Analisi tattica Intervista

Positional and functional play: interview with Caio Miguel Pontes

One of the main topics these weeks has been the comparison between positional and functional play. So, to discuss them and to go deep into this subject, I interviewed Caio Miguel Pontes, one of the best students of the game around. Hope you enjoy it!

As a student of the game you are currently studying functional play: can you explain what this play is?

Functional Play is an emerging football philosophy, counter to Positional Play. The latter has dominated not only tactics but how football is viewed, and although it is a fascinating philosophy, it is just one philosophy. Functional Play provides an entirely alternative method of viewing football and tactics, and this difference has multiple dimensions. Most notably, the conceptualization of space. Whereas space is a fixed and static entity in Positional Play, viewed with the same referential status as the ball, the opposition, and the teammate, space is viewed as a dynamic and everchanging entity in Functional Play. It is not in equal order to the ball, opposition, and teammate, but rather viewed as a result of the interaction of the three. This interaction is not simply physical (where each one is), but rather a complex interaction considering every dimension of the individual, from technical to emotional. This focus on the relationship between the individual and space is consistent with the overall idea of Functional Play, one of relationism. The tactics become less about where you are, and rather what you’re doing, how you’re moving, and what relationships you establish. Simply put, the positioning of players becomes more free and dynamic, without much regard for an imposed collective organisation. This football philosophy is rooted in South America, and right now, Lionel Scaloni, Fernando Diniz, and Renato Gaúcho are some of the most notable protagonists. In Europe, Luciano Spalletti, Carlo Ancelotti, and Roger Schmidt also adopt similar approaches.

Do you think the word Functional is the more correct way to describe this approach? Or do you prefer terms as appositional, or role-driven?

Describing this approach through a single word is an incredibly difficult task; even Positional Play has its shortcomings in describing the philosophy, as Pep Guardiola has noted. “Appositional” has some implications which may paint the wrong picture. However insignificant positions may be in this approach (Diniz, for example), there is still a starting reference, a point of origin. “Game of approximation” does a better job, as this is a significant feature in the more South American teams. However, it’s not a necessary feature, take Napoli or Benfica for example. Neither of these sides has overwhelming approximation or becomes as appositional as Diniz’s structure. “Functional” relates to functions, and function can be defined as “an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing.” This is a more appropriate way of describing this approach, as the others tend to limit it to a specific feature. The core idea of Functional Play is creating structures (not shapes) based on the individuals. With this being the case, depending on the players, Functional Play can have multiple faces.

Which are the biggest differences between functional and positional play? I mean also the order of the things a player has to take a look at in the game…

The perception of space fundamentally differentiates both styles, and this has significant consequences in how the tactics are constructed and the players are instructed. The nature of Positional Play prescribes players with designated zones (obviously these can change and can be fluid), and it facilitates the player’s role as there is an organisational/collective guide. Functional Play is more interpretive and spontaneous. It is less about maintaining some sort of spatial organisation and more about naturally relating with the ball, the players, the opposition, and consequently, space. With this in mind, in one, the player(s) fights back the natural chaos of the game with the collective organisation, specifically his positioning (zonal occupation). In the other style, the player gives in more to this chaotic (unpredictable) development of the game and relates with it based on himself and his interpretations. This is where the key tactical differences begin to emerge.

Can you show us some patterns that identify a Functional playstyle?

No! Perhaps the better way to identify Functional Play is through the lack of patterns. Obviously, individual characteristics will lead to some tendencies and reoccurring developments. However, if you were to change the player, these would change. Take Napoli, for example, the midfield dynamics change when Ndombele comes on for Zieliński. The movements and relations (with the ball) are very spontaneous and interpretive, without a predetermined organisation in mind. Diniz and Renato’s teams have a tendency to play with shorter passing, with more approximation. This can be identified as a pattern if you wish, but even then, the movements and development of possession are still spontaneous and interpretive.

Arrigo Sacchi’s is still one of the main references coming to positional play (together with Rinus Michels and Pep Guardiola). Sacchi used to say ‹‹football is born in the brain››. What are your thoughts about Sacchi’s football?

: Sacchi revolutionised Italian football towards the end of the century, and more broadly, football in general. He is undoubtedly one of the main references in the development of Positional Play, with his ideas and view of football. This approach to football is very much positional and based on the collective, arguably very Eurocentric. I personally have a lot of admiration for Sacchi and his work, especially for providing a new method of looking at football, for challenging the norm and pushing our ideas of football forward. Personally, I don’t have a similar view, especially with such a strong focus on the collective. Regardless, I appreciate his ideas and his revolutionary thinking.

As Jamie Hamilton recently pointed out, ‹‹football here has always seemed so script-less››. That said, positional play looked more and more as a way to fix players into predetermined spaces… what is the different approach of Functional play regarding the spaces?

Positional Play fights back against this script-less nature of football by providing a (spatial) organisation ideal, where order is enhanced, and the team assumes more control of the game (chaos). This control comes in the form of conquering space, and this objective is only possible when space is viewed as a fixed and static entity. Functional Play views space in a different light, as explored earlier, and consequently, there isn’t a focus on conquering space through collective order.

Is European football suffering from an excess of positionism?

A: The overwhelming dominance of Positionism, or any philosophy, naturally results in a suppression of other methods of thinking. With Positional Play becoming so strong in recent years, most football matches have become chess matches. The World Cup put this on display with some matches, especially ones with Belgium, for example. Some of the matches were truly painful to watch and impossible to enjoy. When there is such a strong dominance, without many alternatives, a plateau is inevitably reached. It is essential for alternatives to emerge and for the (European) football landscape to be diversified in philosophies.

A great supporter of functional play actually is Fernando Diniz of Fluminense. How do you explain his playstyle?

Diniz is a key figure in the rise of Functional Play. His teams look absolutely chaotic if you’re looking at them through positional lens. His style is characterised by extreme approximation and the complete rejection of positions. You can get seven or eight players in a specific area of the pitch at once, something almost unthinkable in Positional Play. It adopts the core ideas of Functional Play, but through extreme approximation and a very short passing style, these are significantly enhanced. Beyond the pitch, Diniz’s style is characterised by a focus on the individual, not just the player but as a person. In numerous interviews, Diniz talks about the person beyond the player; caring, preserving, and developing the individual.

Which coaches other than Diniz do you think carry out a functional play?

In Brazil, Dorival Junior and Renato Gaúcho are some of the notable coaches. Lionel Scaloni with Argentina has demonstrated a similar style, especially with a focus on enhancing Messi’s ability through heavy relations with his teammates. In Europe, Roger Schmidt, Luciano Spalletti, and Carlo Ancelotti have such styles, and they have been extremely successful in the UCL so far. Juanma Lillo is another interesting one, previously being a heavy Positional Play advocate but now demonstrating Functional signs with Al Sadd. There are many other coaches I’m sure, but these are the ones that come to mind.

One of the main characteristics of Diniz’s game model is the use of offensive diagonals. Can you explain to us what they are?

A: As Jamie Hamilton has mentioned in various tweets, these can be referred to as escadinhas, or staircases. The best way to describe is when three or more players line up in a diagonal line and use dummies (or corta luz) to progress the ball. These can be found throughout Brazilian history, especially in the various glorious teams of the 1980s and 1990s. It is incredibly typical of Brazilian football, and it is a very spontaneous tactic. The players must naturally relate on the pitch to perform this, as there isn’t a systematic method of creating these scenarios. Obviously, with such close proximity and spontaneous movement, it is a direct result of the lack of positional guidelines in Functional Play. Overall, it’s a beautiful way of linking professional football back to street football, something incredibly significant in Brazilian culture. 

Is it really possible to categorize the playstyle of any coach right now? Is it possible to insert every coach into a specific one, a la Kant?

A: With Positional Play and the increasing tactical homogenization as a result of the globalisation of ideas and principles, coaches can be assimilated and put into buckets far more easily. However, even then, every coach is a different person, from a different place, with a different background, with different influences, etc. When that is considered, it’s impossible to say two coaches play the same exact way. Categorising coaches into buckets (Positional Play, Functional Play, vertical football, possession-based) is possible, as similarities can be found. While this can and is being done, it is important to remember two coaches/systems are never truly the same.

Like Positional Play, relational football has a different structure. Could you explain the differences between the team’s structure and shape?

A: We often tend to think of structure as linear, with correct places of where to be and how to be organised, with logic, geometry, and rationality. “Man City play with a 2-3-5”, for example. However, this approach to structure is limited and when teams like Fluminense come along, what are we meant to do? Structures can also “exist in emergent (not imposed) non-linear forms”, as Jamie Hamilton put it. Of course, when referring to teams with imposed organisations that attempt to create linear structures, it is fair to use the term. However, it’s important to understand that this is not the only manner to approach structure, and the structure of teams like Fluminense and Napoli can also be dissected and analysed. The distinction between shape and structure, for me at least, brings clarity when specifically referring to linear organisations.

According to Luciano Spalletti, “systems no longer exist in football, it’s all about the spaces left by the opposition. You must be quick to spot them and know the right moment to strike, have the courage to start the move even when pressed.” What can you tell us about Napoli’s playing model?

Napoli play with a Functional approach, and Spalletti’s quote makes this clear. When referring to systems, Spalletti means linear and positional-based organisations. As he claims, it’s no longer about them, but rather about spaces, interacting and relating with them. When to attack them, how to attack them. Napoli’s Functional Play is naturally different from other Functional teams. It is a more expanded version, with different progressions and structures than Flu, for example. The difference is a result of the context (coach, players, country, league). Nonetheless, the focus on dynamic spaces and interpretive and relational movements is still there. For me, that is the beauty of Functional Play. The preservation of the context rather than a homogenous approach to football.


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