The evolution of football towards a positional game

Feb. 13, 2024, 4:35 p.m.

The evolution of football towards a positional game

Modern football has undergone a remarkable change in its style of play in recent seasons. Teams have evolved, and this transformation is reflected in a more positional approach on the pitch. This change has generated an interesting debate around the decline of a key indicator: progressive passing (PrgP), those that drive forward towards the opponent's goal with an attacking approach.

Historically, PrgP were considered a vital element in the construction of scoring moves. These passes highlighted a team's ability to move quickly and accurately into the opposition box, looking to create clear goalscoring opportunities. 

However, recent statistics show a gradual decline in the production of these passes, which has led to questions about the effectiveness and real need for this direct approach.

The main reason behind this trend is the shift towards more positional play. Teams have opted for strategies that prioritise ball control and possession, establishing a solid base through more technically adept players and a tactical structure that emphasises ball retention rather than moving forward quickly. This emphasis on control and patience has limited the amount of direct passing that seeks to break defensive lines and create scoring opportunities.

This change poses an interesting challenge for coaches and strategists, as well as game analysts. The decrease in PrgP begs the question: is the effectiveness of offensive play being lost by decreasing the production of these direct passes? The answer is more complex than it seems. Despite the reduction in PrgP, the effectiveness of teams in scoring goals has not necessarily been negatively affected.

Another relevant indicator reflecting a more positional style of play is the frequency of lateral passes. Data collected between the 2015 and 2020 seasons show a marked increase in lateral passing, suggesting a trend towards a more possession-oriented game and strategic ball distribution.

To validate this assertion, we can examine the La Liga matchday 11 game between Rayo Vallecano and Real Sociedad.

The post-loss strategy focuses on gathering a large number of players in the centre of the pitch. This generates a pattern in the opposing team, leading to fewer progressive passes and more passes towards the defence. This approach culminates in a pass towards the defence, thus looking for a new way to attack Real Sociedad.

In a similar action, the layout of the R. Vallecano team shows how difficult it is for the opposing team to play on the inside. The abundance of players in position creates a barrier, making it difficult to advance through that area.

In this match, the attempt to create danger to overcome the opposing team is achieved by diagonal passes. These passes make it possible to break several lines of the opponent, avoiding positional play and finding free spaces.

Real Sociedad's goal came from a cross from the wing after a loss in midfield, which left the Rayo Vallecano defence somewhat disorientated, despite having players in the area.

Rayo Vallecano's goal was the product of a shot from distance, as it was noticeable that the Real Sociedad team was concentrated with numerous players in their central and defensive zone. 

This strategy forced Rayo Vallecano to look for opportunities through lateral passes or, on this occasion, through shots from medium and long distance.

post by Yudie Hardione
Football analyst at Longomatch