Patrick Mills writes about pressing being the way forward for the teams leading the Premier league race this season.
While ‘pressing’ as a principle of off-the-ball play is not a fresh concept to English football or its fans, it is an approach that is growing in popularity amongst clubs in the Premier League. As outlined by a recent piece on the Sky Sports website, the approach has proved almost invariably successful in the early stages of the season. The top four as of the 14th of October contained Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Liverpool, all of whom are currently advocates of a pressing style of play. Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp have, throughout their careers, been adamant that their teams defend aggressively from the front in order to dominate proceedings, while the final member of the top four, Arsene Wenger, has, during this campaign, also appeared keen to adopt aspects of the ‘Gegenpress’ in his tactical approach.
The tactic of pressing is borne from a number of principles. Normally, coaches who use the approach do so primarily on the basis that, as they see it, ‘attack is the best form of defence’. Pep Guardiola once said his motivation for having his teams press was because he gets nervous when the ball is near his goal, so he prefers to keep the play up the other end for as much of the game as possible. The idea of pressing from the front means that the team will frequently win the ball back high up the pitch, when the opponents are attempting to build an attack and are therefore vulnerable. If the team wins it back in this moment, it may take only one pass to score, which explains why Jurgen Klopp declared counterpressing ‘better than any playmaker’ on his recent Monday Night Football appearance.
The advantages of this approach are obvious. Pressing and harrying while off the ball ensures that the opposition will find it difficult to dictate possession and pass their way up the pitch. Instead, they’ll likely be forced to play a long ball or give the ball away in a dangerous position. Therefore, when done effectively, pressing should pen the opposition back in their own half and allow for complete domination of the game.
The major question for any team when not in possession lies with the concession of space. Many defence-orientated sides will choose to concede the space in front of them and attempt to stay narrow and compact. They allow the opposition to have the ball in deep areas but congest the central areas close to their goal. It does, however, invite the opposition on and more often than not, with tired legs and minds, gaps will begin to appear for the opponents to exploit. An alternative approach involves teams opting for a proactive, pressing style, generally conceding the space in behind their defence to force the opposition as far away from goal as possible. The main risk associated with this approach is that teams will try to exploit the space in behind by tasking their attacking players with runs through on goal. However, if done properly, the pressing should prevent penetrative passes being played in behind.
There are many different systems of pressing, as well as many components that ensure its success. While some teams will go all out to try and put their opponents under pressure from the front throughout the 90 minutes, this is almost impossible to sustain and players, no matter how enduring, will eventually tire. With this in mind, many coaches use triggers for when their team should press. Quite often, it will be as simple as if one player decides to press, the rest follow his lead. On other occasions, teams will pounce on the opposition in numbers as soon as the ball gets played backwards or sideways, when they are at their most vulnerable. A more cautious approach to pressing can involve staying compact and allowing players in the opponent’s defence to have the ball, then, once the ball gets played into the midfield, this acts as the trigger for players to start pressing. All of these methods ensure that players get moments of respite, and a chance to regain oxygen for the next press or attack.
Before Pep Guardiola implements a new tactical system or innovation, it has been said that he first figures out how he would play against this system. While pressing has been hugely effective so far this season, there are ways in which the approach can be combatted. Perhaps the most aggressive pressing side of the century, Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund side, were Guardiola’s most testing competition during his time as Bayern Munich manager. When Munich and Dortmund came up against each other, Klopp’s men always made it extremely difficult for Guardiola’s side to play their usual Juego de Posicion. The midfield zone of the pitch, where Guardiola aims to achieve total control of the game, a kind of central executive in his system, was crowded out by Klopp’s team, who pressed and hassled Munich’s men for the ball.
MUNICH, GERMANY – APRIL 28: Josep Guardiola, head coach of Bayern Muenche greets Juergen Klopp head coach of Dortmund at the start of the DFB Cup semi final match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Borussia Dortmund at Allianz Arena on April 28, 2015 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)
One way in which Guardiola sought to combat this was by using a target player and playing wall passes to ring-fencing midfielders. The player took up this role (often Javi Martinez) positioned himself slightly in front of the opponents’ last line of defence with his back to goal. Deep-lying players such as Jerome Boateng played long range passes into the target player, who would then lay it off to the team’s attacking players.
Another way in which sides have attempted to overcome the difficulties associated with facing high pressing teams again involves a variation of the long ball. Normally, when teams play a high press, their fullbacks push high up the pitch, and while the centre backs usually split to form a back three with the number six, there is still the opportunity to play long passes into the channels on either side of the three. Provided players from deep can engineer a split second of time on the ball to play long into the channels, this can prove an effective tool in bypassing the Gegenpress.
Although playing direct can overcome the defensive attributes of the press, it doesn’t completely eradicate the attacking side of the system. By frequently playing long, the opposition are still likely to dominate possession and keep most of the game in their attacking half. Therefore, as we have seen in the past from Athletic Bilbao in their attempts to outwit Barcelona’s total dominance approach, and more recently as Pochettino’s Tottenham ended Guardiola’s unbeaten start to life at Manchester City, perhaps the best way to beat a team that presses is to play them at their own game. Tottenham, who under Pochettino have themselves opted for the pressing approach, were aggressive and alert in their pressing against City rather than altering their play to suit their opponents.
LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 02: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City reacts next to Mauricio Pochettino, manager of Tottenham Hotspur during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City at White Hart Lane on October 2, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
The start of the season has shown how efficient a high pressing approach can be, but over the course of the campaign, we are sure to see teams combat the effects in a variety of ways. The early signs, however, suggest that should the likes of Guardiola and Klopp learn to adapt their system when necessary, pressing appears likely to prove the champion approach come May.
Patrick is a coach, writer and psychology student from Ireland.
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