Many coaches like the idea of positional play in soccer and want to use it with their players. It is a way of structuring a team based on a set of simple rules. Positional play is used to guide the players through the in-possession moments of a game.
What is positional play?
Positional play in soccer helps a team progress the ball by creating triangles, diamonds, or rhombus shapes. These shapes give the ball carrier space and several passing options at any given time. The positioning of the attacking team players draws an opponent toward the ball. This frees up a teammate elsewhere to receive the next pass.
How can we achieve it?
Idealism is to play attacking, attractive passing soccer that complies technically and tactically with the principles of soccer. There are three distinct phases involved in achieving a high level and standard of positional play. The build-up phase is first. The objective of build-up play is to be in a forward-facing position. A player then needs options to pass forwards when nearing the halfway line.
Once a team has successfully built the attack they enter the create phase. The create phase is used as it sounds to create dangerous attacks. This is achieved by threatening and stretching the opponent’s back line. Changing the point of attack, and exploiting weaknesses in the opponent. It aims to disrupt the opponent’s team shape and progress into the final third. Ideally, a team needs to be in a position to finish your attack.
The finish of the attack phase is about scoring chances. If a player can’t score, their focus should be on setting up a teammate. The use of through balls, switches of play, and crosses to teammates better positioned to score will aid this process. Finishing attacks requires clever combinations, changes of direction, and creativity on behalf of the players.
A team in possession is always building, creating, or finishing an attack. Breaking up the field of play this way will help the players understand their role. It will help players establish how they can add value to attacks whilst being in threatening positions.
This type of play is used when a team has the ball. It refers to the create and finish the attack phases outlined above. The attacks are organized in such a way that involves combination play, passing movements, and changes of direction.
Positional attacks require the intervention of many players to make it work. Some players are support figures and others are on the move. It is about finding space to ensure sure the ball is kept and progression is made. The main objective of this is to score a goal.
Positional attacks require structure, some players will operate in fixed positions and other players are free to roam. Mini structures are created in various areas of the field, often in triangles, diamonds, and rhombus.
The different combinations of players in these mini structures are why it is called a positional attack. Attributes of the players in specific locations at a specific time on the field can ensure the opponent is exploited. An added benefit is that the team’s superiorities are maximized.
Good positional attacks consist of invading and exploiting space on the pitch.
How do you develop good positional attacks?
It’s all about the positioning of the players. For example, positioning and fixing your outside players into high, wide, deep, and diagonal positions allows inside players the freedom to float and stagger their positions. This helps a team to maximize space and create many support options. Positioning in this way will provide time for the ball carrier and ensure the ball can move fluidly from one side of the field to the other.
If a fixed player moves or rotates then a free player would be expected to become fixed. Sustaining a structure is vital to the success of the positional play. Teams need to maximize their space by stretching the opponent’s lines whilst creating passing lanes behind, beyond, and between opposition players.
Synchronizing this is not easy and coaches will get this wrong. With a little persistence, some clever pitch markings, and some basic rules coaches can help players to understand. Positional play in soccer is based on some simple concepts that seem complex when you are on the outside looking in.
Positional attacks are only possible if the players are clear on their roles and responsibilities. Are they free to roam? Are they required to be fixed in position? Elite coaches will often get specific markings on the field of play.
These markings can act as a road map or guide to aid the collective understanding of the players. The markings are used alongside some simple rules to help to train the players to occupy certain spaces at certain times.
The pitch markings will help the players to coordinate their movements, maximize space and take advantage of the spaces between lines and opponents. The typical layout of the marked pitch for positional play consists of 5 lanes.
The wide lanes or the wings provide the outer perimeter of a marked pitch. A team using positional play will often fix two players into this area to stretch the back line and offer a switch of play.
The lanes on the inside of the wide lanes are what is known as the half-spaces. These are dangerous spaces to occupy especially the areas just outside the opponent’s penalty box. The half-spaces nearer the halfway line are not as dangerous in attack but defensive players usually occupy them to delay the opponent’s counterattacks.
The occupation of the half-spaces offers the following benefits:
- More diagonal passing options (harder to defend diagonal passes because they shift defenses laterally)
- Dribbles that access the box diagonally or vertically and the option to shoot, slide or cross for a teammate
- More forward-thinking actions as well as backward choices to switch the point of the attack
- The space is a middle ground that is generally free of defenders and is a bit of a blind spot in a sense of players being unsure who should leave their position to pick up attackers in the half-space
- If an attacker is pressured in these positions its usually in front of them which means passing or dribbling access is increased
Who Should Occupy the Half Spaces?
Although the half-spaces offer many benefits if they are occupied. The players who are in them must pose a threat to the opponent. You need technically gifted players in these spaces. Players who can make quick decisions under pressure. Players who scan ahead and see the next phase of action.
Technically gifted players attract pressure. The hesitation of who should leave their position to deal with this threat disrupts the opponent’s team shape. If teams do not deal with these players quickly enough, they will be exposed and played through with relative ease.
The gridded pitch, is it a roadmap to success?
Each of the lanes on the pitch is slightly different in size, but there seems to be a reason for this. If you were to drop the opponent’s formations onto the gridded surfaces, it becomes clear where dangerous spaces could be.
When the unit of a team has an odd number of players in it, the players will likely be positioned in the middle of the lanes. These units will often be in a horizontal line too. This makes it difficult for teams to get behind them.
If a unit of a team plays with an even number of players then it is likely they will protect the central lanes. To do this teams will position players in horizontal lines in the corners of the pitch-marked lanes. This will leave the wide lanes free.
Examples of the Gridded Pitch
If a team plays in a 5 3 2 low block the placement of a player in the middle of the lines shows where potentially dangerous spaces can be gained. The image below could be used to help a team use positional play in soccer to see spaces they need to exploit.
5 3 2 formations can often morph into 3 4 3 formations for a high press. The gridded pitches help to expose spaces your team needs to exploit. See the image below of a high press in a 3 4 3 formation. It becomes pretty clear that occupying the wide lanes and the space between their midfield and defense would help a team to build up successfully.
If a team plays in a mid to low block 4 4 2 then the placement of players in the corners of the half-spaces and central lanes fits perfectly to the gridded pitch. By placing opponents onto the gridded pitch you can begin to see that the spaces between the lines offer a great way to threaten the 4 4 2.
If you take a screenshot of teams in different phases of the game you can expect to see them fit the gridded pitch and lanes relatively well. Use the gridded pitch as an overlay against various team shapes and oppositions to reveal spaces you can exploit.
The Law of Attraction
Solid positional play in soccer requires teams who possess players willing to stay on the ball. These players will draw in pressure. This causes the opponent to think they have a chance to win the ball. It attracts the opponent’s eyes to the ball and pulls them out of position.
As soon as this player has been drawn in, the ball is played to another player who looks to do the same. By using the gridded pitch to occupy spaces between the opponent lines and stretching the back line with width, each pass causes multiple shifts of the opponent’s shape.
The attraction of the opposition toward the ball drags them out of position. If the attacking team places players behind and between the opposition, it causes marking decisions for the opponent, as the ball travels. Players feel uncomfortable being pulled out of position. The opponent has to shift their shape quickly and communicate well.
If an attacking team can constantly draw in some pressure, then play to another area of lower pressure and do this multiple times. Especially between the lines, you are very likely to increase the chances of an opponent’s mistake or error. Then at the right time, the attacking team must exploit the opponent’s failure to cover a specific space.
What else helps to draw opponents out of position?
Diagonal passing sequences, decoy runs, and rotations offer additional ways to shift and destroy the opponent’s team shape. Each of these actions especially if they are performed at the same time provides an edge. The use of attracting pressure with these elements often causes unrest and confusion in defenders.
These types of passes are difficult to mark because they progress the team, shift the opponent, and create new passing angles. The diagonal pass helps a possession team progress through gaps in the opposition.
The additional benefit of diagonal passing sequences is that they shift opponents sideways. They also require a player to step out of position to deal with the ball carrier. Players positioned between the lines who have received diagonal passes will eventually force mistakes in the opponent.
I have written an article on this site about diagonal passing here, it will open in a new window.
The decoy runs alongside some diagonal passing helping to make the opponent drop off. If a run is made with purpose and intensity, it will suck a defender into a certain space. This can isolate them from teammates or make the team shape disjointed. Decoy runs help attract defenders, and fix their eyes on the runner, thus spreading out a defensive block even more.
For example, a winger making a run in off the sideline towards the halfspace between a central defender and fullback. The constant threat of this will eventually cause the backline to take up a lower offside line.
A winger in a fixed position high and wide can cause problems for fullbacks especially if a decoy run is made into the half-space when a pass is played wide. The fullback will become hesitant about closing the winger. The wide player then gets lots of time and space to run at the back line or deliver the ball.
The decoy run from the midfielder causes the back line to drop thus giving the winger more space to work with to cross the ball and create something for the other players to attack.
Positional play in soccer requires rotations. Remember the fixed positions or free positions from earlier in the article? The fixed positions create, width, and depth that stretches the opponent. The stretching of the opponent opens up space in front, between, behind, and beyond the opposition.
The free players now have some freedom to move and rotate between channels as long as they do not break the rules of positional play in soccer. I will discuss these soon. Free and fixed players can interchange positions but pinning the opponent of the opponent is a key concept that stretches the opposition.
Players can use two-player rotations such as a high-to-low movement for example a fullback running forward and a wide player dropping deep. Or central midfielders can drop one player low to help build up play whilst the other creates a higher angle.
Three Player Movements
Three-player rotations are a little more complex but they involve a synchronized movement either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The timing and speed of these movements can help to create time, space, or disruptions to the opponent’s shape. An example could be a fullback pushing high, a winger driving inside, and an attacking midfielder dropping into a fullback position.
The movements and rotations depend on the state of the game and the phase of a game a team is in. Are they building, creating, or finishing an attack? Additionally does the rotation need to happen in sight of the opponent or out of sight? If a player wants to draw or drag their marker out of position then a quick movement in sight of the defender can help to do this.
I have written an article on this site about movements and rotation and this can be found here
Finding the Third Man
Another common concept associated with positional play is players looking to find the third man. It is a movement in soccer that uses 3 players organized in triangle shapes. Its purpose is to get a player free of a marker in space to attack.
The first two players in the sequence have the job of attracting defenders to release the third player into space. Changes in ball speed and player direction increase the chance of success of this move.
The third-player combination is used to get an attacker on the ball between the opponent’s lines of defense. The third player should be facing the next line of defense so they can quickly continue an attack.
The Rules and Conditions of Positional Play
To control the space and maximize options the gridded pitch discussed earlier comes with a basic set of rules. Firstly there are limits on how many players a team can have in any region at once. These rules support a player’s understanding of positioning. The gridded pitch helps players to see clearly:
- How do their movements impact teammates?
- How does their positioning affect the teams playing style?
- How do the overall positions of the players affect the opponent?
If you provide all of this to a player they will probably be frozen with confusion and not be clear on the decisions they have to make. The answer is to use the gridded pitch as a road map and provide some simple rules and principles.
The Rules of Positional Play in Soccer
The three basic rules of positional play. Players need to constantly follow and apply these to the pitch.
1: There should be no more than 2 players in any of the 5 vertical zones
2: There should be no more than 3 players in any horizontal zone
3: The ball should not be played inside the same zone but should be circulated from zone to zone whenever possible. (Generally applied to build up and create phases to encourage diagonal passing)
It does not matter what phase of the game players are in, the rules are simple and can be applied. The rules will ensure that a team organizes itself into lines that provide symmetry and options around the ball. The options around the ball create numerous triangles, diamonds, and rhombus shapes.
What are the benefits of these shapes?
- Diagonal passing options are effortlessly created
- It’s hard to defend against these shapes because of the angles created between players
- Overloads naturally occur as the opponents move to defend the ball
- If possession is lost a team has players around the ball to apply immediate pressure
Depending on the phase of the game a team is in, positional play rules will help them to find a way out. Look at the images below. I have highlighted various connections and symmetries that should be useful to players.
If we apply the rules to the create and finish attack phases we can see that we have key players occupying the half-spaces with central security behind the ball should possession be lost.
Players are in a position to go after the ball quickly. There are multiple options for a team to combine using passes. The team shape also stretches and disrupts the opponent’s team shape. Especially if passes are played between the lines.
When players move the natural balance on the team will be disrupted. Players will naturally move and rotate in the games. The rules offer the players simple ways to fix or hold the team shape based on the position of the ball and the opponent. If one player spots that a rule is being broken then their movement might offer a trigger to a teammate to also move.
If each player is using the gridded pitch as a reference the shape and positions of the team may look off, but only for brief moments in the game. Scanning becomes a major factor for players. They must be constantly checking the playing area for feedback and trying to ensure the basic rules are being followed. If it breaks the players are responsible for returning the team shape to one that works well.
Every action of the players interacts with each other. If two players displace themselves and lose team shape, the other players should adjust their movements and positions away from the ball to fix the problem. The team is constantly looking for synchronicity. If the team shape breaks? The players away from the ball will shift to fix it.
The shifting and movement of the whole to meet the rules of positional play can make positions in a team redundant. Players are encouraged to move into positions and roles that fit the rules of positional play. These rules aim to maintain the team’s structure, shape, and occupation of dangerous spaces.
Finding the Spare Player
A final concept is more of a principle than a rule.
The more we can put the ball between the lines or internal spaces, the more frequently we can achieve a win-win situation. This is because we threaten the opponent in spaces they do not want us to be in. We displace them from their team shape which creates gaps elsewhere. We get a free player behind their lines of defense, ideally facing forwards.
How do you achieve this? You use the methods outlined before:
- Attract pressure: Players carrying the ball toward an opponent to move them out of position
- Occupying Spaces: Playing between the lines rather than being marked
- Diagonal passing: It shifts defenses horizontally and vertically to create space
- Decoy Runs: They create threats behind lines which creates depth and more space
- Third-man combinations: A forward pass followed by a set pass to a forward-facing player
- Rotations: Using coordinated movements to get a player on the ball facing forwards
Some methods of creating or finding a free player are categorized into three types of superiorities: numerical superiority, qualitative superiority, and positional superiority.
The numerical superiority: The objective is to create an overload of players around the ball carrier. This allows should allow for multiple options of passes. It will promote possession and circulation of the ball or a successful forward pass from one line to another.
The qualitative superiority: The point made earlier about having the best players in the half-spaces. Try to get the best players into situations that suit their strengths over that of the opponents. The main idea is to isolate the best players into 1v1 or 2v2 situations. The idea is that these players will have technical superiority over the opposition.
The Positional superiority: The key here is to stretch the opponent horizontally and vertically. This helps to create as much space between the lines as possible. The space can be exploited by your team. By guiding your players to take up set positions (fixed) and encouraging them to look for specific movements or get into free spaces (free) a team can gradually move up the pitch to attack.
Overload to Isolate
The culmination of enforcing positional play rules, attracting pressure to the ball, and superiorities stretch the opposition’s defensive ability. Many possession-based teams are using a cat-and-mouse approach. Progress the ball down one side of the field, and attract the opponent to it, then switch the ball to the weak side. Teams will overload ball-near regions to exploit ball-far regions.
Some of the great managers of the game, Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa, and Pochettino use the overload to isolate tactic. They distract the opponent with the ball in one area of the field and then move it to another in order to finish their attacks. Coaches and top players can take this one step further.
They use underload to overload. Teams will build up in an area with fewer players using qualitative superiority. They will quickly switch the point of attack to an area of the field where they have numerical superiority. This cat-and-mouse approach drags and manipulates the opponent to displace them. An attack will start at one end or side of the field and finish on the other.
Spaces can be exploited because defenders are naturally drawn to the ball.
Coach Driven Ideoligies
The coach is responsible for identifying the superiorities in the players or the game. The coach can use them as they see fit against various opponents. They can align the principles of positional play in soccer with the unique assets each of the players has.
The coach can make tactical adjustments during games to gain an advantage over the opposition. A coach might put their best 1v1 wide player against the opponent’s weakest 1v1 defender (qualitative). They may encourage a fullback to overlap or underlap down one side of the field. This could be because an opposition winger does not like to track back in (numerical).
The coach is the person who must move the players like chess pieces around the field. The minor adjustments along with the principles of positional play can be put in place before a game. Or during a game. A coach may analyze opponents and look at the superiorities they have and change the team’s tactics or formation to deal with the opponent’s threat.
The message here is that the coach is in control. They pull the strings and influence the players using their knowledge, experience, and wisdom.
I was inspired to write this article after reading a similar article here. The coach in this article shares some similar ideas and provides some excellent detail on positional play.
Positional play in soccer starts with positional attacks. Players who are aware of their contribution when trying to build, create or finish an attack. Some positions in a team are fixed whereas others are free. The discipline of players to hold these positions is what creates natural symmetry between the units of a team.
A Map to Success
The pitch geography is a key aspect that players need to understand. Separating the pitch into horizontal and vertical lanes helps to give players clues about their positioning. The gridded pitch can act as an overlay onto an opponent formation and it will often reveal the key spaces to exploit.
Within the pitch geography, we have the half-spaces. These areas are of particular interest because they are very difficult to defend against. Attackers who receive the ball in these spaces have numerous options and cause defenses to collapse their rigid structures. This is because players will lose their shape when trying to defend players in these areas. This opens up options for the attacking team.
Remember the Rules
The three basic rules of positional play give players a clear idea of where they could stand, or when they should move. When teams work to these rules it creates numerous triangle, diamond, and rhombus shapes. These shapes create numerous passing angles and ultimately help the possession team to find the spare player. There is nice synchronicity when teams get their positioning and shape correct.
Attracting pressure to the ball is a method that positional play teams use. They hold onto the ball until opponents leave their position or team shape. This is the trigger for the ball carrier to release the ball to a teammate in an open space, often in a different zone or lane.
There are other methods of disrupting team shapes such as decoy runs, rotations, third-man combinations, and diagonal passing sequences. Each of them with the same intention of threatening the back line, disrupting the opponent’s team shape, or finding a spare player.
Conducting Positional Play in Soccer
Superiorities offer an additional layer to the mix. Players who are better individuals than their opponents offer qualitative superiority. Positional superiority can be had by maximizing the spaces available. Numerical superiority ensures creates overloads around the ball. This can lead to common tactics such as the overload to isolate. These superiorities are combined and used alongside the positional play rules.
The coach is the conductor of all of these methods. Their job is to share this wisdom and understanding with the players. The ultimate aim is to maximize team performance and dominate opponents. The coach and players need to spot the correct times to utilize a particular method. Tactically the coach can use superiorities for the good of the team to expose kinks in the opposition chain.
It is important to remember that positional play requires quality players. They need to be able to receive on the half-turn and be self-aware of the next pass. Without high-quality players, positional play can easily break down. The players must be taught the finer detail behind the positional play method.
This means that the process needs players who are capable of understanding and implementing such a way. Positional play in soccer requires plenty of time on the training ground, where the players must learn everything they need to.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
Where can I learn more about positional play?
Please note: Each article will open in a new window and take you to a different website