If you become more and more confused with each passing football season, you’re not the only one. That’s because the lexicon of the beautiful game seems to change from one campaign to the next, with new terms and tactical descriptors sprinkled into punditry and journalism like confetti.
One of those terms is pressing, plus its unruly sibling counter-pressing. Football fans of a certain vintage will simply decry pressing as ‘closing down an opponent and getting stuck in’, but that would refer to an individual player. With the various forms of pressing, it’s an act that requires two, three or even more players acting in unison to close down the opposition’s space. If you’re still a little confused, here’s a quick overview of pressing and counter-pressing – what do they mean? How are they deployed? What are the pros and cons?
What Is Pressing in Football?
First things first, let’s imagine that a player has received possession of the ball. The idea behind pressing is for the opposition players to move forward as a unit to achieve two aims: a) to close down the individual in possession and make life difficult for them, and b) to close down the space and passing angles to their teammates in order to pressure them into making a mistake.
Sometimes, there is a misconception that pressing is simply one player acting alone – not so, because those pressing the next potential receivers of the ball are just as important to a successful press. The object is to either force the player in possession to give the ball away with a rash pass, or force them to hit it long where the pressing team should, in theory, have the numerical advantage.
Another element to pressing is the belief of many top coaches, including Pep Guardiola, that the best route to goal is to win the ball back as quickly and as high up the pitch as possible – taking advantage of a defensive team that is out of their shape. There are differing views on who actually innovated pressing in football for the first time, although the trail tends to lead back to Viktor Maslov, a Russian coach in the mid twentieth century who was notable for introducing the high press while also implementing a 4-4-2 formation at his various clubs – another game-changer at the time.
As far as English football is concerned, it wasn’t until the 2010s that the concept of pressing was rolled out in convincing fashion – two overseas coaches in Pep and Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp responsible for that.
Indeed, Klopp took charge at Anfield and was quickly inundated with questions about his ‘gegenpressing’ style – the literal translation of that is counter pressing.
What Is Counter-Pressing in Football?
Often, a pressing team won’t just run around like maniacs trying to win the ball back. Instead, there’s some method to the madness and the press will only begin once a certain trigger has been activated. That will be when a specific player receives possession of the ball, or when the ball enters a particular segment of the pitch. Even the most industrious of pressing teams will allow the opposition goalkeeper or defenders to have the ball, for example, if they aren’t the targets of the press.
That is a traditional pressing system, however, there is an alternative style: the counter-press, or Klopp’s famed gegenpressing. This is different the standard press in that it is activated the moment that a team loses possession of the ball. The idea is to strike and win the ball back as quickly as possible before the opposition can launch a counter-attack – some head coaches, including Pep, have even advocated tactically fouling an opponent in order to prevent the counter from starting.
A counter-press is often spontaneous and reactive, with several players pressing an opposition at any given moment as soon as possession is lost, so it can be a rather chaotic strategy that leads to wide-open games and, often but not always, goalscoring chances being created at both ends of the pitch. Although Klopp is the poster boy of the modern counter-press, it’s actually been around for a number of years. Rinus Michels and Arrigo Sacchi, two incredibly successful coaches on the European continent, were amongst the first to implement it in the 1970s and eighties.
What Are the Benefits of Pressing?
Footballing tacticians that have embraced game theory know that one of the secrets to success in the beautiful game is to make life as difficult as possible for your opposition. A robust pressing system does exactly that – starving the opposition’s most creative players of time and space on the ball.
A fast and hard press can invoke feelings of pressure and even fear in a player, knowing that he or she has only milli-seconds to decide how to use the ball before they are closed down and tackled. Another sporting term – turnover – is increasingly entering the football lexicon as a pressing team wins back possession.
The higher up the pitch that the press is activated, the closer to the opposition goal that the ball might be retrieved – that can directly lead to shots and goalscoring chances being created. They say that attack is often the best form of defence; those with a successful press and counter-press are evidence of that.
What Are the Disadvantages of Pressing?
Some of the best football teams on the planet use pressing in their defensive work, and that has lead to a spate of imitators utilising it too – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that. But such ubiquity has led to problems for some pressing teams: opposition players are becoming more comfortably in playing ‘through’ a press, while head coaches are switched on enough to create tactical systems that are press proof – for example, tasking some players to stay out wide ensures that a harassed individual always has an ‘out ball’ when they are being pressed.
When the press isn’t coordinated perfectly, it can leave space in behind too – teams comfortable playing through the lines may find themselves in advantageous positions if they are able to resist their opponents’ press. And then there’s the physical rigours of being part of a pressing team. The constant need to be on the front foot means that players need exceptional speed across the ground and stamina to continue to press for 90 minutes. Tiredness can lead to gaps emerging within the press, and those can be keenly exploited by the opposition.