Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Like a lot of coaches over the past week, I recently watched and was fascinated by the Pepijn Lijnders interview on Coaches Voice, where he discussed the pressing philosophy of Liverpool and gave some unique insights into their success. Although Lijnders constantly stressed chasing and mentality throughout the presentation, there is no doubt that successful pressing in the modern game is about more than running. At the highest level, we are seeing the same levels of flexibility and decision making on the defensive side of the game that are involved in the possession-based systems. In this article I wanted to pinpoint three specific areas that I feel have the ability to ‘break a great press’ in today’s game, specifically looking at three positions: forwards, midfielders and defensive lines.
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Below are three things that I would advise coaches get right when they are training and implementing a pressing system.
1. The Approach
With words like ‘aggression’ and ‘intensity’ being synonymous with pressing, it’s quite common for coaches to prioritize speed in the initial phase of pressing. I think that’s quite natural in coaching and is definitely the first step in the press because, ultimately, it’s all about distances and you cannot be successful without that ability to establish initial pressure as soon as possible. Once you do that however, it’s then about getting the details right. Let's not forget that, at the highest levels of the game today, you are also dealing with opponents who have a technical skillset that can break presses and open up the pitch. Lijnders explained in his interview that the Liverpool front three are responsible to defend sometimes five or seven players in the opposition.Therefore, these aggressive front players cannot get easily beaten in 1v1 situations. In order to accomplish this, pressing players must get the balance right between getting to the ball quickly and applying pressure, and get the approach right so that their momentum does not take them past the opponent. Below is a clip from Enoch Mushagalusa at Lou City where he goes to press, but just before he makes a tackle, he slows down slightly on arrival. This slight ‘stutter step’ often gets overlooked because it can be confused with stopping or backing off, but it just allows him to adjust his speed and win the 1v1 challenge.
2. Stop the Switch
Once a team is organized and commits to their press, it’s quite natural that you are giving up an area of the pitch, which is typically on the weak side. Preventing your opponent from accessing the ‘weak side’ allows you to create and maintain compressed areas that teams can struggle to play out of, increasing your chances of winning possession. Pepijn Lijnders said in that Coaches Voice interview, “When you divide the three pressing zones, our precedence is clear - compactness. A lot of time in training we will train in our pressing zone with a game, 11v11 or 10v10 in that zone where there has to be constant pressure applied.” Keeping that compactness is therefore a huge priority. Allowing your opponent accesses the ‘weak side’ early in the press may not be a disaster as you typically have two or three lines of defensive pressure underneath to protect your goal, as well as ton of space to manage. However, if the ‘weak side’ is accessed from beyond your midfield line, you could be facing an overload or 1v1 situations, closer to your goal. Therefore, the role of midfield players and units to prevent switches is paramount to pressing success in my opinion. Below you can see an example from the Australian A-League where Western Sydney establish an initial 4-3-3 press with the opponents opting to go around it. Then, just as Perth are coming back inside the find the free player on the ‘weak side’, the Western Sydney midfielder gets their body shape exactly right to prevent the switch, win the ball, and set up an opportunity in transition.
3. Manage the Defensive Line
Even the best pressing systems in the world are beaten from time to time, and at the highest levels, it’s only natural for opponents to break pressure occasionally and threaten defensive lines. Therefore, it’s really important that teams have a strategy if the initial press is broken. Personally I’m not a big fan of Game Models that have an ‘either-or’ option with their pressing, which basically looks at winning the ball high or else protecting their own goal. But I don’t think it should just be a ‘press or drop’ scenario. I think defensive lines that can manage those types of situations put themselves at a huge advantage not only because they prevent shots, but also because they give their midfield and forward players a chance to recover into a position and press again. Below is a great example of this from Philadelphia Union in MLS Next Pro. Once the press is broken, the video is paused with the back three on the defensive line. Although they drop slightly, they do so in a calculated way and with a specific body shape, which limits the space for the midfielder to attack. This limits the player in possession’s options and allows the midfielders to recover and win the ball.
Whether it's a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 press of any other alternatives, the initial structure or formation is only the beginning. When I watch the top teams today press successfully, it's the detail and versatility from every positional unit that stands out to me. It's the midfielders that have their distances right, it's defensive lines that can manage space rather than simply concede it. Once you get those specifics right, attackers have much more work to do when they are trying to expose pressing systems.... which ultimately gives the pressing team an opportunity to stay in control of the game. Pepijn Lijnders was pretty clear that pressing is a mentality, but I think it's getting that combination between intensity and intelligence right. And the fact that he casually dropped in that it took them four years to get to that level, tells you the level of work required to master it.
This free article was written by Gary Curneen. If you would like to read more about pressing, please check out the book, Modern Soccer Coach: Pressing which has more on philosophies, systems, and training ideas. Click here to get your copy and use the code MSCPRESSING for a 25% OFF discount, which is open for 48 hours.