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  • Writer's picturePhase of Play


Updated: Aug 5

The foundation of positional play is the 1970's era Dutch model of Total Football, which was exported to Spain by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, and later perfected by Pep Guardiola. It is a style of play that demands a great deal from players in terms of technical abilities and intelligence.

Teams playing this style, move the ball forward one step with an emphasis on possession, positioning, and short passing. This style allows the team and the ball to travel together. Recent proponents of positional play are Ajax, Barcelona, and Manchester City.

Positional play is a possession-based style that uses certain structures, positional discipline, and exploitation of space to create superiorities. Which in turn help the ball progress up the field, manipulate opposition defence, and create high-quality chances. Having possession is important because it prevents opponents from attacking, however it must have a purpose of moving the defence and scoring. It is crucial that the team moves together with the ball as one unit.

There are three main types of superiorities:

  • Numerical superiority - is about overloading and outnumbering the defenders in the area where the team has possession of the ball, ultimately finding a “third man” and a “free man”. Even goalkeepers are actively utilised in the build-up phase by Guardiola, it helps creating numerical superiority when opponents attempt to press high. Hence his insistence on his keepers to be comfortable with the ball at their feet.

  • Positional superiority - the team that is better positioned, will have the benefits of time and space, and will create more chances to score. The key here is players positioning in different horizontal and vertical lines (Guardiola demands no more than 2 players in vertical line and no more than 3 players in horizontal line), creating the best passing angles, and keeping the triangular shapes.

  • Qualitative superiority – is the situation where the attacking player’s abilities give an advantage over the defender. For example, creating a 1 on 1 situation on the wing, when the winger is faster than the defender and has plenty of space available.

Johan Cruyff developed a game model based on triangles: each player, regardless of his location on the pitch, had to position himself to form that shape. He considered this the ideal basis from which his team could keep the ball, while always offering the ball-carrier two passing options. Even better if both options are diagonal, diagonal passes are advantageous as they overplay vertical and horizontal lines and are therewith more difficult to defend. Also, it is easier for the receiver to control the ball, as opposed to the vertical pass, player receiving a diagonal pass is already facing the direction of the goal.

Guardiola divides the training pitch into grids, which helps players understand where they must be at different stages of the attack. However, it does not limit player freedom. On the contrary, because players know where their teammates are in relation to the ball, they spend less time scanning the field and have more time to be creative and make optimal passes available in any given situation. It also allows players to decide faster, which areas they need to overload, gaining numerical superiority as a result.


Optimal positioning in possession directly translates into better structure when counter-pressing after the ball is lost. The offensive and defensive aspects of the game cannot be separated in Positional Play. Guardiola even has a “15-pass rule,” in which he believes that his team cannot be properly prepared to cope with transitions or build a well-structured attack until they have completed at least 15 passes. This provides enough time and stability for players to move into their roles within the offensive structure and strategy.

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