“Juego de Posición”, translated to “Positional Play”, is a well-known possessional philosophy currently utilised by many of the top coaches. This concept has been adopted and adapted by the likes of Pep Guardiola and Julian Nagelsmann; however, certain fundamental principles remain constant. Positional play is centered on the efficiency of spacing between players in order to maximise the potential of the team in possession to progress the ball. To do so, predetermined zones are created by the coach followed by a set of “rules” that the players must follow when positioning themselves on the field. This article will explore the importance and reasoning behind the vertical zones, using Guardiola’s five zone set-up as the focus.
The image above displays how the zones are typically split. The central zone lies within the width of the six-yard box, while each inside channel, commonly known as the “half-space”, stretches from the edge of the six-yard box to the edge of the 18-yard box. Finally, the wide channels are then situated from the edge of the box to the sideline. The idea of these zones is to create separation in possession between players off-the-ball. Typically, the idea is that one player, of an attacking line of five, would be positioned in each vertical zone. This prevents players from crowding the same area of the pitch, whilst also maintaining a presence across the entire width of the pitch. If one or multiple zones were left unoccupied, the attacking five’s access to one another would decrease as there would be greater distances between the players. The concept of occupying the vertical zones is of more importance further up the pitch as ultimately it is the players ahead of the ball that generate the passing lanes that will progress the ball and eliminate opponents.
Now we have discussed how the vertical zones are defined and the basics of how they are utilised, we must explore the reasoning behind the zones and how they contribute to positional play. For ball progression to occur, the ball is likely going to have to end up with one of the attacking five, as these are the players providing the options to pass to ahead of the ball, and are therefore responsible for the creation of passing lanes between them and deeper players. To be able to progress the ball as frequently and as easily as possible, players must maximise their effectiveness in creating passing lanes. The idea is that the team in possession is able to create passing lanes quicker and at a higher volume than the defending team can destroy. Thus, the positioning of the line of five is pivotal. The first determining factor of a team’s efficiency at progressing the ball to the attacking five is their ability to reduce the opponent’s potential to destroy passing lanes. Since the opposing team has a finite amount of cover, the team with the ball wants to stretch this cover as much as possible. The vertical zones allow a team to ensure distances between their five remain large enough to minimise the effectiveness of opposition cover. Where there are two or more players off-the-ball in close proximity, the defending team can block passing lanes to those players with fewer players than the team in possession are committing to the attempt to form the passing lanes. This increases the ability of the opposition to destroy passing lanes into the front five and will therefore reduce the attacking team’s efficiency of ball progression.
The graphic above demonstrates how two players being positioned in the same vertical zone can be detrimental to the team’s chances of progressing the ball. Two players positioned in the wide channel are easily covered by one opposition player, between them and the ball, and are therefore unable to receive. Not only are they both not able to receive, but their positioning has a knock-on effect to the rest of the team. If one player was positioned in the half-space instead, it would require an additional opposition player to shift over and cover, potentially creating space for a teammate to receive in. However, since they are both covered by one opponent, the defending team have more players to cover other areas of the pitch.
What the vertical zones allow, is for the five to be spaced relatively evenly across the width of the pitch. The principle of one player in each zone enables them to operate within this structure in the knowledge that they won’t find themselves crowded with teammates, able to be covered by few opponents.
We can see in this graphic that the front five are occupying all five vertical zones. In this scenario the left pivot is in possession of the ball and is able to progress the ball through the half-space due the horizontal separation between the vertical passing options. This seperation stretches their midfield line of four as they are unable to cover all five potential passing lanes, creating a dilemma for the opponent. If their right wide midfielder were to shift inside to cover the half-space, they would be leaving the wide channel open. Either way, this dilemma would lead to the possibility to progress the ball.
The second factor of ball progression efficiency is the ability of the team in possession to create a high volume of potential vertical passing lanes. For this, all players must have access to as many players as possible. For instance, three players situated on the same vertical as the ball will be limiting the side’s potential to create vertical passing lanes, as the furthest player from the ball will be obstructed by their own teammate. The conceptual usage of vertical zones, however, allows a rule to be imposed on the team of no more than two in the same vertical zone as the ball.
Of course, some situations require the occupation of three in a vertical zone. When these occur, vertical zones can be “split in half”. This allows one player to move to the other edge of the zone, providing enough horizontal separation for the player furthest ahead to have access to the player in possession, as demonstrated above. This instance will most commonly occur with back three positional structures, as the wide centre-backs are often positioned wide in the half-spaces.
This horizontal staggering of players across the width of the pitch which we have just discussed will allow for the natural formation of triangles and diamonds – shapes within which all players have access to one another. Overall, the implementation of the concept of vertical zones in a team’s possession game will provoke the creation of passing lanes and decrease the opposition’s efficiency at blocking vertical passes, thus allowing them to progress the ball at an increased rate of success.
An additional benefit of adopting vertical zones is in the use of positional rotations and movement patterns. The principle of occupying the different vertical zones with the attacking line of five will naturally facilitate positional rotations. Each player will likely operate in one zone in the attacking phase for the majority of each match, however, can decide to drift to a neighbouring zone if the situation requires. As one player begins the movement to a different zone, the player already in that zone can recognise the need to occupy the now vacated zone, and so completes the rotation. Without these vertical zones it would be unclear and difficult for the players to recognise when and when not to rotate. Because of this benefit of utilising vertical zones, coaches can create principles for their team to help them create certain positional rotations. These movements can both be used to take advantage of where the space is in a given situation, as the players switching will likely be on different depths, or just for simple dismarking purposes. For example, Bayern Munich have a wide rotation pattern which they use frequently.
We see in the above image that Bayern are positioned in their typical 4-2-3-1 structure. If their wide forward is struggling to find space in the half-space between the lines, they might try a movement to the wide channel to be able to receive the ball. However, to maintain proper occupation of all five zones, the fullback, previously in the wide channel, will then move across into the half-space.
The result of the rotation is exhibited in the graphic above. The rotation could’ve potentially disorganised the opponent, while occupation of all five vertical zones remains.
Not only does the use of vertical zones aid ball progression, but it also benefits the team in the final third. Some teams will often struggle when they receive the ball in the final third in either wide channel, as they find their wide player isolated, and so will be forced backwards. To improve this, occupation of the half-space in particular is paramount to continue going forwards. When teams ignore the importance of half-space occupation, the opposition can force the wide player backwards as the passing distance to a teammate in the centre is too great. However, a player operating in this zone in the final third will ensure the entire attack is connected to one another, as they will have access to both the wide channel and the centre.
This example demonstrates the ease with which the opposition can shut off the wide player from passing into their structure behind their midfield line. Instead of advancing into the final third, the player goes backwards, and the team finds themselves back in front of the opponent’s defensive structure.
When the team in possession has a player occupying the ball-near half-space, a pass can now be played behind the midfield line, eliminating several players and putting the team in a much better situation. If the opponent’s wide midfielder managers to drop and cover this inside pass, space will be created just ahead of the midfield line for the near pivot to receive in. Either way, we can again see how effective positioning has created a dilemma for the opposition from which a beneficial outcome can arise for the team with the ball. The focus of positioning off-the-ball can be said to create dilemmas for the opposition by opening new passing lanes, thereby forcing them to react by either shifting or not shifting their cover, which the team in possession must then observe and then take advantage of.
The graphic above shows the potential of runs in-behind in the final third when all five zones are occupied. The alternation across the line of five between running in-behind and receiving between the lines creates a series of passes that could be used to penetrate the backline. The players in the half-space here drop to receive as they have access to both the central zone and the neighbouring wide channel, so can access the potential runners across the full width of the pitch, once again stretching the opponent, thus minimising the effectiveness of their cover.
To conclude, occupation of all five vertical zones with the front five will greatly improve a team’s efficiency at progressing the ball, as well as improve their ability at playing through the opposition’s backline. The key element of the concept is to stretch their cover as much as possible, in order to progress the ball, by creating access to each player as well as creating horizontal separation to prevent them from covering more players than they are committing to do so.