Introduction of the Positional Play-
Positional play is basically a philosophy of football where a team searches for supremacy. There are few ways in which domination of a football game can be achieved. Once the positional supremacy is found, a team tries to dominate the opposition in various ways.
According to Marti Perarnau, the positional play does not consist of passing a ball horizontally, it basically consists of superiorities behind each line of pressure. This should be done in groups or pairs and consistently throughout a match to create free spaces in between the lines for a spare man. This is a model which is premeditated, worked on training and then implemented on the field of play.
Players are trained as to what to do while having the ball. A decision needs to be made whether to drive or pass the ball. If he drives then a defender will attack him resulting in space for a “free man” to play. Interchange play should be quick and the creation of triangles to free up the third man is a necessary feature of this model of play. This will help in preventing counter-attacks.
The other thing which needs to be taken care of is the closeness of defensive and offensive lines. Separation of those two will mean spaces for opposition to play into. Possession is a necessary tool of this model just because it is possession which can destabilise and unlock an opposition defensive line. The positional play allows the ball, team and players to move at the same speed.
Background of the System:-
One name that is famously attached to the Barcelona folklore, Johan Cruyff always wanted to make Barcelona play in a perfect way. The tiki-taka way of playing football and dominating the game positionally was first started by him. Between 1988 and 1996, Cruyff implemented this style on Barcelona and made them a tough team to play against.
The tiki-taka system is further taken by Spain national teams too under Vincente Del Bosque and Luis Aragones. Tiki-taka is similar to a positional play or you can say it is a part of the positional model. The short passing and closeness of offensive and defensive line is the tiki-taka part of the positional play.
In club football, this model was further developed by Dutch managers Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard. This has been adopted by other La Liga teams. Van Gaal implemented the total football positional model when he managed the Ajax team which was unbeatable back in the 1990s.
Rijkaard managed Barcelona between 2003-2008 and further revolutionised the tiki-taka system mixed with positional play. This was taken to the next level by Pep Guardiola when he first took charge at Barca in 2008.
Guardiola taking this system to next level:-
Pep Guardiola was literally handpicked by Barcelona president Joan Laporta back in 2008 to replace Frank Rijkaard. Interestingly, according to Michael Laudrup’s autobiography, he and not Pep was his first choice. This speaks of how highly the Barca management thought of Guardiola and his style of play.
The Spaniard didn’t disappoint the faith shown in him. Tiki-taka combined with positional play reached new levels under him. This was partly due to an exceptional squad he had that time but credit should be given to him to manage those players and make them play the way he did.
Under Guardiola, the tiki-taka was very similar to the Dutch’s total football having a high defensive line and use of possession to control game and positions. He used a centre-forward as false 9 to keep the ball moving from different angles of attack. Having high full-backs and picking midfielders as defenders to exploit their passing ability were hallmarks of his style. Under him, Barcelona won almost everything between 2008-2012.
In his tenure at Bayern, Guardiola commanded in positional play(Juego De Posicion) or commonly known as “Positionsspiel” in German. This enabled his Bayern team to dominate the Bundesliga in each of his three years. The reason they couldn’t do better in Champions League was the lack of defensive cover provided when possession was overturned. He deployed a 3-4-3 formation against Barcelona in the 2015 semi-final and got caught by Messi’s brilliance. It was partly due to Bayern’s inability to recover possession quickly once lost.
Positional play – a mystery or a myth?
Well, so far we have heard a lot about the positional model of play and tiki-taka way of moving the ball. It is true that trends are made on the biggest stage if the particular way is a winning formula throughout. If you see the history of the teams which have deployed this system, the success rate has been close to perfect.
Now, we take the question whether this hype of the Guardiola way is correct or not. When the Spaniard first arrived in England last year, there were talks about Manchester City becoming invincibles and thrashing everyone. This hype was just because of his success rates at Bayern and Barcelona especially.
But, the way City played last season, it felt like Pep was uncomfortable with the squad of players he had. He may get better next season with new players and fresher ideas with an experience of ‘English football’ or maybe the manager realises he doesn’t have the players to implement his philosophy like he had in Barcelona and Bayern.
So, there is one justification of the system that maybe the current City squad isn’t good enough to play that way. We can see a better implementation of this system next season. For sure, it is not mysterious to play in this way but a better group of players will implement it in a better way. The history of this system is pretty good which begs me to say that this is not exactly a myth. But, one more season of struggle at England will make it look that way for Pep.