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Understanding Positional Play

Mark Caron
21 min readJan 13, 2023

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Introduction

Positional Play is a philosophy and a way of understanding the game of soccer that is based on creating and managing space, and then coordinating movements within that space to gain numerical, positional and qualitative superiorities over your opponent, so you can score or prevent your opponent from scoring. In its original Spanish, Positional Play is known as “Juego de Posición” (or JdP for short).

Even though Positional Play is often thought of as an attacking philosophy, its concepts apply to all phases of play in soccer. In a nutshell, Positional Play is about:

  • Space management (or structure)
    Utilizing certain positional structures that maximize the available space on the pitch and create more efficient passing lanes when attacking, and then taking advantage of that positioning when transitioning to defense.
  • Coordination and support
    When attacking, using possession (and quick passing) of the ball along with coordinated movements among teammates in order to manipulate the opponent into opening more space in advantageous areas of the pitch (e.g., centrally). And, when transitioning to defending, using coordination to counter-press the opponent to win the ball back quickly.
  • Creating superiorities
    Exploiting the available spaces with numerical, positional and qualitative superiorities in order to score when attacking. And, then using similar superiority concepts when defending.

When attacking

Move our players, move the ball, move the opponent’s players, and repeat until we can score.

A circle with arrows pointing from move our players to move the ball to move our opponent’s players, and then to score.

This might seem complicated at first, but the good news is that — more than likely — many of the underlying concepts of Positional Play will be familiar to anyone who has played or coached the game.

It’s also important to note that Positional Play is not tiki taka or tiqui-taca. The objective of Positional Play is ultimately to score, and should not be confused with “tiki taka” soccer, which is simply just passing to maintain possession.

“It’s not about moving the ball, it’s about moving the opponent.” — Juan Manuel Lillo, Manchester City FC

Where did it come from?

Many of the basic concepts of Positional Play originated in the Dutch philosophy of Total Football from Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, and was further refined and popularized by Pep Guardiola (and others). Pep was a former player on Cruyff’s Barcelona team in the 1990s, and is now one of the greatest coaches and tactical minds in the game today.

Pep has had enormous influence on the styles of play of clubs around the world, not just at the clubs where he has coached (like FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City).

“If you have the ball you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible.” — Johan Cruyff

Space management

While the majority of Position Play teams utilize similar formations, space management through “structure” is not about adhering to a strict formation or players sticking to assigned positions. It is about creating and maintaining an optimal attacking shape that will maximize space (and time) to think and to build an attack, and then minimizing that space (and time) quickly when transitioning to defense.

Both the 4–3–3 and 3–4–3 formations are common in Positional Play, because they both have the ability to create natural triangles/diamonds on the pitch. But, implementation of these formations themselves doesn’t automatically mean the players within them will be able to maintain (or even be aware of) their roles within the structure. One team’s attacking shape or defensive shape may differ from another depending on their own implementation of Positional Play concepts or particular tactics against a specific opponent. Not to mention, there’s a fluidity to the game that will affect — and even degrade — any initial or predefined structure.

Left: 4–3–3 formation with its natural triangles
Right: Natural triangles of the 3–4–3 “flat” formation

Instead of rigid formations or set positions, there is creativity, freedom and responsibility within Positional Play: no set positions, only shape and balance. When one player moves, another has the responsibility to re-balance the structure all in an organized, coordinated relationship between the players on the pitch, the ball, the goals, and the area of play. This fluidity is exactly Cruyff’s Total Football philosophy that influenced Pep (and others) early on.

“With freedom comes responsibility.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

Attacking structure

A team’s attacking structure should have the following:

  1. Width
    Players take up positions in the wide areas to spread the field with the purpose of spreading the opponent, and opening up as much space centrally as possible.
  2. Depth
    Defending and attacking players attempt to create as much depth as possible, trying to stretch the opponent without being offside. Depth helps to prevent crowding in the available space created through opening the width.
    Center backs and goalkeepers play a critical role in an attacking team’s ability to stretch an opponent deep by inviting their forwards and midfielders out toward the ball while in possession, as if the ball is a magnet. Quick strikers or wingers also play an important role in pinning back the opponent’s defense who might be worried about their ability to make runs in behind.
  3. Players centrally
    Once there is width and depth, the central players now have room and time to operate in the half spaces and between the lines in order to create efficient passing lanes.

Note

Unlike depth, width is the only dimension that the opponent cannot control by compressing their shape, and for this reason, using width to create space is so important.

One of the most common attacking shapes is the 2–3–5 (see the diagram below). This structure provides width, depth and players centrally as well as coverage should possession be lost (i.e., “rest defense”). Pep’s Manchester City team uses this shape, where the fullbacks “invert” by coming into the central midfield alongside the holding mid (#6), and freeing up #8 and #10 to overwhelm the opponent’s defensive line. However, with Positional Play, like Total Football, the players have freedom to rotate positions in order to unbalance the opponent. As long as the ideal structure is maintained, it doesn’t necessarily matter who is in what position at any specific time.

The 2–3–5 formation may even look familiar, too, since it’s the exact attack-minded formation that was popular back in the early 20th century, and gave rise to the traditional numbers and player archetypes we still use today! Everything comes full circle, except this time with a little irony in the shift from a 4–3–3 to a 2–3–5: the fullbacks invert to become halfbacks, while the halfbacks remain “fully back” on defense.

Soccer field diagram showing a 1–2–3–5 structure/formation in the attacking third
The fluidity of the 4–3–3 allows for a 2–3–5 attacking shape.

Defending structure

One of the many advantages of a team’s 2–3–5 attacking shape is its rest defense (the midfield and defensive lines in the 2–3–5 formation). Rest defense is a tactical term that describes the attacking team’s structure which ensures a good transition into defending when a loss of possession occurs. Usually this happens through counter-pressing and delaying the opponent’s build-up play centrally — forcing them wide. Within the 2–3–5 structure, the same ideal distances that allow for quick, efficient passing lanes allows for short distances to press or cover when possession is lost.

If the opponent is successful in maintaining possession, and building an attack through the transitional third, it becomes increasingly important to get back quickly into block lines in the team’s primary defensive shape (e.g., 4–5–1 or 5–4–1).

If creating space and opening up passing lanes is essential when attacking, then the opposite must be true when defending. The ideal defensive structure is compact, with as many numbers behind the ball as possible (i.e., goal side) to slow the opponent’s progress, limit their available space (and time) to operate, and to close down passing lanes — especially centrally.

Left: As soon as possession is lost, the rest defense structure supports quick counter-pressing.
Right: The 4–3–3 defending shape looks like a 4–5–1, with as many players behind the ball in block lines as possible.

Now that we have an understanding of Positional Play’s structure on both sides of the ball, players must learn to coordinate their movements and support each other within that structure.

“In most scenarios it isn’t the man on the ball who decides where the ball goes, but the players without the ball. Their running actions determine the next pass.” — Johan Cruyff

Coordination and support

Coordination and support is about the relationship that each of the 11 players on the field have with one another. During play, at any moment, any one of those players may become the ball possessor (or carrier), while his or her teammates become direct supporting players or indirect supporting players.

Their cooperation with each other was defined as the following 3 specific “spaces” by Paco Seirul·lo of FC Barcelona:

  1. Space of cooperation
  2. Space of mutual help
  3. Space of intervention or “game center”

These three spaces are part of a larger space called the “space of phase” (or simply put: the entire pitch), encompassing both the attacking and defending teams. This “phase space” is defined by the bounds of the pitch, where both teams and their relationships with each other are limited.

Soccer field showing the 3 spaces of coordination and support with both the attacking team and defending team
Paco Seirul·lo’s three spaces of coordination and support.

Space of cooperation

The “space of cooperation” is the area encompassing all 11 of a team’s players on the field in an organized structure/formation. It’s called this because every player on the team, whether close to the ball or not, is part of the play. Every player affects the play — even if indirectly — whether it’s by pinning a defender or making space by spreading wider when attacking. In other words, the players in this space are “indirect supporting players.”

The responsibilities of players in the wider “space of cooperation” are to always stay engaged in the play mentally, to hold their positions in order to maintain width and/or depth, to provide balance where needed to maintain structure, and to provide a long passing option if available.

Space of mutual help

The smaller area surrounding the 3 to 4 closest teammates to the player in possession of the ball is called the “space of mutual help.” Here, these players are able to provide direct support (e.g., a passing option) or intervene if needed. If it helps, think of this space as a rondo.

Players in the “space of mutual help” have the responsibility to create overloads (2v1s or 3v2s) and to create passing options. We see these passing options as triangles.

When offering direct support, players must position themselves between opposing players and/or between lines (“in the pocket”). Players should also try to position their bodies in the direction of play, so they can receive the ball without having to readjust their position. This allows for a smoother progression of the ball.

Space of intervention or “game center”

The smallest space, the “space of intervention,” is defined by the radius around the player in possession of the ball and the closest opponent(s). This is typically a 1v1 or numerical inferiority (i.e., 1v2), and can—very briefly—be 1v0 in the moments before the ball carrier attracts pressure from the opponent’s defense. It is called the “game center,” since it is the location of the ball and thus the focal point of the game wherever it goes.

The primary responsibility of the player in possession of the ball is to find a safe, line-breaking pass if available (not “boot ball”). If this option is not open or safe, then they should dribble to attract the opposition. If dribbling does not attract the opposition, then the player in possession should continue to dribble and “take space” while available or until a better option presents itself.

The moment a defender steps to intervene, the player in possession should look for a pass as quickly as possible. The best option is usually to a teammate moving into the space the defender has just left. If there are no passing options, they must maintain possession carefully until a passing option opens up or support arrives.

Defensive coordination

Coordination and support are arguably the most important factors in defending well as a team. There are 3 phases of defensive coordination (summed up as the 4 Ds of defense):

  1. Dispossess (or counter-press)
    Preventing the opponent from transitioning into the attack immediately following the loss of possession (first 3–5 seconds) through coordinated counter-pressing, dispossessing the opponent — stealing the ball back quickly — by closing down space and time to find passing options.
  2. Delay & Dictate
    Preventing the opponent from gaining momentum (i.e., delay) and building an attack by forcing them wide (i.e., dictate) with their rest defense structure, while their teammates make recovering runs to get back on defense.
  3. Deny (or defensive organization / defensive block)
    Preventing the opponent from scoring by denying access to our defensive third or penalty area. This includes getting into block lines (in the team’s defensive shape), compacting the available space, and closing down passing lanes (especially centrally).

All three phases require lots of coordination, typically through pressure, cover, balance. That is pressure in the space of intervention (closest to the ball), cover in the space of mutual help, and balance throughout the space of cooperation.

The 4 Ds of Defense are not the same as the 5 Ds of Dodgeball 😂

Creating superiorities

So far we’ve discussed how structure optimizes the available space, and how coordination and support of the players within the spaces can manipulate the opponent into opening more space in advantageous areas. Now, we can discuss how all of this can allow the attacking team to create superiorities and take advantage of their opponent.

There are 3 main types of superiorities in Positional Play:

  1. Qualitative superiority
  2. Numerical superiority
  3. Positional superiority
  4. Socio-affective superiority

With these 4 types of superiority ultimately creating arguably the most important superiority: the “free man” (a.k.a. “third man” or “free player”).

Qualitative superiority

When you think about superiority, the first thing that might come to mind is an individual player’s or set of players’ abilities and characteristics that may give them an advantage over an opponent or defender(s) marking them. This is qualitative superiority.

Are certain players faster, bigger or more technically proficient? And, if so, can we isolate our opponent in a 1v1 situation where we have one of these advantages?

Numerical superiority

Numerical superiority is simply about having more players in proximity to the ball than your opponent, like a 2v1 or 3v1 or 3v2. We often refer to this as an overload.

While overloads are easy to spot, they’re difficult to create since it requires the coordination and support mentioned earlier. When a player has the ball, how quickly can his or her teammates recognize the opportunity and move to create the overload? And, are they positioned well enough to begin with in order to make these movements more efficient?

For example, if both teams play in a 4–3–3 formation and players never leave their position, the midfield would have numerical equality (3 vs 3) and the forwards on both teams would constantly be in situations of numerical inferiority (3 vs 4 defenders). Without movement — coordination and support — scoring would become incredibly difficult. So, through coordinated movements, a team can create small overloads up and down the field, allowing them to progress the ball efficiently (i.e., attacking structure).

Positional superiority

Positional superiority is about being positioned better than your opponent in order to accomplish a specific task (e.g., find time or space to receive a pass) or to achieve your main objective (to score). Overall, this concept is a little more complex than the other two as it requires both coordination and support as well as timing and intelligence (or soccer IQ).

When players move themselves into areas between the lines or in the half spaces / between opponents where they are unmarked and have time and space to operate, they are said to be a “free man” or “free player”. This is one of the most important forms of positional superiority which deserves its own section (see “Free man” or “third man” concept below).

At its widest viewpoint, though, positional superiority is about a team’s ability to organize themselves into positions (differing angles and depths) with more time and space, both individually and collectively. This is like spacing out, but with intention.

More narrowly, this includes players’ having open body postures or better fields of vision. In situations like winning a 50/50 ball, having a positional advantage would be about positioning your body to block out your opponent while putting yourself in the path to receive the ball. This could also include a striker positioning themselves in the blind spot of a defender.

Socio-affective superiority

This concept might initially sound complicated, but it can — in its most simplest of forms — be thought of as “team chemistry”. The more players play together with frequency, the more they will develop key relationships and understandings of each other’s roles and tendencies in part and as a whole, with and without the ball. They will begin to speak the same unspoken language, making both attacking and defending as a unit more efficient.

This is the idea that a midfielder can receive the ball with her back to play, and know when she turns that the winger is making her run behind the defensive line. And, likewise, it is the trust the winger has in the midfielder to look for her making the run they both expect, because they’ve connected on it countless times in training and games.

“Free man” or “third man” as a superiority

The “free man” (or let’s say “free player”) is a key concept in gaining numerical and positional superiority through a “third player” — an open player who is free, unmarked and able to receive the ball. This is essential to Positional Play, since a free player will allow you to advance the ball into the next zone more easily.

In order to create a “free player,” a team must use coordinated movements of players on and off the ball along with quick, purposeful passing to attract (and manipulate) their opponent, so that they can open up space between or behind their opponent’s lines — hopefully in more dangerous spaces further away from the ball.

The free player is also a key component of attracting pressure to unbalance the opponent’s defensive organization once they receive the ball. They will be able to attract pressure automatically due to the perceived danger of their position or skills, or through their ability to dribble unmarked toward open space and toward the goal. As Grant Knight and Paddy King put it in their book, Alchemy Coaching: “attracting pressure is an extremely important ying to the Free Man’s yang.”

It may seem counter-intuitive, but attracting pressure is a good thing! Why? Because pressure on the ball, means there is likely space behind the line of pressure where another “free player” can be created.

Free player scenario 1: #10’s movement in between the lines opens a passing option in positional superiority as a “free player”.
Free player scenario 2: #10’s movement attracts the opponent’s #6, while #9 dropping in between the lines opens up #7 as a “free player” on the wing.

“The general principle in positional play is to make short passes in order to create space for a long pass to a free man.” — Juan Manuel Lillo, Manchester City FC

Superiorities on defense

Similar concepts of generating superiorities apply to the defensive phase as well.

If a team cannot use their numerical and positional superiorities gained during the attacking phase to win the ball back as quickly as possible as soon as possession is lost, then they must try to generate numerical superiority and positional superiority. This is done by getting “numbers behind the ball” in block lines quickly before their opponent can exploit the available space with any potential superiorities on the counter-attack.

In other words, a team would use superiorities across the 3 phases of defensive coordination:

  1. Use current numerical superiority nearest to the ball when possession is lost to counter-press, and win the ball back as quickly as possible. If unsuccessful…
  2. Use positional superiorities to slow the opponent’s progress while the team transitions quickly back into block lines. Then…
  3. Use greater numerical superiorities “behind the ball” (in block lines) to deny space centrally and prevent the opponent from scoring.

Any qualitative inferiority on defense, must be covered with a numerical superiority. In other words, if a particular player is mismatched against their opponent, a teammate must help by supporting them defensively.

Additional principles

Beyond structure, coordination and support, and superiorities, there are a few remaining principles that are important to a team’s ability to implement Positional Play successfully:

  1. Speed of play
  2. Passing with a purpose
  3. Positional rotations & creativity

Speed of play

If the attacking team is attempting to open up space between or behind their opponents players in order to score, there is often very little time in between those movements to exploit the available space. Therefore, the ball must be moved quickly and precisely in coordination with the attacking players’ movements on and off the ball.

Passing with a purpose

A team must never pass the ball just to pass the ball. As I mentioned earlier, Positional Play must not be confused with “tiki taka” soccer. Instead, the purpose of every pass should be to attract and unbalance the opponent or to progress the ball toward the goal in order to score. If a pass backward opens up space or maintains possession under pressure, then it also has a purpose.

Positional rotations & creativity

The general idea of a positional rotation is that a player’s movements in or out of a specific space is unpredictable, and therefore has the potential to manipulate the opponent into opening up spaces between or behind their own players or lines — spaces usually vacated by the attacking player’s movement. These movements gain positional superiority by creating a “free player”.

But, if a player moves into a teammate’s space, they would crowd themselves and lose their structure (and the passing triangles in that structure) — making it easier for the opponents to defend. So in order to prevent this crowding and structural breakdowns, players must pay attention to all of their teammates’ movements, and when one teammate moves into an occupied space or area that changes the structure, then his or her teammates must also coordinate their movements — whether moving into the “position” or space they vacated or into a new space that balances the structure (and the passing triangles in that structure).

Off-the-ball movements by players furthest from the ball (space of cooperation) can be just as important as players closest to the ball (space of mutual help). Players can provide indirect or direct support by thinking:

  • “How can I drag this defender to open space for my teammate?” or
  • “How can I find a space to create a passing option?”

These thought processes and freedoms of movement are where some of the creativity comes in. Creative players have the ability to make their team’s attack less predictable for the opponent by creating overloads and spaces to exploit.

Soccer field diagram showing #8 and #2 on the attacking team rotating positions on the right flank, with #9 dropping between the defense and midfield lines
Positional rotations between players.

Zones

In order to teach the philosophy of Positional Play, Pep Guardiola famously developed a 20 zone system. Understanding these zones is so critical to Pep’s game model, that he has literal lines dividing their practice pitches into the 20 zones. This is so his players can learn to create structure as well as coordinate movements, rotate positions, and create superiorities within that structure.

Diagram showing the soccer field divided into 20 zones.
Pep Guardiola’s 20 zones of the pitch

At first glance, it may seem like these zones are a little too much to take in or are too complex to attempt to memorize. There are a lot of zones. What would we even call each zone when communicating in practice?

Thankfully, the breakdown of these zones is actually pretty simple, because they’re based on things you may already know about soccer.

Vertical channels

When trying to understand these zones, the first set of divisions we should look at are the vertical channels. The vertical channels are arguably the most important divisions since they divide up the width. As I mentioned earlier, the width is important because it is the only dimension that the opponent cannot control by compressing their shape.

The central and wide areas are the most obvious divisions, of course. Then there are the half spaces in between. This gives us 5 total vertical channels: two Wide, two Half Spaces, and a Central channel.

The wide channels are marked between the sidelines and the edge of the penalty area. And, the half spaces are between the penalty area and 6 yard box (or the edge of the penalty arc).

Diagram showing the 5 vertical channels of a soccer field
The 5 vertical channels of the 20 zone system

Horizontal sections

Next, we divide the pitch into 4 logical horizontal sections. We have our Attacking “half” and our Defensive “half,” and we have two sections defined by the penalty areas — the one where we score (Scoring) and the one where we don’t want our opponent to score (Danger).

Note

I have not come across a resource that explicitly labels every zone. Therefore, the terms used for these horizontal sections are more or less borrowed from other concepts in soccer.

Soccer field diagram showing the 4 horizontal sections
The 4 horizontal sections of the 20 zone system

Pitch thirds

Lastly, as you may already know, the pitch is divided into thirds: Defensive, Middle (or Transitional), and Attacking.

On their own, all these divisions should make a lot of sense.

Diagram showing a soccer field divided horizontally into thirds
The classic thirds of a pitch

20 zone system

When you overlay all of these pitch divisions together, you get 20 zones.

You may notice that the division of pitch thirds only applies to the wide channels. This is because vertical space in the more central areas is at a premium, since it is the area we are ultimately trying to open up creating depth. We don’t want to crowd these vertical channels, which brings us to the “rules” of the 20 zone system.

Soccer field diagram showing all 20 zones based on the 5 vertical, 4 horizontal and pitch thirds
When the 5 vertical channels, 4 horizontal sections and the thirds of a pitch are put together, we have 20 zones

Informal rules of the zones

There are three basic informal rules for the attacking structure, using the 20 zone system:

  1. No more than 3 players on the same horizontal line (or plane)
  2. No more than 2 players on the same zone vertically
  3. Only 1 player per zone in the wide areas
Soccer field with the 20 zones and the attacking players in blue spread out according to the rules
The basic rules of 20 zone system

They exist in order to provide the necessary structure to

  • Create natural, efficient passing triangles (or diamonds),
  • Create depth vertically — to open space between our opponent’s lines,
  • Spread the field as wide as possible to open space between our opponent’s players (e.g. half spaces), while maintaining close passing options horizontally,
  • Prevent structural imbalances while attacking (and for rest defense),
  • Manipulate our opponent’s organization and structure, and
  • Open up a “free player” to assist in progression of the ball.

For example, if a team had 5 attacking players (in the 2–3–5 attacking structure) staggered across all 5 vertical zones (like a W or an M), they would be able to

  1. Create passing angles due to staggered depths
  2. Providing short passing options horizontally
  3. Create a numerical advantage (or overload) between the opponent’s defenders

Now, obviously, with the fluidity of the game — the movement of the ball, the opponent and our own players — it’s incredibly difficult to be so rigid with these rules. This is why they are “informal”.

This brings us to a bit of a caveat on the rules: if the whole purpose of the zones and the informal rules is to create structure (i.e., triangles) and overloads, or to move the opponent’s defenders, then a zone may temporarily have more than 2 players if those conditions are achieved.

Lastly, the attacking team should try not to pass the ball within the same zone wherever possible, otherwise they risk losing possession more easily. Instead, the ball should be circulated from zone to zone. For example, a vertical pass in the half space has a lower chance of success, while diagonal passes (along the triangles) have a higher chance of success.

Important!

These rules are informal and only apply to the attacking phase in effort to open up as much space as possible. Defensively, a team would want to be as compact as possible.

Positional rotations within zones

Now, going back to the positional rotations concept, we can think of these zones as the “spaces” mentioned before. If we try to keep 1–2 players per zone, then we won’t crowd ourselves and we’ll be able to maintain our ideal attacking structure. If a teammate with or without the ball moves into our zone, then we would want to rotate out of our zone and into another zone to balance the structure.

Effectively, the zones help us visualize the ideal “spaces” and necessary attacking structure, and how to coordinate our movements to create more space in addition to numerical and positional superiority.

Left: Positional rotation concept within the zones.
Right: Earlier example of position rotations with zones overlaid.

“You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.” — Johan Cruyff

Closing thoughts

It’s worth mentioning that I’m not an expert on Juego de Posición. I’ve never had the privilege of coaching alongside Cruyff, Pep, or any of the other brilliant minds behind this philosophy on the world stage. However, the information presented is based on my own experience as youth soccer coach and player in addition to lots of independent, deep-dives into this subject. All of this was simply out of sheer fascination and a desire to put my thoughts from my learning into writing—and hopefully to add something worthwhile to the dialog around Positional Play.

Some notable references:

Comments or feedback?

With that, I welcome any detailed comments or feedback in respect of Juego de Posición. I would love to ensure my post is as accurate as possible.

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Mark Caron

Youth soccer coach, player and soccer-obsessed dad