Intentionality in Football
The Five Intentions of Positional Play
Positional play is about intentionality and control through the use of possession, manipulating the defensive team into one space while simultaneously
positioning the possessing team into different, dangerous, spaces that will lead
to the creation of advantages.
Additionally, there are overarching principles that promote the creation of
these advantages that permit greater control through possession which can
be categorized into the five important intentions found below, and these are
viewed through the lens of our universal and collective positional play concepts
We organize these positional play concepts into a working framework of
‘Look’, ’Pass’, ‘Control’ and ‘Move’.
Intentional Thinking: ‘Look’
“Thinking fast is more important to me than playing fast, brain speed is more
important than running.” - Xavi Hernandez Creus.
Underpinning positional play is the idea of ‘game intelligence’ which requires
the execution of the right decisions at the right time allowing for proactive,
rather than reactive, play.
“Invasion type sports, like soccer, are measured in decisions per second rather
than meters per second. Since no two play sequences are the same, it is the
processing speed of the brain, reliant on a supporting network of neurons, that
must constantly create a micro movement plan on the fly… Research has shown
expert soccer playmakers use a more refined visual search pattern than novices
to pick out the next best action.” (Zaichkowsky & Peterson, 2018).
If we were to compare the Barcelona squad of a few years back to Real Madrid,
we might say that there are not many players, man for man, that we would
consider to be stronger or faster athletes in traditional terms, when compared
to their Real Madrid counterparts.
However, the ability to think two to three actions ahead of the opponent
minimizes and reduces these differences and actually might even promote a
greater opportunity to control the game. The opponent cannot utilize their
speed if they are cognitively behind the play or are constantly, what might
colloquially be referred to as, ‘chasing shadows’.
Similarly, teams will be unable to capitalize on their technical ability if they
are constantly executing poor decisions. The team with higher levels of game
intelligence can appear much faster and more technically gifted because of
their decision making which allows them to create more time and space for
them to operate in.
Conversely, teams that exhibit lower levels of game intelligence and decision making
can find themselves in trouble, regardless of their physical conditioning,
because everything they do is just too slow, and no amount of physical speed or
conditioning can compensate for that mental deficit.
Too often their attention is focused solely on the ball, but the ball is only 25% of
the relevant information being presented within the context of the game: ball,
teammate, opponent and space.
It is impossible for a player to make the correct decisions when in possession
of only one quarter of the information available. As a result, the player either
makes a poor decision, a delayed decision or no decision at all.
Players need to develop vision that allows them to see what other players
So how do the players accomplish this?
The coach’s job is to help their players understand what to look for and how to
do it, and players must learn how to collect relevant information and filter out
that which is extraneous (attentional focus).
Perceiving the play demands that the player constantly scans the field and
takes in the appropriate information that will help them inform the basis of
their next action. There are no new methods here that are unknown to players
and coaches but, ask yourself this about your own teams: How often do you
see players scanning correctly? How often must you remind players to scan
Coaches must condition players to constantly play with their heads up and
maintain a good body profile allowing the player to optimize their ability to
perceive what is going on around them during a game and, in turn, utilize their
perceived references to inform their next decision.
This is the ‘pre-action’ work that needs to be done before the action can be
successfully executed and ultimately, behind every action, there should be an informed thought process attached to it which has been informed by the information perceived by the player.
Intentional Speaking: ‘Pass’
“The Pass is the language of soccer.”- Former French national team coach
“There are 36 forms of communicating through a pass.”- Marcelo Bielsa.
“Busquets plays the ball to you in a way that you can figure out what to do next.
If he plays it to the back of you it’s for you to return it, if he plays it to your front
it’s because you’re free to turn.”– Saul Niguez.
More than a technical action, passing is the medium through which the team
speaks to one another and the objective of passing is not to simply move the
ball between teammates but rather to clearly communicate the intentional
thoughts behind the next action.
It is not appropriate for a passer to simply move the ball in the direction of a
teammate, instead the passer should acknowledge which foot to pass to (near
or far), force the receiver to drive into space if available or encourage him to
return the pass if no space is available.
The pass might suggest that the receiver goes wide or the pass might mandate that the receiver comes short.
Each of these potential passing actions communicates a different idea and the
combination of variables, between the passer and receiver, are almost infinite.
The coach can help his players simplify, contextualize and derandomize the
game by developing their ability to fine tune their communication with their
teammates through passing and with the ability to communicate clearly,
as a team, they can better coordinate how to break down the opponent’s
The key to effective positional play is controlling the opponent through
possession and without proper communication through passing, the team will
struggle to do so.
There is a huge difference between intentional and accidental possession.
Intentional Receiving: ‘Control’
“Words are the greatest source of miscommunication.” - Little Prince
“Well, Andres says: ‘Take it, do what you want and enjoy’, while the majority in
football says: "take it, do what you can". With his pass he is telling his teammate
where the conversation should continue, that is, the game." Francisco Seirul·lo
commenting on Andres Iniesta.
If the pass is meant to communicate to the receiver the advantage in the next action,
then the responsibility of the receiving player is to appropriately
receive, understand and interpret that message (this is the difference between
communication, a two-way conversation, and a unilateral transmission, in
which there is no meeting of minds).
But so often with communication, what is said and what is understood are two
Even when the message is clearly sent to the correct foot with the proper weight,
the receiver can misunderstand the message by controlling the pass with no real
intent, wasting any real advantage that was originally communicated through
For example, a pass is sent correctly to the back foot of the receiver, telling
him that there is time and space in front of him and that a forward touch on
the back foot should be taken, but instead the receiver takes the ball with the
front foot and has not perceived his environment before the pass was played
and therefore needs to take an extra touch or two to orientate himself correctly
whilst he decides upon his next action.
By taking this extra touch he allows the pressure to close the free space and the
advantage is wasted.
This situation can often be observed when players receive the ball with their
dominant foot, regardless of the context of the situation. By delaying the speed
at which these actions are completed, spaces can be better managed by the
defensive team who now have extra fractions of a second to organize and
control the space.
It is one thing to be technically gifted, but it is quite another to understand
which technique to apply given the four environmental references and the
message contained within the pass.
In a team that has a high functioning level of team communication, the decision
pertaining to the correct action should already have been made before the pass
is even played.
Certainly, an example of poor team communication can be evident when a team
constantly has to slow down play to assess every option once a pass is received.
Through intentional speaking and receiving, the possessing team can carry on
a clearly understood conversation with one another through each pass and
Intentional Occupation of Space: ‘Move’
Understanding space within positional play is critical and without it you do not
have positional play, you might have something else, but not positional play.
It can easily be argued that position is more important than possession for
without proper positioning, controlling the game with possession becomes
Playing in a 4-3-3 system is not as important as the dynamic structure within
it or the fluid interconnections between players, units and lines within a
Using Barcelona as an example, their structure optimizes the use of space
which supports those interactions and relationships between the players, and
which compliments the way the team wants to play. And on a collective level,
there are external and internal structures working together to optimize spacing
Using the 4-3-3 system Barcelona can move the ball around, side to side and up
and down, utilizing the width and depth created however, this system doesn’t
really help them penetrate, say, a-mid block. In order to open up the block they
rely on a dynamic, fluid structure within this system.
By way of an example, the ‘on paper’ system might require their wingers to take
up starting positions that are high and wide but, once play develops, the system
gives way to the structure which is dynamic and these wingers might now try
to rupture a defensive block by inverting and penetrating defensive lines, much
like we saw Neymar do for Barcelona a few years ago or how Dembele now
attempts to play for them.
Structures are dynamic, complex and can involve the interchanging of players
either inter or intra-linearly.
Lines of Play refer to the amount of ‘layers’ the team incorporates into their
shape and having players at staggered heights and different lines in the attack
allows for the creation of certain shapes at the universal and collective concept
level which support the interactions of the players in certain areas of the field.
A well-known and understood example of this is the many diamonds and
triangles that are used to connect players in the different spaces of the field,
with this ‘connectivity’ being heightened when the team correctly occupies
each of the five vertical corridors.
To ensure proper dispersion and field coverage, the team must limit occupation
of the vertical corridors to two players per corridor and no more than three
players on the same horizontal line and, by having proper spacing both
vertically and horizontally, this will lead to the creation of diamonds, triangles
and multiple passing lines which are vital for a team like Barcelona and their
associative and positional styles of play.
‘Intentional Possession’: ‘Look’, ‘Pass’, ‘Control’, and ‘Move’
“The Idea is to dominate with the ball.” – Cruyff.
Intentional Possession is predicated on the four intentions already mentioned,
‘Look’, ‘Pass’, ‘Control’ and ‘Move’ and, when taken collectively, they set the
stage and lay the foundation for Intentional Possession.
The idea behind Intentional Possession, as Cruyff said, is to dominate the game
with the ball. However, this has aggressively evolved in the last decade or so,
mainly under the influence of Pep Guardiola, and has now become an endeavor
more dynamic than simply maintaining possession to hurt the opposition.
Guardiola’s idea of moving the opponent, by using the ball, highlights the
relationship between the ball and pressure. Where the ball goes the pressure
follows and, realizing this, the possessing team can create the conditions where
they can maintain possession whilst manipulating the defensive shape of the
opponent until it becomes compromised thereby creating, and then finding,
the Free Man.
Interestingly, Van Gaal said, “It is not about the opponent, it is not about the
ball, it is about the space the ball may be played into and the opponent that
may come into it.”
What is highlighted here is not the relationship between the ball and the
opponent, but rather the importance of space and the influence that it has on
the opponent following the ball.
Not all spaces are valued equally, and certain spaces will be defended more
vigorously than others.
With knowledge of the opponent’s intention, the possessing team can utilize
certain spaces, through possession, to provoke a reaction from the opponent
that, in turn, leads to the creation of other vulnerable spaces to exploit.
It is also interesting to note the emphasis that Van Gaal places on the future.
The chain of events are space, ball, and opponent with the ball being used to
attract defenders now, to create space that we can play into in the future.
The current space is occupied with the ball, player and eventual opponent. In
this situation the present moment has limited possibilities but, tethered to the
future space, the next game center space is filled with time, space and limitless
The true dominance that comes from ‘Intentional Possession’ is the domination
of the future achieved by controlling the current space, using the ball to
manipulate the opponent.
This provides some further understanding and enriched context as to what Pep
meant when he said there are ‘indefensible spaces’ in football.
The possessing team provokes reactionary movements from the opponent
which creates certain spaces that are then exploited, and the ultimate control
of the game belongs to those teams who can play intentionally ‘one action
ahead’ of their opponent to provoke, create and live in these spaces, more
often than not.
1+1+1+1 = Greater than 4, Suprasuperiority
Within positional play exists a synergistic dynamic resulting in a ‘Suprasuperiorty’
which is achieved when the team coalesces the Four Superiorities’ into one
functioning whole supported by the ‘Five Intentions’.
• Suprasuperiority (the culmination of all four)
• Intentional Thinking (‘Look’)
• Intentional Speaking (‘Pass’)
• Intentional Receiving (‘Control’)
• Intentional Occupation of space (‘Move’)
• Intentional Possession (the culmination of all four)
For more on this topic, purchase the book Alchemy Coaching: Turning training into gold.