Pressing Concerns: Is the Fashionable Tactic successful?

Applause can be expected from a football crowd following any one of a variety of actions. A defender shepherding a ball out of play is bound to induce an earnest clap. Nodding the ball back to your own goalkeeper never fails to bring a smattering of applause. Simple switches of play, when a professional footballer plays a 40 yard pass under no pressure, provokes every crowd to demonstrate their approval. An expectant roar when a corner is won is a piece of crowd behaviour unique to England. Another piece of play that has the same effect is closing down or pressing.

The tactic of pressing has been much discussed in the last few weeks following Manchester United’s disastrous attempt to adopt the tactic in their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, the arrival of Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool and their first half display at Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal’s rope-a-dope defensive display throughout much of their midweek victory over Bayern Munich saw the topic arise once again. A large section of Monday Night Football was dedicated to analysing how Liverpool incorporated the tactics of pressing and counter pressing at White Hart Lane.

The average football fan is inclined to favour pressing as a tactic. Firstly, it shows endeavour and a positive intent. It is the way most fans would play if they got the chance to pull their team’s shirt on; running around for as long as they could in an effort to show they care and to try and make a difference. Take a stroll to your local playing fields this Sunday and you will see that most amateur games take on this pattern (at least in the early stages until the lack of fitness begins to show). It is a tactic that works well in amateur football because most players don’t respond well to being closed down and either give the ball away or kick it long; perhaps conceding a throw in or finding one of the opposition’s defenders and thus conceding possession. It doesn’t make for very good viewing, as the game tends to be condensed into a shorter and shorter space.

In the upper echelons of the professional game, the tactic is altogether more risky because the opposition have the technical quality to play around the press with one or two touch play. The opponent is then straight at your back four, who in a pressing team are typically playing a higher line to maintain the distance between them and their midfield.

Most teams are content to let opponent’s back four have the ball, and instead focus on limiting the space ‘between the lines’ in their own half. However, some teams do try and press from the front. Manchester United’s display at Arsenal recently was a good example of how the tactic can go wrong. United tried to press Arsenal’s midfield man to man: Wayne Rooney on Francis Coquelin, Bastian Schweinsteiger pushed high on Santi Cazorla and Michael Carrick nominally tasked with chaperoning Mesut Özil.

Two problems emerged. Firstly, Arsenal were nay on perfect technically and barely put a pass out of place despite the pressure applied to them. Secondly, United failed to cut off Arsenal’s ‘outball’ to one of their fullbacks, usually Hector Bellerin. Memphis Depay did not attach himself to Bellerin nor did Ashley Young, at left back, press onto him because he was otherwise occupied with Theo Walcott. With Bellerin offering good width, Aaron Ramsey was allowed to drift inside to join Mesut Özil and overrun Michael Carrick and United as a whole.

Many after the game claimed that pressing Arsenal, who have the technical quality to keep the ball under pressure and the pace up front to get in behind, was a suicidal tactic. Easy to say after a 3-0 scoreline. However Bayern Munich, even in defeat, showed that the tactic could be very effective. They pressed Arsenal and forced them into handing over possession on numerous occasions which was the basis of Bayern’s domination of the ball.

Bayern’s fullbacks, Philip Lahm and Juan Bernat, pushed high and wide and prevented the ‘outball’ that Arsenal had against United. Robert Lewandowski dropped in to assist Bayern’s three man midfield and Arsenal were stifled for long periods. Arsenal did get out on a few occasions in the first half, and when they did they created chances, but they were suffocated in the second period. A lot of solid defending, some good goalkeeping from Petr Cech and a set piece goal earned Arsenal the win. This should not detract however, from the fact that Bayern’s pressing worked well for most of the game. Arsenal by contrast, tactically acknowledged Bayern’s superiority by sitting off and trying to block lines of pass with bodies behind the ball. Many fans inside the Emirates were shouting at Arsenal players to close down, but the players recognized that Bayern would pick them off if they abandoned their post and broke the team’s defensive shape.

Pressing brings the possibility of winning the ball back in the opponent’s defensive third, and thus can lead to goalscoring chances. This is the aspect of Liverpool’s game that Jürgen Klopp will be keen to improve upon. Though they pressurised Spurs competently, they lacked quality and penetration when they won the ball back. Klopp will be hoping that Daniel Sturridge and Christian Benteke will provide such qualities when they return.

Barcelona and Spain between 2008 and 2012 are the two teams of the modern era to perfect the pressing game and their success was a catalyst for others to try and replicate their style. One reason it was so effective was that opponents were forced to defend extremely deep to give themselves insurance against their quick combination play in the last third and the pace in behind from the likes of Pedro and David Villa. Due to opponents being so deep, a high press could pin them back because they had so much ground to cover in order to ‘get out’.

However, with the exception of Divock Origi, the Liverpool team that started at Spurs was bereft of pace. Philip Coutinho, Adam Lallana and James Milner are very tidy, technically secure players but none of them have the pace to trouble the last line of defence. The same could be said of Roberto Firmino who is due to return. Klopp’s Dortmund side contained the likes of Marco Reus, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski and later Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. One would imagine that direct, mobile forwards who can play in wide areas will be on Klopp’s shopping list over the next few transfer windows.

As Gary Neville rightly pointed out, no team that has won the Premier League has consistently pressed high throughout a season. Many believe this tactic to be unsustainable due to the number of games in an English season and the intensity of those games. Ferguson’s United, Mourinho’s Chelsea and Wenger’s best Arsenal teams all sought to control the space available in their own half by pressing only once the opposition advanced past the halfway line. This conservative defensive strategy was encouraged by the fact that they all possessed players who were devastating on the counter attack: Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Marc Overmars and Thierry Henry to name a few. Manchester City’s recent title winning teams played a slightly higher line to those teams, but never had a cohesive or effective system of pressing as their tribulations in Europe attest to.

The coming months will show whether such a theory has any substance, as Jürgen Klopp attempts to implement a system of relentless pressing at Liverpool. Intuitively, it is an attractive tactic because it pressurises the opposition when they are on the ball. However, the fact that relatively few teams adopt such a system is testament to the difficulties it brings. Done poorly it can leave you badly exposed defensively, it is extremely demanding to maintain physically and is actually far harder to coach and co-ordinate than keeping two banks of four in good shape. Liverpool fans might only see the benefit after a full pre-season.

Featured image taken by ayrtondiazarias.

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