Coaching: How to improve positional play

Coaching positional play analysis tactics

Being a coach, even at amateur level, isn’t that easy. While every football fan has some ideas on how the beautiful game should be played, a coach’s task is to make his ideas work on the pitch. In order to do that, good preparation of training sessions is necessary. This analysis will provide some ideas for training sessions that aim to improve positional play.

Everything starts with a rondo

In order to improve passing abilities, there are a lot of drills that contain a given order of passes, meaning that player A passes to player B, player B to player C etc. These drills may fulfil their purpose, but there are some weaknesses as well.

First of all, without an opponent, there is no time or space pressure. Furthermore, there is no tactical aspect since the player doesn’t have to make any decisions at all. He can concentrate completely on playing the pass. In the end, the learnings from the drill can’t be transferred into the real game. A more effective way of training are rondos. The most standard version of this is a 5 vs 2, where five players on the outside try to maintain possession while two inside players try to get the ball. When they get the ball, the player turning the ball over changes the role with the one winning the ball.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
A 5 vs 2 rondo

In top-class matches, you won’t often find such situations though, as this is the simplest version of it. One example might be a scene from a Clasico game, where Barcelona have a 5 vs 1 situation.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Barcelona 5 vs 1 situation

They can circulate the ball, while Real Madrid attempt to gain possession of the ball. Even though this is a simple rondo, there are vital coaching points. It’s especially important to explain the importance of a good body positioning as well as playing the ball into the right foot.

Small variations are always necessary

The next step could be to change the setup a bit. In order to make the rondo more realistic, one of the outside players can occupy the centre. Playing the ball inside and then getting it outside again could be awarded with one point for example.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Rondo 5 vs 2 variation

In doing so, the players have a new task and have to adapt to a new setting. This improves their cognitive abilities as well as their understanding of the game. In this variation, the tactical aspect of getting between the lines is introduced.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Barcelona 5 vs 2

Here, we see an example where the exact same setup is transferred into the real game. Barcelona are in the build-up and have a 5 vs 2 situation with one player in the centre between the two opposing players.

Passing angles are important

A further variation could be implemented with three pylons shaping a triangle. Instead of positioning a central player, this time the aim is to play a pass through the triangle.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
A 5 vs 2 rondo with a triangle target

This way, the players learn to think about passing angles, since not every pass is possible. They learn to adjust their positioning according to the proper passing angle and passing lane. Also, playing fast passes to move the opponent and create a gap become necessary.

Ultimately a pass between two defenders to get behind a defensive line becomes possible, which is a frequently used pass in top-class football.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Salzburg against Celtic’s triangle

In this example, Salzburg are in the build-up phase and there occurs a situation where Celtic defend with a triangular shape. One possibility is to play through the wing and avoid the centre. In the centre though, good positioning with good resulting passing angles is necessary. Such rondo types help to improve this.

Attracting the opponent and then switching wings

If we take it one step further, we can then include the tactical aspect of attracting the opponent and then switching wings. One principle of possession play includes the idea that starting the attack on one wing will create open space on the other wing. Pep Guardiola often uses this approach in order to get his winger into one-on-one situations.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Bayern 3 vs 1 with the option of switching to the other wing

Here, Bayern build a triangle. After passing the ball into the centre, an easy switch to the left wing is possible. From there, the winger has a good opportunity to create a dangerous attack as there is a lot of open space.

To include this tactical aspect into the training session, a rondo type like in the image below could be interesting. In two areas, there is a 3 vs 1, while in one area two players are waiting. After a certain amount of successful passes, say five, it becomes possible to play a pass into the field with the two players waiting. One attacker as well as the defender sprint into that field, where the game continues.

The same defender now tries to win the ball there. Of course, this drill can be played with more areas, so that the players have to assess the status quo and know where an open area to play to is. Also, if the situation arises that the attackers in both fields want to play the ball into the open field simultaneously, communication between the players becomes important.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Rondo 3vs1 with switching fields

Counterpress is part of the game

Good positional play is the base for a strong counterpress. If a team positions well in possession, the probability of being able to immediately put pressure on the ball is higher.

The image below shows an example of how to train this. There are three teams with three players. Two teams play together against the third one. After losing possession, the team causing the turnover becomes the defending team, while the defenders become attackers. As the transition is fluid, the seconds after the turnover are the best moment to regain possession. The defenders most of the time, need some time to position well, which is the reason for that.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Three teams with three players – two teams team-up against the third

The image below provides an example for the described aspect. Salzburg are positioned good with four players near the ball, ready to press if a turnover occurred. Also, the centre is occupied, so after regaining possession the game can continue easily with a switch of sides.

Coaching positional play analysis tactics
Salzburg positioned well and able to counterpress

More complex variations possible

Obviously, this article provides an introduction to this topic. There are much more complex drills for advanced teams. With some creativity, coaches may create their own rondo forms as well, depending on the tactical aspect they want to train. The size of the playing area can vary as well. This should be adapted to the quality of the players and their need for time and space.

Experimenting with areas of different shape can be interesting as well. Also, restricting contacts to a minimum may force players to play faster and create a whole different game. So from a coaches perspective, it’s important to make clear what the focus should be on and then to create training sessions using creative ideas.


Improving positional play is more difficult than tactical aspects of defending. However, there are a lot of possibilities to improve it as well.

Obviously, good technical skills are important to maintain the passing traffic. Rondo forms improve technical aspects as well as tactical ones. Our analysis provided some ideas on how to shape these rondo forms. Furthermore, we showed examples from top-class football, where the aspects seen in the drills can be found as well. Coaches have the possibility to adapt these ideas and change them according to their own idea of football.

The quality of the players goes into consideration as well, as this is crucial for the frame of the drill. Creative coaches can then create the best fitting drills for their teams according to their own vision.