The tactical theory of pressing, and how Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos press

The following is an extract from the upcoming Australia Scout 2014/15 Season Preview

Ange Postecoglou has repeatedly established what his mission and philosophy is in as coach of the Socceroos. Having taken over from the negativity of the Holger Osieck reign, he immediately instilled a more proactive, ambitious mindset both on and off the pitch – not only setting lofty goals for the side’s progression, but implementing a more positive style of play in his first competitive fixture against Costa Rica.

A significant element of that match was the side’s renewed approach to pressing – it was far more structured, much higher up the pitch and bold in its application. Against Costa Rica’s 5-4-1 formation, the wide players, Dario Vidosic and Robbie Kruse, sat between the outside centre-backs and wing-backs to ensure passes couldn’t played wide. Matthew Leckie, as the number nine, covered the space between the centre-backs, with Mark Bresciano, the #10, sitting deeper and closer to his fellow midfielders. With the Australian wingers pressing from ‘outside’ to ‘in’ (so whenever an opposition centre-back had the ball, the obvious out-ball wide was blocked off) and the side as a whole, too, sitting much higher up, keeping the distance between the lines compact and ensuring Costa Rica couldn’t play through, the Socceroos were far better defensively then they had been previously under Osieck.

Pressing v Costa Rica

How the Socceroos pressed high up the pitch against Costa Rica

It was an interesting contrast, because Osieck was never about ‘pressing’ as so much about ‘defending’, even though the two concepts are relatively similar. The term pressing originated from Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s book, The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, where he outlined three different types of pressing. Full-pressing refers to closing down high up the pitch; half-pressing when the ball moves past halfway, and false pressing, often referred to ‘defensiveness’, but what Lobanovskyi prescribed as ‘pretending’ to press, but really sitting off. It was a relatively revolutionary concept, primarily because it called upon all players to be involved in the defensive phase – an extraordinary concept at the time.

That idea, of course, has now become mainstream in the modern game. The evolution of universality has lead to defenders who must attack, and strikers who must defend, and this sort of concept has lead to the globalisation of pressing. Barcelona, for example, were lauded for their pressing under Pep Guardiola (who described them as “a horrible team without the ball”, hence the emphasis on winning it back as quickly as possible) – they closed down as soon as they lost the ball, hounding opponents deep inside their own half. As Simon Kuper wrote in The Blizzard…

Barcelona start pressing the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable.

Another side superb at winning the ball back in certain areas was Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan – who invited opponents onto them, defended narrow to force them wide, and then won the ball back ruthlessly at the slightest mistake. Atletico Madrid used a similar concept last season. In a 4-4-2 formation, the two strikers came very deep behind the ball and created a very compact shape, forcing play towards the sides which was the cue for the side to ‘explode’ defensively – often referred to as a pressing trap, and an excellent example of cohesive, integrated team defending.

Another pioneer of pressing, Arrigo Saachi, corroborates this. “Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard, it’s about controlling space” says the legendary Italian coach. “Pressing was always collective, I wanted all eleven players in an active position, effecting and influencing the opposition when we did not have the ball.” Saachi, in an enormously successful tenure at AC Milan, worked meticulously with the side on their structure without the ball, running his side through a “shadow play” drill that saw eleven players line up against an imaginary opposition, and move as a unit relative to where Saachi dictated the ball was. He would work with each player to correct their positioning, guiding the side into where they should be as the ‘ball’ moved up, down and across the pitch.

An important element of this work was in maintaining the side’s compactness. He always asked for the distance to be no less than 25m. Compactness is required, of course, because if the forward players move forward and the rest of the side doesn’t, then the side becomes broken and space is created for opponents between the ‘lines’. Pressing is about moving as a unit, and ensuring gaps are covered.

What, then, does pressing have to do with Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos? The contrast between Osieck’s last game and Postecoglou’s first was telling – the latter is ‘full-pressing’, the former ‘false pressing’ (according to Lobanovyski’s proposed definitions). Pressing high up isn’t necessarily any more ‘correct’, but it was simply representative of the differing approaches of the two coaches, and reflective of Postecoglou’s “positive” mantra. Furthermore, the improved cohesion and understanding of the entire side was hugely important – not disjointed like under Osieck, but disciplined and structured.

It has been a recurring feature of Postecoglou’s reign. The most significant and obvious change was that the attacking players now have clear responsibilities without the ball – whereas Osieck seemed to be happy to let them half-heartedly occupy opposition centre-backs, Postecoglou demands they work relentlessly to close down in a structured manner. The structure itself has been very consistent since the Costa Rica match. The number 9 works between the opposition centre-backs, the wingers block off the channel between centre-back and full-back, and the rest of the side pushes high up to remain compact.

Two other important elements are that the full-backs stick tight to their direct opponents to try and ‘nip in’ and win the ball quickly, while the midfield must sit near the channels to help protect that zone where opposition wingers or midfielders drift into.

How the Socceroos press

How the Socceroos press

Ultimately, the key factor is the integration of all those movements as a whole. True to Saachi’s vision, any effective implementation of the Socceroos press has to involve all players and their execution of their roles correctly.

We have seen a number of examples of this. The match against the Netherlands at the World Cup, for example, was a fine demonstration of cohesive, integrated pressing. When the Dutch had possession inside their own half, Matthew Leckie and Tommy Oar (the two Socceroos wingers) prevented passes from the outside Dutch centre-backs into the wing-backs – combined with tight marking in midfield, it forced the Dutch to frequently play long, unambitious balls. They only got back into the game via a half-time formation switch, demonstrating how much Postecoglou’s side had disrupted their usual game.

The following match against Spain, however, demonstrated the pitfalls in Postecoglou’s pressing strategy. In a 4-3-3, Spain dropped the deepest midfielder, Xabi Alonso, in between the centre-backs – meaning Oliver Bozanic, playing #10, didn’t want to track him so far upfield. Furthermore, Santi Cazorla, playing from the right, constantly drifted inside to become an additional passing option, meaning that Spain constantly had a numerical advantage in midfield and were able to play through Australia’s press.

Another more recent example of how the press can be ineffective was against Belgium, during the September international break. Marc Wilmot’s side used a fluid 4-3-3 where Kevin de Bruyne, Steven Defour and Axel Witsel interchanged freely in midfield, with no permanent holding midfielder but rather the latter two, in particular, rotating into that deep-lying role. That made the job of Mark Bresciano, the #10 attempting to occupy the deepest opposition midfield, much more difficult, and Belgium were able to work it forward from the back quite easily into midfield, with De Bruyne in particular finding space to the left of Mark Milligan.

Clearly, Australia’s pressing strategy requires careful refinement and ongoing coaching. It, however, has been encouraging to see a clear, consistent strategy across Postecoglou’s reign. Importantly, it has been directly in line with what he initially promised as national head coach.

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