A Clash of Languages
January 12, 2024
I had two takeaways from this brilliant conversation with István Beregi and Jamie Hamilton in Spielverlagerung: One, it is very hard to describe functional play. Two, the game is losing emotion.
It is hard to describe how effective functional play can be because the effectiveness is reliant on the creativity of the players.
Jamie: Listen, the source of Positionism’s organizational logic is an objective understanding of what rationality means with respect to the player distribution and movement on the pitch. It then becomes the role of the coach and their technical staff to teach the players the principles of this logic. If, like Pep Guardiola, the coach is highly-skilled in this mode of top-down, one-to-many information transfer then sooner or later most of the players will have internalised this received logic. Adherence to these governing principles on the pitch will then quickly become second nature or even ‘automatic’. In the books of Perarnau it’s called something like teaching them a language. This hierarchical, broadcast mode of communicating Positionist principles necessarily leads to a particular flattening out of differences among the player’s interpretations of how spaces should be occupied. The initial imposition of Positionist principles is a suppression of difference and surprise in favour of standardisation and repetition. As Mikel Arteta alludes to with his cupboard metaphor, his idea of football is ordered by repeated processes and familiarity – unpredictability and improvisation are less prominent features in his kitchen.
N: And there is basically a different logic you are proposing? Or, sorry, rather you have observed?
Jamie: In contrast, Relationism seeks to afford an environment where the system of communication (signs, signals, gestures etc) emerges from the interactions between players rather than stemming from a situation which is constrained by predefined principles of what is rational or correct. Of course, the coaches must be proactive in cultivating and facilitating such an ‘open’ environment. Principles of play (such as ‘offering close options’, ‘playing on the side’ and ‘sharing the ball’) can still be imposed, but these constraints are of a different nature and logic to the explicitly regulated distances, angles and space occupations of Positional logic.
N: I am not the brightest bulb in the bulb store. Can you summarize me what I should be understanding already?
Jamie: Positionism’s logic is tied to a predefined idea of what is correct and rational – the starting point is fixed. Actions are evaluated by assessing the degree to which they align with the identity of this fixed, objective reference point. In contrast, the logic of Relationism orients itself around an unstable source which is constantly breaking down and reordering itself.
We don’t know what they will create until the match is played. This conversation offers up the best description that I’ve read to make sense of the differences between positional and functional play.
Emotion is taken from the game when players are forced to stick to a spot, or make a specific movement on the pitch.
Jamie: István begins our discourse by explaining that his perspective has changed, his thoughts are now ‘involving emotions as well as tactics’. I believe this shift of viewpoint is fundamental to the understanding of how Relationist football differs from the Positional. By allowing ‘emotions’ to inform our ideas about football tactics we are abandoning the pervasive, hyper-modernist idea that ‘football tactics’ should be seen as an abstract, objective domain. This primacy of feelings, intuitions and passions brings the subjectivity of the analyst/coach/player to the forefront of the discussion. We are now engaging with ‘tactics’ in an aesthetic manner – in the way one might engage with music, cinema or painting. We are interpreting the actions on the pitch in relation to the cultural and environmental milieus from which those actions arise. Football (and its tactics) do not take place in a vacuum, football is played by humans and humans are messy, irrational beings whose worldviews emerge in constant relation with the chaotic currents and flows of the external, non-human world.”
If a player wanted to move from a zone, there is emotions involved in that decision. Will this movement work, will I receive the ball, should I enter this space or the other spaces, am I leaving my team vulnerable, do I need to care about leaving my team vulnerable.
By enforcing rules upon that player that they must stay within that zone and they should make this movement, when should really means they must or they’ll be replaced, you then change those emotions. Now they are no longer worried about thinking creatively in regards to where they should position themselves on the pitch. They are more worried about following the instructions from a coach.
The creativity comes when they receive the ball in that zone. But even then, there’s instructions for how they should be dribbling, where they should be dribbling, where the next pass will be.
The emotions are spread across the entire team. We no longer rely on one player to change a game, we rely on the team to choreograph the movements constrained by the instructions given.
István: Ideas, formations, principles always come up again in a circulative way, as a natural and constant cycle in different forms. Today’s football is surely heavily affected by Guardiola’s success from the 2010s based on the positional play – what we see is that a lot of teams are (trying) using these principles, creating a quite uniformed way of playing around the world. This has been criticized by Juanma Lillo during the 2022 World Cup, saying basically that we have killed the unique styles by the spreading of the positional play and its training methodology – ’El Dostoquismo’/2 touch football. If we are here – I personally was never a fan of using touch restrictions, as I always found it more reasonable that if you want to control the number of touches you should do it by manipulating the space and therefore the defensive pressure. So why force players into using 1 or touches if it’s not necessary? These methodology trends naturally influenced the way of what kind of footballers we created. I’m not saying that it’s only because of this, but the natural dribblers are becoming less and less.
If a play fails, it’s not Ronaldinho’s fault that he didn’t juggle past four players; it’s the left-wing, left center-midfielder and left-back’s fault for not making that specific runs or playing that pass at this specific time. It is not Messi vs Ronaldo, it is now Pep vs Klopp.
In positional play we can more easily predict what should happen, in functional play we would need to be able to read the minds of the players because they have full control over who goes where.
Giving full control to the players is an instruction in itself. It is sandbox mode.