Positional play is the style of play that focuses on controlling the game through organized player positioning and movement. This approach dictates how a team structures itself on the field, both in possession and without the ball. Teams that master positional play often enjoy high levels of possession and can dictate the tempo of the game, patiently waiting for opportunities to exploit the space and weaknesses in the opposition's setup. It's a proactive style that, when performed correctly, is both aesthetically pleasing and effective in breaking down opposing defenses.
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. Positional play is a possession-based style that uses certain structures, positional discipline, and exploitation of space to create superiorities and find a free-man (generating a situation where a player is “free” from any defenders – with time and space, this means playing the ball to a player that can receive to turn and take two or more touches). Which in turn helps the ball progress up the field through build-up, midfield progression into the finishing zone. Once superiority is found the team can use the situation to dominate the game.
There are four 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.
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. To achieve that the principle of overload to isolate can be used, where one area of the pitch is overloaded to create a 1v1 isolation in the other one.
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.
Socio-affective superiority - because Positional play largely relies on the collective play, it naturally forms close tactical bonds between players. Teams that cultivate a strong socio-affective environment often demonstrate better resilience, stronger will to win, and greater unity on the pitch, which can lead to consistent performance and achieving competitive superiority.
These concepts are not static but dynamic, with the team's shape continuously adapting to the state of play. The players must understand when to move and reposition to maintain these superiorities. The beauty of this approach lies not only in its complexity but also in the simplicity it brings on the pitch. When players are well-drilled in these concepts, they can execute them seemingly effortlessly, making the game fluid and dynamic. His teams play a sophisticated brand of football that, while difficult to master, can dominate and dismantle even the most robust defenses.