Pressing: an in-depth analysis, and how it defined the Melbourne Derby

Saturday night’s Melbourne Derby was a fast-paced, end-to-end affair, with the tempo of the game set in the first minute where tackles flew in from both sides, resulting in a City free-kick in a dangerous position. The tactical battle centred around pressing, which was the key reason why the game felt so open, energetic and aggressive.

Pressing, as discussed by Australia Scout in the past, underpins the actions any team in football makes during the defensive phase of play. As all teams must spend periods in a game without the ball, they must, by the nature of football, ‘press’ to some extent. As such, the style, organisation and structure of the press varies between teams, according to the instructions of the coach. In essence, though, the basic principles of defending – preventing goals – underpin the principles of pressing.

Charles Hughes, the Director of the English FA during the 1960s and 70s, defines it as “the purpose of pressuring is to decrease both the time and space which an attacking player as in which to make his pass or his dribble”.

It’s not surprising, then, that pressing is often misunderstood term, partly because the word itself refers to two different types of defensive actions. In Massimo Lucchesi’s book, aptly titled ‘Pressing’, he puts forward that putting a player under pressure is an individual action, whereas pressing is a collective action.

An important distinction to also make is that pressing does not necessarily always refer to pressing high up the pitch. Instead, it is proposed by Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s book, ‘The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models’ that there are three types of pressing.

  1. The full press refers to an aggressive press high up in the opposition half, with the defensive action to win the ball back encompassing all areas of the pitch.
  2. A half-press is where a team drops off into a formation – for example, a 4-5-1 – and then presses when a certain trigger occurs, such as the ball moving beyond halfway or the right-back receiving a pass.
  3. Finally, Lobanovskyi proposes a false press, where one or two players pressure and the rest of the team arrange themselves in the formation.

As a full press is difficult to execute over long periods of time, a half-press is the most commonly used by teams. That is no different in the A-League. The trigger mentioned by the definition above varies depending on the opposition and the coach – it could be a back pass by the opposition or a poor first touch by the player in possession.

As one of Brendan Rodgers assistants, Chris Davies, explains, Liverpool have “very specific functions for the front three to press.”

“For example, for the left-winger: when the ball is with the oppositions’ left-sided centre-half (centre-back) and it is about to get transferred to the right side centre-half, that’s the trigger for the left winger to leave his right full back and jump to the right-sided centre-half. That’s his sone, so you lock that zone in and then the full-back jumps onto their right back, and all of a sudden you are swarming.”

Quote from Jed Davies ‘Coaching Tiki-Taka’

It is fitting that this particular trigger is explained in-depth by Davies because it was demonstrated by both sides in the Melbourne Derby.

Melbourne City press Victory in build-up play

John Van’t Schip has kept with the 4-3-3 formation in every game this season, because it allows him to play three of his quick, pacy forwards upfront together. David Williams, Mate Dugandzic and Iain Ramsay started through the middle, on the right and left respectively, and did an excellent job in leading City’s pressure high up the pitch.

However, City didn’t do a ‘full press’ – according to the definitions above, it was a ‘half press’. They dropped off as a team to around halfway, setting up in a 4-5-1 formation and defending in a medium block. Williams was instructed to drop onto Victory’s deepest midfielder, Carl Valeri, and prevent passes into him, while Dugandzic and Ramsay took up positions between the Victory centre-backs and full-backs, to block off passes out wide.

Then, when the ball was played out to a full-back, that would be the trigger for the side to press, with the winger pushing forward onto the winger, Williams closing off the centre-back nearest to the ball (and another midfielder picking up Valeri), and the winger on the opposite side closing in on the far-side centre-back.

Melbourne City pressing v Melbourne Victory

Example one

In the first image, the Victory have set up to play out from the back, with City dropping off as a compact unit to halfway and Williams dropping onto Valeri.

Example one

Then, when the pass is played out to Geria, Ramsay closes him down, Williams moves forward to block off the return pass to Leijer, with Melling taking responsibility for Valeri.

As the play progresses, Dugandzic recognises that Geria is shaping up to play to Ansell, so he moves forward off Murnane and onto the left-sided centre-back, where he wins the ball. City quickly counter, ending with Ramsay miscuing a volleyed shot off a Jason Hoffman cross.

Example two

In this example, Valeri has rotated with Leigh Broxham so that the latter has become the deepest lying midfielder. Williams still picks up Broxham, though, with Dugandzic positioning himself where he can press onto Murnane if the ball is played out to the left-back.

City pressing Victory - example two

The pass is made, and so Dugandzic moves forward to close him down. Note on the far side left winger Ramsay has narrowed slightly, so that if the pass is played to right-sided centre-back Leijer, Ramsay is in a position to close him down.

City pressing Victory - example two2

Therefore, when Leijer receives the ball, he is aware of Ramsay’s incoming pressure, and goes long to avoid being caught in possession.

Example three

City pressing Victory - example three

Again, City have set up in their compact medium block, with Williams shadowing Valeri. Ansell looks to play across to Leijer, with Dugandzic blocking the pass out to Murnane and the forward pass. This is the cue for Ramsay to press on Leijer, which can be seen in the second image.

The video below highlights these moments of pressing.

As a result of this pressure, and because of the willingness of Victory’s back four to play out even when closed down, City repeatedly won the ball high up the pitch and were able to attack quickly and directly. Their best chances came when the front three drove forward with their pace, got to the byline and then cut balls back for midfield runners – Mooy, Melling and Paartalu all had shooting opportunities from the edge of the 18 yard box.

Victory pressure City’s centre-backs

Melbourne Victory, though, had a specific press of their own to force City’s centre-backs into long passes. It was similar in structure to City’s press, although it was more proactive, and started higher up the pitch as soon as the ball was turned over. It was, then, according to Lobanovskyi’s definitions, a full press.

Central striker Besart Berisha arced his runs so that the centre-back in possession could not pass across to his centre-back partner. This was particularly obvious whenever Connor Chapman received the ball, with Fahid Ben Khalfallah occupying right-back Jason Hoffman, and Kosta Barbarouses pushing forward onto left-sided centre-back Patrick Kisnorbo, and Thompson preventing passes into the #6, Erik Paartalu.

Melbourne Victory pressing structure v Melbourne City

Example one

Victory pressing City - example one

As Chapman receives the ball, Berisha has already begun his run so that he approaches Chapman from side on, preventing the sideways pass to Kisnorbo. Khalfallah’s job here is simple, as Hoffman stays fairly deep, while Thompson’s shadowing of Paartalu is obvious in the second image. Chapman’s pass is long, and inaccurate.

Example two

Victory press City - example two

The same pressing structure was set on the opposite side, with Berisha this time arcing his run to prevent Kisnorbo passing sideways. Thompson again picks up Paartalu, and with the left-back Garuccio not in a position to receive the ball, Kisnorbo plays it long.

The video below shows these two examples.

Conclusion

While both sides pressed well, the difference between City and Victory was that City were happy to go long, with their centre-backs recording relatively poor pass completion statistics (both around 75%) – whereas Victory were keen to play out, and took risks to try and beat City’s press, which backfired particularly in the first half. In fact, because of this, City were paradoxically more effective in attack when they didn’t have the ballbecause it meant they when they won the ball via half-pressing they could attack quickly and directly from positions inside the Victory half.

We have seen this tactic from City before – most noticeably in a 3-1 win over Brisbane earlier this season.

No goals came of it here, with Paartalu’s winner a simple header off the second phase of a set-piece. However, the pressing from either side dictated the tactical battle of this Melbourne derby.

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