Positional Play in the Premier League: thoughts ahead of the new season 2012-13

  • In the absence of a free role, how will Steven Gerrard fit into Brendan Rodgers’ strict template of positional play?
  • Will Andre Villas Boas assign to Gareth Bale an advanced wide role or  is the Welshman better suited as an offensive left-back in the 4-3-3?
  • Will Tottenham adopt AVB’s rotational midfield?

Positiespel. Joc de posició. Juego de posición. “Positional play”. That’s the cup from which Brendan Rogers imbibes his philosophy. A potion that instills in those who consume it an all-encompassing vision of how their players’ football should take form on the pitch, and the Ulsterman in this sense is in communion with a lineage stretching from Johann Cruijff to Josep Guardiola via Louis Van Gaal.

The vari-lingual rendition of the term attests to its lifespan: Louis Van Gaal resuscitated this quintessentially Dutch patrimony and rearmed it for an age in which another monolithic dogma was in the ascendancy. Though equally global in its pretensions to protagonise the play, Sacchism differed in the focus of its application (proritising space rather than the ball as its imperium). Sacchism (and its inheritors/modfiers, from Capello to Hiddink) had slain its “evil other”, the gioco all’italiana, on the battleground of Europe’s prime league, and on a continental stage it would set about picking off the doughty Mitteleuropeen stragglers who, though fighting a rearguard action to keep 5-3-2 relevant, proved little more than a nuisance. The nascent Champions League exhibited sides who now wished to use defence as a pro-active form of attack by priming an aggressive offside trap. This rendered the assymetrical and bucolic teams of yore incongruously porous and too poorly articulated as to withstand the Cartesian onslaught.

Positional Play suffered a fright at the hands of an adulterated Sacchianism in Athens in May 1994, but if the 4-0 drubbing served to demoralise its adherents they nevertheless determined that the logos would endure. And in those low hours, ruminations must have abounded, surely.  How cruel the gods of Olympus must have seemed to Johann Cruijff and Carles Rexach: the team which had most improvised and least steadfastly adhered to its own constituition had been awarded the laurels.

But for ‘edify’ one might also substitute ‘ossify’. Capello’s Milan had moved away from its Sacchianism to draw lifeblood and succour from the reality of its environment. Dejan Savićević and Zvonimir Boban playing in the hole ahead of a midfield trivot? Licenced improvisation suffused with compensatory work detail? Sacchi would never have had that. Capello had violated the hollowed sphere of the global framework and gorged himself on the particulars, fidgeting with the micro-specifics.

Cruijff’s Barcelona, on the other hand, was resolutely not for incorporating individuality as to do so would be to stray from formula. Outstanding individuals it did possess, two of them to be precise. But the three-foreigner rule and the irrepresible Hristo Stoichkov’s talismanic indispensability meant that only one of Romário or Laudrup could start that evening. The lack of true fantasy, the kind that twinkletoes Savicevic brought to the party, would haunt Barca. “Inventing the play”, as Brian Glanville is so fond of saying, wasn’t in the script.

How encouraging then that Van Gaal’s name should appear on Fenway Sports Group’s list of candidates to replace Kenny Dalglish, even if the Dutchman eventually fell out of the reckoning. Roberto Martínez was considered before Liverpool ultimately alighted at Rodgers’s stop, but the entire process suggested a singular trajectory: the desire to implant   a footballing culture based around maximising ball possession whilst creating clear passing angles so as to progress up the pitch.

Over on Merseyside, how Rodgers feels about the human material he has to hand could signify more arrivals at and departures from Anfield. Does the existing Liverpool squad lend itself to positional play? Charlie Adam unwittingly drew a chorus of ironic chuckles when during the Euros he tweeted his exhortation that England bring on a big man and “stick it in the mixer”. The big man in question happens to be the current wearer of the No.9 shirt at Liverpool and Rodgers faces the dilemna of how best to accomodate a piece of field artillery too unidimensional as to not condition the play of his other teammates and yet too expensive to be confined to the locker marked “Plan B”.

Irrespective of how Rodgers eventually configures the attack, and pending the arrival of another versatile forward, the Reds’ current personnel can actually present a healthy imitation of a fairly classic front-three. Luis Suárez performed an outside-to-in role from the left flank at Ajax, and Borini similarly attacked from a right-sided berth at Roma. Also, both forwards have enjoyed spells as more elusive references in the centre of the attack with Uruguay and Swansea respectfully.

The question is not whether one or both plays wide or central, but rather whether Rodgers will duplicate roles on each flank, as per Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair at Swansea. Both wingers had the option of either taking on the full-back on the outside before executing a reverse pass across the face of goal (rarely did they resort to high crosses) or else darting diagonally into the space between said full-backs and the central defenders. Irrespective of which route they chose, both Dyer and Sinclair had the obligation to draw their opposing full-back out, as under the diktats of positional play a dribble is only permitted once an opponent has broken ranks from his defensive lines. During a static passage of play, neither winger of his own initiative could set off towards goal or the byline, as to do so would  disrupt the web of passing angles.

In this respect, as similar brief was presented to Lionel Messi under Frank Rijkaard between 2005 and 2008, for example; even though Messi would execute the diagonal out-to-in run invariably. Immediately in the 2008-09 season, and even before consigning him to the No. 9 berth,  Pep Guardiola relaxed that rule somewhat to legislate for the Argentine’s sheer genius. Messi was free to move in from the right flank and receive the ball as and when he saw opportune. Rodgers simply doesn’t have the kind of outstanding player that warrants making such concessions: the template will remain absolute.

So it follows that Liverpool’s wide-forwards should present a degree of versatility. At least one should be able to vary between the byline and the diagonal, as demonstrated by such illustrious exponents as  John Barnes, Marc Overmars and Ludovic Giuly. Alternatively, one winger should specialise in either art as per the imposing Porto side of Andre Villas Boas. Regardless, both will have to stretch their opponent by drawing the full-back out before removing him from the defensive equation.

With Stewart Downing, Rodgers faces a problem and it is two-fold. The first is that Downing was reared on the proviso of hugging the touch-line; so much for the optional diagonal. Secondly, the former Middlesborough and Aston Villa player is the embodiment of the wide-midfielder, the English incarnation of the tornante, so that even if his disposition is towards going round the full-back on the outside, the opportunity to do so has not been a constant in the landscape of his game which starts about 10 metres deeper than that of a traditional winger (outside-forward). More a ball transporter than an incisive attacker, Downing expects space ahead of him, and his maxim is to produce a cross whether from 30 yards or from three: in such a set of circumstances, dexterity and nimbleness to elude the attention of makers is not even necessary. Whether Rodgers can press re-set on the 28-year old and instill in him a penchant for playing higher up the pitch remains to be seen.

At White Hart Lane, André Villas Boas faces a not dissimilar problem with Gareth Bale (without disputing the Welshman’s incontestable superiority to the likes of Downing) in the sense that Bale is not naturally inclined towards playing in such an advanced sector. Unlike Downing, however, Bale is palpably his team’s outstanding individual talent, so much so that Villas Boas will feel compelled to perform some manner of alchemy so as to best accommodate the force of nature at his disposal. The Portuguese is a noted admirer of Pep Guardiola, and he will have noted that in any positional-play side who set up camp high up the pitch, Bale would play much as Dani Alves does in a full-back/wing-back role that would see him patrol similar territory to his habitual stomping ground at Spurs.

At Porto, in an attempt to avoid congestion, Villas Boas preferred one of his wingers (Hulk) to seek the diagonal (out-to-in) whilst the other would (Silvestre Varela) would stretch the defence. Such asymmetry did not denote some nominal ‘inside-forward’ role (much less a free one) for the likes of Hulk. Again, the forward would have to draw out the opposing full-back before seeking the vulnerable space just wide of the centre-back. It could be argued that such division of duties might perhaps render the movement of the wingers more predictable in terms of marking them (as opposed to having a truly bi-functional attacker on each flank), but considered as a unit the attack presented a conundrum to the rival defensive unit: compensate for the skewered nature of our attack but risk distorting the mechanisms of your back line, and the domino effect that would ensue.

Villas Boas may well opt for such an approach at Spurs, with Aaron Lennon seeking the byline whilst a player, even a more central if pacey striker, such as Jermain Defoe springs the diagonal from the opposite flank Alternatively, the left-footed Giovanni dos Santos, if retained, could provide the diagonal threat from the right while the left-sided berth would be the preserve of a more ‘outside-to-outside’ forward (arguably yet to be signed).

At this juncture, just as Chelsea go about assembling a squad capable of executing the kind of model of play that Villas Boas had envisaged for the Stamford Bridge club – one year too late – it is worth holding up to scrutiny another sector of the current Tottenham squad to establish how smooth will be its adaptation to positional play.

The acquisition of Gylfi Sigurdsson could help to stagger the midfield and thereby provide more passing angles. It would be erroneous, however, to suggest that either AVB  at Chelsea or Rodgers at Liverpool would be seeking a  ‘2 holders plus 1 trequartista’ set-up* as this would be a violation of positional play; Sigurdsson would still have to operate as an interior (slightly advanced, wide-of-centre and not divorced from the midfield). And as is the case with Xavi and Iniesta, where the former tends to drop off closer to the defence and the latter probes the pocket of space behind the opposing midfield, Villas Boas will expect his interiors to enter these respective zones but not to inhabit them (as per the ‘2 + 1′ scenario).

In addition to its staggered midfield, another hallmark of AVB’s Porto side was the rotational nature of the three positions so that the No. 6, or trinco to use Portuguese terminology, was frequently entrusted with making progressive runs whereupon one of the  interiors (from Moutinho, Guarín or Belluschi) would drop in to occupy his vacated zone. Indeed, for certain games Villas Boas would dispense with his most naturally defensive midfielder, Fernando, altogether.

It was a policy that, famously, Villas Boas had to relinquish shortly after joining Chelsea given the prevalence of the transition in the Premier League; he simply couldn’t afford to leave his back line unprotected even momentarily, and he openly acknowledged as much. This invites one to think that at Tottenham he will rely on a fixed reference (‘centre-half’ in the original sense of the word) at the base of midfield, but Sandro, his most natural exponent in the role, has been in poor form during Brazil’s Olympic campaign. And then there is the industrious if anarchic Scott Parker, who is not really a positional holder but rather a compensator.  Parker is in his element when shoring up his teammates and so hoovering further upfield and choking the transition at an earlier phase might dovetail nicely with the intricacies of AVB’s rotational midfield.

It is Liverpool’s midfield where it is more difficult to envisage Dutch-style passing triangles taking form. Rodgers has already signalled his intention to use Lucas Leiva primarily in what the Dutch would designate as either the ‘4’ or the ‘6’,  the deepest midfield role. Fittingly for someone who worked alongside Sigurdsson, so too must Brendan Rodgers configure his most creative/attacking midfielder for a club which last exhibited its best football during the latter Benítez era when Steven Gerrard was clearly, and quite singularly, the designated link between the midfield and the attack. Benítez, whose idols were Paco Maturana and Arrigo Sacchi (standard-bearers of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 respectively), was less concerned with occupying a greater expanse of the pitch, and with a more compact midfield (flanked by tornantes) Gerrard’s advanced position was structurally irrelevant – so much so that he could be cut loose and allowed roam. Rodgers, of course, will not contemplate such a scenario.

It could be that what is now the autumn of Gerrard’s career, if his tempered and responsible Euro 2012 performances are anything to go by, is a blessing in disguise for the new Liverpool coach. The player himself has alluded to a recognition of the need to adapt his game; never mind the percussive surging of pre-2006, Gerrard no longer even sees himself as the incisive trequartista of the late Benítez era. In light of this acceptance of adaptation, Rodgers might more easily coax the Liverpudlian talisman into more of an ‘interior’ role in keeping with the  4-3-3 and the model of play. Whether Gerrard will lean more towards the base of his midfielder or present himself for passing options behind the backs of the rival midfielders is arguably the most tantalising  aspect of Rodgers’s Liverpool yet to materialise.

* = After experimenting with a pure 3-3-1-3 (or 3-diamond-3) with mixed results during his first season at the Camp Nou, Louis Van Gaal did send out his Barcelona side for the 1998-99 campaign with more of an orthodox back four in what was really a 4-2-1-3. The Dutchman nevertheless managed to avoid any tendency towards a broken team and to maintain the passing lines by keeping his wingers (Zenden and Figo) pushed high and having Frank De Boer constantly step out of defence during the build-up phase. Rivaldo, before later being reassigned to the left-wing, featured behind the three-man attack, led by Sony Anderson, and ahead of Phillip Cocu and Pep Guardiola (or Albert Celades), thereby assuring Van Gaal’s precious minimum of eight lines of passing meshed across the pitch (whereas a 4-2-3-1, according to Van Gaal, would have seen these lines reduced to 7). Curiously, Van Gaal would later relinquish the more dogmatic aspects of this philosophy when taking over AZ Alkmaar and later Bayern Munich, sides who fluctuated between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, presented fewer lines of passing and who accepted a less asphyxiating quotient of protagonism in exchange for more space ahead to exploit, a compromise that José Mourinho had already reconciled himself to (if in a less Damascene fashion) by the time both men left Barcelona in 2000.

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2 Responses to Positional Play in the Premier League: thoughts ahead of the new season 2012-13

  1. Mati says:

    i haven’t seen Swansea under Rodgers, so i decided to observe the first Liverpool game i find on TV, and it was vs Leverkusen starting from the 31st minute.

    the ball was played out of the defence with minimum fuss (and pressure), but the players seemed to be positionally intelligent, applying a “salida lavolpiana”. by the 35th minut i was almost going to say “i have never seen Gerrard play so intelligently”, but he quickly proved me wrong. it will take time, but it’s looking OK so far. the pressing from the front is a ood sign, but even that isn’t executed at its best from a collective perspective.

    The system may work well in Europe, but i see the same gaps between the lines (mostly between midfield and defence) that the bigger teams know how to exploit. once pressed at the back, they still aren’t comfortable enough to exit the defensive phase.

    I’ll try and catch another Tottenham game (saw vs Valencia, wasn’t impressed) to get a better idea on how AVB is applying his ideas.

    • santapelota says:

      Hi Mati,

      Thanks for those valuable observations.

      You’ve seen more of Liverpool and Tottenham than I have so far this season! But from what little I’ve gleamed, it doesn’t surprise me that Liverpool are taking time to adapt as a functioning collective to Rodgers’s ideas: as you said, the gaps and the inconsistencies will be present during the first few weeks.

      In the case of Spurs, I think it’s more a question of AVB not having the players at his disposal while the Modric saga goes unresolved. They’ve just secured Adebayor’s services, which of course concretises some things in attack, but I don’t believe that the 4-2-3-1 we saw on the opening weekend is indicative of either the shape nor the character of the side that AVB has in mind. I honestly cannot see AVB persisting with Bale as an inverted winger-cum-second-striker for much longer; the Portuguese coach must be just improvising until his midfield regista and his forward line have been settled. Then I think we’ll see the true incarnation of his Tottenham.

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