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Kai Bardal on positional play and how to use it – even in grassroots football

Kai Bardal is a 36-year-old engineer coming from the small town of Steinkjer in Norway. He currently lives in Trondheim, and is now a freelance football writer for the newspaper Adresseavisen. He’s also an assistant coach for the 4th division side Kvik FK, head coach for an elite futsal team called Utleira, and the assistant coach for the Norwegian futsal national team. Kai has already won the national futsal league championship four times with his former team, Vegakameratene, who also became Nordic champions in 2014 and qualified for the UEFA Futsal cup (now called the UEFA Champions league) four times in a row.

Kai Bardal profil
The Norwegian futsal- and football coach, Kai Bardal, has studied positional play in great detail for over a decade. Photo: Private

Back in November Fotballdykket’s writer, Anders Johansson, interviewed Kai Bardal about positional play (juego de posicion) – a subject Kai knows a thing or two about. He has actually become quite known for his video analysis on Twitter. His account had almost 4000 followers when it was suspended due to a copyright complaint from FIFA. We asked Bardal fifteen questions about positional play, and we believe that his answers are of such a high quality that the whole interview deserves to be translated into English. His answers are also highly relevant to this day – if not even more – considering Manchester City’s triumphant season in the Premier League, using exactly positional play to achieve it. In our opinion, this interview may provide some valuable knowledge about positional play, and we hope that football coaches and -addicts will be satisfied by reading it. Hopefully, Kai’s knowledge can also give the reader a greater understanding of a topic that many finds complex and perhaps a bit mystical. Enjoy!

Introduction: It’s a well-known fact that there’s a lot of different ways to play football. What one prefers, or what one sees as the most effective way to win the game, will vary from person to person, and from coach to coach. Some of these different individual perspectives and philosophies regarding this game could also be anchored in where the individual grew up and was taught how to play, meaning that the country itself can – and probably will – influence how one sees football. The totaalvoetbal of the Dutch, the Catenaccio of the Italians or the Norwegian Drillo-fotball (after the Norwegian coaching legend, Egil “Drillo” Olsen) are all good examples of this. The philosophies represent different ways for reaching a shared goal: Scoring more goals than the opponent and winning the match. How you do it is what makes them different. Should you strive for possession on the ball, or rather imply a more counter attacking approach? Will you be pressing your opponents high up the pitch, or closer to your own goal? Is it important to play “beautifully”, or is that something that should be sacrificed in favour of a more cynical way of beating the opponent? The differences are many, and what one would see as the “right” way of playing will forever be a subjective assessment, an interesting discussion, and a topic we will continue to debate for years to come.

We’ve been lucky enough to talk to a man who we like to describe as an expert – at least in the Norwegian context – about one of the dominant football philosophies in the world right now: Positional play. Kai Bardal (36) has been studying this way of playing – and similar styles – for over a decade. It all started in 2007, when he bought a book about Louis van Gaal and the Ajax-coaches’ training philosophies and ordered DVDs from the Netherlands to watch the games of van Gaal’s team. Bardal is currently applying his knowledge of positional play on a weekly basis through his role as an assistant coach for the 4th division side Kvik FK. His preferred playing style and football philosophy, positional play, is a translated term for the Spanish-grounded juego de posicion. In countries like Norway, this way of playing football is often referred to as passing football, possession football or “tiki taka”, which could be both misleading and plain wrong. Among the most famous teams that have employed positional play with enormous success, are Barcelona, Spain’s national team and Ajax.

This playing style have a history which can be traced all the way back to Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff (even further, also), who “founded” the Dutch “total football” (totalvoetbal) in the 60s and 70s. Their philosophy has been further developed and modernised to what it is today, by coaches such as Tomas Tuchel, Louis van Gaal, Maurizio Sarri and, of course, Josep “Pep” Guardiola. Positional play has been fundamental to some historical victories, and contributed to the dominating periods of some great teams throughout the last decades. Who can forget Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, who won mesmerizingly 14 trophies in four years? This way of playing has also spread out across the globe in more recent years; for instance, in Europe it has been seen in both Germany (Tuchel’s Dortmund), Italy (Sarri’s Napoli) and England (Guardiola’s Manchester City), along with a couple of Spanish teams, of course. The last two world cup winners before the 2018 edition of the tournament, namely Spain and Germany, has also been implementing a positional style of play.

In Norway – and in other countries, it seems – it has been limited knowledge about- and understanding of this football philosophy (in Norway we didn’t even have a name for it, so in the original interview we went with the direct translation into posisjonsspill). Few teams, both on club- and national team level, are fully applying the positional style of play. No one in the elite divisions in Norway, neither the men nor the women, are playing this way. Kai Bardal is one of the few who knows a thing or two about positional play in Norway, and he’s been sharing a lot of his knowledge through short video clips and analysis on Twitter – which the audience really have been welcoming thus far! Almost three and a half thousand followers speak for itself. His more recent video clips, from the world cup, are getting several thousand retweets and likes. If he’s not knowledgeable, he’s at least interesting for many. Nevertheless: We wanted to learn more about what is behind his videoclips, what he knows about positional play, and how he makes it real as a coach in the grassroots of Norwegian football.

Anders Johansson (AJ): What is positional play? How do you define it?

Kai Bardal (KB): First of all: A presumption is that you regard it as possible to have the ball, and that the intention behind each action and your way of receiving and playing the ball make it possible for your team to create superiorities. The team will then try to generate these superiorities from the start of the attack and until they can finish it. Based on this premise there’s a set of principles and means which makes it easier to keep the ball, seek advantages, get the team upfield, and – hopefully – finish the attack. Positional play is to constantly seek these advantages.

A simple example is when the team creates a numerical superiority near the ball. That is usually pretty easy to interpret and make use of. Another kind of superiority appears when both teams are equal in terms of numbers, but one of them is superior in terms of quality. If you have a good dribbler you have a good chance of progressing if he gets the ball and can go one against one. Then you of course have the positional advantage as well. In the words of Juanma Lillo: It is possible to be two defenders against one attacker inside the 18-yard box, but the attacker could still be in a position the shoot the ball into the back of the net. This is the same all over the pitch. A player can “have position” and be capable to do something constructive, even when there is no numerical or individual superiority.

You often try to start with a numerical superiority in your first line of attack. Then you can start the attacks cleanly and search for superiorities further upfield. For example: You could create a new numerical overload further up, or find a midfielder who can make a good pass. Sometimes you can play passes all the way to the opponent’s goal or create dangerous 1v1 situations.

“A fundamental concept is to draw opposing players close in order to find space elsewhere. If you never play close to the opponent, it will be difficult to move them and create space in other areas.” – Kai Bardal

By doing this you also keep the distances between your players so short that you are compact around the ball if you were to lose it. The ball and the team must move together. This clearly facilitates transitions and counter-pressing.

AJ: Why is this a useful way you play football? What makes it so effective?

KB: I think it’s potentially effective because it’s all about a systematic search for superiorities. Even if you don’t succeed in everything you are trying to do, you will have a plan and some tools for manipulating the opposing players in such a way that you can get past them.

AJ: How did you get caught up in positional play?

KB: The most important event that has influenced me is probably participating in a UEFA seminar with some of the world’s best futsal coaches. The Portuguese national team coach, Jorge Braz, had a session of one against one plus goalkeepers in a small playing area. He related everything to a standard model of game principles. To observe a world class coach work with first principles in such a simplified situation really struck a chord. Afterwards I spent a long time thinking about the positional advantage.

Another reason was that I did quite a lot of “homework” on certain types of basic skills. When I had acquired a decent understanding of how you can receive the ball with a body orientation and a field of vision that allows you to pass forward, the words of Johan Cruyff started to make more sense: “You could play the ball with advantage not only because of the pass, but because of your positioning on the pitch and even the way your body was placed…”

Kai Bardal futsal
Here we see Bardal instructing Spains U18 national futsal team back in 2013 during an UEFA coaching eduaction course. The man next to Bardal is Javier Lozano, two times futsal world champion as coach.

AJ: What is important to successfully apply positional play? Is it the formation, the players, the training methodology, or other things?

KB: The team’s formation is not crucial in itself, but a good rule of thumb is to always start with a numerical superiority against the opponents first line of defence (2v1, 4v3, 3v2, etc.). Everything is easier if the first progression is clean. If that does not influence the team’s standard formation, it will at least influence the team’s structure during the game. And by “line of defence”, I’m talking about an imagined horizontal line through a defender or a group of defenders positioned on the same height of the field.

The most important thing about the players is that they need to be comfortable playing close to the opponents. A fundamental concept is to draw opposing players close in order to find space elsewhere. If you never play close to the opponent it will be difficult to move them and create space in other areas. To play in proximity is essential. In my experience, this can definitely be learned. If the players feel that they know how to receive the ball, they won’t be afraid of receiving it even if an opponent is approaching. A lot of the work on the training ground is done to develop the ability to have the ball and do something without needing a lot of space to do it. Players that are able to receive the ball, turn and pass with their second touch – without using extra steps in between – will generally have more options and make little bit better decisions. Every player also needs to be able to read where the possible superiority can be found.

It’s also very useful to have some players that can take on defenders with the ball, since it is much easier to attack if you can create danger just by making 1v1 situations.

AJ: What about playing with high tempo (in Norway we have a world called “balltempo” for this)? That’s something a lot of coaches and football pundits are claiming as important to break down a defence when you’re attacking.

KB: I never use the word “balltempo”. Most importantly because what is often referred to as “low balltempo” is just the effect, not the cause. Consider this simple example: At most levels you can often observe the ball is passed to a fullback, who has no safe passing options on the inside. Then the ball can only go backwards, if that’s even possible. Of course the play will seem slow. I think the reasons are the important thing, not the consequences. Also, I’m more concerned with playing in the right tempo, not as fast as possible. Some things need to be done quickly, others should be done more slowly. Sprinting and being in a hurry don’t exactly facilitate technical excellence either.

Honestly, I’m rather more interested in the word “tempo” like they use it in chess. For example, when you force the opponent to move in a particular way as a response to your threats or in terms of acting efficiently with the ball. The analogy is far from perfect, however, and this line of thinking quickly becomes quite theoretical.

“Busquets is the best in the world at turning with the ball because he acts in the simplest and most economical way. To imitate him will simplify the actions, not complicate them.” – Kai Bardal

AJ: You and the head coach of FK Kvik, Simon Evjen, have implemented positional play at the grassroot level. How have you managed this? Could you tell us a little about the process?

KB: We kind of had to start all over again, back in January 2016. After a lot of our regular starters retired or moved from town during 2014, we had – to put it mildly – a strange 2015 season. We struggled to field a full starting eleven, even in our home games. We made some changes to our coaching staff, where Simon and I switched roles. Simon became the head coach and has really laid down a formidable effort.

Our intention from day one was to have the ball. Therefore, we decided something that has kind of been guiding us ever since: We must accept that we are going to make some mistakes.

We started on a small side project during the spring of 2016 that we called “the midfielder’s school”. This was basically just additional exercises for some selected players during the regular training sessions. The aim was to develop some useful habits among some of the key players. Initially they were put through isolated exercises where they practiced how to communicate with their movement when they want the ball, how to position their body and turn their head to be able to look forward and how to keep their balance when they turn so that they can take the second touch as fast as possible. After a few sessions we started practising these elements in different possession exercises. We got a lot better at this from spring to autumn; the playing area in some of our possession drills was reduced by almost 40 percent. Little by little we included more players in this programme, and now, during 2017, almost everyone has been through pretty much the same programme as our midfielders did last year. Those who were involved from the start have been given increasingly difficult tasks in training.

“We are certainly playing at grassroots level and mistakes will occur, but we still believe we will develop more if we have good intentions behind every move.” – Kai Bardal

After an inconsistent first half of the season, we finished 2016 with eight straight wins and won both our division and the league championship. During the last seven games we conceded 0 and scored 45 goals. To be honest we had a couple of weaknesses in defence, but we covered them up by having the ball all the time.

The probably most time-consuming change was shifting the focus from only trying to create numerical superiorities with forward-facing players in front of the next defensive line, to making numerical superiorities behind the next line of defence or as a group around the ball. With practice we have become much better at this and gradually there has been a lot more positional rotations and interchanges between our players.

It is extremely important to read the pressure on the ball. The stronger the pressure, the closer you must go to offer support. If there is little or no pressure on the ball, you can have players positioned further away, behind defensive lines and in more dangerous positions. To adjust these distances and have all the players move in harmony both under pressure and when there is a free man rely on mechanisms that take time to develop. What you need to learn to do, you learn by doing.

Simon’s starting point was a traditional Norwegian 4-3-3-formation, with relatively big distances and a focus on creating 2v1 in front of the next opposing player (always forward-facing: centre backs versus their striker, centre back and fullback versus their winger, our interior midfielder and winger against their fullback, etc.). In the spring of 2016 we had a lot of possession but were unable to give constant support or safe passing options to the man with the ball. Typically: If we were unable to go forward on one side we would switch the play to the other side, while our deep central midfielder sprinted over to provide support and our interior midfielder was already far behind the next defensive line. It was too easy to press the ball when we had so few players close to it. It was also pretty easy to wait for us in a deep block. If someone tried to play in proximity to the opponent, they would too often find themselves without support. Attracting pressure only works if you can leave the pressure and progress.

We were also excited to see if we could play in the same manner this year (2017), because of the rearrangement of the Norwegian division system. The number of teams in many of the divisions are now reduced, which means we are playing against teams that would have played one division above us before the rearrangement. It has been satisfying – and somewhat surprising – to see that we have managed to control a lot of the games to at least the same degree as last year, and that we have been winning with big scores in some of our games.

It seems to be possible to achieve a quite decent level of playing in a shorter amount of time than we first believed. Our team is also kind of an odd example, since many of the club’s players are traditionally students from other parts of the country, which makes parts of our year a bit difficult. This is also evident in our results. This season we now have a statistic that shows 10-3-0 in April-May plus September-October and 1-4-2 for June-August (as of October 2017). We only train three times a week and at least half of the squad is out of town for about 10 weeks during summer. On the bright side the whole team is very eager to learn and everyone works hard for the team.

AJ: How does a typical session look like, when you’re trying to practice some central elements in positional play?

KB: A normal session starts with a general warm-up, which is the only activity we do without the ball. Then we will usually finish our warm up with the ball but without opposition. In most cases we practice different variations of pass/turn with the ball and lay off/third man run. We put a lot of emphasis on communicating with our passes. That means a pass should be played with a certain velocity depending on the situation and that the pass must sometimes be directed to a specific foot. We are certainly playing at grassroots level and mistakes will occur, but we still believe we will develop more if we have good intentions behind every move.

Afterwards we will usually do a possession exercise, or – if we are preparing for a match – conditioned games. If we are preparing for a match we often play with zones where the number of attacking and defending players in each zone is based on the situations we expect to arise in the match. Alternatively, we will condition the exercise in other ways to practice a topic in an environment that is as close as possible to the game. At the end of the training session we play a real game with two goals. The duration and size of the playing area varies. Usually, most of the session is based on different types of games.

“It is extremely important to read the pressure on the ball. The stronger the pressure the closer you must go to offer support.” – Kai Bardal

AJ: What about direction in the aforementioned possession drills, is that something you put emphasis on?

KB: Sometimes yes, but mostly no. An example of a drill like this is 6v3 in the centre circle. When you work a lot on activities like this it is mostly about practicing certain concepts, for example reading the pressure on the ball or using your body orientation to move the defenders. There are enough reference points for this in these activities, at least on our level. And then of course we work on exactly the same concepts in real games with goals and goalkeepers afterwards.

AJ: Are you sticking to your playing style no matter what opponent or occasion you’re facing?

KB: After we were finally done with Easter break and really got started in 2017, we have more or less been playing the same way. Sometimes we adapt a bit to our opponents to maintain some principles in attack. We want to create superiorities from the first line and we can do this with the fullbacks inside or open, or with the pivot very deep (Salida Lavolpiana) and so on. Sometimes the adaptation is made by the players because they manage to read the situation during the game. When this happens, it is immensely satisfying. I must also add that we put a lot of focus on pressing and recovering possession. In which area we want the other team to play, which opposing players we want to have the ball and how we press will depend on the context. This is not necessarily the right approach for other teams but for us it has become the most effective way to get results.

AJ: Is positional play possible to employ at every level and at every age group? Why? Or: Why not?

KB: A full scale positional play that employs all the concepts is probably difficult to master even at the highest competitive level. There are so many elements that need to be mastered by the whole team to become really good. I do believe, however, that some of these elements can be helpful at any level. That is really what we have been doing: We started with some elements from positional play and now we try to work on them and see how far we can go.

It is probably a bit unhealthy to expect your team to use every element at U14 level, but I can’t think of any negative aspects with using some principles for trying to keep the ball and progress.

I often hear Norwegian coaches both at amateur and professional levels say that there is no practical use in trying to learn from the best teams, like Barcelona, because “they have so much better technique” or “we will never be that good anyway”. I think this is completely beside the point. Busquets is the best in the world at turning with the ball because he acts in the simplest and most economical way. To imitate him will simplify the actions, not complicate them. Guardiola’s Barcelona gave some of the purest and simplest demonstrations of the concepts of positional play ever witnessed and they did it all the time. To study them is much easier than trying to learn from inconsistent teams with more flaws.

AJ: Some people are putting negative labels on this kind of football. They’re calling it slow, long-winded, risky (and therefore stupid) or arrogant, to name a few. This is also quite common among pundits and coaches. To “think you’re Barcelona” can be heard said in a clearly negative way. How do you respond these “accusations”? How do you defend and argue for “your” type of football?

KB: I have never felt the need to defend this playing style and very rarely had the urge to criticize other approaches. As a coach without a big external pressure in terms of results it has been easy to choose the approach I think is the most developing and will bring the most joy for the players in the long run. Of course, I often hear talk about those labels you are referring to whenever I watch a football match without muting the sound. Statements like “they should get the ball more quickly forward” or “they should make more crosses” are based on the premise that it is more important where the ball is than who is in possession of it. This line of reasoning probably contributed to the remarkable success of the Norwegian national team in the 90s. This is more in line with the philosophy of Drillo than with Cruyff, and I don’t get to decide who was the most right of them.

Growing up in the 90s you could sometimes read statements like “Brazil would have been better with me as their” or “I would have won the Champions League with Barcelona”. The rationale was probably that a combination of players of high individual quality and what was perceived as an effective, direct style of playing would lead to great success. I have never understood how you can entirely separate the way you play and the skills you develop. You will usually improve at what you practice. I agree with those who argue that everyone should have the freedom to choose their approach according to the situation. But honestly, if you only master one approach, it is not really a choice.

AJ: You’ve recently become quite well-known for your football videos on Twitter. Many of them being analysis of Rosenborg. Are Rosenborg playing positional play? If not, how could they eventually become better by employing positional play?

KB: No. Rosenborg have other strengths. They are physically superior in the Norwegian league. They have the best goalkeeper in the league and many attacking players who can decide a match. Their pass maps often show a very distinct U-shape, of the kind that for example Guardiola strives to avoid. Rosenborg have their own style of play and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to suggest any improvements.

(Note: Rosenborg have sacked their coach after this interview was originally done and have started to employ some principles of positional play under their new coach)

“I’m rather more interested in the word “tempo” like they use it in chess. For example, when you force the opponent to move in a particular way as a response to your threats or in terms of acting efficiently with the ball.” – Kai Bardal

AJ: Being an experienced futsal coach, you obviously know a lot about that sport as well. Are there any clear relations between positional play and futsal that you’d like to point out?

KB: Most certainly! In futsal there is a big goalkeeper in a small goal, so you have to create clear chances to score. There is also a rule that limits backpasses to the goalkeeper, which means you are constantly forced to create support and safe passing options just to keep the ball. Only hitting long balls is useless at a competitive level. Consequently, you are always moving and constantly adjusting your body orientation in order to get as much information and as many options as possible. You are searching for superiorities just as you do in football but in even smaller spaces. Pep Guardiola has said that “futsal is the basis for football”. While he was at Barca he used to meet with the club’s futsal coach to exchange ideas.

Body orientation and visual command of the playing area is incredibly important. In almost every attack you can observe how the body orientation of the attacker as he receives the ball moves the other team. For example, if the winger receives the ball and can see the goal then the defence will automatically become more closed. Futsal players are constantly trying to read the opponent’s body language for cues and pressing triggers. They smell blood and sloppy footwork is like slitting your wrist.

You can sometimes see this in football too, but mostly in the best of the best players. They are so good at adjusting their body orientation that they can use it to deceive the opponent, for example by opening their body very late before the take the first touch and turn with the ball. In this manner they can use one touch to draw the next defensive line closer and then one touch to break it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Busquets grew up playing futsal, because futsal players do this all the time.

Proximity is perhaps the most important aspect. Since it is normal to have the ball close to your own goal, with the defender being at most 2 or 3 meters away from you, the fundamentals probably become even more important than they are in football. In some of our international matches we have tried to press the other team full pitch, just to find out that they barely need 50 centimetres to receive the ball and switch the play. Even when you get so close to your opponent that it is impossible for him to receive with his furthest foot, a professional futsal player can receive with his nearest foot, fake a pass and play to the other side without changing the foot he is standing on. That’s when you realize you’re in for a tough one.

AJ: How have you learned everything you’ve gotten to know up till now? Have you had any role models or mentors that you would like to point out? The former RBK-coach Bjørn Hansen* has been involved in Kvik, hasn’t he?

KB: It is important for me to emphasize that I feel like I still know very little. I hope to become a decent coach sometime in the future. I have certainly had some good role models. To be Sergio Gargelli’s assistant in the Norwegian national team of futsal has been very enriching. I also appreciate immensely that other coaches at world class level have taken their time to answer questions from a Norwegian amateur.

To coach a team along with Bjørn strengthened my suspicion that the best coaches work a lot on forming good habits and sound fundamentals in their players. To teach football at a high level does not necessarily mean to add complexity. In addition, I really look up to him as person. His love of the game, his passion for teaching football and his curiosity for good ideas from other sports have been very inspiring. He was at Kvik game as late as last weekend, and kind words from him means a lot for both Simon (Evjen) and me.

AJ: What and whom are your sources for further learning now, then?

KB: Sergio Gargelli is a natural mentor for me right now. One of the things I really appreciate about him is how much he demands from his work. With the futsal national team we record every second of activity and use video both as a pedagogical tool and as a tool for evaluating both the players and our own performance. It is easy to find mistakes but to correct them you must understand why something occurs. It is not merely enough to observe that two players move into the same space, for instance. You must teach them how to move so that they can see each other and make informed decisions.

A big thanks to Kai Bardal for partaking in this interview (twice, one could say). If you want to see more of his analysis – which we recommend you to – you can visit his Youtube-channel here, or his (new) Twitter-account. He’s worth a follow!

*Bjørn Hansen, the ex-Rosenborg coach mentioned in the interview, sadly passed away the 25th of April 2018. He achieved many great things during his career, and is considered a coaching legend here in Norway.

For those who want to learn more about positional play, the writer of this article will especially recommend these sources:

First, I will recommend two sources which is elaborating on the topic of different types of football. This article from Jamie Hamilton about what one should consider “good” football is a good one: https://thesefootballtimes.co/2016/05/01/what-is-good-football-the-role-of-aesthetics-in-the-modern-game/

Then I would also recommend reading Jonathan Wilsons book called “Inverting the pyramid”. It goes into detail about how football philosophy, playing styles and formations have developed throughout the years.

And, to learn more about positional play specifically, one could start with the books named “Pep confidential” and “The evolution”, written by Marti Perarnau. They’re both about Pep Guardiola and his coaching methods.

Rinus Michels’ “Teambuilding” and “My turn”, Johan Cruyffs’ autobiography, are also good ones to start with.

The book Kai Bardal ordered back in 2007, which is mentioned in the article, is named “The Coaching philosophies of Louis Van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches”, and is written by Henry Komelink and Tjeu Seeverens.

Rene Maric (whom now is the assistant coach of RB Salzburg) og Adin Osmanbasic, writers for the German based website spielverlagerung.com (which I would recommend in general), have both written detailed descriptions of positional play. They can be read here:

http://spielverlagerung.com/2014/11/26/juego-de-posicion-a-short-explanation/

http://spielverlagerung.com/2014/12/25/juego-de-posicion-under-pep-guardiola/

 

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