Hiko Seijuro has a look at the strategic importance of press-resistant players, especially with the rise in popularity of the high press
With the rise in popularity and success of high pressing teams like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City sides, Jurgen Klopp’s Borrussia Dortmund and Liverpool teams and the recent successes of RB Leipzig in Germany, teams are now constantly facing opponents that seek to make it as difficult as possible to create chances by putting them under intense pressure all over the pitch. This has led to the rise in importance and popularity of a particular breed of players: press resistant players.
Naturally in football, when one team is attacking, the other team is defending and at its most basic level, attacking is simply the art of evading pressure to create the conditions necessary to score a goal while defending is the art of applying pressure to either prevent a goal or regain possession of the ball. In this regard, press resistance is invaluable to an attacking team because without it, they would be unable to overcome the opposition defensive pressure and score.
Simply put, press resistance is the ability to maintain possession of the ball despite coming under pressure from the opposition.
Basically, there are two kinds of press resistance: (a) collective press resistance and (b) Individual press resistance. Collective press resistance is usually dependent on the team’s structure when in possession which makes it difficult for the opposition to press effectively.
However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on the latter kind of press resistance and the importance of such players to their teams.
Qualities of Press-Resistant Players
In football, there are several different kinds of players, even among those that play in the same position. In the same way there are several different qualities that might make a player press resistant some of which include excellent close control, dribbling in tight spaces, in fact, even being physically imposing like Ibrahimovic or Lukaku can serve as a characteristic that makes a player press resistant. This is because long balls which are usually used to escape pressure can also be used to attract pressure. This is due to the nature of the long ball which takes a longer time to reach its target and therefore invites the opposition to pressure the receiver. However, if the player is able to hold on to the ball, then he can lay if off to an oncoming player who would be relatively free from opposition pressure as this quote by Pep Guardiola shows:
“He knows what he’s doing, both with the head and feet. One of his best virtues is his link-up play. He knows he isn’t just there for crosses into the box, he knows how to keep the play flowing. He gets the ball 1,000 times in the air and always keeps it. It seems simple but few strikers can and know how to do it. There are strikers who don’t link up with others, and there are strikers that think their game is different to others, but then you’ll have a stretched team. England has Crouch.” – Pep Guardiola on Peter Crouch
However, the one quality inherent in all truly press resistant players (apart from technical excellence of course) is awareness. An awareness of their surroundings at all times that enables them to make the best possible decisions for their teams whether it be passing to a more open team mate or dribbling out of pressure.
The Strategic Importance Of Press-Resistant Players
As earlier stated, the goal of any attacking team is to overcome the opposition’s defensive pressure to score therefore it is in regard to a team’s attacking play that press resistant players are most important.
This is especially true to teams that seek to build their play from the back instead of simply launching it into the opposition half. They need press resistant players in order to cleanly bypass the opposition’s pressure.
“Playing better is not about reaching the opponent’s goal faster, it is arriving there with better conditions” – Xabi Alonso
In order to arrive at the opposition’s goal with better conditions as Alonso says, it is expedient to break through the opposition’s press cleanly and that is where players like Sergio Busquests, Jorginho and Mousa Dembele are so important for their teams – in the first phase of build up. This is because this is the most dangerous stage in the build up due to the fact that any turn over in possession will most likely prove to be fatal.
The sequence below shows this at work in Barcelona’s game against Athletic Club Bilbao in the 2015/2016 season.
In the first image, we see Busquets receiving the ball from Ter Stergen as he is pressed from behind by the Bilbao player. See how precarious the situation is as all immediate passing lanes are covered by Bilbao’s man oriented press. If he loses the ball here then Barcelona would be in serious trouble as they lack the numbers to defend against an attack starting so close to their own box.
In the second image we see that due to the individual press resistance of Busquests, Barcelona have broken the Bilbao high press. See the amount of space Rakitic now has to run into after receiving from Busquests. From a potentially dangerous turnover of possession in their own half, Barcelona now have a 6 vs 6 situation in their favour (Dani Alves will move forward on the right to join the attack).
Alves joins the attack on the flank, Pedro attacks on the other as we can see how much space Iniesta has if the ball was to be played to him. There’s also a 2v1 situation in the right-wide flank with Messi and Alves now isolating Balenziaga. All this due to a small yet important skill of Sergio Busquets.
Press resistant players really come into their own in the opposition half. When they operate so close to the opposition’s goal they rightly get the plaudits they deserve. Their ability to hold on the ball and encourage opposition players to abandon their defensive positions and come after them thereby unbalancing the opposition’s defensive structure usually proves to be invaluable. Players like Messi, Hazard and Neymar come to mind in this regard.
Here Messi receives the ball in front of the Bilbao defence and starts dribbling.
Notice how the entire Bilbao defence is focused on Messi and start coming towards him to put pressure on him.
See how Messi’s dribbling has unbalanced Bilbao’s defensive structure forcing the centre open for a midfield runner to exploit.
The last two images show Messi still holding onto the ball and he now has the full attention of all the Bilbao defenders, this allows Busquests to run into space unmarked and square for Pedro to score.
Due to the rise of counter-pressing as a tactic used by the elite teams in football, it is increasingly important for teams to have players that can weather the counter pressing storm that usually comes in the moments after the turnover of possession. Without such players, a team could find themselves pinned in their own half, unable to break out and construct attacks of any real quality with any regularity.
In conclusion, press resistant players have usually been the underrated geniuses behind the successes of their respective clubs and without them their teams wouldn’t function half as well. An increased understanding of their worth has seen their stock rise in the transfer market with Neymar becoming the world’s most expensive player and the astronomical sums being asked for players like Verratti and Coutinho. Now perhaps they will be considered for individual awards and will break the hegemony that out and out goal scorers have on such awards.
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