Systems - The Pressing Question

Posted by PhaseOfPlay on January 26, 2013, 10:00:47 PM

The Pressing Question: Are Liverpool a Pressing Team under Rodgers?

Pressing. It has been a watchword for Liverpool fans since the days of Rafa showed how effective it can be in controlling the opposition and thus the game itself. Recently, it has been brought more to light by the defensive structure of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, who probably brought the art of pressing to a peak for a period of two years. It is often seen as a highly difficult strategy to develop in a team, with numerous demands made on the players, including technique, speed, stamina, speed endurance, and game intelligence. It is not often seen in general terms, although a key measure of a lot of the all-time great teams is that they often have a high-intensity and organized pressing defence (although not always – see Herrera’s Inter and Capello’s Milan, for example). A pertinent question since Rodgers became manager has been whether he would attempt to copy Barca’s pressing style, or was there another defensive set-up he would look at. We will look here at aspects of the pressing game, and see if any or all apply to the new manager’s regime, and how. For the purposes of diagramming, the defending team will be in red and in a 4-3-3 formation like Liverpool have played this season, and the attacking team will be in blue and in a basic 4-4-2:

Principles of Defence, Redux –

It might be prudent at this point to go over the general principles of defence in order to have a common language when talking about pressing as a tactic. These principles are as follows:

Pressure – immediate positioning in front of the ball carrier, in order to win the ball through tackling, prevent the long ball, or impede forward dribbling

Delay/Contain – almost the same as pressure, except the intention is more to impede forward progress to allow players to get into recovery shape behind the ball

Cover/marking – coverage of space and players behind the ball, in the order of attackers in near and forward positions to the ball carrier, attackers square to the ball carrier, and then attackers immediately behind the ball carrier (double-marking)

Balance – positioning of players away from the ball, protecting the back post area and width of the goal, as well as holding the offside line (but not necessarily an offside trap, which is a strategic use of “balance”)

Consolidation – compression of the spaces between players in a line, between the lines, and either towards the ball or towards the goal being defended

There are regional but minor differences and additions, but these are the generally accepted four principles of defence in football. A good team will always be operating all four (Pressure and Delay are part of the same principle, with different intentions but the same positioning in relation to the ball) at any time during the defensive phase, and the tactical differences between one team’s defence and another team’s is generally which principles they emphasise the most, and how well they coordinate the principles as units and as a team.

Types of Pressing –

For simplicity, there are two types of pressing. First, though, Pressing and “Pressure” are two similar but different things. When we talk about tactical “pressure”, we are talking about the first principle of defence and all teams need to operate this, otherwise the opposition will just walk into the box and score a goal. “Pressing”, though, is the coordinated movement of a team to win the ball back close to the opponent’s goal, in order to enable a quick transition for a shot, or to maintain possession of the ball in the opponent’s half of the field. Pressing can either be done from the front, or done from midfield. It is rarely, if ever, done from the back four or back three. They may “pressure” a player in their zone, but you won’t see a team allow the opposition to get at their back line unopposed in order to press them from the back positions. So specifically, when we talk about pressing, we are talking about either pressing as a team from the front, or pressing as a team from midfield. If we want clear examples of both, then Watford under Graham Taylor and Barca under Guardiola are clear examples of teams who pressed from the front, while Arsenal in the early to mid-2000’s and Norway under Olsen in the 90’s are teams who pressed from midfield.

Pressing from the Front: When, Where and How? –

There are several triggers which tell a team that they should be pressing from the front. One trigger would be when a goal-kick is taken short (much like we do from Reina to one of the central defenders in their split positions). When this happens, the nearest players should be pressuring as the ball is moving. While this is happening, the two nearest players should be closing off the short passing options, while the rest of the team are compressing from the back and from the side, in order to lock the ball into the fullback position, like so:

This has the effect of forcing the ball carrier to attempt to dribble through and risk losing the ball; alternatively, they can try a long pass which most of the time will just be dumping the ball forward in any direction; or they can play it out for a throw-in (either to the other team or if they are clever, to their own team via a deflection of a defender’s legs). In any case, the player on the ball comes under intense pressure, the ball stays in the area it arrives in, and the defending team has a better chance of regaining the ball.

Another trigger for team pressing is whenever a ball is passed backwards. This might involve a period of containment, other pressure on transition, or the ball carrier not having enough options. When the ball is passed backwards, this signals the rest of the team to press as a unit, with the nearest player again pressuring the ball tightly, the nearest 1 or 2 defenders cutting off the near-the-ball passing options, the backline pushing up and the wide players pinching in:

Still another trigger is when the ball carrier takes a bad first touch. Especially on transition from attack to defence, this is a big trigger for pressing teams to get tight on the ball carrier and compress the space around the ball, cutting off the passing angles quickly.

If the first phase of pressure is broken, then the next pressure player will then engage in a delay/contain phase, which will be the same as pressure, only giving some more distance. Whereas the pressuring player might press within 1-5 yards of the ball, a delay/containing defender will stand off about 5-10 yards. Their purpose will be to slow forward progress enough for the defence and midfield to drop into a defensive shape in front of the goal:

So these are the main types of pressing and the triggers for doing so, in terms of pressing from the front.

Pressing from Midfield -

Pressing from midfield is an extension of that, where the front players contain until the midfielders get into position in the middle of the field, and from that position they begin to move forward hunting the ball and forcing it into designated areas of the field, usually wide and towards the corners in order to lock the ball into a vulnerable space. Teams who do this usually play some variation of a 5-man midfield, with a 4-3-3 team usually requiring the wingers to drop in and become wide midfielders in the pressing phase. Once into a defensive position, the players will then press the ball hard, while near-the-ball and away-from-the-ball players will look to cut out passing lanes and protect the back post area. The intention of pressing from midfield is to try to commit 1 or 2 defenders forward so that, if the midfield press is successful, the opposition defence is unbalanced and can be taken advantage of in transition, if the forward is fast and skilful and mobile:

So these are the two types of pressing, in a general sense. We can now look at containment as a tactic, and how it differs from Pressing.

The Visible Difference between Pressing and Containing –

It might be difficult at times to look at a team in the flow of play and to establish whether a team is trying to press the opposition but not quite getting it right, or whether they are actually containing the attack (and sometimes winning the ball back early). In order to make a clearer definition, there are a few pointers we can look for to help us to make a best guess. Firstly, in a pressing defence, the pressure will usually be frontal first. That means the nearest player to the ball carrier who is goalside of the ball will attempt to pressure the attacker. For a contain strategy, though, the confrontation will also come from a player in the same position. So how could we know if a team is set up for pressing and if a team is set up to contain? One huge visual cue is how they approach the ball. A containing 1st defender will approach slowly, and immediately retreat in step with the ball carrier. The idea is to force them to consider their options, thus delaying the attack while other defenders recover goalside. A pressing 1st defender, though, will usually make a curved run, from the inside to the outside, in an attempt to force the ball carrier wide and limit their options. They will take a fast approach to the ball, slowing down between 5-10 yards, and moving in steadily to within 5 yards of the ball. The idea here is to get the attacker to get their head down and eyes on the ball, which limits their vision and forces them to hold on to it. This leads to a second visual cue. The next defenders to arrive on the scene in a containing defence will drop behind the ball first, and then move into covering positions, in shape. A pressing team however, will close in from all angles with 2 or 3 more players; assuming that the ball carrier is forced wide first, this then means that play is predictable as their only options are inside, or back, and thus these angles will be the first covered. The distances of these players will be a lot closer to the ball carrier than in a contain defence, which is more concerned with shape and consolidation near the goal and forcing the interception, then it is with winning the ball back at the point of origin. So we have two visual cues that tell us if a team is pressing or containing. This is important when looking at a team’s defensive set-up, as we can ask ourselves several questions –

  • How high is the level of pressure of the 1st defender?
  • What type of approach do they make to the ball carrier – slow or fast and curved?
  • How close and from what directions do the 2nd defenders arrive?
  • Do the rest of the team compress to the ball from the back and sides, or do they drop into predefined positions in the defensive half along the lines of recovery?

So when we look at a team, we can ask these questions, and then we can ascertain which system they are more likely to be using, based on visual cues. And it is from this information that we shall look at Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool.

Liverpool – the Barca template or something else?

It is generally accepted that the current Barcelona team, and the Barcelona team of the past three years, are the best example of pressing as a defensive tactic in football today. Barca’s pressing game can be described under a series of “rules”:

  • Try to win the ball back within 5 seconds of losing it
  • If the ball-carrier takes a bad touch, press intensely
  • If the ball-carrier turns to face his own goal, press immediately
  • If the ball isn’t won back within the 5 second window, fall back into a defensive block in front of goal and defend as a unit

Clearly, when we see a snapshot of Barca’s pressing in action, we see players around the ball closing off all the angles and forcing the attacker into making a decision (usually the wrong one, or the less optimal one – providing he hasn’t given the ball back to Barca at that point):

There are clear and obvious signs of what Barca attempt to do when they transition from attack to defence that give us signposts when comparing other teams to them. The question is – do Liverpool under Rodgers display any of these signposts?

If we look at the following snapshots of a passage of play from Liverpool v. Norwich, can we satisfy any of the answers above?

Ball is with the Fulham defender, Henderson steps to contain. Suarez , Shelvey and Suso retain their shape

The ball is played beyond Henderson, Enrique steps to press, Henderson recovers to position, Shelvey, Suso, Suarez and now Gerrard and Lucas are on the scene. All 5 of these players maintain shape, rather than shift to the ball to compress space.

Now we can see the rest of the back four in the picture, covering their zones and holding shape and position.

A big-picture view shows a clear 4-2-3-1 defensive shape to the team, with players holding position and the nearest player only going to the ball. It seems to be more important for players to be in position to intercept longer passes than to try and force a transition at the location of the ball.

As the ball has moved forward, Liverpool retreat into the defensive third, maintain shape, the midfielders are making recovery runs, effective making it a 6v4 with Henderson trailing, and Skrtel steps out to contain the forward movement and force the shot. His runs is also fairly straight, so there is an attempt to pressure the ball-carrier, and the end result is a forced shot that Reina parries with his legs.

So if we examine the pictures above, and if we can assume that a team that defends with a definite shape does so because they are trained to, then it is worth looking at the questions again:

How high is the level of pressure of the 1st defender? In this passage of play, it is at least 5-10 yards from the ball-carrier, except for Enrique, who steps into the attacker as his back is turned

What type of approach do they make to the ball carrier – slow or fast and curved? It is fairly straight for the most part, and without much speed. The idea seems to be to slow them down rather than to win the ball

How close and from what directions do the 2nd defenders arrive? 2nd defenders seem to hold their shape and keep a distance towards the middle of the field and the goal, rather than towards the ball

Do the rest of the team compress to the ball from the back and sides, or do they drop into predefined positions in the defensive half along the lines of recovery? The defensive players clearly drop into predefined defensive third positions, and only compress to the ball once Fulham get the ball into the defensive third

From these observations, it is probably more accurate to say that, for all the talk of Tiki-Taka and copying the Barcelona template, defensively, Liverpool under Rodgers follow a pattern of containment and interception, rather than pressure and dispossession. Because we play a slower build-up than most English teams, and work more on positional attack than attacking in the transition, setting up a block in front of the goal is not an issue in terms of running up and down the field and the resulting fatigue. This is the famous “resting on the ball”. The difference is, though, that Liverpool don’t hunt for the ball in packs, and because of that, there is less physical intensity in the defensive phase – a player might pressure hard, but once they are beaten, their job is to get into a defensive position, rather than chase the ball over the field. In the bigger picture, this allows for greater recovery over the whole of the season, and reduces injury and fatigue. Comparisons can be made to Rodgers’ Swansea team, especially in the Championship, where the league season is longer (more games). So if Barca is not a template, then what is?  The key comes from a predecessor of Guardiola – Van Gaal. Van Gaal’s ajax team of the mid 90’s followed almost the same principles of the current Liverpool team – they pressed from the nearest man, but because they played 3 at the back, they tended to use the containment from the 1st defender to allow the rest of the team to drop into their half and obtain position and shape. Their 3-4-3 would start defending from the front with one player, while the rest of the team dropped back to turn the 3-4-3 into a 5-2-3 in the midfield press, and then a 5-4-1 when inside the defensive third. Rodgers is clearly playing to certain shapes on the defending side with Liverpool, whether that is a tight 4-3-3/4-5-1, or a 4-2-3-1/4-5-1. With the lopsided 4-4-2 displayed against United (2nd half) and Norwich, this block in front of the goal should become even more obvious. It might also allow for greater defensive solidity as players begin to understand their roles and lines of recovery in each third of the field. The defence should, by the looks of things, go from strength to strength over the coming months – and it is this factor more than the attack that might be altered during the summer months.

For reference to both Swansea under Rodgers and Ajax under Van Gaal, the following links might be helpful: – Swansea - Ajax

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