Adapting Positional Play to Fit Your Soccer Club Environment

What is considered traditional positional play?  Full book available clink this link Adapting Positional Play

Positional Play or Juego de Posición in Spanish, is a way of playing the game with players specifically positioned spatially on the field to create superiorities in the attack to exploit the opposition. The ball is moved quickly and efficiently, as players look to receive the ball in between lines and in between players. The history of positional play can be traced back to the great Dutch teams that were coached by Rinus Michels. The Dutch called their version of positional football, “Total Football”. Total football was revolutionary to the soccer world, it allowed players to interchange positions at will, attacking by either the dribble or the pass, followed by an immediate press to win the ball back when it was lost. Total football evolved over the years and was eventually brought to Barcelona by Johan Cruyff, and later Pep Guardiola. In my opinion there have been many versions of positional football over the years that have emerged. Guardiola’s teams at Barcelona were tactically different then his teams at Manchester City and Bayern Munich. Barcelona was a pure positional play model but Man City turned into a hybrid model, keeping core principles but adding in a more direct play piece. You could see City change from Pep’s first season to his second, the keeper began hitting 50 yard balls, as building from the back was not always forced. Guardiola’s player personnel choices also changed to fit the EPL, electing for more speed, and less technical players in wide areas. Another example of adapting positional play comes from Michael Laudrup at Swansea City. Laudrup focused on keeping the ball in their own defensive third, inviting the opposition to press in numbers, once Swansea broke the initial press the longer ball was available to players in space with superiorities. Arteta used similar positional tactics at Arsenal when facing superior opponents, drawing the opposition to press them in numbers. The reason I share these examples is to demonstrate the ways positional football has been tactically bent over the years. I feel strongly that your environment should dictate your ideas of how to use positional play. What is the league like, what type of players do you have, are the players technical, what are the environmental conditions, who are the opponents, is it a developmental setting, is at a must win, and what is the training regimen? Every coaching situation is different and there is no one linear way or just one solution. My hope is that after reading this book, you will have the tools to bring aspects of positional play to your club, in a way that is unique to your club and highly effective, ultimately adding value to your players.

General Outline of Positional Play 

Positional play is a game of player positioning for a strategic purpose, it is not possession for the sake of possession. When we have the ball the goal is to move the opponent to create superiorities that can be exploited. Moving the ball quickly is a pre-requisite for shifting the defense. The superiorities we look to create in positional play can be an overload, isolation of a 1v1 mis-match, superior player positioning, the emergence of gaps/space in the defending team, or even a speed advantage. 

Pure positional play will breakdown if positioning is not correct. Players close to the ball, near the ball, and further from the ball all have a role to play, even if they are not directly involved in the play, they still help the team by providing the proper team structure. 

Once the correct structure is built in the attacking 1/3 the team will be well positioned to counter-press when the ball is lost. This is a very important aspect to positional play. However, it can take anywhere from 15-25 passed to build proper attacking shape from a team’s defensive 1/3, into the middle 1/3, and finally into the attacking 1/3. 

Another important concept of positional play is for players to rotate positions with their teammates, creating overloads and exploiting space

Susuperiorities are what the team in possession want to exploit

The famous Johan Cruyff said, “If I start running slightly earlier than someone else, I seem faster.” The timing of the movement is critical to exploiting space and time, even if the movement covers a small distance. Speed of ball movement can be summed up using an example from the World Cup. When Germany last won the World Cup, the average time on the ball per/player was .98 seconds, compared that to the previous World Cup, where each German player spent an average of 2.8 seconds on the ball. 

The most obvious example of a +1 is when using the Goalkeeper building from the back. In the middle 1/3 of the field, the goal is to create a +1 on the side of the ball. In the attacking 1/3 it becomes more difficult to create the overloads, even numbers is more realistic. 


When you watch the scanning habits of top players, they are always assessing the space they are in, this allows them to take-up a proper body orientation while being in the space. Xavi the great Barcelona player…”Think quickly, look for spaces. All day, all day…, space, space. I see the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.”

The easiest zone to create the numerical advantage is in Zone #1. The Keeper will be the +1 player who creates the numbers advantage. Zone #2 is the most compact zone on the field, the goal is to create a +1 on the ball side, then advance the ball diagonally into the attacking 1/3. Zone #3 is often where the defending team will set-up a low block, this is very difficult zone to create an overload. 

Because soccer is such a chaotic game the ability of players to self-organize is critical. This is why my methodology uses both positional and self-organizing exercises. 

This brings us to the fundamental purpose of the book. How can you adapt the positional play game model and training methods to fit into your unique soccer club environment? It is my goal to present ideas that can be customized and worked into the your current program seamlessly, creating your own positional play hybrid model. 

What do I mean by adapting positional play to fit your club

Let me start with a couple of stories from my own coaching career. As a college coach I have the privilege of coaching players from all over the world; what becomes clear right away is that the Brazilians are much different than the Germans, the Japanese different from the Ghanaians, the Mexicans different than the English, the Spanish different than the Irish, and so forth.  However these are more than just soccer differences, they are cultural differences that shape the way they play, communicate, experience the game, and even build relationships. When you take into account all the diversity within the team, inserting a pure more rigid positional play model may not make the most sense. I want my Brazilian futsal player to be able to dribble past the opponents high-press because he is so effective at it, I want my Japanese winger with amazing pace to get balls played to him over the top, skipping zone #2 all together. I want the freedom to adapt my positional model based upon the teams personnel that day, the opponent, the environment, and any other factors that come into play. 

In a youth soccer club environment, finding a one size fits all methodology can be even more challenging. I have had teams that could not do a rondo or simple passing exercise because the technical level was so low. It was my job to find a starting point that fit the level of the group. In order to accomplish this we began with rondo shapes and no defenders, focusing on moving the ball 2-touch. The ideas of basic positional play were trained, but it was in a very progressive slow way. Its becoming increasingly common to have players in your environment that are not playing thousands of hours of street soccer and not even watching the game on television. On the flip side, if your club environment has street ballers, they may be great dribblers and have a good touch, but lack positional play intelligence. Club soccer diversity in America is often dictated by the economic and geographic factors which further create different environments.

This book operates off the premise that there is no singular methodology or way of playing the game that fits perfectly for every environment. My goal is to provide you with the tools that can be adapted to create your own hybrid ideas of positional play, ideas that best fit your players, team, and environment. Positional play does not have to mean you play like Barcelona, but you can if you choose to. Positional play can be bent and molded to your ideas and taught using a wide variety of methods. Ultimately positional play will increase players soccer intelligence, affording players more solutions to solve the games problems. 

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