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Tactical Analysis: The Theory of Positional Play in Football

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Tactical Analysis: The Theory of Positional Play in Football Explained and Illustrated and how it has changed over time including some case studies

It is important to note that tactics is for players and NOT just for coaches alone.

What is Positional Play

Positional play is a tactical term that refers to a certain philosophy some coaches in football practice. By definition, it is a style of play that focuses on creating and exploiting space and superiorities by manipulating the opposition team’s movement and positioning.

Positional play in other words is called tiki-taka as it is widely used today.

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Positional play can be illustrated in two forms which are;

  • Positioning of players: This tactic requires that a team adopting it steers the opposition.
  • Numerical Advantages: A team adopting this kind of positional play attacks and defend on the go.

For a team to be successful while adopting this tactic, they need to have;

  • Inverted fullbacks
  • Inverted wingers
  • Offensive fullbacks

Positional play requires that players should have an almost automatic sense for where to be and when in relation to where the play is, where the ball is and where their teammates are.

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Positional play is usually made perfect either through rotational or zonal positioning.

Combining these two positioning strategies give you more superiority on the pitch.

However, there are three types of Superiority on the pitch namely; numerical, qualitative and positional superiority.

Types of Superiority in a Positional Play Football Tactic

Numerical Superiority

Tactically, numerical superiority is all about having more of your players in one part of the field than your opposition, allowing you to pass the ball around and pass them.

Numerical Superiority Qualitative Superiority

This is an attempt to get one of your good players in a position to attack a defender who is not as good, perhaps weaker, slower or less technically gifted.

Qualitative SuperiorityPositional Superiority

This is an attempt or efforts to get players between or behind the opposition lines or pressure or defence.


Positional Superiority  Case Study: Positional Play in BOTH Attack and Defence (Numerical Advantages)

Johan Cruyff (Ajax and Barcelona)

Earlier adopted by the late Barcelona and Netherland international Johan Cruyff during his coaching days at Ajax and Barcelona.

The system postulates that, passes should not be made over 10m unless decisive.

This therefore means that, there should be short combination and counterpress.

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Pep Guardiola (Barcelona and Manchester City)

Pep Guardiola has renovated the theory of positional play in terms of BOTH Attack and Defence from what Johan Cruyff actually postulated and it is rightly working for him.

To Pep Guardiola, the attack and defence (Numerical Advantages) type of positional play should be played in two strategies in every game in which the system is implemented.

A. General Strategy

  • This system requires a maximum of three players in the same horizontal line
  • Also, there should be two players in the same vertical line at all times.

B. The Progressive passing strategy

  • Player in front should not be in the same vertical lane.
  • Player who is two lanes in front should be in the same vertical lane.
  • Player in front should be on diagonal line beside another.
Tactical Analysis: The Theory of Positional Play in Football
Pep Guardiola’s General and Progressive passing Strategy in Positional Play

Guardiola believes that positioning players in this way helps in fluid movement between the players and hence fluid flowing football while creating some sort of superiority on the pitch.

tiki taka play by Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola’s positional play strategy illustrated

Examples of positional play in football

1. Pep Guardiola (Barcelona 2008-2012)

Barcelona during this time would usually line up in their default 4-3-3 shape.


However tactically speaking, Guardiola utilized;

  • A midfield Anchor (Xavi or Busquets in most cases)
  • Offensive fullbacks (Dani Alves and Abidal/Jordi Alba)
  • Inverted wingers (Pedro, David Villa)
  • Most importantly Rotation was key.

In most cases during offense, the fullbacks (Dani Alves and Abidal) could be seen in attack and the occasional interchange or rotate their positions with the midfielder and offensive winger who plays on the same vertical lane as them.

During this phase, the anchor Midfielder (Busquets) falls back to form a back three with the other two centre defenders.

Pep Guardiola's Barcelona Playing Style
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona Positional Playing Style Illustrated
Barcelona’s 2008-2012 Positional Play Summary
  • Offence: Inverted wingers and offensive fullbacks
  • Defence: Midfield Anchor

 Pep Guardiola (Manchester City 2016-Present)

Guardiola has made his mark in England thanks to his slightly improved positional play theory.

Pep at Manchester City maintains his traditional 4-3-3 formation.

However, despite what he used at Barca and Bayern Munich, Pep now uses;

  • Wide wingers (Sane/ Mahrez and Sterling).
  • Central attacking midfielders who can occupy half spaces (Kevin De Bruyne, David Silver).
  • And most importantly inverted fullbacks who could cut into midfield or backline before overlapping into attack (Walker, Cancelo). This is call Zonal positioning.
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City Positional playing tactics
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City Positional playing tactics Illustrated
Manchester City’s 2016- Positional Play Summary
  • Offence: Wide wingers and CAM occupy half space
  • Defence: Inverted Fullbacks

3. Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid 2016-2017)

Zinedine Zinedane used;

  • Two offensive fullbacks in Marcel and Daniel Carvajal
  • A Concrete midfield with a defensive block
  • An attacking force of two players (Ronaldo and Benzema) constantly interchanging or rotating positions.
  • A creative and flexible central midfielder (Isco) who could drive into the wings when need be.
Zinedine Zindane's 2016-2017 Real Madrid tactics
Zinedine Zindane’s 2016-2017 Real Madrid positional play tactics

Real Madrid’s 2016-2017 Positional Play Summary

  • Offence: Offensive fullbacks plus flexible and rotatable CAM and front two.
  • Defence: Midfield and defensive block.

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