This article was written by Gary Curneen. If you enjoy the article below, the Modern Soccer Coach: Pressing and Modern Soccer Coach: Coaching Your 4-3-3 are now available on Kindle and have tons of these types of exercises and tactical theory.
Facing an aggressive press is the ultimate test for the quality of your team's build-up and possession game, and preparing players to solve problems by looking to recreate and replicate them on the training pitch can be equally as challenging. Although certain defensive systems can trigger different scenarios, I am not a believer in passing patterns to beat a press, primarily because pressing itself is about intensity and distances, and it is difficult to communicate this by simply avoiding mannequins. For example, sometimes pressing with too much aggression is a perfect solution for a defender to beat it on the dribble. There are so many dynamics that change from player to player and also situations, that you cannot have a clear map to solve every problem presented by your opponents.
This clip below from Inter Milan versus Barcelona from a couple of seasons ago, epitomizes to me what breaking an aggressive press at the highest level is all about. This was not a routine that Inter Milan drew up and perfected on the practice pitch, given the risk and the chaos attached to some of the situations. However, there are three things present for me that I think we can learn from. Firstly, the bravery in trying to play with Barca forwards poised to press on the edge of the 18-yard box. The initial picture does not deter the goalkeeper and defenders from starting their build. Secondly, Inter initially play into pressure in order to move the Barca press across and open up the space on the weak side. Thirdly, and most importantly for me is the variety in passes (types and length) to beat the press shows how adaptable you have to be as a team to take advantages of different spaces and options that become available (including headed passes!). With the speed and quality of all three of the above, it is very difficult to pre-prescribe those types of solutions through patterns.
Below are five exercises that can help expose teams to these types of scenarios and prepare them with solutions could be available to solve pressure.
In the exercise below, the build out team (in red) are organized into two groups of five players (a back four and a holding midfielder) who occupy each end zone, and then an attacking midfielder (#8) in the middle). Four defensive players in blue work on each side. The objective is to use possession to break the pressure applied by the blue team to find the attacking midfielder and transfer the ball. I find that pass limits in pressing activities can become unrealistic, but I do prefer a three-pass minimum because I do want to paint the picture of pressure for each group in possession. Again, picture Inter Milan playing into the initial pressure in order to provoke and move it. The red team are awarded one point for each switch, while the blue team are awarded two points for each goal they score (using the mini-goals) in transition. Below is a video animation of the exercise.
Another session idea is this one below if you are looking to build with double pivot players (6 and 8) at the base of a midfield triangle. The red team are positioned with a goalkeeper, back four, and two deep lying midfielders, with an attacking midfielder (#10) located outside the penalty area. The defensive team in blue are split into two groups of five players. On the coaches signal, the ball starts with the goalkeeper and the red possession team must look to find the #10 through either of the two gates at the top of the box, for one point. If the defending team win possession, they can score in the main goal for two points. After 30 seconds, the blue team rotates with the others so that the pressing can be as aggressive as possible. Below is a video animation of the exercise.
With many pressing systems 'showing' possession teams into wide areas, this exercise is aimed at challenging teams to solve problems using only one side of the pitch. Half of the pitch is split vertically with the possession team in red, organized into a goalkeeper and five outfield players, positioned in their roles within the system. Four defensive players are looking to prevent the red team from building in a 6v4 and passing into either mini-goal at the halfway line. If the defensive team win possession, they can counter on the main goal. Teams take turns on working on the right and left sides. A coach can modify that shape of the defensive team to suit an upcoming opponent, or just to keep the possession team reading the shape and pressure. Below is a video animation of the exercise.
If the wide channels are not available, or if the opposition are looking to provoke a central trap, it maybe a good idea to expose your players to this type of activity below from Manchester United to help them solve problems and become comfortable in breaking pressure. Again, the objective is to work the ball from the goalkeeper into a higher midfield player, where they can score in either mini-goal. The unique part of this exercise is that, although the goalkeeper can provide an overload behind the ball, everyone else is numbers even in a 5v5 situation. Without a natural overload, it really challenges the possession team to try and solve pressure using positioning, combination play, or individual skill. The example from Manchester United in the video below shows the quality that an exercise like this can bring out of a high-level team.
A final and simple idea would be to expose your players to a 11v11 game played in a condensed pitch. The example below shows that the space vertically is restricted, but teams in possession can utilize the entire width of the pitch to try and break pressure or move the opposition. In these types of situations, the coach can use the vertical lines (yellow) as reference points or conditions of the game. For example, teams can score two points for a goal, but also score one point if they manage to circulate possession in all three vertical zones. This encourages them to problem solve in the exercise, rather as simply seeing the main goal as the only objective of the game. Below is a video animation of the exercise.
This article was written by Gary Curneen. If you enjoy the article, the Modern Soccer Coach: Pressing and Modern Soccer Coach: Coaching Your 4-3-3 are now available on Kindle and have tons of exercises and tactical theory
If you are a coach who is looking for tactical analysis software, I highly recommend KeyFrame. They are one of the most efficient, effective and affordable solutions for coaches looking to build graphics and animations alongside their analysis work and are perfect for player meetings and remote learning. You can find out more about them here.