The world of soccer tactics can be a tough nut to crack: there are a dizzying array of formations that often change during the game as well as plenty of advanced concepts that be difficult to identify, let alone analyze.
In many cases, however, the core tactical concepts are relatively straightforward to understand with some effort. But one factor that makes it more difficult is the specialized vocabulary used to describe them.
This article will define three terms that we’ve found to be easily confused. In fact, they are all “P” words followed by the term “Play,” but all mean different things!
These three tactical concepts are Principles of Play, Patterns of Play, and Positional Play. What are these and how are they different from one another?
What Are Soccer Principles of Play?
This is likely the easiest of the ideas to understand conceptually, but it also branches out quickly into lots of diverse tactical topics.
We like this definition to sum up the concept of principles of play:
“The principles of play are the fundamental strategies that a team uses to effectively adapt to any tactical situation during a game” (Source).
They are separated into attacking and defending principles. The wording of these can vary slightly according to different sources, but are usually these:
Attacking Principles of Play: Penetration, Support, Width, Mobility, Improvisation/Creativity, Scoring/Finishing
Defending Principles of Play: Pressure, Delay, Depth/Cover, Compactness, Balance, Control/Restraint
What Are Patterns of Play?
If principles of play are the general attacking and defending strategies used by a team, patterns of play are much more specific sequences that a team repeats over and over again until they become second-nature rather than actions they need to consciously think about when they come up.
According to one article, “patterns of play are designed to be practiced to help players identify common situations in the game itself. When these situations occur, the players involved will think about the movements within a pattern of play (that they practiced in training) and will re-enact them in the game.”
To give an example in an attacking context, “we train patterns of play to help players identify and execute pre-determined passing and moving combinations to beat the opponent’s defense … Sometimes that may mean penetration to score a goal, other times it may also mean playing through the opponents forwards or midfield to get through their defensive block or pressure” (source).
What is Positional Play?
Finally we get to our final term, positional play. This is probably the most complicated to understand, but let’s dig into it. This analysis gives a definition:
“Positional Play is a style of play where the football pitch is divided into zones and each player is assigned to a zone. Each zone has a different role which means that each player has a different task to execute. If a player moves into another zone, a teammate has to take his place, which is what we call rotations.”
This idea is part of the Dutch “Total Football” pioneered by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff at Ajax and Barcelona, and one prominent modern practitioner is Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, who made his name with Barcelona as well.
This quote by a former assistant of Guardiola also helps explain the idea:
“(Soccer is) a game of position, not possession. What does this mean? It means that when you have the ball, the goal is not to move the ball but to move the opponent by quick switches of position to find somewhere to pass the ball in order to give your side an advantage.”
So when compared to the two other concepts, Positional Play is the most specific and refers to a particular style of play, even though that style is rather complex to understand and appreciate.
We hope this article has helped clear up these “play” terms that may sound similar but in reality refer to different things.
To gain a more in-depth understanding of these and other tactical concepts, we recommend checking out our list of the best soccer tactics books.