Tactics: What Is Pressing?

Once upon a time, Liverpool stood out as a “pressing team.” 

But now everyone from Arsenal to AFC Bournemouth uses pressing. It’s a term we hear almost every time football is played.

But what actually is pressing? 

READ MORE: Why Does Liverpool Play With A High Line? by Harry McMullen
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What is pressing?

At its simplest, pressing is the act of applying pressure to a player in possession of the ball. In theory, this could mean anything – shouting “DON’T GIVE THE BALL AWAY” loudly near them is pressing – but it usually means running towards them and trying to steal the ball. 

Why do teams press? 

Pressing can lead to stealing the ball directly. But more often the idea is to put pressure on the opponent so that they give the ball back – either picking the wrong pass or executing their pass poorly. 

How do teams press?

At the elite level, teams usually press together as a unit, according to a set pressing structure that has been prepared in training. Given that there are many different ways of organising a team structure in possession, there are a number of different pressing structures that teams can employ to nullify their opponent. 

When do teams press?

Teams usually press in specific moments by following a “pressing trigger.” 

For example, let’s say the blue team has the ball with their goalkeeper. The red team want to get the ball back quickly, without giving up a chance for the blue team to score. 

This particular blue team likes to play with three strikers rather than wingers, with their full-backs pushed high and wide. The red team also used a front three, so they could press the goalkeeper and have a 3v3 versus the keeper and the red team’s centre backs. However, this opens up a pass to those attacking full backs.

If they let the blue keeper have the ball, the red team have a 3v2 against the centre backs.

The third red player then can look after the fullback on their side – depending on which side the blue keeper passes the ball. So if the ball goes to the blue team’s right sided centre back, that pass is the “trigger” for the red winger to press them. 

Now let’s say the red team has the ball. The blue team wants to keep them pinned back and push their full-backs up the pitch. That’s risky – the blue team could hit the space behind those fullbacks and get a chance to score. To prevent this, the blue team is going to press high and go after the goalkeeper as soon as they receive the ball. 

That backpass is the trigger for the central blue striker to press the goalkeeper, with the blue wingers and full-backs jumping up to press the red full-backs and centre-backs.

Player for player pressing

So far all of these scenarios are covering one player with another. So if the red team has 3 players involved in buildup, the blue team would assign 3 players to press them. 

The extreme of this is to go player-for-player all over the pitch. This literally means everyone has someone to mark – and press – no matter where they are.  

So if you were the right back for the red team, you become just the player marking the left winger on the blue team. If that left winger decides to drop into the middle of their own half 50 yards away from their position, your job is to follow them there.

But doing this all over the pitch can be risky. Firstly, goalkeepers aren’t (usually) involved in pressing, but they are involved in playing the ball. The team in possession therefore always has a 11v10 situation. 

Usually, teams also double up on the striker, rather than risk losing a 1v1 and leaving them free to score. This makes it a 10v8 everywhere else, so the team in possession can always find a free teammate.  

Player for player in practice

One coach who goes player-for-player is Marcelo Bielsa. His Leeds team showed that with superhuman fitness and commitment to their roles, this form of pressing is so hard to play against.

It also showed the flaw in this approach – if you can move the ball around quickly enough, you can pull players towards you and then exploit the space they leave behind. 

Liverpool did this in a 6-0 win over Leeds shortly before Bielsa was sacked. For the fourth goal, Luis Diaz presses the backpass, forcing the goalkeeper to clear the ball.

Jordan Henderson intercepts and Mo Salah immediately drops into midfield…

…dragging the left back with him. Henderson makes his run into the empty space the left back just created…

…and Salah plays the ball to him there, where Henderson assists the goal.

What about counter-pressing?

If you don’t want to go player-for-player, you can gang up on your opponent. Yes, this leaves opponents free elsewhere. But it’s hard to find a teammate when there’s a bunch of opponents surrounding you on all sides.

One way teams can do this is by counter-pressing. Here, the pressing trigger is when your team loses the ball. 

Let’s say the red team has possession. The player on the ball tries to force a pass forward, but the blue centre-back reads the pass and intercepts the ball.

This triggers the nearby red team players to swarm around the ball and try to steal it back. 

If this goes wrong, the blue team can play the ball forward and create a chance. But if it goes right, the red team is in a great position to catch the blue team off guard and score a goal.

This tactic arrived in the Premier League with Jurgen Klopp, under the German name Gegenpressing. For Jurgen, pressing “is and always will be the ticket into (the Liverpool) team.” 

In practice 

These are some of the ways that teams can press. But usually, there’s a mix of approaches used during a game. For example, a team might go player for player against opposition goal kicks, but use a counter-press when they lose the ball.  

So next time you watch a game, see if you can spot each team’s pressing structure, triggers and when they try to counter-press. After all, now you know what pressing actually is. 

Another Monday of looking for answers as we look at the recent struggles but put all of it in perspective as we talk about the 35th anniversary and what it means to us
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