Conceptualizing positional play, positional rotation and positional interchange

The footballing universe is littered with terminology that only exists to us in our realm, and our game, and our sport. It can therefore be difficult for inexperienced onlookers or even just the average fan, to understand what we mean we discuss different footballing concepts and terms. So today, I take a look at the differences between positional play, positional rotation and positional interchange.

similar idea, different terms

While each of positional play, rotation and interchange describe different things, each term encompasses the same over-arching principle. One player moves out of of what would be considered a ‘normal’ position for their specific role on a football pitch, and so another player follows suit and does the same, usually moving into the vacated space from the player that kickstarted the move. The difference is then in how systematic, organized, practiced it can be versus how sporadic, reactive, and even, disorganized it can be. Each of the three terms can serve as a context into where on that line (particularly between systematic versus reactive) the change of positioning falls. Here is our differentiation of the three terms.

POSITIONAL PLAY

Positional play is an over-arching principle of play that many modern managers deploy with their teams. In laymen’s terms, it essentially states that when one player is wide, another player should be inside. Who adopts which position in which area of the field can and will change based on the moment, as players react to the positioning of those around them. It is systematic and practiced, but can also be sporadic and reactive. That is because it involves players trading places based on the movement of their teammates, not specific patterns that are designed to disrupt an opposition – like positional rotation. Examples of great positional play include Pep’s Manchester City, Graham Potter’s Brighton and Erik Ten Hag’s Ajax. That doesn’t mean these teams don’t engage in positional rotation or interchange. These terms are not exclusive from one another, and a club can use all three in the same match. The point of this article is to differentiate between them so that we can give greater insight to a manager’s philosophy, and how much of the ‘swapping of places’ is done through a player’s own intelligence, versus the manager’s pre-designed plans. As mentioned, positional play lies somewhere in between. The reason why is because it is rooted in a guiding set of principles that are always in place. There’s a freedom and chaos within the clearly outlined guidebook for success.

Managers like Guardiola divide the field vertically into five different channels. This includes two wide areas, two half-spaces and the central channel. The Guardiolan principle of positional play suggests that there should never be more than two players occupying the same vertical space. So if a player like De Bruyne moves wide, that is why a player like Kyle Walker might move inside, so that they occupy different vertical channels of space and cause the opposition a headache. That is where the biggest discrepancy lies between positional play and positional rotation.

A manager like Guardiola or Tuchel may let their players interchange and move around the pitch as they please, so long as that freedom of movement is based around pre-determined conceptualizations of space that the team work on over and over in training. Then, as we’ll discuss with positional rotation, a manager can design specific patterns in specific moments that are designed to pull opposition players out of position and create overloads – such as Gasperini’s Atalanta or Chris Wilder’s use of overlapping centre-backs at Sheffield United. This is not conceptualized around space or vertical channels like positional play, but rather may even go against that line of thinking in positioning several players in one area of the field and then using movement patterns within that overload to disrupt an opposition’s block.

POSITIONAL ROTATION

Positional rotation involves specific patterns of play to disrupt an opposition’s defensive set-up. It is most common against man-marking defensive set-ups, or moments of the game where a team temporarily go man-to-man, such as when they defend throw-ins. To use another complex footballing term, it is a method of ‘dismarking’ the opposition. Take this example from an opposition analysis I did on Cruz Azul ahead of their upcoming CONCACAF game against Forge FC in late February 2022.

The thrower is clearly shaping up to throw to the player circled in black, in body language, stance and direction. But the opposition wouldn’t necessarily know it, as all the chaos is going on closer to the ball. You can also see a space where the referee is standing, that would be the most available pocket of space that Cruz would be looking to move into. The problem? If they move too soon, the opposition will have enough time to react. So instead, Cruz use a long-throw, and then a knock-down into that space after some clever positional rotation.

Here’s how it works: Before the throw is taken, we see two players – Rafael Baca (CDM) and Charly Rodriguez (CAM) rotate position, as one floats forward, and the other floats away simultaneously. This distracts from the long throw-in that ends up finding Bryan Angulo (ST). Then as the opposition continue to get caught ball-watching, the danger man again is left unmarked as Baca continues his run forward and ends up scoring moments later by taking down Angulo’s header into his path. In other words, he finds himself in the exact pocket of space we highlighted as the space Cruz Azul would be looking to move into at the right moment.

Again, we see the potential for positional rotations like this to disrupt an opposition’s marking scheme. It has much less to do with who is wide versus who is inside, and instead both players involved in the rotation can operate in the exact same area of the field, and may not even be involved until another pass is made, as seen in the Cruz Azul example.

Let’s draw on another example from our Erik Ten Hag – Ajax – Tactical Analysis in 2021. The Ajax centre-back is unable to find a pass forward, as the opposition’s marking scheme is well set-up, and available players are all well screened by opposition players ‘fronting’ Ajax’s players. The nearest Ajax player in the same vertical channel is the best option, but he too is being tightly marked. The only way to undo this marking scheme is through a bit of movement, and a bit of rotation. So what happens?

The central midfielder in question moves away from the situation, causing his marker to follow. This is what we call a ‘decoy run’, where a player moves away from where the team wants the ball to go, taking their corresponding marker out of the equation as a new player is able to move into the now vacated space. That’s exactly what happens, as the Ajax right winger moves into the position to receive, and the game is suddenly opened up.

Again, like positional play, this can be systematically practiced, and designed on a match by match basis to develop specific patterns that can unlock an opposition’s defense. But also like positional play, it can also be more reactive, based on the intelligent tactical awareness of the players in question to create space for one another. On the venn diagram of all of this, positional play and positional rotation lie somewhere in between systematic/practiced and reactive/sporadic, but lean more toward the systematic side. Positional rotation in particular is probably the most pre-determined and practiced in training. Positional play meanwhile may guide specific rotations or interchanges to occur.

positional interchange

Out of all three, positional interchange is the most sporadic and reactive. I first explored this in the first Atalanta analysis back in 2019-20, where I wanted to provide a differentiation between the terms “rotation” and “interchange” that can often be used…interchangeably. Interchange involves a more ‘in-the-moment’ switch of positions. For example, an attacking midfielder decides to pressure an opposition’s back-pass to a goalkeeper, so a striker recognizes that and slots in behind. In that example, we see no discrepancy between number of players in a vertical channel, or any bit of pre-determined plan. It’s simply one player covering for another. It’s common in defensive transitions, where one player may need to cover for an out of position teammate by taking up their position or shifting across. For example, in Mikel Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal, the high position of the fullbacks in the creation phase can be exploited in transitions. It then becomes the job of the central midfielders to cover that space, immediately after losing the ball. Here we again see an element of this that can be practiced. I for example tell my defensive midfielders to cover for centre-backs when they join the attack. Chris Wilder did the same with his overlapping centre-backs, and both he and we specifically practice this. It’s not like we’re trying to disrupt the opposition in providing that balance, or ensure we have enough space to attack in all the possible vertical channels. Instead, it’s a mechanism by which we can use changes of position to engage in what we call ‘proactive defending.’ But it can also be used in an attacking sense, particularly going the other way on attacking transitions. You might often see a fullback racing up to join the attack, and suddenly taking up the position of a right winger, as the right winger dribbles through a central channel at speed. This is another great example of an interchange. It was in the moment, sporadic and the players will return to their normal positions immediately after the situation is over. When it comes to positional play, those new adopted positions may hold for much longer.

In short, positional interchange is more about a player’s own intelligence to adapt in the moment. Positional play and positional rotation may on the other hand be more of a manager’s ideology, that is specifically worked on in training to disrupt the opposition.

CONCLUSION

From this article, you can see the similarities between terms like positional play, positional rotation and positional interchange. But it’s never really sat right with me to use these terms interchangeably (pun intended), as they clearly mean different things, and match up with different levels of pre-determined planning and managerial organization. Positional rotation is the most pre-determined out of all, while positional interchanges are more sporadic based on a player’s own recognition of what is happening. Positional play lies somewhere in between, and can be used by virtually any team to guide how they create space, and how they go about their rotations and interchanges.


So there it is! Differentiating, contextualizing and conceptualizing positional play, positional rotation and positional interchange. Be sure to check out more of our tactical theory based articles, including our array of tactical analyses! Also be sure to follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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