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UNC Master The Pressing Basics Again

As the new college season kicks off recently, it's always interesting to watch UNC and their pressing style under Anson Dorrance. The ability to effectively implement a pressing system requires a number of conditions. Players must have a profound understanding of the system and what kind of movements they should make at what time. There is an enormous amount of teaching required as this particular philosophy is only as strong as the weakest link. It also takes a complete willingness from every single player and staff to develop and commit to the game plan. Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi also pointed to the decision making process as key when he said, “Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard. It’s about controlling space."

Without question, speed is a major component to pressing, but developing a high pressure defensive system at the elite level is much more complex than that alone. Jorge Valdano argues there are three types of speed in his book, ‘The Infinite Game’ which are impacted by personality, technical ability and intelligence levels.

- Speed by running – movement in a certain distance

- Speed by thinking – ability to make split second decisions

- Speed by technique – speed of play and precision of technique

Therefore, without the ability to make the correct decisions, execute defensive actions under pressure, and embrace the system, players with speed and aggression, are not guaranteed to be successful in a pressing game. The higher the level, the more intelligence is required from the pressing team and the greater the consequences are if they get it wrong. I believe that this aspect of pressing is overlooked by a lot of coaches and we tend to generalize our players as having great ‘game intelligence’ or lacking it. Instead, it is a complex awareness, focus, and identifying triggers – all of which can be coached. Before deciding to press, each player must make the following decisions:

- Which player do I leave in order to go and press?

- What angle do I approach from?

- What is the risk-reward of going to press?

- Where do I recover to after pressing?

Below is a great example of how UNC get the details right. As the goalkeeper receives the ball and takes a first touch to her right side, the left sided attacker, Emily Fox, begins to close the space on the right back. This causes the goalkeeper to hesitate and then enables the forward to make the tackle and take advantage of the situation. Without her teammate closing that angle, the forward would probably not have gotten the opportunity to make the tackle.

When you watch UNC, you can see a real consistency in how confident their players are in making those decisions, and how often they get them right. Below are some principles that I have outlined and detailed in my Modern Soccer Coach: Pressing book and that stand out to me when watching UNC play.

Starting Positions

“Don’t mark a player, cover the space between two players. The opponent thinks they are unmarked, making pressing easier.” – Pep Guardiola

Players must understand that positioning prior to the press can dictate whether they actually get an opportunity to implement it at all. Inviting the press is all about an appreciation of distances and the discipline to commit to without giving into the temptation of tight marking. While pushing numbers forward and marking opponents may give the impression of applying pressure high up the pitch, it actually discourages even the best possession teams from building their attack. Presented with this picture, the goalkeeper will likely opt for a long, lofted pass over the press and the attackers will have to recover in defensive positions as the 50-50 ball is contested in midfield. Below we can see that when the opposition goalkeeper has the ball, the two UNC forward have marked their direct opponents, the two center backs, and leave a passing lane open for the opposition holding midfielder. UNC have left the holding midfielder open to receive the ball, but as soon as the ball is traveling, they make their move to close it down aggressively. This pressing trap allows them to win the ball in a central area and create an opportunity on goal.

Readers vs. Reactors

“Physical problems come when you get tired in the mind, then the body follows.” - Jurgen Klopp

There are typically two types of players in a high pressing system. There are those who can interpret cues and see potential situations develop (Readers). Then there are those players who wait and respond to everything the opposition is doing (Reactors). Against good teams, you need a lot more ‘Readers’ than ‘Reactors’, especially with space constantly being vacated in potentially dangerous areas for opposing players. This is why pressing is so difficult to coach: if the players move when the coach tells them or when the ball has arrived, it is typically too late to apply aggressive pressure and the opponents can play out. In the clip below you can see the weak side forward for UNC making an aggressive run inside once the opposition midfielder is left open and, although she checks her shoulder before receiving, the pressure is so aggressive that the UNC player has arrived and won possession, creating a central transition and an opportunity on goal.


"Our players are are not required to step on the field and play 90 minutes, they are required to step on the field and sprint – and there’s a big difference between those two development platforms." - Anson Dorrance

One of the most overlooked aspects of pressing for me is the willingness of a team to sustain the intensity and work rate throughout the game. It's not just about pressing from goal kicks, or doing it for the first ten minutes of a game, but instead about collectively committing to it when the opportunities occur during the game. This example below shows UNC pressure the ball initially where two players work together and win possession in a central area. Rather than recovering and keeping possession in the transition however, the UNC midfielder who helped win possession makes another run, this time to threaten the space in behind the back four. This causes a huge problem defensively and eventually results in a penalty kick. Successful pressing is not just about doing the running defensively, it's also about taking advantage of the opportunities that arise from the defensive work, no matter where that is on the field. The quote above is from a previous interview that I did with UNC head coach, Anson Dorrance, and for me is a powerful one that describes the playing style, coaching philosophy, and team culture that has represented UNC for many years.

I have teamed up with Keyframe Sports for this these animations. Keyframe  have created affordable solutions to coaches at all levels of the game. Please check them out here.

I will also present a new FREE webinar for coaches on October 17th, at 7pm EST, on the subject of 'Video Analysis and Player Feedback'. I will look at some ways we can present tactical information to players, both individually and collectively, as well as looking at ways that we can engage them in the process of getting better. Please join me by registering here.

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Sep 28, 2020

Fantastic article Gary. thank you for sharing. Great explanation and detailed break down. If one goes, we all go. If one doesn't execute it all breaks down. Thank you once again.

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