Tactics Board: Pressing, Vol. 3
Over the last two weeks I’ve explained “pressing,” a tactic where the defensive team pressures the team in possession to force turnovers and counterattack. We looked at the rewards (Volume 1) and the risks (Volume 2), and I’m going to close with a variation that has gained enormous popularity in recent years: gegenpressing.
Start with the traditional high press, made famous by former Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa and used by coaches today such as Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. Teams defend from the front, with the forwards pressuring the ball, the midfielders cutting off passing lanes, and the defense keeping a high line to compress the field.
When a team presses well, the opponent has no time to breathe when they’re on the ball and turn it over or hoof it downfield. The reward is winning back possession, often in dangerous attacking positions. The risks include a vulnerability to direct play, gaps between the lines caused by fatigue or a lack of communication, and dangerous counterattacks if the press breaks down.
In today’s game, few teams can pull off a regular high press. It requires too much energy and teams make too many mistakes. As an alternative, teams have started “gegenpressing.” Jürgen Klopp, the mad-genius coach of Liverpool (my favorite team), made gegenpressing famous by using it to lead Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in Germany. Gegenpressing—otherwise known as “counter-pressing”—is a variant of the high press. A normal high press is a way to defend when the other team has possession. Counter-pressing, on the other hand, is a way to defend when your team loses possession.
Soccer has three main phases: (1) attack—when you have possession; (2) defense—when the other team has possession; and (3) transition—when possession changes sides. Counter-pressing focuses on the transition phase, which has become crucial in today’s game. The game has evolved to the point where it is very difficult to break teams down, even more so at the college level, where athleticism outweighs soccer ability and only a handful of players can pick the lock on a packed-in defense. The best way to break down these tough defenses, then, is to attack before they get into defensive shape. Teams do that by counter-attacking, or quickly attacking the other team after regaining possession.
Counter-pressing is a response to the rise of counter-attacking, and it brings a defensive benefit and an attacking benefit. On the defensive side, counter-pressing prevents a counter-attack. If, immediately after losing the ball, you pressure the opposing team, they don’t have the time or space to mount a counter attack. If you let them play, however, they can counter.
In Figure 3, the Os turn the ball over with a bad pass to the X centerback. The Os, who do not press, begin to drop off and set up their defense. But the Xs counter-attack. The ball moves faster than the Os can run, so with two quick passes, the Xs have transitioned from defense to attack and have an outside midfielder running onto the ball in open space behind the defense.
If the Os counter-press, however, they can prevent the Xs from counter-attacking at all. Look at the X centerback’s options in Figure 4. He can’t play that first pass to his central midfielder, because an O forward is closing him down and the O midfielder who made the bad pass is cutting off the passing angle. He also can’t play direct into the forward, because the Os have not dropped off and are limiting his options. In this way, counter-pressing aids the defense by preventing counter-attacks.
Counter-pressing is not just a defensive tactic. Klopp has called it “the best playmaker in the world,” and for good reason. When a team defends, players are focused on defending, they keep their shape, they communicate, and they follow their marks. Once that team wins the ball, however, most players relax for a second. They switch off, lose their shape, and shift their focus to attack. That lapse in concentration provides an opening for a counter-pressing team to win the ball back and create a scoring opportunity.
In Figure 5, the Os turn the ball over. The Xs want to counter, and in doing so the X players lose their defensive shape as they transition into attack. But the Os counter-press and force a turnover.
By winning the ball back immediately, the Os have won the ball high up the field in a dangerous position. And, as we see in Figure 6, the Os have a numerical advantage and the defense out of position. That makes a turnover created by counter-pressing even more valuable than one from a normal press, as teams almost never have the chance to attack numbers up in the final third.
Division III Examples: Kenyon and Loras
To illustrate these pressing concepts, let’s compare two programs that have enjoyed great success in the last few years: No. 2 Kenyon and No. 25 Loras. Kenyon uses pressure from a more defensive standpoint, while Loras presses to create offense. Having watched both teams play on several occasions, here’s how I’d describe their philosophies:
Kenyon. Kenyon, who reached the Elite Eight last year and the Sweet Sixteen the two previous seasons, plays sound defense and squeezes an opponent to force long balls over the top and turnovers in the midfield. Kenyon does not press an opponent’s back four the entire game, but does so on occasion to increase the tempo of the game. Instead, the Lords focus on counter-pressing and pressing in midfield to dominate possession and field position. Because Kenyon controls the territory in most games, they are vulnerable to counter attacks and counter-press after a turnover to prevent the other team from counter-attacking. The counter-press forces the other team to just clear the ball, allowing a Kenyon defender to pick up the loose ball and begin another attack.
Kenyon couples this approach with heavy pressure in midfield. The Lords are often content to allow an opposing team’s centerbacks have the ball, but as soon as the other team starts to build, Kenyon closes the ball down and cuts off passing lanes, again forcing the team to play the ball long. By playing this way, Kenyon maximizes possession time and makes it very difficult for teams to build an attack. But because the Lords do not press consistently, they force fewer turnovers high up the field. In my view, Kenyon is very difficult to break down but does little damage in the transition phase, with most goals coming from sustained attacks or set pieces.
Loras. Loras, on the other hand, uses relentless pressure to generate offense. In last year’s Final Four, Loras made more slide tackles, intercepted more passes, and applied more pressure than I’ve ever seen in a college game. And it works; Loras has reached the Final Four in three of the last four seasons and five of the last nine.
Loras uses a combination of a high press and gegenpressing with the following creative adjustments. First, Loras presses the entire game, and most teams wilt under 90 minutes of nonstop pressure. Second, Loras is one of the few college teams to use a sweeper. A sweeper minimizes the threat from direct passes over the top. Recall from last week that teams can draw centerbacks out of position and attack the space in behind a flat-back four:
Against Loras, teams cannot create the same space because the sweeper does not mark and covers any direct passes over the top.
Finally, Loras tailors its attacking style to maximize gegenpressing. Loras plays the most direct style of any elite team in Division III. They rarely build from the back, and while it’s not obvious at first glance, there’s a method to the madness. By getting the ball to the attacking third as fast as possible, Loras minimizes the chance for a costly mistake in the back. And even though this direct play might give the other team possession, it does so in Loras’s attacking third, where the Duhawks can counter-press and win the ball in dangerous position.
I do not recommend one approach over the other; both teams have enjoyed great success because they have good players that fit their system. There are also many other methods we don’t have time to visit here. But every team must decide where and how they want to defend. Pressing is fun to watch because it’s an attack-minded approach to defense that leads to goals—at one end (if done well) or the other (if done poorly). As Herm Edwards said in his infamous press conference, “You play to win the game.” Pressing is one way to do it.
Games of the Week
All games have streaming video available with links at D3soccer.com.
Friday, September 30
5:30 PM: Texas-Dallas @ Hardin-Simmons. With no games between ranked teams today, check out an ASC clash with the conference lead on the line. Neither team is ranked, but both have a great chance to reach the NCAA tournament via the ASC’s automatic bid. This game could go a long way toward determining home-field advantage in the conference tournament.
Saturday, October 1
1:30 PM: No. 23 Brandeis @ No. 18 Carnegie Mellon. The weekend’s only game between ranked teams matches two inconsistent UAA foes in a conference opener. Is Brandeis the team that beat Haverford, or the team that hasn’t won since opening week? Is Carnegie Mellon the team that started 6-0, or the one that fell flat against Grove City? I’m not sure, but Saturday should help us figure it out.
7:30 PM: No. 17 Washington U. @ Rochester. Wash U. puts its perfect record on the line against undefeated Rochester in another UAA tilt. Both teams have flown under the radar, but that could change based on Saturday’s result.
Sunday, October 2
Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10
1. Chicago (10-0-0, D3soccer.com No. 4) – Chicago has played a strong schedule and handled all comers. The defense had its first poor performance against a dangerous Carthage side, but the Maroons’ offense covered by scoring four second-half goals in a 6-2 win.
2. Rowan (9-0-1, No. 1) – Rowan could not overcome the elements or a stingy Stockton defense in a 0-0 draw Wednesday, despite 17 corner kicks and almost 30 shots. The Profs must now run the NJAC gauntlet of Kean, Montclair State, Rutgers-Camden, and Rutgers-Newark, all in the next two weeks.
3. Amherst (6-0-1, No. 3) – The champs grinded out two big results in the face of adversity in the last week. On Saturday, they twice let the lead slip away against long-time rival Williams, but recovered with two late goals to win 4-2. Wednesday night, they trailed MIT 1-0 with less than ten to play, but scored twice in two minutes for a gut-check win.
4. Trinity (Texas) (9-0-0, No. 5) – The Tigers are perfect but remain a work in progress. Trinity must survive trap games against Southwestern and Texas Lutheran this weekend before a conference-deciding tilt with Colorado College a week from today.
5. Washington and Lee (7-1-0, No. 7) – W&L took advantage of a cushy start in ODAC play by pummeling Shenandoah 5-0 and Eastern Mennonite 4-0. While the Generals must avoid looking ahead, I’ve already circled upcoming games against No. 20 Messiah and No. 25 Lynchburg.
6. Ohio Northern (10-0-1, No. 6) – ONU enters conference play on a roll, having scored 19 goals in their past four games and 40 on the season. The OAC has improved this year, but it’s hard to see anyone finishing above the Polar Bears.
7. Calvin (8-1-0, No. 8) – You can only beat the teams in front of you, and the MIAA’s double-round-robin format means Calvin will continue punishing weak conference opponents. Still, the Knights have won seven straight while conceding only once.
8. Kenyon (8-1-0, No. 2) – Kenyon dominated Case Western Reserve, but good goalkeeping and poor finishing left the Lords vulnerable, and Case obliged by scoring on their only shot on goal. The Lords have championship-level talent but must translate territorial dominance into goals to get there.
9. Washington U. (6-0-0, No. 17) – Wash U. hasn’t received much press but has won every game without conceding a single goal. I’m not sure if the Bears are for real, but the unforgiving UAA will be a good litmus test.
10. Mass-Boston (9-0-0, No. 10) – Mass-Boston didn’t let a top-10 ranking faze them, as the defense blanked two more opponents in routine wins. Similar to Calvin, a weak conference makes the Beacons difficult to judge, but you can’t argue with wins and shutouts.
Trending Up: Messiah, Haverford, Oneonta State, Lynchburg
Trending Down: Brandeis, Ohio Wesleyan, Franklin and Marshall, Elizabethtown
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.