Updated: Nov 9, 2021
There is no doubt that, at the highest levels of today's game, your defensive system has to be just as flexible as your attacking system. There are teams today with so much variety in their shapes during the build that they can ask you multiple questions defensively in the early stages of a game. Even when your team is having success with their pressing in a game, it's likely that the opponents will make a change that you will have to adapt to.
Below is a clip from Bayern last season that, for me, shows an example of how committed and adaptable teams must be to the press. You can see the Bayern players constantly changing their positioning in relation to the ball inside the structure of a 4-2-3-1 and comfortable they seem to be in the picture changing. Even when the press is 'beaten' they maintain a shape and commit to principles. Pressing passages usually last 10-15 seconds, but the fact that this lasts 56 seconds and results in winning the ball and transitioning towards the opponents goal is really impressive.
I have created some tactical breakdown videos from previous MSC Pressing webinars that look at the different ways in which pressing systems can be flexible within set structures. If you want to read more about pressing, please check out Modern Soccer Coach: Pressing book which is now available on Kindle.
The first video below is the different variations that you can use in a 4-4-2. Although it is sometimes labelled as an old-fashioned system, it can be extremely effective in both applying pressure to center backs, and shaping the ball to one side in order to trap the opponent. During the video I discuss these strengths and changes below.
The next video is probably the most popular system associated with pressing, which is from a 4-3-3 organization. Having that extra player in a forward position who can now apply aggressive pressure to full-backs invites your opponent to bring a midfielder into a lower position, which then removes potential attacking overloads and invites more pressure. During the video I discuss these strengths and changes below.
The final variations that I reviewed was defending and pressing with a back three system. With the additional numbers higher up the pitch, it gives you huge amounts of freedom in terms of variations and can be extremely difficult to play against. Of course, this can be offset by a direct team who can look to take advantage of numerical overloads against three defenders. During the video I discuss these strengths, along with some changes below.
How do you coach this? How do you create flexible thinkers out of possession who can solve problems together? It's not as easy as shouting out the solutions to the players or waiting for half-time to provide them with the answers. The game moves way too fast for that. In my opinion, the process of versatile pressing begins with high levels of planning around session design and being deliberate in how coaches present challenges to our players. It's working with principles rather than formations. Therefore, instead of providing players with one problem in an exercise, we can look to challenge them with a different picture more often. In the exercise below, it starts off with an 8v4 situation where the four blue defenders go to press and the red team must play out and find the #10 through one of the higher gates. The coach can change the numbers in the defensive group and even give them some guidance on how they would like to press. This would challenge the possession team to read the situation and solve it in real-time. Designing exercises like this and constantly changing the picture can expose the players to solving problems in real time, which ultimately should drive awareness and communication.
Another session idea would be to try and create a picture similar to the Bayern clips where you are trying to coach/communicate your principles within the structure. It could be to change the picture of a traditional 11v11 game and look to incentivize different actions in specific areas. An example of this would be below where the pitch is a hexagon shape, with mini-goals in the outsides. The scoring system is 2 points for a goal in the main goal and 1 point for any mini-goal. This, along with the shape of the field, should look to create more aggression from the wide players in their press and bring a higher success rate. Within games like this, coaches can change shapes and still maintain certain principles. In addition to work like this on the training pitch, revisiting the exercise with the players using video analysis can strengthen the connection between theory and practice of the game model, as well as allowing the players a platform to question and discuss the work. This should help gauge understanding for the coach and increase engagement and buy-in with the game model as a team.
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