September 16, 2016

Tactics: Pressing, Vol. 1—The Rewards

By Ryan Harmanis

Division III soccer features hundreds of teams and thousands of players. While every team plays the same 90-minute game, they use different tactics and styles. Some play 4-4-2, others 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, and a brave few try 3-5-2. Some coaches use ten substitutes, others only three. We see finesse teams, physical teams, set-piece teams, direct teams, possession teams, and everything in between. With the wide variation in playing style, Ryan uses the Tactics Board to explain certain things you’ll see during games.

Soccer moves in cycles, especially when it comes to tactics. Coaches and teams find a formation or approach that works, others copy it, and eventually it becomes the norm. Then creative coaches find a way to beat it and gain an edge—until others copy it and the cycle runs again. While the history of soccer formations is for another time, there is no single prevailing approach today. However, most teams use one particular tactic in some way, shape, or form: pressing.

Pressing is a defensive tactic where, as the name suggests, teams pressure opposing players to cause turnovers. Think of a full-court press in basketball. The offense inbounds and the defense pressures the player with the ball, trying to create a turnover or force a bad pass. It’s an approach with big risks and big rewards. If it works, the defense usually gets an easy basket. If it doesn’t, the offense often scores.

In soccer, with the larger field and additional players, pressing is more difficult because defenses are required to cut off more options and cover more ground. However, the reward is also bigger, as a turnover can lead to open shots and easy goals. In a sport where games are often decided by a single goal, an easy score can be the difference between a win and a loss.

Look at the figure below, where the goalkeeper has just passed the ball to his centerback (the red X). If the defending team (the Os) is not pressing, the centerback has a number of options. He can pass to the right back, the other centerback, or the left back with ease. He has an open lane to both central midfielders and the time and space to pick out any pass he wants:

This defensive set-up has its advantages. The defense has closed off most options close to its own goal, and it can force the attacking team to build up slowly from the back. Yet it also allows the attacking team to dictate play and gives the defense no chance to force a turnover in a dangerous position. It’s a low-risk, low-reward approach.

Contrast that approach with a classic high press, where the defense pressures the player with the ball while cutting off potential passing lanes. In the figure below, as the pass goes from the goalkeeper to the centerback, instead of sitting back, the defense moves together to press the ball:

Look at the centerback’s options. His first look is to the center midfielders, but they have defenders on their backs. His outlet is the right back, but the defense has an outside midfielder closing in. Even his fellow centerback is being closed off. To make matters worse, a forward is bearing down hard. So what does the centerback do? He makes a bad pass to someone under pressure, kicks the ball downfield, or passes back to his goalkeeper—who will also kick the ball downfield. In the latter cases, the defense handles an aimless long ball and regains possession in seconds. But what if the defense creates a turnover? Let’s say the centerback forces a pass to his outside back and the defense intercepts it:

Now the Os are off to the races with a numerical edge. Not only that, the attack starts only 40 yards from goal. This advantage is enormous, because in soccer most attacks begin in the back, and defenders almost always outnumber attackers. Good teams turn these advantages into goals.

This is only one example of pressing. Teams press at different times and in different ways. Pressing also has a massive downside. But those scenarios are for future columns. The next time you watch a game, look for effective pressing. Watch how many goals are scored when the defense wins possession close to its opponent’s goal and attacks with a numerical edge. And watch how much easier those goals seem.

Games of the Week

All games have streaming video available with links at

Friday, September 16

8:00 PM: No. 7 Christopher Newport @ No. 18 Redlands. Christopher Newport travels 2,653 miles across the country for a rare East Coast-West Coast matchup with Redlands. Both teams have perfect records and will face their toughest test to date.

Saturday, September 17

2:00 PM: No. 25 Cortland State @ No. 6 St. Lawrence. Both teams have perfect records, but neither has a signature win. They get a chance to change that on Saturday.

Sunday, September 18

4:00 PM: Wartburg @ No. 5 Chicago. The Maroons’ difficult schedule continues. Wartburg might have an opening in the IIAC with Loras’s youth and recent slip, but the Knights need to show they can hang in big games like this if they hope to get back to the NCAA tournament.

Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10

1. Amherst (2-0-0, No. 1) – A good win over NESCAC tournament champion Bowdoin keeps Amherst in the top spot. The Lord Jeffs face Middlebury on Saturday, and while it’s early, I expect the winner to take the regular-season crown.

2. Rowan (6-0-0, No. 3) – The Profs just keep rolling, but the schedule doesn’t get any easier. On Saturday, Rowan travels to New Jersey City, who just set a school record by opening 7-0-0 after going 1-16-0 (!!) last year. Next Wednesday will be even tougher when the Profs visit No. 11 Franklin and Marshall.

3. Chicago (5-0-0, No. 5) – Chicago has yet to concede a goal and took down CCIW favorites Wheaton (Ill.) (a 2-0 win) and North Park (3-0) with ease. I caught most of Wednesday’ game against Wheaton and the Maroons are for real.

4. Kenyon (5-0-0, No. 2) – For lack of a better word, the Lords have seemed “bored” in the early going. Indifferent wins over Otterbein and Heidelberg gave way to a scare against Frostburg State, as Kenyon was forced to come from behind in a 3-2 win. It’s also hard to read much into Wednesday’s 9-0 drubbing of Muskingum after Muskingum previously shipped nine goals against Carnegie Mellon. However, back-to-back games against the Kentucky duo of Thomas More (4-1-0) and Centre (4-0-0) will force Kenyon to up its game.

5. Trinity (Texas) (4-0-0, No. 4) – The Tigers kept humming along with a second win over Hardin-Simmons and a solid shutout of Texas-Dallas. Tonight’s game against Colorado College should tell us where Trinity really stands—Colorado played Trinity dead even over three games in 2015 and will be looking to avenge a 1-0 loss in the 2015 SCAC final.

6. (Tie) Christopher Newport (No. 7, 5-0-0), Redlands (No. 18, 4-0-0) – I’m not sure what to make of either team. Christopher Newport is banging in goals—22 in just five games—but none of the Captains’ victims have winning records. Redlands, on the other hand, suffers from being in the West region, where teams aside from Trinity are difficult to gauge. Lucky for us, these two teams square off tonight. Winner stays, loser goes.

8. Franklin and Marshall (4-0-2, No. 11) – After an excellent 2-0 win at No. 8 Elizabethtown, F&M takes the Blue Jays spot in my Top 10. Two draws evidence an inability to score at times, but F&M enjoyed a 42-9 shot (14-7 on goal) and 29-4 corner kick advantage in those two games. If the Diplomats belong here, they’ll earn it with upcoming games against Swarthmore and No. 3 Rowan.

9. Centre (4-0-0, No. 22) – Just to be consistent, Centre gets the #9 slot after destroying Thomas More 3-0 last Saturday. This is a show-me week for my Top 10, as Centre makes the long trek to DePauw on Saturday before squaring off with No. 3 Kenyon next Wednesday.

10. St. Lawrence (4-0-0, No. 6). – The Saints have strolled through their tour of the SUNYAC so far, but No. 25 Cortland State (5-0-0) and Plattsburgh State (6-0-0) should offer sterner tests—if St. Lawrence doesn’t trip up against Oswego State first.

Trending Up: Scranton, Washington & Lee, Mass-Boston, Dubuque

Trending Down: Brandeis, Tufts, Loras, Wheaton (Ill.)


Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.

Ryan's Ruminations


Ryan's Ruminations will go beyond the box scores to offer analysis and opinion on major storylines around the country.  Ryan will provide in-depth analysis of the current season and insight into important aspects of Division III soccer, augmented by fun and compelling stories about players, coaches, teams, and games.



Ryan Harmanis

Ryan Harmanis played for Ohio Wesleyan from 2007 to 2010 where he was a three-year captain. Following graduation, Ryan continued to follow the D-III landscape before joining in 2013. He combines an analytical background with a passion for writing and the game of soccer. [see full bio]

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