Arteta’s ‘Positional Play’ & Why YOU Should Care

You may or may not have heard people refer to the concept of “positional play” in relation to Mikel Arteta’s tactical setup, and indeed the tactical setup of numerous other coaches including, famously, Pep Guardiola. Here are the fundamentals of what it is, some examples in practice, and why you should care.

Positional play, “Positionsspiel” in German or “juego de posición” as it’s known in Spanish, is a tactical approach that gives a team a set of very specific principles and guidelines pointing towards an ultimate goal: superiorities on the field. In other words, trying to put a team in more situations where they can control the game, keep the ball and score goals. Complicated as it may appear, its aim is simple. Think of it as a way of systemising something that is kind of intuitive.

There are many different types of superiorities or dominant situations that this approach aims to get you into, but I’ll tell you about the three main ones: positional, qualitative and quantitative/numerical.

1. Positional: Situations where players are in positions on the pitch that exploit space or create an attacking threat — such as between the defensive and midfield line. Coached automation that is fundamental to positional play.

2. Qualitative: Situations where you can show your quality. Isolating weaker opposition players 1v1 or capitalising on the skillset of a particularly fast winger or penetrative midfield passer.

3. Quantitative/Numerical: A situation where you may have isolated a team 2v1 or 3v2 for example, and are able to overload them numbers-wise to create an attacking threat.

Considering it’s called Positional Play in relation to the players, it’s almost counter-intuitive, but it’s important to remember that the set of principles are primarily centred around keeping and moving the ball. The players must move smartly, in coached, intelligent patterns — the ball comes to you in the right place, not the other way round; so you tire out the opposition. Perfection is the right movements of the ball, at pace, and the right manipulation of the opponent and space in tandem — in order to create as many of the superiorities as possible within the same move.

Two more things to note:

Firstly, in positional play, a ground rule is to never have more than 2 players in any one vertical line, and no more than 3 players in any horizontal line. This is a rule of thumb, you won’t always see it, but it’s a rule implemented to try and cover as much of the pitch as possible as a starting point, from which you can make your next movements – it’s also why teams who play with these principles often play 4-3-3 or 3-4-3, set ups that help you cover space. It helps the players know how respond to each other’s movements too. If the fullback tucks in, that’s too many on a vertical line, someone needs to respond.

And secondly, not always, but most teams who use these principles try to dominate the ball. Because of that, a ground rule of positional play team tends to be trying to create as many passing options for the player in possession as is possible to hold on to the ball. They try and stand between the defensive players to receive, and not hide in the cover shadow. This is known as the “mutual help space” — in Sunday league terms it’s: “give me options!”

What I’m about to show you are examples, systemised to make sense to the players — all of these would happen hundreds of time a game. Also, these are idealised situations; in reality, the opposition would be a lot more alert to these patterns of movement.

Positional Superiority

The basic. Yellow team here are using these principles and are looking to build up from the back in a 4-3-3. The opponent is in a 4-4-2 mid block. The central zone is backed, so the yellows are coached what to do. The full back, number 2, tucks in, dragging the opponent’s left winger inside as they’ll want to stop him receiving the ball. 

7 knows what he should do the moment he sees 2 invert and enters the vacated space with an extra second or two because of it. He creates the passing lane and the ball gets progressed from number 4.

7 progresses it against an isolated full back. Number 10 waits for the wall pass and 7 and 9 can then give him two options in a triangle. Regardless, the ball can go forward again.

This is positional superiority — automations of secondary and tertiary movement are coached around the ball in order to be in a better position to receive and progress the ball than the opponent is to defend it in as many situations as possible.

Numerical Superiority

Take this situation. All of the red team’s progression options are man marked, so you have to manipulate space to create a numerical superiority, somehow getting 2v1 rather than 1v1.

A good way to do it would be that your number 9 drops into midfield, so you drag their CB, no. 4, out of position a touch, creating space in behind. 11 and 3 are already coached to respond to what’s next.

11 enters the vacated space, dragging another defender, opposition number 2 over. 3 keeps running into the space created and 10 is alert.

A high quality centre back can loft a ball to your full back who, along with 10, has responded to that space moving around previously — you’re then 2v1 with a numerical superiority as the defenders have been dragged out of position.

This is why you need players who are comfortable in different zones of the pitch, and why Arsenal are signing the players they are at the moment. Jesus can operate basically anywhere across the front line as well as dropping deep and he would have been the 9 in that situation, probably now heading back into the box to receive the ball from wide. You want full backs who can invert and go wide with no loss of technical quality like Zinchenko, and midfielders who can receive the ball any which way, like Vieira. You can then find yourself overloading with more quality and volume.

Qualitative Superiority

Imagine that their left back isn’t very good, and your right back, number 2, is great 1v1. They have Kolasinac. Now you get it.

Balls in the midfield with number 6 for the blue team who are playing with a slightly lopsided full back, their number 2 further up, and their wide men trying to stretch the compact orange team’s 4-3-3 block.

7 inverts and 2 goes to the exterior, creating a moment of doubt in the opposition number 3’s mind. 10 finds the ball in the midfield.

10’s quality finds 7 on the ball on the interior, and 7 finds 2 moving the ball quickly. Number 2 is excellent 1v1, so you have yourself a qualitative superiority, and would likely beat the opponent’s number 3.

Note the relative lack of movement when on the ball. All of this manipulation of space, crucially using the movement of the ball to bypass an opponent and move forward, in tandem with subtle shifts of position to exploit space, means you get yourself into those situations more regularly. Also note that these situations require quality. Number 10 in the last example, the Centre Back in the second. That’s why Arteta’s football has improved as the players have become more suitable.

It’s also important to repeat the importance of the “third man” in all of these situations. There’s the player on the ball, the player they’re playing it to, but it’s the tertiary movement of the third man that makes all the difference. What space is vacated, and who can move in to it?

Positional play originates in concepts outlined in Total Football by Rinus Michaels and Johan Cruyff — it’s all over the place, and the concepts in different forms can be seen in a whole host of top teams. The thing with Positional Play is, if you can get it right — it’s extremely, extremely hard to defend, because every player knows exactly what to do, in every situation – Kieran Tierney talks about it here. Because the players are so reactive to one another, they never miss a moment to exploit something… so it’s total football.

You may have seen a pitch drawn like this before – in fact you did earlier:

This was Pep’s big innovation. It helps clarifiy the spaces players are expected to be in even further. It makes it more automated, more mechanical, more perfect – you have it literally laid out under your feet, which lane you should be in at what time. The time on the training ground is spent coaching those automations. Winger into half space, full back into lane 5. Identifying situations in games — the defender is there with that body shape, so I should be here ready to receive on this foot. Once those automations are in place you get the feeling of “one brain” that gets spoken about.

So — that’s a bit about positional play from a high level. In practice, it’s harder to spot the patterns, harder to see the benefits of, and very, very hard to coach.

We’re all here because we love Arsenal, and we want Arsenal to win. So how does Positional Play help Arsenal get better on the pitch? In what ways does an awareness of these concepts actually clarify and help us understand how Arteta’s Arsenal play in practice, and what examples can we see? To explore that, I wanted to welcome one of the top up and coming tactical analysts in the Arsenal media landscape right now to the channel: Rohan Jivan. Rohan is going to show us positional play in practice for Arsenal.

You can find Rohan on Twitter here.

“So as Alex has already brilliantly described, positional play is all about gaining advantages against the opposition.

These advantages arise in different forms of superiority – such as numerical, qualitative and positional, and the best way to illustrate each of these different concepts is by taking a look at Arteta’s Arsenal predominantly from last season.

So – numerical superiority. This is essentially having more players in one area of the pitch in comparison to the opposition, an example of which you can see here in the build up to Arsenal’s opening goal against Southampton at the Emirates Stadium last season. Arsenal are structured in what looks like a 2-4-4 shape versus Southampton’s high pressing 4-4-2.

Now the goal is simple: it is to progress through the thirds in a calm, effective and efficient manner. You can see in that first phase, Arsenal have seven players occupying certain zones across the pitch and you can see Southampton are pressing in what looks like a very aggressive front six.

Now immediately Arsenal have a man advantage – they have a seven versus six in their favour and therefore a numerical superiority. This means that if the ball is moved from side to side quickly, and players are making the right decisions on the ball under pressure, progression past that first phase is available. That’s exactly what happens in this situation with Saka eventually receiving the ball, driving down the line and delivering a really good cutback for Lacazette to finish the move off superbly.

Now let’s look at qualitative superiority.

This is essentially trying to get your star players in advantageous positions, for example having your winger isolated against the opposition fullback. A good way to demonstrate this particular principle is by looking at Arsenal’s opening goal against Tottenham in the North London Derby last season at the Emirates Stadium.

Here, Martin Ødegaard is in possession of the ball; but notice the run that Aubameyang is making on the blind side of Eric Dier and how it’s forcing Reguilon to come a lot more narrow. This means Saka now has time and space to receive the ball and to get it out of his feet quickly. Once he does that it is then up to Reguilon to stop Saka from performing that next devastating action.

What we have here is a clear qualitative superiority because Saka, as we all know, is a very unpredictable player. He’s capable of beating his man on the outside and delivering a cut back, drifting inwards and having a shot at goal or delivering a cross towards the back post. Whereas we know Reguilon is a player who has deficiencies without the ball.

This is a clear advantage Arsenal have, and they capitalise on the situation brilliantly, with Saka taking the ball on the outside, beating Reguilon, and delivering a really good cutback for Emile Smith Rowe to convert and make it one nil to Arsenal.

Now let’s look at the final superiority that we’re going to talk about; positional. Just like numerical and qualitative superiorities, it’s all about gaining an advantage… but obviously in a slightly different way. With positional superiority you are able to demonstrate this particular principle by having players between the lines and in space that they can exploit – so let’s look at Arsenal from a structural point of view.

We saw last season that Mikel Arteta made slight tweaks to the overall dynamic compared to previous seasons, particularly through the left hand side where Granit Xhaka was occupying spaces primarily higher up the pitch, and Kieran Tierney was occupying spaces slightly deeper. In other words a 4-3-3 formation was utilised as opposed to a 4-2-3-1. However, I think it’s important to note that formations are really just numbers and they’re not really going to tell you the full story in terms of what is actually happening on the pitch. When you look at things from a zonal perspective you’ll gain a greater understanding of what Arsenal are doing or what any other team who deploy positional play is trying to achieve both with and without the ball.

So let’s look at Arsenal in terms of the structure that they deploy in build up. What they do at the moment is they utilise a 2-3-2-3 shape.

The front three consists of two wingers who are high, wide and are stretching the pitch both horizontally and vertically whilst the centre forward will either push the backline deeper or drop deep and create an overload in midfield, trying to give the team a man advantage in the middle of the park. Let’s expand on this further and take a look at a specific example against Manchester City at the Emirates last season.

Aaron Ramsdale has the ball at his feet here, and notice how in that first phase Arsenal are looking to build out from the back in a 2-3 shape – Kieran Tierney is operating on the far side but you can’t see him. Now one of the key principles of positional play is to attract pressure, force the opposition to come towards you, bait them and exploit space that has now opened up in other areas of the pitch – and that is exactly what Arsenal do in this situation.

You can see Manchester City are looking to make it difficult for Arsenal to play out from the back. They’re looking to force silly mistakes in build up and whilst this is an effective approach and one that has given Manchester City sustained success under Pep Guardiola, there are obvious weaknesses in terms of space now being opened up in behind higher up the pitch.

In order to make the most out of these situations you need players across the back line who are capable of performing progressive actions, and Aaron Ramsdale does exactly that, with an inch perfect long pass for Martinelli to latch onto. Because he’s operating on that last line, being utilised as a touchline winger, he is pushing that Manchester City back four deeper which is opening up spaces between the lines for Lacazette, Ødegaard and Saka to explore, so Arsenal’s structure in terms of their 2-3-2-3 shape has given them the opportunity to gain positional superiority.

It’s also worth mentioning how this is an example of qualitative superiority, because of how Martinelli has found himself in a 1v1 situation against Cancelo – a player who is excellent on the ball but has clear weaknesses without it, particularly in terms of defending in isolation. Martinelli is a player who’s capable of creating with very little service and he certainly has the better of his man in this scenario – he drives inside, plays the ball to Lacazette who then plays to Ødegaard and he is brought down in the box – but Arsenal don’t receive a penalty.

Notice how in this sequence Arsenal demonstrate a number of superiorities and how they are able to create a very good opportunity against an elite team.

There are two other forms of advantages as well that aren’t really spoken about a lot but I believe are also very important and that is dynamic superiority and co-operative superiority…”

You can find more of Rohan’s articles here, and you can hear about dynamic and co-operative superiorities in some bonus content which can be found here.

So, why should you care?

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Some people just won’t care about any of this, have stopped reading, and that’s absolutely fine. Go watch the football, have a pint, and enjoy your weekend — life’s too short, and it’s possibly the most healthy way of looking at this sport for what it is; entertainment. But if you’re reading articles and watching analysis videos in your spare time, it’s likely you’re looking for more of a deeper connection.

The critical, observing eye in Einstein’s analogy applies a set of parameters of judgment to the fish’s abilities that are not suitable or fair, thus creating a negative and inaccurate effect on the fish — but crucially warping their perception of the fish’s abilities and decreasing their analytical acuity.

If that observing eye could see what the fish’s abilities are; what it is attempting to do, how it is trying to do it, applying a fairer set of parameters of assessment: then the observer gains insight and better understands what it is watching.

Removing the analogy, if you understand more and more dimensions about what Mikel and the team are at least trying to do, from as many angles as you can (tactically, business-wise, financially, structurally, coaching-wise, development-wise) you can see why we lost the game or why that transfer worked out that way or what the strategy is with this player or the other. You can spot patterns, see the competitive landscape better and even better predict how your beloved football club will do over the coming weeks, months and years.

The fish is probably feeling better too, now people aren’t expecting it to climb a tree. It can perform better. Bless the fish.

That, to me, is why I think the more invested fan should care about this stuff — in my opinion, it’s clarifying. And like anything in life, the more you understand the complexities of something, in a way, the more beautiful it gets.

I in no way pretend I understand everything about this, nor that I am finished in my learning and understanding of the game from any perspective. Not even close. 

In Dr Carol S. Dweck’s million-copy bestselling book “Mindset”, she uses the framing device of two types of mindsets. A fixed mindset, the idea that one is fixed and unchangeable in terms of discovery of self and the world; and a growth mindset, the opposite. Adopting the latter in relation to football, being open to discovery, change, new information, as hard as that can be sometimes, to my mind, makes the game far, far more enjoyable.

And in the end, that’s got to be worth something.

Alexander Moneypenny & Rohan Jivan

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