Paul Edwards addresses our need to redefine positioning as we (think we) know it.

In the past ten years or so I’ve been fascinated with the innate power of language and how the choices that we make in explanations say more than we ever mean them to.  Experienced media watchers will know what I’m writing about here – the football media have a gnawing and desperate need to form “narratives” around events that couldn’t pass any real scrutiny if challenged.  Yet we read these and even if we don’t accept them at face value, like an insidious maggot in the brain they take hold and become absorbed into our own opinions on future events.

Our opinions are rarely informed entirely by our education and experience, but are a collation of a bunch of other opinions that we tack together along with this in a Frankenstein like patchwork job.  It’s nonsense to suggest that each football league is different on a big picture scale, but I do believe that the culture that most of the “stakeholders” in a league (from fans, to the backroom staff, to coaches and players) does dictate a lot of what we see in front of us.  That shared culture is due to us all viewing similar opinions and coming to similar conclusions on them.  We all think about the game similarly so we express those thoughts on the pitch in similar ways.

Knowledge is like a pyramid.  You have the simplistic foundations which are broad and wide ranging then above this the more specific and situational which is often more complex.  The more complex and more situational the higher your pyramid goes, but importantly, they all follow on from each other logically.  You can build into more complex topics when and because you have a level of understanding just a little underneath that.

This is why most people don’t really understand quantum physics; because even if you have read a few books on the subject and can recite something you’ve heard others say, the actual maths behind it that leads to comprehension may as well be written in Ancient Greek.  They have level 4 of the pyramid and level 8 but are missing 5, 6 and 7 to properly link them together into a consistent and logical framework.

One of the things that I find the most important in my daily life is to challenge my own opinions no matter how it manifests itself.  I’ve found over the years that my own ego is often the biggest roadblock to understanding of what I’m seeing; unable to let go of pet theories or concepts because either they’re popular or because “I’m right, it’s obvious, it’s a fact”.  Unfortunately when you challenge a simplistic foundational opinion you hold, even if you accept the logic behind it you’re often unwilling to accept its truth because it means that everything you have built on top of it in your pyramid is now invalid.  All of the study, all of the other knowledge and all of the righteousness you hold becomes new pieces of the jigsaw at best and wasted time at worst.  Foundational opinions are simultaneously the most important and the most protected opinions that we have.  They are the Sun in our Solar System, the central core that every opinion we hold orbits around.

This importance is why we must constantly be willing and able to challenge them and tear them down when a better opinion comes along.  Without this type of self-reflection we become bored middle aged men and women, nostalgic for an era that doesn’t exist, screaming at kids to “kick it long” every Saturday afternoon instead of “messing about”.

A completely random and unrelated photograph of Paul Merson.

A completely random and unrelated photograph of Paul Merson.

How we look at positioning

If you’re British or live in a place that has spent a long time watching the British sports media, there’s a good chance that you’ll think in terms of what we call the three line model.  The three line model attempts to split the pitch into three distinct sections – the defence, the midfield and the attack.

The job of the defence is to make sure that the ball doesn’t go in your net.  The job of the attack is to make sure that the ball goes in the other team’s net.  The midfield is more of a support role for both – some of them are expected to attack and some of them defend.  Usually in the three line model the positioning on the pitch determines the job of that person.  If you’re a centre back you’re a defender.  If you’re a striker you’re an attacker.   Dion Dublin was an attacker and Colin Hendry was a defender.  Easy peasy.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that the three line model is an invention – it has no objective “truth value”, it’s just how we all sat down and one day long ago decided to delineate footballing positions and the pitch in general.  Just as geocentrism was a model of how the Universe worked, there’s no more inherent truth in the idea of defence-midfield-attack than any other.  And just as heliocentrism is now accepted “fact”, its truth value lies in its ability to accurately represent the Universe as we observe it.  Again with these foundational opinions it is laborious but necessary to state this and repeat it to yourself often.

We can argue on the history of this in terms of “firsts” but at some point everybody sort of agreed that this three line model didn’t reflect the reality of football any more.  Although I wasn’t alive at this point and invite correction, I’ve previously heard that the three line model was in itself a correction of a simplistic “two line model” of just attack and defence.  One for the readers to decide.

Either way, whether that person be Puskas, Don Revie, or even Bergkamp and Zola we all saw the flaws in the model.  It doesn’t really reflect the players who were working “between the lines”.  People who sat directly in front of the defence or people who sat behind a striker don’t really fit into any of the above categories comfortably.  One of the solutions to this is to steal terms from other languages to supplement our own understanding.  The “libero”, “trequartista”, “regista” and the newer invader of “médio-volante” cover roles that we’re starting to know as sweeper, attacking midfielder and defensive midfielder.

As a small aside, it’s interesting but completely unsurprising to see how many pundits on British TV talk about players “working between the lines”.  This shows their innate default thinking is that of a three line model and anybody who doesn’t fit into this is working outside of the norm.  Again, this isn’t an attack – my own brain is wired to think of the 4-4-2 as the “default” formation that teams play, despite a decade or more of evidence to the contrary.  Shifting these deep opinions is incredibly difficult even if you consciously acknowledge them as incorrect.

The three line model typically split positions into three 'lines' - defence, midfield and attack

The three line model typically split positions into three ‘lines’ – defence, midfield and attack

The five line model

The switch now is the “five line model” which is an extension of the three line model and currently used in most of the popular football media.  Instead of splitting the game into three distinct parts it instead splits the game into five.  We have defence, defensive midfielders, midfielders, attacking midfielders and attackers.

In my view this switch to a five line model in how we foundationally understand football has been one of our greatest mental barriers to understanding the newer and more complex systems we see in the game today.  We’re trying to fit the information into our poor model and coming up with increasingly wide conclusions or even worse than this, we get bogged down into semantic arguments – arguing what a defensive midfielder even means.

Example.  Claude Makelele is a defensive midfielder.  So is Andrea Pirlo at times.  So is Sergio Busquets.  By using the positional aspect of a player in order to understand their role we have often fundamentally missed how they connect to the bigger picture.  Of course we have invented ways around even this – Makelele is an “anchor man” and Pirlo is a “deep lying playmaker”, descriptions which attempt to square the circle and miss the greater disconnect.  When a new type of player emerges we still just add one more to the ever growing collection of terms that do an “okish” job of comprehension.

When Pep Guardiola played a full back that cuts into the centre midfield position at Bayern, it exposed the flaw in our logic.  This was a person who was by every definition a “defender” but now was also by every definition was “a midfielder” too.  Are they defensive midfielders then?  Or still defenders?  Why?  The football intelligentsia seems to have settled on something like “inverted fullbacks” and moved on but it really stuck in my craw for some reason.

What about the Arjen Robben type of winger?  His strength is in cutting in to the centre so is he a midfielder, an attacking midfielder, an attacker?  Why?

What about Pandev at Inter or Eto’o at Barcelona?  They were attackers who started wide and cut inside to be almost centre forwards.  Are they still attackers?  Why?

What about Dani Alves, Cafu, Maicon, Carlos, and every other wing back?  Their primary job was attack rather than defence.  Were they defenders or attackers?  Why?

This is often mistaken for pyramid knowledge; that looking at these players roles is more complex than the simple defend-midfield-attack so it’s ok as a starting point and with better education we see additional complexities that demand more of our study.

The five line model added two lines of complexity into an already broken system

The five line model added two lines of complexity into an already broken system

Being a bit of a science fan though, I’ve seen this behaviour before.

Epicycles

Epicycles were an interesting part of the debate around geocentrism (Earth-centred) vs heliocentrism (Sun-centred) in the mid-1500s.  For many reasons that you can read about in greater detail elsewhere, there was a religious belief that all of the planets and the Sun must orbit the Earth and it was the centre of the Universe.  This was supported mainly by observation – all of the stars seemed to orbit in a circular pattern in the sky so once we had this foundational knowledge it then followed that the Earth was sat still in the centre.  However for a thousand years or so there had been just a couple of stars that didn’t do this and “wandered” across the sky; instead of the circular motion of their friends they exhibited an Etch-A-Sketch like looping orbit.  So the Greeks termed these stars “planets” and moved on.  It was just an added complexity, a couple of isolated incidents that didn’t fit the normal rules.  The needles in the haystack.

As observation and technology grew, it was noticed that these ”wandering stars” didn’t quite fit the calculations of where they were expected to be.  So in his early work, Nicolaus Copernicus concluded that instead they must have “epicycles” in their orbits – small loops within the bigger loops that perfectly accounted for their motion.

Eventually Copernicus worked it out by seeing that the fatal flaw in his logic was not increasing the complexity of the orbits but because his foundational opinions on the nature of the orbits – that it was centred around an unmoving Earth – was incorrect.

I feel that we’re probably coming to this point now in football discourse.  The nature of describing players through some sense of position on the field is becoming so far away from the original three line model and so many new epicycles are having to be added that it might be simpler, as a mental model, to do away with the whole thing entirely.

“Carrick was a deep lying playmaking centre midfielder who sometimes dropped into the three man defensive bloc to form a sweeper like defending system”

“Carrick was a deep lying playmaking centre midfielder who sometimes dropped into the three man defensive bloc to form a sweeper like defending system”

Pressure-Support-Create?

I’ll be honest; I don’t know exactly what the positionless model of football actually looks like in discussion terms.  I’m not a smart enough person to figure out that type of invention; my bias is too deep, the education has its claws too deep into my brain to separate it without ripping the whole thing out, I lack the creativity.  In the 1970s the Dutch famously coined the “Total Football” style of playing where any one player will fill in for any other to keep the overall team shape, and while I have no doubt that it will spin out of these philosophies they still rely on the basic ideas of positioning.  The positional aspect of keeping the team shape was left to all of the players but fundamentally their jobs still remained in the simplest terms.

Let’s go back to the start and find our most basic definitions.

The job of the defence is to make sure that the ball doesn’t go in your net. 

The job of the attack is to make sure that the ball goes in the other team’s net. 

The midfield is more of a support role for both – some of them are expected to attack and some of them defend.

Looking at some sides in this year’s Premier League, it seems obvious that they are using their centre backs as midfielders and probably the only actual defender on the pitch is the Goalkeeper – and to be honest there’s a good argument on that.  If we remove all of our bias about position and look entirely at the role of the player in question, I see no real support for the idea that John Stones is a defender rather than a midfielder who has trained in defensive positioning and heading. His primary role in this Man City team is to have time on the ball in a generally unchallenged position and find players who are in space, giving them the opportunity to create chances.

Similarly, I see no reason why Gareth Barry is a midfielder once the positional aspect is removed.  His main role is generally to break up play and to mark space that can be occupied by opposition players.  His grouping is much more similar to Chris Smalling than it is to Paul Pogba.

It follows to me that our definitions should look at the core roles of each player and what their particular “Sun” is.  Some players pressure, some players support the system through positional or possessional dominance, others are tasked with creating chances or making the space to allow others creating chances.  I don’t think there’s a single player in elite football whose job is purely to “score goals” or “defend goals” and we’re classifying them wrong.  Poor classification can only lead to poor foundational knowledge which means we’re building our intellectual castles on quicksand.  Pressure – Support- Create ignores positional bias and solves many of the issues surround wing backs, defensive midfielders and False Nines, and whilst it is by no means a perfect representation of the player’s on the pitch job, it feels more descriptive to me than “attacking midfielder” which I’m not even sure I know means anymore.

However we decide to taxonomy the players on the pitch, their position is becoming less important and descriptive of their role as more fluid footballing systems develop.  Perhaps the human obsession with classification is prompting us to jam them into an intellectually satisfying role of “centre midfielder” in the same way that it’s as meaninglessly satisfying to see “4-4-2” as a descriptive version of how players are expected to perform?

In this article I’ve attempted to point out the problems with the current system and how I believe we need to ditch the positional descriptive model of players to be replaced with a more functionally dependent model.  However I’ve not been able to offer much up on how we can replace it which I do know is frustrating to readers as equally it is for me.  Here we go back to our pyramid – once you’ve smashed the foundation of your understanding you can only begin building a new one and the expectation that you’ll have the same sophistication and complexity as the one you’ve removed is foolhardy.  In fact most of the point is removing unnecessary complexity to begin to start again.  All we can ask is that it’s more reflective of reality.

I don’t know what the next great innovation will be in how we discuss football in the English language and how our collective culture understands it, but I get the feeling that it will be very much in this direction.   If you feel so inclined, I’d be interested to read your ideas for the future of player classification in the comments.

Training pitch used by Pep Guardiola for positional training (@maccacollins)

Training pitch used by Pep Guardiola for positional training (@maccacollins)