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Positionism vs Relationism

In my wider reading and podcast listening over recent months, I've become aware of a discussion among the football tactics nerd community about two opposing concepts: positionism and relationism. I think it could become quite important as we see the next phase of development in the systems of football, and it's an interesting lens to look through when examining the top sides of today. For instance, you can look at the difference between Ten Hag and Conte in terms of their relative places on the spectrum between these two poles. I'll try to pass on some of the elements I've learned from following this topic.

First of all, what do the terms mean?

Positionism is a philosophy of football that emphasises understanding and manipulation of space on the pitch as the key way to generate an advantage over the opposing team. A positionist side will play based on strict rules governing the distribution of players across different zones of the pitch, distances between players, relative positions of players, etc. Pep Guardiola is a key proponent of this approach, and his stunning success at Barcelona helped rapidly popularise positional coaching principles throughout the sport internationally.

Relationism, by contrast, emphasises the fundamental importance of interactions between players, therefore focuses on developing chemistry, encouraging creative ad hoc problem solving. It embraces the chaos of a match, where positionism tends to want to minimise it. It places the onus on players to be the problem solvers and in-the-moment tacticians, where in positionism the coach does the thinking and the players perform pre-defined roles. Relationism in its purest form is basically street football, and rarely seen in the European professional leagues. But Fernando Diniz's Fluminense side in Brazil gives a great example of this chaos: players go wandering, clusters of team-mates emerge on one side of the pitch, leaving huge spaces unoccupied, lots of improvised skills. This video gives a little flavour of it: https://twitter.com/stirling_j/status/1621585085748183040

Out there in the wilds of tactical geekery, there's a bit of a backlash brewing against the currently dominant philosophy of positionism. Some people are complaining about the homogenisation of the sport as more and more teams adopt the same positionist basics. In a wonder interview (https://theathletic.com/3981374/2022/12/08/juanma-lillo-world-cup/) Juanma Lillo (Guardiola's one-time positionist pioneer) declares that football is 'finished' due to the ubiquity of a system that takes away the skill and creativity of players from the centre of the game:

"It really is wonderful because we, the managers, have too much influence. It’s unbearable. We have our own ideas and we say that we espouse them to help people to understand the game. Bu11shit! It should be for the players to understand the game as they understand it. And everything is globalised now. At club level, if you go to a training session in Norway and one in South Africa, they’ll be the same. ‘Look inside to find spaces outside’, ‘pass here, pass there’. The good dribblers are over, my friend."

Some commentators link this to a wider socio-economic trend: as capitalism looks to maximise productivity through simplification of processes to easily replicable templates (see industrial automation, the way franchise chains supplant independent businesses, etc.), so football is creating models that eliminate the inefficiency of localised variables. There can also be a cultural dimension: football is a form of cultural expression, and how we play football in a particular place often reflects the way people tend to express themselves more generally. For instance, in South America arguments rage about whether national sides should/shouldn't play in a 'European' way: Tite's Seleção in the World Cup adhered to rigorous positional principles in its pursuit of success, and in the process was accused of abandoning the identity of Brazilian football.

In reality, everything exists on a spectrum, and there are very few purely positionist or relationist sides. Guardiola is relatively positionist (but perhaps not as much as Sarri). Ancelotti's Real and Scaloni's Argentina allow more positional freedom and ad hoc creativity, but not to the extent of Diniz's Fluminense. Their success perhaps serves as a challenge to the pre-eminence of positionism, which leads me to the final idea: that perhaps the next phase of football development might focus on finding ways to get the best of both worlds. How to create chaos that disrupts the other team's defensive systems, while retaining the structure to defend against a side that knows how to exploit space? How to get the right balance of order (automation) and chaos (ad hoc creativity)? I'm certain a lot of the best coaches are already incorporating these ideas into their training.

posted on 24/2/23

comment by Red Russian (U4715)
posted 38 minutes ago
CWW, BLB, don't you know that the code of conduct of this forum requires you to dig in pedantically, emphasising points of disagreement and caricaturing the other person's view in bad faith? You've let yourselves down with that civilised discussion. You've let us all down.

posted on 24/2/23

In reality, everything exists on a spectrum, and there are very few purely positionist or relationist sides.


Which is what I was going to say about Ten Hag.

I think he identifies more clearly with both schools of thought than some other coaches and allows for more positional freedom, free-thinking, fluidity and variation in structure.

He also allows for numerical superiority, overloading the ball side and collaborative movement which isn't at all common in a strict symmetrical positional system.

With Ten Hag we've sort of got the best of both worlds.

posted on 24/2/23

Comment Deleted by Article Creator

posted on 24/2/23

Dazza, TRS


posted on 24/2/23

Ole ball was the most recent example of Relationism in the PL… “let the lads play”

posted on 24/2/23

Well I think that's being very generous to Ole.

posted on 25/2/23

There’s also a big differential in positionism too which is around manipulation of the ball vs the players to make the space, and also between in and out of possession whether the same is applied or not.

I’m not sure any of it is particularly new though, it’s more the discussion of it is. It’s always been a balancing act between the two and a trade off. Depending on the coach, they don’t tend to be as rigid in their thought processes as some think either, a lot will adapt dependent on the players they’ve got and also the opposition as it tends to be different areas on the pitch that they allow the balance to change.

posted on 25/2/23

Interesting topic. I find the deliberate manipulation of space by using overloads etc really entertaining to watch. I think this is, and stopping the opposition from doing the same, a really big factor as to why we did well against Barcelona.

I’m really liking Ten Hag because he watches, learns and adapts accordingly (so far).

PS. Love the linkage to socioeconomic and cultural features RR. 🎶 Only you 🎶

comment by Cloggy (U1250)

posted on 25/2/23

In the Netherlands, young players learn to value the ethos early on that space is important in football, but Dutch space is different. Rinus Michels viewed football as the ability and willingness to shape, mould, and control an entire physical environment and all that occurs within that environment. Such a belief is rooted deep in determinism and unleashed through intelligent application. In football, full-backs overlapping wingers, strikers dropping to collect the ball. I have seen this at Barca under pep. Where the forwards would drop back, pulling the defenders with them, opening up space on the wings, for the fullback to bomb forward and receive the ball.

In Total Football each player is instructed and able to take over the position of another player when that player leaves their position. I believe this to be a perfect mix of Positionism and Relationism. A player also has be intelligent and extremely fit as they need to be aware of the players around them, their position and when to fill the gap another player has left. And intelligent to find solutions on their own to eventually score that goal.

Someone on here said that "parking the bus" ruined football, if you think of it, it is probably the only tactic that works against Peps football or against Total Football. When Inter won the CL under Mourinho, they beat Barca by parking the bus but it is 100% Positionism. 2 rows of 4 defenders not leaving their position at the back, means that the oppo forwards cannot create the space for the fullbacks to bomb forward. Effectively nullifying Total Football. In the spirit of the game, this is a fair tactic, but yes, I facking hate it

Anyway, interesting topic, long story short, I think a combination of Positionism and Relationism is probably the perfect mix.

posted on 26/3/23

Here's a thoughtful piece that pushes back on the value of discussing relationism vs positionism as opposing poles:


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