It’s quite difficult to actually pinpoint when it started, it could, perhaps, have arrived years ago, though the introduction of social media has probably elevated it to a scale where it has grown in awareness. There is no doubting that the topic of football tactics and strategies has now entered the majority of football fans consciousness. Supporters are more aware of their team and the opposition’s shape, both their styles of play and how each player affects the dynamics of the side. Truth be told, these conversations were probably taking place between fans in certain countries a long time ago, yet in certain places, particularly Britain and the US, this subject was thought of as being unnecessary, as physicality and how much the players ‘wanted it’ – whatever that means – were the most important factors in deciding a game.
Currently, through devices like Twitter and the great number of different blogs out there, fans, and, just as significantly, coaches, can read, research and learn more about the tactical theory that the vast majority of pundits on television fail to provide. Instead of the mundane analysis where an ex-professional will describe a goal we all can already see, each of us can now access such brilliant sites like spielverlagerung.com or the Twitter accounts of Euler or Sébastien Chapuis to discover rather why that goal was scored. The balance is starting to shift as well, with Rene Maric of the former, and top Scottish coach Stevie Grieve being given the opportunity to demonstrate their strong knowledge of the game to a television audience.
In December, the English version of the German site provided us with an analysis of the philosophy of perhaps the greatest coach of all time, Pep Guardiola. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so now. Adin Osmanbasic, the US-based Bosnian coach and analyst, opened up to us about the central principles of Juego de Posicion (translated to Positional Play) and how it has been executed in various games with a wealth of examples provided. Well-written with a fountain of new information supplied, I was keen to speak to Adin, determined to find out more about this philosophy that has gained a following of fascinated admirers;
How long have you been actively taking a keen interest in the tactics and strategies of the game and where did this stem from?
Hmm, I began actively taking part in analysis roughly 5 years ago. It stemmed from 2 things: 1) Me being born to a Bosnian family in Germany, and 2) My natural curiosity about things. Both Bosnia and Germany are crazy about football so I have always had a passion for it, and in regards to my curiosity – I have always wanted to know how things work and why certain things happen within matches. So put those two together and you have a keen interest in football!
How long have you been coaching and what aspirations do you want to achieve in football?
I have been coaching for about 3-4 years. My aspirations in football are to be a head coach/manager of a top professional club! I believe I will do it.
How many games do you tend to watch and analyse each week?
I analyse more games than the ones you see on Spielverlagerung – which is normally about 1 or 2 posts a week. I am watching a game and analysing it roughly every single day of the week, be it for Spielverlagerung or for private analysis! So a good number would be around 5 games give or take. Though if I had more time on my hands it would probably be even higher – but I’m working on my Bachelor’s Degree.
When did you first start to have a curiosity about Positional Play and what interested you about this way of playing?
My curiosity for this style of play began immediately when I saw Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2008/2009 season. What was interesting for me personally was the way the ball was dominated by his team but consistently used to attack, attack, and attack some more – and keeping control of the game at the same time. Usually teams would not be able to be so dominant in various different phases of the game like that.
Having studied it excessively, have you attempted to implement this style to any teams you have coached? What has been the result of this and what were the players’ responses to it?
Yes, or at least my own variation of it! Every coach has certain aspects of a philosophy they prefer over another – so I took what I felt was the most important aspects of Positional Play and implemented it into my own idea for football. The results have been increasingly good. As I grow and learn more as a coach/analyst, my teams improve as well. The players understand it and love the idea behind it – the big idea is to make sure they understand why they are playing a specific way!
If a coach wanted to put into practice this philosophy, after obviously having studied it first, in your opinion what would be a recommended starting point for applying it in terms of the focus of the first couple of sessions? What kind of baby-steps is needed first and what should come later in the playing style development?
In regards to style development, I believe the best way to teach concepts to your players is to begin with the basic strategic guidelines, and then progress into deeper layers from there. If you take counterpressing for example, I wouldn’t begin teaching the concept with specific technical/individual-tactical aspects being highlighted in the training session. I’d start with the basic premise: We want to press the ball immediately after we lose it. Then create a drill that allows the players to do it, then speak with them about why it is done, how we should do it, etc. After that I’d guide them into more and more complex aspects of the strategy (moving into the tactics, technique, etc.). Pep Guardiola refers to this process as players learning his “football language.” In regards to a starting point for implementing it, I’d say it depends on the coach – most coaches like to begin with the defensive aspects such as defensive shape and pressing before progressing into offensive aspects of the game, in order to have a base to build off of. Though the structure of the team during moments of transition and in defence comes from the offensive phases! The game is inter-connected, so it is probably best to train various strategic guidelines in the beginning. I would only recommend playing a lot of games so everything that is learned is game-specific.
Coaches may look to implement a Positional Play (PP) philosophy, yet certain factors may prohibit them from using it. Is it possible for clubs who regularly play on a poor playing surface each week, or teams that are required to fill parts of their squad with short-term loan contracted players (1-3 months), to still be able to play this method?
Obviously these situations don’t make things easier, but my answer is yes. It is a game of positioning which can be varied from coach to coach depending on their philosophy and strategy selections, not a special philosophy that is un-achievable by lower level teams. Of course it requires a good coach who puts his players in a position to succeed, and players who are willing to work hard and learn the coach’s system. Aspects of PP can be used by any coach for their team – for example, creating an overload out of the defensive line against the opponent’s forwards in order to drive the ball into the midfield with a numerical advantage. I know coaches from areas around the world (such as India!) who use such aspects in their philosophy successfully.
PP demands teamwork of the highest qualities in order to achieve the interacting runs between players and the efficient covering of the correct zones of all players in relation to the four principles of Sacchi. Does actual off-the-pitch relationships have any effect on PP?
From my experience I would say yes. Psychology is an underappreciated aspect of football and it plays a large part in player motivation, focus, mentality, etc. during the game – which can have adverse effects on the quality of the team’s play in regards to proper movement. Though that’s taking nothing away from the hard work required on the training ground/video room in order to make everything work – which plays a bigger role in the quality of these principles of play than anything else, in my opinion.
Pep’s Barcelona is a much highlighted example of the exponents of the system. One key factor of that side was that many of the players had played together in La Masia, therefore improving the in-game communication and synergy of the players. Will a team full of new players be restricted in using this style?
A team full of new players will definitely need time in order to adjust to the philosophy, strategy, tactics, their teammates, etc. So I agree that the new players are restricted in that regard in comparison to La Masia players who played together their entire lives – but the new players can become comfortable fairly quickly depending on the person!
Marti Peranau states in his interview that there are players who will never be able to fit into this philosophy. Could you expand on his comment offering examples of known players in the game and offer a reason why it would be hard for them to adapt to this style?
Any player can play in any system, it’s just about how well they fit into it. If you take Bayern Munich as an example – their coach is Pep Guardiola, he has a specific way he likes things to be done, and certain players wouldn’t fit into his team as efficiently as others could. The way I view it is that bad players will struggle to fit into any system, while good players can play in nearly any system if they are used correctly. Danny Rose wouldn’t succeed in such a system, because he would struggle in any system! Xabi Alonso/David Luiz wouldn’t be great fits for Bayern under Pep because of their impact on the rhythm of the game and their positioning in possession (among other things). Even Schweinsteiger has a tougher time playing under Guardiola at times as he is quite a vertical player and his natural tendencies go against what Pep would want from him in a specific situation. Now if a player like Benzema joined Bayern and played in Lewandowski’s current role – he would fit perfectly! He is excellent in combination play, evasive movements, and he has many more good qualities.
Marti comments that the PP that Bayern perform is on a different axis in contrast to Pep’s Barcelona side, being more vertically-orientated rather than horizontal. Is this to say that there are more longer balls played by the Bavarians? What does he mean by this?
Marti was saying that when Pep left Barcelona they began playing more horizontal, but they were playing more vertical when he was there as well. It doesn’t mean longer balls specifically, it means more vertical passes. Pep’s teams are move quite directly, but in a controlled manner – which doesn’t necessarily refer to long and high passes from the defence into the strikers. Basically, he looks for his teams to create situations where they can penetrate opponents rather than playing the ball from side to side and having ineffective possession. He refers to the ineffective possession as “the U,” referring to the shape the ball forms when it travels from side to side through the defensive line. This is more difficult of course – because teams defend their goal vertically, while movement from side to side doesn’t mean your team is any closer to scoring a goal against them so they allow those passing lanes to be open more often. If a defence focused only on defending horizontal passes and allowed vertically passes, it would get ugly – just imagine rotating a 4-4-2 defensive shape and its exact movements 90 degrees with a focus on defending the side-line instead of their goal! So when moving the ball vertically, pressure increases – meaning sharper movements, quicker passes, tighter dribbling, etc. So the focus on vertical play is riskier and more radical than a focus on horizontal play! Though I would say that Bayern have a larger focus on overloading the flanks and then moving inside diagonally from there whereas Barcelona was more focused on overloading the centre and then moving forward from there under Pep – but that’s because he now has Ribery and Robben instead of Messi and Iniesta.
What effect on the opposition and the dynamics of the game does a team playing on a vertical axis have compared to a horizontal one?
Playing vertically usually means the opponent’s defence will become more compact and look to collapse on the ball in order to prevent it from moving so quickly and directly towards their goal. This usually results in a quicker rhythm of play and causes a higher amount of transition phases in contrast to the slow rhythm of play that results from consistently playing the ball from side to side and not really penetrating the opponent defence. Teams like Bayer Leverkusen under Schmidt play on a very “steep” vertical axis, if you can imagine that – and in a less controlled manner than Guardiola’s Bayern does. There are statistics which show that they play the fastest football in Europe!
It is highlighted in the article it is essential to always support the free player in the side, this being done in Pep’s side by underloading the far side of the ball. How will a team still be able to create width without underloading the free player and the ball-carrier?
It’s definitely possible, it just depends on your strategy and if it fits your players to do so. Against Roma, Bayern had Robben alone on the opposite flank as the free player while still overloading the strong-side of the field where the ball was. Robben is capable of handling a 1 vs. 1 situation very well so it isn’t instable to have him alone on the weak-side creating width. When the ball was switched to him the players nearest to him such as Lahm (who was the weak-side central midfielder) worked hard to support him immediately. So Robben still had support and wasn’t truly in an “underloaded” situation. Relative to the number of defenders on the weak-side Bayern had quite an advantageous situation! A 1vs. 1 with Robben or a 2 vs. 2 with Robben and Lahm. Sure, the far-side will have less players than the near-side, but what matters is relativity. Later in the game the defenders started marking Robben more closely even though he was on his own on the far-side – opening up the centre for Bayern to combine through. Sometimes you don’t even need width in your attack anyway! If you can break through the near side with combinations then that’s perfectly fine as well, similar to how Atletico Madrid play. It all depends on your team and the opponent.
Staggering (the act of having players on different lines vertically and horizontally) allows players inside the opponent’s formation. What would a team look like in possession if they weren’t staggered, and were playing only on a few different lines?
They would look a lot less connected most likely. They would also be much easier to press as the passing angles between the ball and multiple players on the same line would be much easier to cover. This most likely means they would have a much more difficult time penetrating the opponent lines in a stable manner and they would have a lot of ineffective possession and long balls!
How does staggering improve a team’s counter-pressing?
In a similar way that it improves a team’s ball possession phase: more angles, more spaces, more lines, etc. When pressing, if a team can cover multiple different angles, it can cover many more passing options. The varied positioning also allows the team to cover many different spaces, creating a more complex problem for the attacking teams. It also means the defence will press with more “lines” or layers. Penetrating a 5-1-1 formation is much easier than penetrating a 3-3-1!
What would a team look like then if they tried to counter-press, but were only playing on a few different lines?
They would most likely look very funny, as a single talented dribbler would be able to change the angling of the ball by moving it slightly – which would destroy an entire line of pressing (because “cover shadows” are only efficient if they cover an opponent in relation to the ball position) before passing it through the lines for a teammate! Modric does this to teams who press him very frequently.
You explained in the article that in PP there are certain moments when certain zones should be occupied by a particular type of player. Could you give an example of this?
A simple example would be if Barcelona has the ball on the left side and they are combining successfully under pressure from a very compact opponent – while the far side is open. If Barcelona’s combinations are successful then they will be able to pass into the open side – where I would like to have a player like Lionel Messi! Or if the opponent isn’t compact, I’d like to have Messi or Iniesta in between the lines in order to receive in the opponent weak spots.
In Barcelona’s 15-pass rule, what type of ball circulation is done in this period to set the team up in the correct structure? Is this only done on the deeper lines by certain players (Puyol, Pique, Busquets etc.)?
That is usually how it occurs, though under Guardiola the team could already be probing the defence with vertical movements within the first 15 passes. It really depends on the situation. By the time the 15 passes occur all the players are usually in their positions and the team is structured in a stable way in order to begin the attack (and subsequent phases) with the ball.
What was the impact on Barcelona if the opposition were pressing them high during their 15-pass preparation?
The opponent risks being combined through as Barcelona use the goalkeeper – meaning a natural 11 vs. 10 advantage as you press them. Even if they aren’t near their own goal they are still very talented in tight spaces, so pressing high and leaving space in behind your defence is risky vs. such players who can break presses. Of course they might not be able to position themselves perfectly to begin the positional attack but if they can break the high press then they can progress into the attack in a very advantageous situation. If you are able to press them successfully then you can win the ball high up the field and quickly attack their disorganised positioning in transition!
How does a team prepare for counter-pressing while in possession?
As mentioned earlier, they find their respective positions – which are hopefully varied and staggered, allowing them to cover many angles, lines, spaces, etc. when the ball is lost. Teams like Leverkusen who play super super fast football play quite a narrow and central formation focused on combinations. This also has a defensive aspect to it – if they are narrow and looking to combine in tight areas, when they lose the ball there are many players immediately near the ball ready to press in defensive transition. So they always look to attack in their specific way but are positioned in a way in their attack which prepares them for defensive transition.
You comment that there is a general rule in a team’s structuring that no more than 3 players can be stationed on a horizontal line and no more than 2 players on a vertical one. Why are these numbers chosen and what would happen to the team’s dynamics in possession if there were more players on the lines then recommended?
The problems that would arise are the same ones as we previously talked about – too many players on the same lines ruin the dynamics of play, connectivity, etc. The reason there are more players positioned on the horizontal axis of the field in general is to have more stabilized possession and be able to switch the point of attack (between flanks, halfspaces, etc.) easier before moving vertically once again. As the goal is to move vertically and eventually score, if 3 players are on the same vertical line – Alaba, Schweinsteiger, and Lewandowksi for example, then one defender pressing the ball could theoretically block all of those players. Again, defences defend vertically so positioning on the vertical axis must be much more varied while horizontal passes are not under as much pressure and allow the team to switch the angle of attack in a more stable manner. If defenders prioritized blocking the 3 players on the horizontal axis, then the vertical pathways would be exposed more easily. Imagine only being able to switch the ball from Ribery into Robben, with nobody in the centre – it wouldn’t be stable! So the more destination points (players) the ball has along its path to the end point (player on the far-side for example), the more stable the pathway will be – though at times it could be more advantageous to skip a destination point and move directly to the end point as it’s quicker and maybe exposes the defence better.
How would a coach be able to reach through to his players these certain rules?
Training! Training with specific lines on the practice fields and explaining the basic rules to the players and then allowing them to try and do it. Though I’d start even more basic – in smaller games I would probably talk to players first about the basics of finding connections and their positioning in horizontal/vertical/diagonal lines with their teammates, then progress to the more complex aspects.
What technical and tactical qualities are essential for a player to be an ‘interior’?
To put it simply, a needle player! In German, players who are able to play in tight spaces are called “needle players.” Those who can control the ball, dribble, and pass under pressure, make great decisions under pressure – I personally prefer the risk takers, play dynamically (which is an underappreciated athletic ability) under pressure, etc. are the types of players necessary. Players like Iniesta, Modric, and Messi – the ones who were born in a small-sided game. The best dribblers understand how to use their body to dribble and manipulate the opponent. They need to be able to find the weak spots in the opponent shape, manage passing distance and connectivity between them and their teammates well, be efficient in combination play, and more!
One quote from your article is “Guardiola chooses different players in his starting lineups based upon how he interprets their movements and their synergies between other teammates on the field”. Could you give a relative example of Pep doing this for either Barcelona or Bayern, and help to explain how the players’ movements benefited each other in contrast to if a different type of player was chosen?
A perfect example would be in the Roma game. In a more specific example from the game, Lahm looked to balance all of Robben’s movements. First of all, the strategy was to expose Roma’s horizontal compactness – so the wing play of Lahm and Robben is an excellent choice in that regard. Later when Roma was more open through the centre then Lahm could offer more to the central combinations. This choice fits well because Robben likes to move from the touchline and cut inside and attack the opponent diagonally. Lahm is both a talented centre midfielder and a talented right back. So when Robben cut inside, Lahm would move out to the flank to balance his movement – which was quite a normal movement for Lahm and he felt comfortable doing it. So Guardiola thought about how each of these two’s natural movements would benefit each other in this specific line up. As for the combination play, Lahm likes to act more as a supportive player in combinations while Robben likes to be within the opponent formation during combinations and penetrate the opponent from within the combination play – so even in this regard he accounted for their characteristics as players and how it would be beneficial to his team for his specific strategy on that match day. This example only includes 2 players because I wanted to keep it simple, but Pep does this for his entire team when creating a system (like the combinations of Lewandowski, Gotze, and Muller through the centre later in the game) – it’s all about the connections!
Pep, himself, says that he truly believes only 3 teams execute the philosophy of PP correctly. Where do teams normally fail in their way of playing it? Can you give any contemporary examples of current teams or ones in the last 10 years?
I personally believe that there are more than just 3 teams who use the PP philosophy correctly, but he’s basically saying that most teams use only a few aspects of PP without really following the philosophy of play completely. A perfect example is the Spanish National Team of 2010 – they were full of Guardiola’s players, but if you ever want to watch a great example of ineffective/non-penetrative possession, you should watch that team! They wouldn’t be considered a true PP team.
Do you think truly successful PP can only be exercised at the very top level, or can teams from lower down the league structures (semi-professional, amateur) perform it? As mentioned by Cruyff, playing in tight spaces, and therefore the technical skills of passing, creating space and receiving under pressure are very intense, therefore wouldn’t these players at this level struggle to adapt to it if their coach introduced it?
As I said before, I believe it is possible on any level – though it must fit your players and your strategy as a coach. Even teams in the lower leagues can seek to use their most talented players in the most crucial positions. It requires a good coach and players who are willing to work hard and learn, and of course the play wouldn’t be at the level of Bayern (unless you have 11 hidden gems in the lower leagues), but the team can still be very successful.
One last question: What advice would you give to anyone who enjoys analysing and studying different team’s style of play that wants to improve in this skill?
In order to improve your analysing skills I would recommend doing A LOT of analysis. Not only on paper, but in your head! Just ask yourself why certain things happen and try to answer all of your questions through research. When doing the analysis you can make it increasingly challenging on yourself to create the analysis – like trying to write one out of memory and then seeing where you got things wrong and why, analysing without pausing the videos, etc. Just keep practicing and looking for answers! The most important thing is to think about everything you are learning, even if it’s something widely accepted by the community – for example, do we really need width? Just a sample question. Good luck!
Interview was conducted by editorial assistant Gareth Flitcroft, @GarethFlitcroft.
Gareth, having recently returned from Honduras following his success in academia, has worked as a technique coach internationally, as a fitness coach domestically and is a student of football tactics. Thank you to both Gareth and Adin for that superb conversation.