Tottenham Hotspur have been excellent in an unusual and unpredictable Premier League season, with a young squad featuring a much-admired British core developing a fine understanding of how Mauricio Pochettino wants his team to play.
Pochettino is renowned for his emphasis on aggressive, Bielsa-like pressing. He encourages his teams to close down relentlessly when they lose the ball, introducing the concept to great success at Southampton when replacing Nigel Adkins in January 2013. The primary advantages of counterpressing are that it enables teams to disrupt the opposition’s build up play, as well as creating opportunities through counter-attacks won by regaining the ball high up the pitch.
Counterpressing relies, however, on an immediate transition into a defensive mindset as soon as the ball is lost. This is evident in the short clip below, in which two things are highly notable.
First, and most obviously, is the reaction from Eric Dier when he gives the ball away with a cheap pass – he immediately adjusts his body position by shifting his centre of gravity lower, enabling him to aggressively close down James McArthur and force a turnover.
Secondly, you can see as soon as Dier makes his errant pass, the two full-backs on both sides of the pitch immediately move back infield into their defensive positions, illustrating how quickly and reliably Tottenham react in the moment of transition.
Counterpressing is not simply about pressing immediately after losing the ball, however. The four main moments of the game (possession, opposition possession and the two transition moments), while often separated in analysis, are interrelated. There are certain principles and tasks required in one in order for the team to be properly prepared for another moment. In the case of counterpressing, for example, the team must be structured and organised appropriately when they have in possession so if/when the transition does occur, they are able to counterpress effectively.
Pep Guardiola refers to this with the now-famous “15 pass” rule.
‘If there isn’t a sequence of 15 passes first, it’s impossible to carry out the transition between defence & attack.
If you lose the ball, if they get it off you, then the player who takes will probably be alone & surrounded by your players, who will then get it back easily or, at the very least ensure that the rival team can’t manoeuvre quickly.
It’s these 15 passes that prevent your rival from making any kind of co-ordinated transition.”Pep Guardiola
A common rule of thumb for effective counterpressing coined by the excellent analysts at Spielverlagerug.com is “for the players to seek to occupy smaller areas of the field in acompact manner while remaining as far from each other as possible (and maintaining connection) within that small area”.
A team with smaller distances between players will be able to counterpress more effectively than one where they play with great width, as this increases the distance players have to cover to apply pressure when the ball is lost, and thus increases the likelihood of the opposition being able to retain the ball past this initial pressure.
Setting up in possession to counterpress
In this regard, it is significant that Tottenham attack with a compact structure in possession. The two wide attackers in their 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 system of play move into very narrow positions, with the width created by the two wing-backs who push high up the pitch.
Crucially, Eric Dier, the holding midfielder, will sit in a disciplined position in front of the back four, protecting the two centre-backs and ostensibly creating a back three whereby if the opposition counter-attacks into wide areas, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld or Dier himself can move out towards the flank to apply pressure and defend proactively.
Importantly, too, Tottenham focus their passing through central areas. This means they have numbers surrounding the ball if penetrating passes to attackers between the lines are unsuccessful. These are often attempted by the aforementioned back three, with the second function midfielder, currently Moussa Dembele but previously either Dele Ali or Tom Carroll, providing support.
To win the ball, you have to give it to the opposition
Interestingly, though, Tottenham don’t build up play through the thirds. While they do play out from the back – with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris hugely important in this regard because of his capable distribution – they actually rarely connect attacks through the midfield zone.
Rather, the centre-backs (and Dier) move the ball upfield, often quite slowly in order to give the attacking trio (formed from Eriksen, Son, Lamela, Alli, Chadli or Onomoah) time to get high up between the lines between the opposition midfield and defence. Vertonghen and Alderweireld actually play more direct than one might expect, often bypassing the midfield zone altogether by looking to hit either Kane, or release a runner in behind with a long diagonal.
Alderweireld is particularly adept at this, and to create some time and space on the ball for him, Dier will drop to the left of Vertonghen, who himself positions relatively narrow. This gives Tottenham’s build up a lopsided look, evident in the diagram above.
When the ball is circulated down this left-hand side, they can draw the first pressing line of the opposition towards one side before quickly moving the ball across to the other, where Alderweireld can move forward in time and space to play a trademark diagonal forward.
The slow build-up when Tottenham have possession in deep positions is important because it gives the players ahead of the back three time to get into a compact, connected shape. Spurs are particularly good at winning second balls because they always push attackers close in support of Kane so that he is not isolated when trying to win aerial duels from long diagonals.
These specific structures and principles give Tottenham the platform to then be able to counterpress when they lose the ball. In fact, their structure for counterpressing allows Tottenham’s players to attempt attempt risky passes into the final third, because they have the ability to win it back quickly.
It may seem counteractive and defensive to prepare for defensive transition when you have possession. However, it ensures the team maintains stable with and without the ball, and are in a position where they can win the ball from an opposition that is shifting into offensive organisation – meaning, they are spreading out and thus are more vulnerable to a quick counter-attack.
This is undoubtedly a difficult concept to grasp and it is unsurprising that it has taken Pochettino more than a season to fully implement his ideas and way of working at Tottenham. However, the players now demonstrate a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and are one of the league’s most organised teams with and without the ball.