Part 2: What are Position Play Games?
In the first part of this series, we dove deep into the basic of rondos, learning where they originated, how they’re played, their developmental value, and some basic rondo variations as well as addressing some general misconceptions about them.
With that foundation set, we’re going to focus on position play games which I alluded to toward the end of part one.
What are position play games?
In a very general sense, position play games (or positional games) are progressions of rondos that involve attacking players inside the playing area.
“The big difference between positional games and rondos is the inner game.” — Joan Vilá, Director of Methodology, FC Barcelona
This “inner game” Vilá is referring to is the combined play between the perimeter attacking players (as in a rondo) with interior attacking players.
Todd Beane defines positional games similarly as well:
- Perimeter attacking players
- Plus interior “jokers or neutrals or plus players”
- Versus a set number of defenders
While positional games are typically larger in size due to a higher number of players, and the positional nature and directionality of the exercise is often more apparent, the defining feature of positional games as a progression from rondos is this addition of interior players as both Vilá and Beane mentioned.
And just like with the traditional rondo, it is still the responsibility of the coach to provide the universal, individual, collective, positional, directional and situational context for the players — teaching them the value of rondos and positional games, and how each of their specific roles and the patterns of play would apply in a real game.
Is it a rondo or a positional game?
With the internet being a digital Wild West, there is often quite a bit of conflation and confusion out there around the use of the word “rondo,” its variations and their names. And, this is understandable, of course.
One example of this confusion is Pep Guardiola’s famous 4v4+3 positional game (shown above) being—more often than not—referred to as a “rondo” in the wild. However, this “rondo” really fits the definition of a positional game with its addition of an interior attacking player (as a “joker”).
So, is this a rondo or is this a positional game?
The answer is—arguably—“yes.”
As I mentioned earlier, position play games are further progressions of rondos with central players. But arguably, they are still rondos in a sense, because they’ve inherited the basic requirements of rondos as a progression.
However, it is far more accurate and appropriate to call them position play games or positional games for a few reasons:
- Specificity is always preferred over potential ambiguity. Calling them positional games allows us to clearly delineate them from traditional rondos, because…
- Positional games are more complex and dynamic. The defining feature of added interior players, especially “jokers” or “neutrals” affects the way the game is played—creating more dynamic spaces, passing lines and 3rd man options. And, these added values and utilities amplify the individual and collective concepts learned in traditional rondos. Thus…
- They are incredibly important tools in teaching Positional Play, deserving their own category just like they deserve their own part in this series.
With that, let’s look at the added value that comes with the addition of interior players in positional games.
The value of position play games
The movement of the central player is the key component to the positional game’s progression from a rondo. Their movements increase the complexity and change the dynamic of the exercise significantly.
While perimeter players are more or less confined to lateral movements along their respective sides, a central player has the ability occupy a wider range of positions within the whole 2 dimensional area. This variability creates a vast amount of potential passing lines centrally through linking play as well as directly influencing the defenders’ movements within the grid and their teammates’ movements around the perimeter.
Even if the number of attacking players remains the same, the complexity increases once a player is moved inside. For example, a 4+1v2 positional game would have far more passing lines than a traditional 5v2 rondo (as shown in the diagram above).
And as you can imagine, in larger positional games with more central players the complexity becomes even more pronounced.
So why is all this complexity good?
With the relationship between players becoming more dynamic, the attacking and defending players’ creativity, situational awareness and decision making improves further along with their individual and collective skills around the game center.
Spaces and the game center
The added complexity of positional games and the skills refined through them are directly related to the coordination and support between players in the spaces relative to the game center—a critical part of Positional Play.
While rondos focus more closely on the game center and the immediate space of mutual help, positional games cover a wider range of player relationships, including the space of cooperation.
In other words:
- Rondos include direct supporting players as the game center moves around the perimeter.
- Positional games include both direct and indirect supporting players as the game center can now move more freely inside.
As the game center moves around the exercise, attacking players (both perimeter and central) must move to provide support through creating passing lines (or angles)—making rondos and positional games important foundational exercises for teaching soccer, not just Positional Play or Total Football.
Jokers or neutrals
One of the main criticisms of rondos and positional games—at least in the US—is the unrealistic situation of having neutral players (or jokers). After all, in US Soccer’s coaching philosophy, they are striving to make training as realistic and as game-like as possible.
I get that.
I understand that using neutral players is not a realistic representation of the game. Of course there are no neutrals in an actual game.
But, perhaps in our overzealousness we might be missing out on a very valuable tool for developing a higher degree of situational awareness while also taking advantage of odd numbers of players in training.
In my opinion, utilizing neutrals in a rondo is a fantastic way to develop soccer intelligence. And, the same is true with jokers in small-sided games.
For the neutral players, the frequent context-switching between transitions, and the need to maintain awareness of which team they’re supposed to be supporting can be overwhelming at first. But, it will eventually improve their speed of decision making. And, this is especially true of and necessary for developing central players, like pivot players, because these positions require a high degree of awareness, creativity, and ability to make quick decisions while under pressure from all directions (i.e. “soccer IQ”).
I’m a firm believer in the value of using jokers in training, as I have seen development of intelligent players through their application firsthand—many times over each season. Put your central midfielder in the middle of a positional game as a neutral, and watch how they quickly become better scanners and better decision makers over the course of a season.
Yet beyond increasing awareness and soccer IQ, neutrals also assist in increasing the number of touches and success rate of the focus group (due to numerical superiority) as well as providing a certain amount of utility for exercises that involve transitions between attacking and defending, like in Pep’s famous 4v4+3 positional game which we’ll discuss next.
Examples of positional games
Pep’s 4v4+3 positional game
Pep’s iconic “4v4+3 rondo” is incredibly popular for several reasons, beyond it being famously associated with Pep’s training sessions. One of these reasons is that it is the simplest and most contextually relevant exercise in teaching Positional Play philosophy. It’s a perfect simulation of the spaces relative to the game center mentioned earlier.
In the diagrams below, these roles/positions can change depending on the orientation of the playing area too. When oriented horizontally, it can simulate build up play in central areas on the pitch. And, a vertical orientation could represent play in wider areas on the pitch. Either way, both are perfect tools for teaching continuity of possession between position-specific roles.
To play, the 3 neutral players (shown in light blue) form a “spine” down the middle of the grid with one positioned inside the area and the other two on opposite ends. The neutrals help the 4 attacking players (in dark blue)—two on each side of the area—maintain possession against 4 defending players (in red). Any loss of possession turns into an immediate counter-pressing scenario by the team that lost possession — with the attacking and defending teams transitioning (i.e. swapping places) on the fly.
If you have younger players or players who are newer to these types of exercises, I recommend holding off on the fluid transitions between in-possession and out-of-possession. Instead, start with one team being defense for a set period of time, and then swapping—at least until the players get used to the general flow of positional games.
TOVO Academy’s 4+2v3 positional game
Another great position play game is TOVO Academy’s 4v3 +2 inside. In what is essentially a 6v3 exercise, the six attacking players work on the 5 foundational Positional Play concepts of angles, distance, timing, lines and situation against 3 defenders.
As shown in the diagram below, the 4 perimeter attacking players (in dark blue) plus the 2 central players (in light blue) attempt to maintain possession against 3 defenders (in red).
Even though the central players are not often jokers in this specific positional game, I’ve made them light blue so they’re easier to discern in the diagram.
With the grid area set at 15 yards squared, the perimeter players have decent amount of distance to cover laterally, requiring them to move to support their teammates.
One twist on this positional game that I like to use in my training sessions is to divide the players into 3 teams of 3, giving them different color pinnies. This allows me to more easily rotate the players through the different roles as perimeter players, central players and defenders with the added benefit of cognitive development around context switching (i.e. which colors are my teammates this round?).
Liverpool’s 6v2 positional game
Liverpool’s 6v2 positional game, is a key component of Jürgen Klopp’s training around his philosophy on how to beat an opponent’s press by purposefully attracting their pressure.
To set this up, create a 8–10 yard by 20 yard rectangular grid, that is divided across the middle. Divide your players into 4 attackers (in dark blue), 2 jokers (in light blue), and 2 defenders (in red) as shown in the diagram below.
In this positional game, players must complete 6 quick, short passes on end of the grid before they can progress the ball to the other side to the target player using up-back-through combinations. You can, of course, adjust the number of connected passes or the playing area size to suit the level of your players. And, if possible, limit touches to 1–2 touches.
4v4+4 positional game
By adding one extra central player to Pep Guardiola’s 4v4+3 positional game, you get this 4v4+4 variation. The second central player adds slightly more complexity, of course, with their ability to create additional passing lines inside the grid. But, the ratio of attackers to defenders is much higher—making it less challenging for the in-possession team. Otherwise, the game is played the same.
What I find particularly useful about this variation, though, is that its more even numbers makes rotating the jokers much easier. Simply rotate teams one-for-one, with no need to trade pinnies.
TOVO Academy’s 5v5+3 positional game
Yet another twist on Pep’s 4v4+3 is TOVO’s 5v5+3 positional game. By adding a player to both the attacking and defending teams, the complexity and density increase—making it a bit more challenging with the ratio changing due to the additional defender inside the grid (i.e. 8:5 rather than 7v4).
In the diagram above, 4 of the attacking players (in dark blue) have positions on opposite sides of the grid, with the 5th player playing centrally. The 3 jokers are positioned exactly like Pep’s 4v4+3 positional game (in light blue) with the 5 defenders (in red) inside the area.
And, just like Pep’s original version, you can play this positional game with fluid transitions from attacking to defending or you can opt to swap the defenders and attackers after a set amount of time (for beginners).
England’s 6v6+4 playing through midfield game
One of my all-time favorite training exercises is David Powderly’s 6v6+4 playing through midfield game. This “possession game” (as Powderly refers to it in the video below) is a bit like an inside-out positional game, with the jokers/neutrals outside the perimeter, providing a plus-four (+4) advantage to whichever team is in possession inside the grid.
Ideally, the playing area is set up between the penalty area and midfield line—making it about 30–40 yards by 30–40 yards, like in the diagram above. This specific location on the pitch is an important element to the setup, as it provides direct in-game context for the players who are learning to play through midfield from their 2 center backs (i.e. jokers at one end) to their 2 target players (i.e. jokers at the other end) as shown in light blue above. Optionally, you can position the playing area across midfield—straddling the center circle.
But, if you have limited training space, that’s totally understandable—I’ve been there. Even though the pitch lines help orient players visually, you can (and should) still provide the basic positional, directional and match context for your players.
If you don’t have 16 players, you can use different numbers where needed as well. For example:
- 15 players — 5v5+5 (with the 5th joker playing inside)
- 14 players—5v5+4
- 13 players—5v5+3 (with one of the jokers as a lone target striker or use a coach to make a 4th joker)
You get the idea. And, with fewer numbers, adjust the size of the playing area accordingly.
Continuing the series
Over the last two parts in this series, we’ve covered everything about rondos as well as positional games. Next we’ll cover how to apply rondos and position play games in your training sessions.
- Part 3: Using Rondos as a Framework in Training (coming soon)
Questions, comments or feedback?
As always, I welcome any comments or feedback in respect to rondos, positional games, and Positional Play (Juego de Posición).
And, if you’ve enjoyed this series so far or found it helpful, please let me know with a “clap” or two. Thanks!