Everyone is talking about pressing. It appears in match reports and post-game interview questions. It’s all over social media and it’s referenced in radio phone-ins as casually as passing or attacking.
Pressing is arguably the first tactically nuanced concept to enter the mainstream, and unsurprisingly it has become a vague buzzword that often seems to mean whatever the user wants it to mean – which can be everything from a gegenpress winning the ball consistently in the final third to closing down your nearest man on the edge of your own box.
It is, of course, fine to use the verb ‘to press’ as a way of talking casually about the idea of closing down, but there is a big distinction between pressing and applying pressure to the ball; between the hard work of getting tight to the person in possession, something we’ve had in football for decades, and a collective targeted press that engages the whole team and works on preset triggers.
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The general confusion is of particular interest in the aftermath of Ralph Rangnick’s first game in charge of Manchester United, a club that has taken one of the most dramatic swings in tactical direction we’ve ever seen.
Against Crystal Palace, United’s 4-2-2-2 saw Marcus Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo work in tandem to engage in the press. The team closed off passing angles together; they threw themselves into high-intensity charges in the opposition third; they swarmed as a unified force.
It was a huge contrast from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who, according to The Athletic, did not coach pressing because he thought his player closest to the situation should naturally be capable of closing down the man on the ball.
It is pretty troubling that a Premier League manager should so drastically misunderstand what pressing is and isn’t – but it captures just how deep this goes.
What is pressing?
Too often the idea of closing down is seen as an example of pressing, when in fact this action is referred to as ‘pressures’ in the analytics world.
Norwich City rank fifth in the Premier League for pressures, according to FBRef, and Everton are fourth, but clearly neither of these teams are pressing sides.
Instead, they are working hard to get tight to the ball once it enters the final third, and they rack up high numbers because a) they have so little possession they generally complete more defensive actions and b) by packing bodies tight together in their own third it’s easy to get close to the action and sprint to close it down.
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Nobody who likes to sit deep, like Rafael Benitez or Sean Dyche, manage pressing teams. They don’t press; they apply pressure.
Pressing is a collective action that defines how, why, and when a team looks to close down en masse.
This can be either to win the ball directly and counterattack off the back of it, or it can be to force the opponent to pass in a direction they want them to go.
What are pressing traps and triggers?
A well-choreographed press, then, has been worked on in training to follow a highly specific set of instructions that covers where to position the players and when to suddenly snap into the press.
The level of detail is best exemplified in the use of pressing traps. This is when a team deliberately leaves a player or space open for the opposition, effectively luring them into making a specific set of passes until they are in a position more favourable to the defending team (e.g. close to the touchline) or they give the ball to a particular player.
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For example, a team may have identified one central midfielder as being particularly weak on the ball. The shape of their press would then encourage a pass into this player, at which point three or four pressers would swarm that midfielder from all angles.
A pressing trigger is the action that jolts the defending team into action. For some teams, the pressing trigger will be any heavy touch from the defender. For others, it will be a certain minute of the game or the ball entering a certain zone of the pitch.
How to measure pressing
The best way we have of capturing pressing in statistics is ‘passes per defensive action’ (PPDA), which calculates how many passes the other team are allowed to make before the team attempts to break it up.
This is an indirect and imperfect way to measure pressing intensity, but it largely works because it gives an indication of whether defenders or midfielders are left free to pass the ball around, effectively showing how high the line of engagement is.
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A high PPDA number means more opposition passes before a defensive action, or in other words, a low PPDA score means lots of pressing – which inevitably translates to engagement high up the pitch.
Everton and Norwich, despite their pressure numbers, are in the top three for PPDA while, unsurprisingly, Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester City make up the bottom three.
Styles of pressing and differing lines of engagement
The thing to look out for, beyond the PPDA number, is the extent to which a team appears to be working together in how they close down, as well as when and how long for.
For teams like Liverpool or Man City the purpose is to immediately win back possession, the swarm approach taking advantage of their high starting positions (due to their general territorial dominance) to keep the opponent penned in.
But for those lower down the table, and therefore incapable of such a constantly intense press, there is a lower line of engagement.
Southampton, for example, actually spend long periods of the game camped behind the ball, allowing the opposition centre-backs to pass the ball back and forth but encircling the midfield with bodies – and using the pass into midfield as their pressing trigger.
And yet it is correct to call Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side a pressing team.
There are specific moments when suddenly the team moves as one: squeezing a full-back, for example, to force him to hoof the ball and give it away (another trigger); or from goal kicks and just after losing the ball, when they will go together in the hope of winning the ball while the opposition is stretched, before countering quickly into the spaces left in this chaotic moment of transition.
That is a concept Klopp made famous when he said gegenpressing was the best playmaker.
It is a system pioneered by Rangnick and adopted by the likes of Hasenhuttl (just with less frequency), Klopp, and Thomas Tuchel to various degrees.
But even Klopp and Rangnick are slightly misunderstood. It isn’t actually possible to press high constantly throughout a game.
There are plenty of times when you have to fall back into a regimented formation, and the gegenpress is really about what you do immediately after losing possession – designed to counter the counterattack – with both Klopp and Rangnick keen to press hard for a while before giving way to organization
How pressing looks in action
The most famous exponent of this is Marcelo Bielsa, whose Leeds team run in straight lines and press individuals in a way that lures the opponent into making a risky forward pass.
Whereas pressing the space paralyzes action, pressing players means often the opponent can receive the ball but only under immense instant pressure.
In the Guardiola philosophy, evading the press is tough but once you do so there tends to be space in front of you.
In the Bielsa approach, a pass is available (often left open deliberately to lure you into the trap) but after receiving the ball it is very hard to turn and move forward. To illustrate the point, Leeds top the Premier League charts for tackles while Man City are 19th.
In time, Man Utd will be more like the latter, and already green shoots are appearing.
They won the ball in the final third 12 times against Palace, the most in a single United league game since Alex Ferguson left the club in 2013, while Ronaldo applied 11 pressures, his highest figure for the season.
What you will see is an entire team pressing as one, acting on triggers and setting traps (if you look hard enough). What you won’t see is ferocious pursuit of the ball in every phase of play, because that just isn’t practical.
It will take a long time for Man Utd to get it right because, contrary to the casual way the phrase is thrown around these days, the press is a complex set of tactical instructions that cannot be taught overnight.