Even though, and I won’t reveal too much by stating this, our Advent calendar predominantly deals with topics which emphasize your own possession game or even think about the complex combination of several phases, the game against the ball should not be neglected. Particularly when taking over a new a team that often finds itself in a crisis, you can build a solid foundation by focussing on pressing in the beginning.
This explicitly doesn’t mean that the coach should only practice a 4-4-2 midfield pressing until the players are sick of it while completely ignoring everything else. Stability can also grow out of the awareness that you are able to aggressively attack any opponent at any and cause problems for them. Due to the forced ball losses (and ideally clean ball wins), you will be in possession of the ball by yourself more often and can also generate promising transition moments.
However, a decisive goal should be that the pressing goes beyond the mere execution of patterns. The players should be trained in a way which allows them to react flexibly to the respective situation, make individually suitable decisions and communicate/coordinate these well in terms of group and team tactics.
An important part of this is guiding the opponent in pressing. Roughly speaking, one can distinguish between two approaches, which orient themselves according to where the opponent should be forced to play: either inside or outside.
With “inside” one can mean both the half-space or central space (“six space”). In the following video there are a few examples of it from the last team I coached:
There’s also an example for guiding the opponent outside:
In the following game forms, we will train how the pressing should look like depending on the chosen approach and when it should be chosen in the first place.
There are some additional individual guidelines to consider, which can always be coached. This selection can be extended (especially with more basic pressing triggers like “bad first touch”) and rather emphasizes certain aspects I focused on:
– Read the body position of the player in possession of the ball: If, for example, the first pass to the centre-back has already been played and he is looking for a follow-up action, you can often observe that he is already turning slightly in one direction, usually towards the full-back. A pass to him can be expected in the first place. This makes anticipation easier. Even players who might already press the centre-back can use the body position by forcing him to play within the current dynamic while making it impossible to play against it.
– Anticipate manipulation: But not every player simply plays where he is facing. Some coaches even give their protégés explicit instructions to avoid this. If, in our example, you release in the direction of the full-back too early as a pressing player, you simply open the centre for the centre-back, who can easily take you out of the game. The whole thing can also be used for dribblings in the same way. In order not to be manipulated, you should also avoid unreflected man marking.
– “The pressure on the ball determines the collective behaviour”: For this sentence, people laughed a bit about Domenico Tedesco some time ago. Well, “collective” could also be removed or replaced by “individual”. Individual behavior results in collectivity as the sum of multiple actions made in relation to each other. In our example, the behaviour of the player who wants to press on the full-back is still dependent on what a team mate in a higher position might do.
If he already presses directly on the centre-back and guides him outside while covering a part of the centre with his cover shadow, you can go further outwards as the next pressing player. This is different if he only covers the horizontal pass to the other centre-back or doesn’t even start to press at all, is still too far away from the player on the ball etc. For players further back, the distinction between “open” (no pressure, controlled long ball possible) and “closed” (no long ball at all or only uncontrolled one possible) ball is important.
– Read the body position of the receiver: A good moment for aggressive pressing is of course always when an opponent is with his back to the goal or isn’t able to take his first touch forward on the wing, thus not able to progress the play right away. Based on observing this, you can leave an option open and start to press from a greater distance.
– “Join”, “secure” or “gamble”: It depends on a mixture of the aforementioned factors whether it makes sense to create numerical superiority in any situation. It should always be the goal to make this possible. To pull it crudely, a 2 versus 1 is simply better than a 1 versus 1. But if I join a 1 versus 1, which is either almost won, anyway, or too far away from where I am, it takes me out of the game for a short period and I might not be available for possible follow-up actions (e.g. scoring/preventing opponent from scoring).
In the next part, these aspects will now be applied more collectively, which ultimately leads to guiding the opponent into promising situations for ourselves. For this, I have chosen two similar game forms in a 6 against 7 (with a goalkeeper being involved as an additional player as well). The pressing team is generally outnumbered in order to provoke a rather space-oriented way of pressing.
The number of players necessary for this type of drill should usually be available to most coaches. I played these game forms during the winter in an indoor facility which had the dimensions of roughly a quarter field. However, a bigger space, about half of a full field, should be used if available.
The field is roughly divided into 3 zones. The middle zone is considerably shorter than the two outer zones, which are additionally divided into two halves by a vertical line. There are also narrow wing areas. Depending on availability, a small (youth/handball) goal and a big goal with goalkeeper will be used.
The game starts with the build-up team in front of the small goal. The two centre-backs as well as the defensive midfielder position themselves in the first zone against three pressing players. In addition, the team in possession of the ball has two full-backs in the wing areas outside the actual field. In the middle zone, there are only three players of the defending team. In the farthest zone, two players of the attacking team face a goalkeeper.
The goal for the possession team is to pass to one of these two players (initially only possible on the ground). Then a free game is played in which a goal has to be scored. If the pass to the distant zone is played through the centre, the goal would be worth two points.
If the zone is reached through the full-back, there would only be one point for a goal. If a pass to the outside is made, one of the three midfielders of the defending team can press the full-back.
In addition, one of them is always allowed to move up to the highest zone. However, it is only possible to fall back into the deeper zone, once the ball is actually played there. Here, the goalkeeper can and should act as a sweeper instead.
Later, however, this rule can also be adapted so that one midfielder is allowed to leave the zone at a time (regardless of whether it is to the front or to the back). After passing the ball to the full-back, covering in one’s own half behind the pressing midfielder is generally permitted.
After winning the ball, there’s also a free game. The pressing team tries to finish on the goal without goalkeeper. If the ball is won with an interception, a goal would count for two points. All goals scored after different kinds of ball wins only bring one point.
In this game, the division of the zones into halves is primarily applied for orientation purposes, which ideally ensures a clean positioning and structure in pressing. The rules are especially rewarding for guiding (and playing) into the centre. Here, a 2 versus 1 can be created by pressing the closest midfielder together with the striker or one of the wingers.
If the winger and striker press the central defender at the same time from different angles, a flat pass through the half-space can also be provoked, offering a good situation for a direct interception by one of the midfielders.
But guiding towards the outside can also make sense, for example when the central midfielder has problems accessing the defensive midfielder, or when the distance to cut off the full-back is simply too big. Then the centre could be blocked at first. If the ball is played to the outside, the winger and midfielder closest to the ball could create access together.
Due to the constant danger of opponents in behind the pressing players, an intensive playing style is necessary at all times – especially if high passes would be allowed later on. No pressing is no solution. The adaptation of it is.
The structure remains mostly the same. The middle zone, however, is transformed into a square occupied by the defensive midfielder of the possession team. He is now also allowed to move into other areas of the field.
The three midfield players of the pressing team are no longer positioned in a separate zone, but initially play in a 3 versus 2 against the higher players of the possession team. The goalkeeper now starts with the possession team which tries to reach an end zone on the other side of the playing area.
The players of the defending team remain in their assigned half of the field at the beginning but can leave this position to gain access in the center or on one of the wing zones based on the positioning and passing of the opponent.
Since there are no more special point regulations and each goal or entry into the end zone (only with complete ball control) is rewarded with a point, both guiding inside and outside make sense in this scenario. Based on the individual coaching points made earlier, the players must now decide on a fitting solution by themselves.
Particular attention should be paid to the numerical relationships created by the defensive midfielder of the build-up team. If he moves forward, this results in a 3 versus 3 in the higher zone. Aggressively forward defending in central areas is hardly possible for the defending team, anymore.
In addition, the pressing may depend on the positioning of the opposing wing players. A higher positioning makes early outward play harder for the possession team, which is exactly why you might want to force it.
A special challenge would be the high positioning of both wing players as well as the defensive midfielder. The winger closer to the ball would have to press the centre-backs as well as the goalkeeper together with the striker, the ball far winger would then cover the centre and create some kind of a diamond structure.
Even after outplaying the first pressing line, four players could still retreat/remain behind the ball. Compared to the previous form, covering spaces in the back is explicitly more important. The players have to consider this in their decision making.
In the next stage, I would add full-backs for the pressing team while still leaving out their centre-backs. This should lead to better pressing situations on the outside. Depending on how well the pressing already works, nine to ten outfield players can then be used by the opponent.
For example, the build-up team could try to score on three or four mini goals on the halfway line. Certain zones can still be marked out. However, it is also possible to simply play a free game of build-up versus pressing.
With the defenders and defensive/central midfielders, I would also train the defending of long balls in their own half, for example at first in a 6 versus 4, later in an 8 versus 7. Eventually, a bigger game should be played (also possible to do this more extensively in the session after). It would combine all aspects previously worked on.
A lot of adjustments are possible in detail. As a coach, you could also explain a few specific patterns that are either not yet executed by the players themselves or that fit a certain opponent/a common way of playing in your league. Of course, you could also create other specific game forms for these aspects based on your individual needs.
But the result of the training should be: Each player must recognize the importance of his own actions and how they relate to those of other players. This results in a more complex pressing system in which the players can decide for themselves where an opponent should be guided to.