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Understanding Functional Play

Through a comparison to Positional Play

Mark Caron
10 min readJan 16, 2024



Like many things in life, philosophies and tactics in soccer are cyclical. What is old is new again — or perhaps more correctly: reinvented, refined, or evolved.

The last two decades have seen an increase in the popularity of Positional Play thanks to the successes of its proponents, like Pep Guardiola, Roberto De Zerbi, and others. Positional Play wasn’t anything particularly new or novel, either, since its philosophy is rooted in the “Total Football” of days past. But, it has been refined, and I’d dare say: improved upon.

Similarly, Functional Play has had a resurgence in the last few years, with the successes of teams like Fernando Diniz’s Fluminense and Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina. Even though Diniz is often credited as “the godfather” of this philosophy, it has more or less existed before his time. But, thanks to the rise of the information age and the broad availability to watch soccer from around the world, our collective understanding of this old philosophy has continued to grow, and the style of play has continued to be refined, through coaches like Diniz and Scaloni.

What is Functional Play?

In many ways, Functional Play (also called Relationism) is seen as an opposing, counter-philosophy to Positional Play (or Positionism). Some even refer to Functional Play as “Apositional”, which I think is a perfect descriptor.

While ​​Positionism relies on positioning and structure to control the chaotic nature of the game, Relationism finds beauty in riffing along with the chaos.

“If Positional Play is classical music, then Functional Play is free-jazz.” — Paraphrase from What is Relationism?, by Jamie Hamilton

And it’s with that last visual, that one might not be surprised to learn that Functional Play has its roots in South America, where the free-flowing style and flamboyant displays of skill seen in street soccer are deeply cultural. In Brazil, Functional Play is known as “Jogo Funcional(and Jogo de Apoio” before). And, in Argentina, they simply call it La Nuestra (or “our way”).

While Functional Play’s approach to the game is rather different from Positional Play, both share many underlying universal, collective, and individual concepts within soccer.

Similarities to Positional Play

Before we dive deeper into the difference between Functional Play and Positional Play, let’s look at some similarities between the two philosophies.

  • Numerical superiorities
    Both Positionism and Relationism look to gain numerical superiorities (or “overloads”) around the game center.
  • Coordination and support
    Though the way of coordinating and supporting may look different, structure, coordination and support — and movement off the ball — are essential to both philosophies.
  • Socio-affective superiorities
    Player relationships (i.e. socio-affective superiorities) are prioritized in Relationism but are still an important aspect of Positionism as well as any team sports philosophy.
  • Qualitative superiorities
    Both philosophies place importance on creating situations where an imbalance of player abilities may be to their advantage (a.k.a. qualitative superiorities), whether isolated (1v1) or when combined with socio-affective superiority.
  • Third man (or “free player”)
    While the “third man” is often seen as strictly a Positional Play concept, the idea of finding “free players” is still a universal concept in soccer even if there are subtle differences in how this is accomplished.
  • Counter-pressing
    Both philosophies utilize counter-pressing from their naturally created positional and numerical superiorities as a means to gain possession back as quickly as possible.

Now let’s look at the differences.

Space is seen as dynamic

One of the main differences between Functional Play and Positional Play is in how the concept of space is viewed.

In Positional Play, space is predefined by the bounds of the pitch. Space is seen as a physical entity, just like the ball, the goal, and all the players. It pre-exists and is therefore limited as a static concept that must be optimized and controlled, rather than created from nothing. And, it is believed that only through certain position-based structures that the available space can be optimized and maintained to allow easier progression of the ball in order to score. This is why there are predetermined zones that players must occupy according to specific rules.

Figure 1.1: Space in Positional Play is predefined by the bounds of the pitch.
Figure 1.2: Conversely, space in Functional Play is dynamic and exists between players.

In Functional Play, however, space is seen as existing only in relation to the players. Space is metaphysical. It is only through the players’ relationships around the game center (i.e. the ball) and with the opponent, that space is created and manipulated. It is derived, dynamic, and fluid as opposed to predefined. Instead of predetermined zones and positional structures, Relationism relies on more fluid structures and motifs to create close passing networks to aid progression of the ball.

Tilting with the ball

Both philosophies utilize the ball as a magnet. However, Relationism and Positionism differ on “who is attracted to the ball”.

In Positional Play, the ball is used for attracting and unbalancing the opponent. The attacking team is able to move the ball to their players because they are where they are meant to be within the predefined structure. The players’ positions make passing possible. Passing then moves the opponent and opens space for additional positional superiorities (like “third man” runs) in more advantageous locations for the attacking team.

In Functional Play, however, the ball is a magnet for the attacking team as much as it is for the opponent. The players in possession shift toward the side of the pitch — in close proximity — around the ball carrier in order to move the ball with their teammates. This shift toward numerical superiority is called “tilting.” As a result of the tilt, the opponent becomes unbalanced, and additional space is created for the attacking team to exploit.

Figure 1.3: A typical field tilt for the 1970 Brazilian team.

Defensive diagonal

As the attacking players tilt, they are left exposed on the opposite side of the pitch (i.e. the weak side). So, in order to protect this potential weakness, the fullback on the opposite side pinches in — moving diagonally inward — to close the space inside or to cover the opponent’s winger. This diagonal movement inside is called a “defensive diagonal” and is a primary aspect of Functional Play’s rest defense.

Figure 1.4: The defensive diagonal and potential attacking threat of the fullback.

Coincidentally, as a result of the tilt, the unbalancing of the opponent’s defensive block, and the positioning of the attacking team’s fullback in the defensive diagonal, the opponent may be left exposed in the open space created on the opposite side. With a well-timed switch of play to the fullback, they may find lots of room to attack — which Brazil has so often exploited with attack-minded fullbacks like Cafú, Roberto Carlos, Maicon, Dani Alves, Marcelo and more.

The yo-yo

Another interesting pattern of play that emerges in Functional Play is called the “yo-yo” (a term borrowed from Jamie Hamilton and Gorka Melchor). Simply put, a “yo-yo” is a sequence of passing between tilted players, where the ball is circulated briefly out of pressure only to be quickly passed back to where the ball came from — toward the original tilt — and into an ephemeral pocket of space as the defensive block is momentarily unbalanced.

Figure 1.5: Fluminense players executing a “yo-yo”.

By all accounts, this “yo-yo” sequence runs counter to almost everything you learn as a player, especially in the US. We are taught to move the ball away from pressure — to “switch fields” of play — where you have more time and space to attack. But, in Functional Play, the defining feature is the tilt and the relationships created between the players tilting. Moving the ball away from this would defeat the purpose of the tilt, and all of the socio-affective advantages found in its motifs.

“Take chances even if you lose the ball, be brave, take risks. Learn to live with risk, don’t fear it, it prepares you for big moments.” — Fernando Diniz

Relationships over positions

Lastly, Relationism differs from Positionism in its prioritization of socio-affective (and numerical) superiority over positional superiority.

Where Positional Play requires players to occupy specific zones to optimize passing channels and exploit the space that opens up, Functional Play encourages player relationships as the central tenant. This is why the philosophy is also known as Relationism. In Functional Play it is precisely the individual’s relationship with their teammates, the ball, and the opposition that influences the game.

With the players tilted toward the ball carrier, they are now free to take advantage of their relationships through a set of common patterns and motifs:

  1. Toco y me voy
  2. Tabela
  3. Escadinhas
  4. Corta luz

Toco y me voy

More simply understood as “pass and move,” toco y me voy (or “I touch and I go” in Spanish) is the immediate action of moving after you pass. While this concept does occur within Positional Play, it is not a defining feature in Positionism, since players are expected to occupy more defined structures to create their quintessential symmetrical passing channels mentioned earlier. Functional Play, however, intrinsically relies on the asymmetrical nature of passing networks created by toco y me voy.

You can see a perfect example of the toco y me voy in the image below.

Figure 1.6: Toco y me voy in action with the Flamengo team of the early 1980s.


For a player to “pass and move” (i.e. toco y me voy), a teammate must present themselves as an option to receive the initial pass. This teammate is known as the tabela (or “table” in Spanish).

Together, these concepts of toco y me voy and tabela are known in English as the “wall pass,” “give and go” or “one-two.” And in Argentina, this motif is called tirar paredes, meaning “to throw down walls.” Either way, this combined and spontaneous pattern of play requires a high degree of understanding between players to execute well (i.e. socio-affective superiority).

Figure 1.7: Germany’s Muller offers himself as a tabela for Beckenbauer’s toco y me voy.


Another core pattern in Functional Play is the escadinha, meaning “stairs” in Portuguese. Escadinhas are diagonal lines of three or more players that form momentarily, resembling a ladder with individual players acting as rungs. Fittingly, this metaphor of a ladder and stairs serves as two primary ways an attacking team would utilize escadinhas to progress the ball “up” the field:

  1. Stairs through the toco y me voy and tabelas
  2. Ladders through a corta luz
Figure 1.8: Grémio “climbing” an escadinha through toco y me voy and tabelas.
Figure 1.9: Escadinhas appear when players tilt toward the ball.

Corta luz

Within the escadinha ladder metaphor, a corta luz is the feint or “dummy” executed by the player in the middle “rung” of the ladder — stepping over the ball and allowing it to pass by them onto the teammate behind. More directly translated as “cutting the lights,” the corta luz effectively leaves the opponent helplessly in the dark as the ball passes by them.

Figure 1.10: Rivaldo of Brazil executes a corta luz, leaving the ball for Ronaldo Nazario who scores against Japan in the 2002 World Cup.

It’s important to note that escadinhas and the corta-luz are rarely seen in Positional Play, since more than 2 players on the same diagonal or within close proximity would limit potential passing lines to the ball carrier.

A wonderful example of all four of these elements coming together is the classic escadinha-corta luz-tabela-toco y me voy goal by Manchester United’s Keane, Yorke and Cole against Barcelona in 1998.

​​Figure 1.11: Manchester United’s Keane, Yorke and Cole pull off a famous example of an escadinha-corta luz-tabela-toco y me voy against Barcelona.

Closing thoughts

Even though Positional Play and Functional Play may be considered opposing philosophies, I’m not convinced that they’re entirely antithetical to one another. True, Positionism relies exclusively on positional structures to optimize and control a predefined, physical space, while Relationism relies on players tilting out of their positions to take advantage of their relationships and the dynamic spaces created within that network. These approaches are stark contrasts. But, some coaches and systems have found success in the gray areas between order and chaos, like Carlo Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp.

Gray areas

Carlo Ancelotti is famous for being a tactical chameleon — changing his teams’ structures to suit the players he has available and then giving certain players more positional freedom within that structure. Whereas Jürgen Klopp’s famous heavy metal style of football leans a bit toward Positional Play, but with intense counter-pressing that often leads to chaotic, Relationism-esque scoring opportunities.

There is a whole spectrum between Positionism and Relationism (or Apositionism), and I believe it’s to our advantage to see soccer in those gray areas, especially in youth soccer in the US.

Duality of space in soccer

Interestingly, physicists and philosophers have long debated the nature of space for centuries — along very similar lines, in fact.

Is space absolute or relational?

It’s an argument as old as time, and one that gets incredibly complicated the moment Einstein enters the chat.

Sheldon Cooper is stuck on a physics problem in “The Einstein Approximation” episode of Big Bang Theory.

But, our experience on the soccer pitch is much less complicated. We experience space as both physical as well as metaphysical (i.e. dynamic) in that:

  • The soccer pitch has predefined boundaries (or “phase space”) which the game (and the players) are limited within, and
  • The spaces between players are dynamically opened or closed as the players (and the ball) move.

In other words, space in soccer is both open behind and open between players. It is both relative to the players and absolute in its maximum dimensions of the pitch.

Comments or feedback?

Like with all my posts, I welcome any detailed comments or feedback with respect to the topic at hand.

Similar to my previous post on Understanding Positional Play, I’m not an expert on Jogo Funcional nor have I had the pleasure of learning directly from the masters, like Scaloni or Diniz. I only hope to add to the conversation around Relationism/Functional Play, and would love to ensure my post is as accurate as possible.