Relationism vs. Positionism: What’s it really about?

A guest contribution written by David Garcia (@IJaSport)

I finally figured out Relationism vs. Positionism.

I have to admit it has taken me many months. Looking back at it, perhaps it was my ego that prevented me from seeing what was there all along. Perhaps, I needed to find the right words for it for it all to fall in the right place. Like the most satisfying move in Tetris, when that long piece falls perfectly into place vanishing four lines of blocks instantly.

The lightbulb moment came all at once in one quick swoop.

Let’s start with some background to give context.

I have always been a huge proponent of Positional Play. I am from the United States but I moved to Spain in 2013 to explore greener football pastures. Six years later, after successfully completing my UEFA A and B license as well as gathering invaluable footballing experiences, I moved back to the United States to bring home some of the insight that I had learned along the way, and most importantly this amazing Positional Play system and methodology that worked so well in Spain.

I had the methods to apply this Positional Play system; beloved Rondos and Positional Games galore. So like a good missionary, I made it my life’s work to convert as many people as I came across.

As is common in the United States, my job was a Director of Coaching. Essentially, I was in charge of certain age groups within my club which meant I managed the coaches coaching those teams. Perfect for my missionary work, I imposed my methods onto those coaches and players I was in charge of. I applied the arbitrary ‘principles’ of Positional Play to the program I was in charge of. I was imposing my football onto those around me without any feedback from them, without ever stopping to question what I was imposing, without engaging with those bringing the football to life.

I was imposing methods and principles.

It was not Positional Play, it was Impositional Play. The act of forcing positional play to be accepted or put into place.

Enter Chris Bentley.

Chris and I worked together at my club.

Chris changed everything when he introduced me to the idea of the Self-Regulating Player.

A Self-Regulating Player is a player who can think for themselves. They are a player who is capable of solving game situations through their communication with the game environment, their decision making and how they interact within the game. The ultimate goal in developing Self-Regulating (team) Players is not to give players the answers but instead provide the tools for them to figure out the answers. The job of the coach is to guide, not instruct. It’s player empowerment for football.

Philosophically, Self-Regulation boils down to true self-expression. It’s allowing for players to express themselves within their contributions to the team. It’s letting them decide how to best contribute to the team. The result of this process is an expression of football that is player driven with the coach aligning interactions when necessary through a guiding approach.

Using Self-Regulating Players as a guiding light for player development made me see how some of the methods I was applying were not conducive towards helping players achieve that. It made me realize that in my role as a guide for young players to better understand the game, I could not continue down this path of “Impositional Play” without considering the unintended consequences of it.

However, I still genuinely felt that there was something about Positional Play that could help players make better sense of the game. I knew Positional Play could be used as an attention director for players to better interact within the game. I was at a crossroads because I had become aware of the copy and paste positional play coaching I had been practicing. I critically thought about the methods that I was using and considered the unintended consequences. Essentially, I had overexerted my control as a coach over the players (and other coaches).

Enter Chris Bentley again.

Not long after this first realization, amidst my pruning of coaching methods to better align with my objective of a Self-Regulating Player, Chris used the phrase ‘Meet Them Where They Are’.

It’s a simple phrase loaded with so much value. It’s simple as a coach, you are there to guide and help. However, often coaches want to provide ‘coaching’ knowledge regardless of the players’ needs or desires. Players are ‘coached’ at. They are inundated with ‘coaching’ tips and tricks. They are flooded with ‘How-to’s’ and ‘How-nots’. But rarely are they observed. This is what meeting them where they are means. It’s observing their natural inclinations. It’s observing how they solve football problems. It’s observing their unique HOW and based on what we observe we guide and help as much as necessary and as little as possible.

The phrase ‘Meeting them where they are’ brings to life the idea that the coach is there to guide, not to impose.

Meet them where they are – this is the role of a good coach who wants to help players become Self-Regulating.

Over the next couple of months, I worked towards understanding how I could combine Self-Regulating Players with Positional Play, and to figure that out I needed to get to the root of Positional Play: Position.

The purpose of Positional Play in attack is to maximize space and time in order to make scoring more likely. Maximizing space and time means increasing both of these elements as much as necessary to be able to effectively achieve your intentions, which usually are in line with game objectives (creating goal-scoring opportunities). I deduced that players could intentionally use their position to manipulate their opponents to create and exploit more space and time. Players who were able to do this had a superpower when playing. They made the game easier for themselves.

However, the change in my approach was to see that position was in relation to all of the other game variables (opponents, teammates, goals, etc). I began to understand that their position could never be predetermined because it’s entirely dependent on what is happening on the pitch. Position depends on where the opponents are. It depends on your teammates. It depends on where you are located on the field, and in which direction you are intending to progress to. It’s in relation to the game.

From that moment forward, I knew two things about Positional Play.

The player is in control of their position, and I must observe their natural inclinations.

Positioning cannot be predetermined or imposed because it depends on the game.

Then my methods began to change to allow for these conditions.

Over time I successfully developed a way of working that was not imposing Positional Play but instead observing and guiding players’ natural tendencies, preferably amplifying their most effective natural positioning tendencies, and when that wasn’t possible, adapting their ineffective natural positioning tendencies.

It worked.

It was providing a lens for players to understand the game through positioning while allowing for self-expression.

It was Self-Regulating Positional Play.

I put my head down and got to work.

Enter Jamie Hamilton’s Relationism vs. Positionism.

When I first heard this stance, I felt attacked. I had to defend my way of working because I knew the power of my Self-Regulating Positional Play. I knew how powerful it was as a learning tool. “How could it be that someone was bold enough to throw rocks at my beloved way of working?” said my ego.

You have two options when facing a difference of opinion:

1. Seek to Respond

2. Seek to Understand

Seek to Respond is your ego quickly bringing to surface all the reasons the person is wrong. It means immediately discrediting whatever is being said to make sure your point of view is the only true and valid one.

Seek to Understand is accepting the difference of opinion and instead of immediately discrediting the other view point, you dig deeper to find your own blindspots. It involves asking questions, and as the name suggests, your goal is to understand further.

The difference in these two approaches is how you view the differing opinion. In Seeking to Respond, the other perspective is seen and felt as a threat that must be squashed immediately. It challenges our current view of the world and must be eradicated as quickly as possible. In Seeking to Understand, the other perspective is offering a learning opportunity. The person offering the different opinion is potentially someone that could provide valuable insight that you might not have arrived at on your own.

Unfortunately, my initial reaction was Seeking to Respond. Although I didn’t say or post anything that I regret, I didn’t actually want to learn more. I was trying to pick out all the reasons that Relationism was wrong, cherry picking inconsistencies and what I considered illogical conclusions. I am ashamed to say that this lasted far too long. Even more embarrassingly, I refused to watch Fluminense because in my mind it was this perceived threat.

I don’t know what prompted a change in my approach from Seeking to Respond to Seeking to Understand. Maybe just time.

So eventually I embarked on a journey to truly understand. I dove deep into the articles, twitter threads, podcasts, etc that discussed Relationism (and I finally watched many hours of Fluminense). I gathered tons of notes, reflections, and began to understand where they were coming from. But as I said, I figured it all out with one quick swoop *cue long Tetris piece falling into place*.

I was listening to The Total Football Analysis Podcast on Relationism vs. Positional Play with host Adam Scully and Caio Miguel. Around the 32 minute mark, these two were discussing Relationism and Positional Play in regards to grassroots and youth football.

Caio says:

“The concept of structure and how programmed the structure is, because obviously you want to replicate of something, but is it going to be at the cost where the player has become a robot and is just doing that movement at 12 or 13 years but what if he gets transferred to a club where that’s not the case?”

Did you catch it? Did you hear what made it all click for me?

How about when Adam Scully describes the problem of applying Positional Play to youth football?

“If you play a certain way, and you’re expecting the team [opposition] to press in a 4-4-2, and you’re expecting there to be a massive stretch between midfield line and the back line but then they [opposition] don’t press in a 4-4-2. They go with a back three, they leave a man just in front of the defense and it becomes a little trickier, and your players don’t really know what the move is because everything is rehearsed from the sideline. And I think the point we try to make with Relationism, while it’s certainly not perfect, it gives way for more adaptability. And even when you have Real Madrid and Ancellotti, while they are not a fully Relationist side there are Relationist aspects and that’s why you would imagine they could do so well in Europe, because they adapt so well to situations. Whereas with a Pep team in the past, it was heavily influenced by the sidelines. When things wouldn’t go right they would be looking to the sidelines, ‘Pep needs to change’. With Ancelotti, when things don’t go right, ‘it’s alright, we have players on the pitch who can problem solve”.

Did you catch it now? I felt some dumb for not seeing it earlier. The same mistake I had made when I was a ‘missionary’ spreading ‘Impositional Play’: the

Lack of Self-Regulating Players.

Relationism is a desire for Self-Regulating Players.

Caio’s example describes a situation where youth players, aged 12 and 13, are given the answers to solve a footballing problem (game situation) with ‘structure’. The problem becomes that when the player is given the answer, they have not actually developed any further understanding about their position in relation to the game but they simply carry out their position within the predetermined, imposed structure. When given the answer, there is no game understanding developed.

A Self-Regulating Player would be able to take their game insight to any club or team and adapt.

Adam’s example is even more clear. He describes a situation where a youth team is ‘coached’ to play in a certain way against a certain way of pressing but then they play against a team that presses in a different way. Because they were given the answers about how to solve a football problem, when faced with a different football problem they are not able to solve and have to look over at the coach for the answer. He uses the Pep and Ancellotti as an example of this occurring at the professional level.

The key word in his example is adaptability. Self-Regulating Players are players who can govern or adjust themselves by themselves (in relation to the game). Adaptability is the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions. These two terms go hand in hand. 


So at a fundamental level, Relationism is the desire to see Self-Regulating Players. Self-Regulating (Team) Players are those that solve their own football problems alongside their teammates, without the need to look over at the coach.

Before I continue, let me introduce you to another useful tool that will help us figure out where and why people talk past each other.

I was first introduced to this by Tim Urban, author of the popular blog, Wait But Why. Tim uses the following questions to gain a better understanding about politics, a topic that often has people screaming at each other that they are wrong and making sure that they know all the ways that they are wrong.

The three questions are:

  • What is? – REALITY
  • What should be? – IDEAL
  • How do we move reality to ideal? – METHODS

In a perfect world, reality should be agreed upon by all because it’s the observable present (although, we know this is not true). Ideal is where opinionsbegin to differ. In politics, consider the differences between conservatives and progressives. They differ in their picture of the ideal reality. Methods is where we really start to see variation in groups. Again in politics, conservatives might agree on the ideal reality, what they are striving to achieve, but they might disagree on how to get there.

Using these same questions, I began to see where the Relationism vs. Positionism debacle had all gone wrong. When I first heard the argument, I believed it was about the Ideal. I thought the argument was about the use of Position. I believed what was being said was that Position was irrelevant and what was important was how players Related to each other.


Jamie states,

“Positionism claims that some fixed, static idea of what is real is the source from which everything else can be derived. This is not the case. And once you allow a static concept to be the boss, everything collapses into a singularity — a totality. Now Positionism has you exactly where it wants you — its check-mate, game over.”

I read this as ‘Position is unimportant.’

Knowing what you know now about me, you can see why I was defensive at first. My experience as a coach who wants to help players understand the game used Position to do so.

However, this was not the case at all. The ideal of Relationism is similar to my own: a Self-Regulating player. And similarly to Jamie, I had come to realize that space was entirely dependent on other game variables and it could not be predetermined or imposed by the coach. Therefore Self-Regulating Players had to position themselves in the constantly changing space.

Jamie also states:

“In extreme Positionist interpretations such as those of Sacchi or Conte (and many others, including youth coaches), these repetitive patterns (both offensive and defensive) are embedded in the player’s consciousness through the use of ‘automations’.

Automations are patterns of movement or ball progression trained without an opponent, or even, as in Sacchi’s case, without the ball!

‘I told them to imagine that the keeper had the ball’ says Sacchi, ‘and each of them had to envisage what would be the next best option, to try to dribble or the short pass. Then you could see them receive the ball, and Donadoni and Van Basten would change position. That is how we trained them to think collectively about leaving their marker’.

Sacchi developed a training exercise designed to help players get free from their marker without using any markers, or even the ball. This is Positionism. The use of systematically planned switches and rotations between pre-assigned zones to generate superiorities rather than shifting the emphasis to the intuitive and interpretive powers of the world’s best players. A regime of cerebral abstractions suppressing lived embodiment.”

What Jamie is talking about here is not at all whether Position is important or not, he’s gone down one more question to How do we move reality to the ideal (methods)? The biggest critique of Positional Play is not about space or position but about the methods that are often assumed to be used by Positional Play coaches. The methods mentioned don’t develop Self-Regulating Players. When put through training like this, players would not ever have the opportunity to develop their own ability to think through the game. In doing so, you would inevitably have players who would not be able to adapt. When presented with a game situation that they had not been given, the playerwould have to look over at the coach with a confused look asking what they were meant to do now (think about Adam’s comparison between Pep and Ancellotti).

When methods like these are used we have to question the role of the coach. One would assume that if a coach were to predetermine solutions with fabricated patterns then this coach would feel that their role is to solve the problem and the players simply execute the solution. This is by definition top-down control. You could go one step beyond the training session and assume that the game model used by a top-down control coach has prescriptive language explicitly telling the players how to solve each football problem (game situation). Top-down control coaches tend to use explicit methods which constrain how the player should execute, denying Self-Regulation.

Imagine a math teacher saying to their student, “next week  you’re going to get a test and the test is going to have questions A, B, and C and I want you to answer with D, E and F. So today in class I want you to do questions A, B, and C over and over again the way I say until you perfectly get the answers D, E, and F.” The teacher gives them the problem, answer, and how to do it.

Let me provide you with an alternative approach to coaching, Top-Down guidance. Top-Down guidance means that you guide as little as possible but as much as necessary. Using the math teacher metaphor, you provide the math problem, and observe. You take  note of how they got to the answer and based on your observation you guide as much as you need.

In training, you provide game situations for the players to solve (like creating goal scoring chances) and observe. Who moved where? Which players interacted? Where did they position themselves in relation to the opponents? In relation to teammates? What were their natural tendencies? From here you amplify those effective patterns. In other words, you want to maximize players’ qualities and interactions. Game models would only be created when those qualities and interactions were already identified. Team principle language would reflect the language of the team, country, club, culture, etc. In this way, players would further identify with the process. Training methodologies would be adapted to the desired amplification of team and player behaviors. Throughout this process, the coach would be aligning individuals’ behaviors to team intentions to achieve game objectives like scoring or preventing goals.

This would result in a unique way of playing.

I want to emphasize that the coach still has input in this process. They are part of the system as well. Even for a team as Self-Regulating as Fluminense, players cannot simply do whatever they like. Football is a team sport so there must be agreed upon tactics. For example, Fluminense will always build-up in wide areas. This shows that this is an agreed upon tactic to amplify their qualities to play in tight spaces creating high quality interactions in order to progress the ball towards the opposition’s goal. They do so in wide areas because as they arrive to the opposition’s goal they often score from getting the ball across the face of the goal (assumption).

As you can see, Relationism is not trying to provide the antidote to positioning, but instead it’s got a problem with the methods used to carry out positional play. It’s a defiance in controlling players. It’s a protest against not seeing enough Self-Regulating players.

At the root of the situation, it’s an issue of where the coach inserts themselves into the process.

For example, using more explicit methods, the coach could predetermine and superimpose solutions to solving a football problem. With this process, the coach is the starting point to the football that is going to be played.

Using more implicit methods, there would be more of a feedback loop between what the coach observes and the methods used. Within this process, the starting point is the player and the coach adapts their methods in order to reflect what he has observed from the players, further amplifying the qualities of the players. To use Chris Bentley’s tool, the coach is meeting the player where they are as opposed to the Player meeting with Coach where they would like them to be.

Logically, a coach using explicit methods could copy and paste those methods, regardless of who was in front of them. The coach could take their methods and not ever have to consider, or observe the natural tendencies of the player that was in front of them.

We can call this copy and paste coaching method cookie cutter coaching. Simply take your model and force it down onto the environment you are currently in. Coach Development for cookie cutter coaching is simple, you provide what would appear to be magic pills in terms of training exercises and prescriptive game models. The result of cookie-cutter coaching is as Juanma Lillo warned, a homogenized football world.

The alternative is Self-regulated Coaching. In the same way that players can self regulate meaning they adapt, and make decisions based on what is going on around them, coaches too can coach in a way where they are adapting and making decisions based on their environment. Coach development for self regulated coaches means they are provided with mental models and thinking tools in order to be able to effectively communicate with their environment, develop methods specifically tailored for their environment and create game models specifically made for their environment. As you can imagine this is not easy.

Hopefully by now you can see that relationism was never about positional play. It was about the role of the coach. It was about the methods used in coaching. It was about the tug-of-war between coach and player. As Juanma Lillo has always said, football belongs to the players. The more control the coach exerts over the game, the more football loses its essence. Football is about the connection of people. It’s about creating something much larger than the sum of its parts. It’s about being surprised by what could emerge from individuals contributing to something larger than themselves. It’s about the community that grows when people walk alongside each other. I agree with Jamie that a football world filled with identical expressions would defeat the purpose of the game.

So yeah, I figured out Relationism, and it had nothing to do with Position. 

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