional soccer grid divides the training pitch into 20 sections, basically five vertical rows and four cross-field sections. The widest channels are referred to as the low option areas, because there are limited passing opportunities that can made from out wide. The widest areas are utilized often to draw the defense out, moving them from side to side to open up spaced in between the defenders or on the far side. The next space that borders the wide channel is called a “half space”. The half space is a dangerous area because penetrating balls and shots on goal can be taken from this position. Guardiola often liked his most dangerous players like Robben or Messi to receive the ball in the half spaces. How many goals have we seen those two players create by cutting inside and shooting to the far post! The next space is the large space on top of the 18-yard box, this space is considered the most dangerous area on the soccer field. This large box is so dangerous because more goals are created from this area than anywhere else. However, quick 1-touch play is critical in this area to be effective, with the largest concentration of defenders located in this space. Of course players like Messi are invaluable in areas like this, as they can make the impossible happen, changing the game.
The positional grid offers a structure and provides cues for players, letting them know to adjust their position depending in which zone the ball is in, they must know when to fill an empty zone when it has been vacated, or to move into a zone to create superiority of numbers. A general rule of thumb is that no more than three players will be in a horizontal line, and not more than two in a vertical line, this helps give the player on the ball two-three passing options. The entire game can be taught using the grid, from build-up play to the attacking third. When using the grid to teach positional soccer there are many ways to utilize it. One way is to set-up trainings that require players to operate inside the positional grid, adhering to specific conditions, but still allowing a degree tactical freedom while encouraging problem solving. An example of this would be requiring five shorter passes on one side of the field before a long pass can be made, switching the field to the far wide player. The next type of training can use the grid as more of specific road map that must be strictly adhered to. An example of this would be working on playing the ball out of the back. Each player will be assigned a specific part of the grid to be in, as a standard way of operating out of the back is established. The other beneficial aspect of using the positional grid is that it organizes space on the field in a realistic way for players. When players train tactics in specific game realistic spaces, their soccer awareness, tactical sense and soccer IQ benefit. Training in the positional grid helps players better judge distance, space and time in relationship to carrying out the desired tactics. I recommend training with the grid and then removing the grid at the end, so that spatial relationship is further reinforced.
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