Principles of positional play – part 1

What is positional play in football?

Simply put, positional play refers to a style of play that is intended to provide positional advantages offensively and defensively through a specific distribution of space on the field. Simple principles of action help players find the best possible position and coordinated solutions as a team.

To approach this topic, in part 1 we will mainly deal with group and team tactical principles. In the second part we will go into more detail on the individual level.

Principles vs. rehearsed plays

First, we would like to discuss the importance of principles versus rehearsed plays. Soccer is a dynamic and complex game. Even if individual situations are similar, no situation repeats itself in the same way. Due to the large number of possible situations, it is practically impossible to prepare a fixed plan in advance for all possibilities. It is therefore better to give the players simple principles of action to orient themselves by. This preserves creativity and freedom for each individual, while at the same time the principles facilitate coordinated behavior as a whole team.

Here is a selection of principles: 

Principle 1: “Maximum two players in a vertical line (form triangles)”.

To create the maximum number of passing options, there should never be more than two players in a vertical line. In this animation, a defender can defend two players at the same time. By following this principle, more passing options are created.

Positionsspiel - Zwei Spieler in einer Linie
Principle 2: “As deep as possible, as wide as necessary”.

In the following example, blue (2) is not in an optimal position, so no space gain is possible because the player is positioned too far out. This gives the opponent more time to get into the right position.


With the help of the principles, blue (2) manages to get into the opponent’s back with the first contact.

So tief wie möglich und so breit wie nötig - Positions Spiel
Principle 3: “While the offense is already preparing the defense”.

Here you can see two important processes:

  • When passing to the side: Move the far side of the ball into the center.
  • When passing to the front: All players move forward. All players not close to the ball have access to an opponent.
Principle 4: “Play over the third player”

Probably one of the most important principles in positional play, to be able to play to the free man at any time. Playing through the third man is facilitated by a clever division of space. 

“The third man is impossible to defend against” – Xavi Hernandez 

In the following animation, the 6-man from blue is actually impossible to play against. By triangular play over blue (8) the covered player is played free.

Spiel über den dritten - Positionsspiel


These few rules alone make it much easier for players to move around the field in a sensible and coordinated way without having to rehearse fixed moves. What principle is still missing from this list? Write it down in the comments below!

Then, in Part 2, we’ll look at principles that can help players find solutions quickly and efficiently on an individual level. If you enjoyed this post and don’t want to miss the next one, feel free to subscribe to our free newsletter.

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