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Relationism: A Real Madrid and Bellingham take

Delving into the buzz surrounding relationism and how it reflects itself in Los Blancos football.

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Real Madrid CF v Getafe CF - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Tactical Fouling shared an insightful take on the new rage of the football tactics underworld. The post delved into positionism (considered the mainstream space oriented ‘mechanic’ model in existence today) and relationism (associative culturally driven ‘organic’ football) while using the notion of fractals to connect the ideas.

This perspective provides philosophical lessons beyond football. Effective leaders blend order and chaos by integrating logically structured and big-picture mindsets. Agriculturists optimize yields by harmonizing top-down engineering and bottom-up ecology. Musicians from Bach to Mozart combined structure and spontaneity to produce transcendent compositions. Like them, the most successful football clubs realize that order without chaos breeds rigidity, while chaos without order invites anarchy. The sweet spot always lies in fusing both.

- Tactical Fouling

But what is relationism?

One of the most prominent proponents of relationism, Jamie Hamilton, often writes about relationism using positionism as a reference point. Positionism is founded on the idea of space being a controllable element and forming one of four key variables along with teammates, opponents and the ball that can be tactically engineered to create superiority.

So, Relationism differs from Positionism in its fundamental understanding of how reality emerges. Positionism holds that all possible future states can be derived from our understanding of fixed concepts, from well-established and agreed-upon facts about the nature of our reality. As we have seen, this manifested itself in football perhaps most explicitly through Sacchi’s configuration of finite space as a primary reference for the interactions of his players.

- Jamie Hamilton, The Positionist

It’s the interpretation of space that appears to draw the distinction between the two philosophies - with positionism holding that space is flat and static and relationism suggesting that space is dynamic and evolving (embracing chaos - throwing a dice so to speak). On one side, space is systemized, industrialized and rational and on the other hand space is intimate, organic and emergent. Jamie Hamilton also provides a more thorough breakdown of some of the key tenets of a relationist approach including toco y me voy (‘pass and move’), tilting (crowding one side of the field) and Escadinas (‘ladders’) for example. The latter refers to creating diagonal vertical progressive alignment / structures on the field.

One of the more interesting thoughts emerging from this dialogue is the take on the nature versus nurture relationship of tactics. Jamie argues that total football (a famous positionist variant) stems from the cultural emanations of dutch architecture which favoured decentralized order — i.e. maintaining the harmony / system above everything. This bled into the conceptualization of total football and the question is whether the failure to replicate its success may be due to other teams not having similar environment material conditions / context. The only way to ascend on the pitch would be to tap into the authentic roots, surroundings and identity of the football team and channel that into tactics (almost bottom up vs top down) - Brazilian and Argentinean football used as case studies for more relationist styles.

The growing relationism fever

There has been more buzz around relationism lately first spurred by Argentina’s triump at the World Cup which some saw as a return to La Nuestra. The other major player in this movement is Fernando Diniz, coach of Fluminese and temporary caretaker manager of the Brazil national team. Fluminese, where Real Madrid legend Marcelo currently plies his trade, had a successful year culminating in the Copa Libertadores — the holy grail of South American club football.

[Pep Guardiola’s] way of having the ball is almost the opposite of mine. His is what people call a positional game. The players stick to a determined space and [wait] until the ball arrives there. The way I see football at the moment is almost ‘apositional’. The players are able to migrate, changing positions. The pitch opens up and the game is freer. In certain sectors of the pitch, we come together. So one type of system is more fixed in terms of positions and the other is more free.”

- Fernando Diniz

Another team that is making noise with this philosophy is Malmö in Sweden that recently lifted the 2023 Allsvenskan trophy. The architect of their success is Henrik Rydström, a former player himself, who transformed the club from a 7th place finish in 2022 to champions this year on the back of a new relationist style.

Our structure in possession is just more fluid, more flexible, more liquid in order to not limit creativity. The objective is that at the end, the opposition doesn’t know what to expect, that they are confused and suffocated by the great density that we impose.

- Henrik Rydström (translated by author)

Other European outfits that have been observed to follow relationist principles include Erik ten Hag’s Ajax, Napoli (under Maurizo Sarri and Luciano Spaletti), the Roger Schmidt managed Benfica and our very own Ancelotti styled Real Madrid.

Los Blancos, relationism and Jude Bellingham

Over the years, there has always been talk about Real Madrid’s intense left side dominance pronounced by the paradigm shifting talent and influence of monstrous players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Ramos, Benzema, Marcelo, Kroos, Vinicius and Isco.

Real Madrid and relationism

The Santiago Bernabeu pitch has always seemed to tilt on its left side and this dynamic is a significant emblem of the club’s tactical identity — which can be traced back to its relationist (or role-driven) roots. In the club’s illustrious history, this left field clustering or tilting was headlined by footballing savants including Puskás, Gento, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Butragueño and perhaps most importantly Di Stéfano.

Di Stéfano embodied Real Madrid’s role-driven football: it was impossible to assign him a position. He wasn’t a defensive midfielder, a midfielder, an attacking midfielder, a forward, a winger or a striker, but everything at the same time. The Hispanic-Argentinean could speed up the game through the wing or attack the box as a goalscoring striker, but he could also receive the ball in a deeper position and set up the team’s midfield.

- Clarissa Barcala, Así gana el Madrid: the tactical identity of the greatest club in the world

Here comes Jude Bellingham

Reading the above description of di Stéfano, it’s so easy to draw a comparison to arguably the biggest sensation in world football today, Jude Bellingam. It would be lazy to suggest the young Birmingham grown multi-disciplinary polymath is a reincarnation of la saeta rubia - the Argentine from all accounts was one of the most techinically gifted and phsyically dominant footballers of all time.

However, the parallel of the oscillating and associative nature of Bellingham’s role and style is undeniable. More than any goal he has scored, any long bursting defensive challenge, any pass he has played - it has been the integration, interaction and adaptation of the England international that have stood out the most.

Sporting Braga v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S.Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The mistakes that the new generation of coaches make is that they give too much information to the players about the game in possession. I’m old school and I think this takes a bit of creativity away. It’s one thing to tell them the position without the ball, where you have to work hard and play as a team, but in possession, if they’re comfortable when they come a bit wider, I’m not going to tell them to go inside. It’s an individual interpretation of the game with the ball and I don’t want to take away each player’s creativity.

- Carlo Ancelotti

Ancelotti’s view seems to mirror, at least partially, the notions (e.g. phased spaces) proposed by one of the more renowned positionist theorists, Paco Seirul.lo — again highlighting the nuance and grey area between the differing philosophies.

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