Tag: Pressing

Practicing pressing triggers

Structure: Once again, we use an octagonal field to encourage diagonal passing. The field is divided into nine zones with two large goals installed. We play 7vs7 plus goalkeepers.

Rules: There is no corner kick or throw-in, but the game starts again and again at one of the goalkeepers. The defending team may first position a maximum of one field player in the build-up area of the team in possession of the ball. Only when the ball has been played in the middle third and has returned to the build-up zone may the defending team move freely in each zone. This procedure starts again after each interruption.

Coaching points: We would like to train our principle of high pressing, paying particular attention to the issue of pressing triggers (sub-principle). Furthermore, aspects such as correct steering and the correct use of the cover shadow are focused on this small-sided game. Last but not least, players should get a feel for preparing a pressing situation as well as identifying the correct trigger as a unit.

PSG Pressing in the 4-4-2

Under Thomas Tuchel PSG have scored an incredible amount of goals in Ligue 1 this season (2.78 per match), regardless of the structure and personnel in the side. However, a team cannot base its success solely on its attacking principles and individual brilliance.  In this article I will look at PSG’s pressing structure in recent league matches and, although it has been effective, why they have conceded a number of goals along the way.

In the recent Ligue 1 games against Bordeux and Amiens, PSG set up in a 4-4-2 system with an emphasis of putting pressure on the opposition back line early, forcing defenders to play quickly.  In midfield, the two centre midfielders will go man for man in an attempt to close the space between the strikers and midfield lines with the two wide players playing narrow both in and out possession.  As we will see, when this works it can be effective but if the timing of the press is wrong, it can allow the opposition to escape the press and play through or become a threat on transition.  It is important to note that Bordeux played a 3-4-3 with Amiens operating in a standard 4-4-2 formation. 

Amiens v PSG
PSG v Bordeux

Forcing the opponent to play long

Winger jumping to 3rd centre back

As we can see from this diagram, the aggressive positioning of the strikers prevent the Bordeux back line from getting the opportunity to play forward with Neymar ready to jump on the pass to the outside centre back on the switch of play. As this happens the structure behind the initial press changes.  With Bordeux playing a 3-4-3, Bernat detaches from the back 4 and jumps onto the wing back with Kimpembe coming across to defend the long ball.  It is important to note that the two centre midfielders played with aggressive positioning, man marking Besic and Otavio and preventing Bordeux from circulating the ball through their two midfield sitters and forcing the player in possession to either play to the side and make the attack predictable or to go long early.   A consequence of a good high press is the opposition playing a long ball down the side, therefore it is vital that the centre back on the side of the ball is across quickly to ensure they are ready to defend the channel.  In this instance Kimpembe is able to get across quickly and, when the ball does go long, he is a good position to regain the ball and build an attack through heading the ball down to Veratti who has reacted well to the long ball by turning quickly in order to pick up the second ball.

Forcing the opponent to play floated balls to the fullbacks

In the game against Amiens, PSG again gained success through forcing the opponent to play long.  In this match the two strikers looked to press with the intent of forcing the centre backs to play long or back to the GK.  The positioning of the wide midfielders allowed the strikers to press, being narrow and enticing the Amiens goalkeeper to playing a long-floated ball into the fullbacks that can trigger the wide player to jump out and press aggressively.  As we can see in the clip the narrowness of Di Maria and Draxler invite the long-floated balls but the positioning of the wingers allows them to cover the fullback on the pass.  On this pass they become aggressive with the fullbacks ready to jump on the wingers and the striker ball side ready to press the backward pass to the centre backs who then have to play long.

In possession structure leading to difficult counter pressing moments

It is no secret that the best counter pressing teams are the teams that are proactive and think about regaining the ball even when they have possession.  A prime example of this would be the use of the inverted fullback by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City who ensures that the distances between players are short enough to allow quick regains, particularly in central areas.  For PSG counter pressing is of paramount importance, particularly in a league where they will dominate large portions of the ball (Average of 61% possession per match). Therefore, it was a surprise to see them lack a counter pressing structure and allow both Amiens and Bordeux to enjoy moments of transition and break out.  This may be down to the characteristics of the players in forward areas.  Edinson Cavani is a player who is aggressive in the air and likes to play on the furthest away centre back in order to generate speed when he attacks the cross.  His strike partner Kylian Mbappe is more aligned to playing outside the width of the box, either peeling into a position outside the left centre back or rotating with Neymar to receive wide and utilise his qualities in 1v1s in wide areas.  Although two differing player profiles can get the best out the players in an attacking sense it becomes difficult for PSG to regain the ball quickly high up the field with distances between the two being so far apart.  Contrary to this Liverpool have a front 3 that are narrow and play within close proximity, thus allowing them to surround the ball quickly and either prevent the opponent from making an accurate forward pass or forcing the player in possession to make a mistake. 

Insufficient balance to sustain attacks

As seen in the diagram against Bordeux, when Veratti picks up possession of the ball Bernat makes a run beyond with Mbappe and Neymar playing close together in order to create quick combinations, however when Veratti plays through the lines to Mbappe he makes a forward run to support ahead of the ball.  This then creates difficulty when PSG lose the ball as the structure behind the ball is not set to regain quickly.  With the two centre backs not close enough to De Preville it allows the striker to dictate the situation, either receiving into feet and turning or running in behind into the space when the centre backs step up with no pressure on the ball.  In this instance the distance between Veratti and Gueye is too big which prevents the opportunity to apply immediate pressure on the ball, allowing Besic to step out with possession and play a pass through for De Preville.  Fortunately for PSG the pace of the two centre backs allows for a recovery, however in the Champions League and against better opposition and against quicker strikers it can allow teams an opportunity to create scoring chances.

Amiens exploiting the space on the sides

Against Amiens, PSG faced similar problems in possession, allowing the opponents to break out and exploit the space in the vacated fullback areas.  As we can see there is a lack of balance in centre midfield with both Gueye and Paredes on the same side of the pitch.  This then means that when PSG try to play passes through the lines for the inverted wide players they are not set up to regain the ball quickly.  In this situation, the set up behind the ball allows Amiens to attack the free space with no one ready to apply immediate pressure to Zungu when he regains the ball.  Due to the compactness of Amiens, passes through the middle of the pitch are more likely to be intercepted. Although PSG have numbers in those central areas, if they are in front of the ball when the ball is lost, they cannot influence the game.  With both fullbacks playing on the outside of the pitch, it allows Amiens to break out inside PSG’s attacking shape and exploit the spaces vacated down the sides. In this instance Zungu steps out with the ball and Bakker is too far out to recover and prevent Otero from carrying the ball into the final third.  If we look at the balance of the team on PSG’s left it is clear that no one is playing deeper than the ball.  If passes through the lines are to be cut out it creates an opportunity for Amiens to attack the space on the counter.

Timing issues

Allowing the opposition centre midfielders to play through

When playing in any shape, the key to an effective press is not just the intensity of the initial pressure but the compactness vertically (e.g. midfield to strikers) and horizontally between players (e.g. centre midfielder and wide midfielder). Only when there is sufficient compactness between units and individuals can a team press effectively.

It is rare for the player who initiates the first press to win the ball, therefore there must be support around the presser to ensure players are ready to regain the second or third pass.  In the early stages against Bordeux the visitors managed to evade the press due to the distances between the midfield line and forwards.  As we can see the distance between Sabaly and Neymar is too big to influence the wingback when he receives possession. Sabaly is then able to find a pass into Besic who can then play through into Hwang behind the opposition midfield. There are a number of issues in this instance that allows Bordeux to play through the lines and attack PSG’s back line.  

Firstly, the distance between the strikers and the centre midfield players are too big. Although Mbappe and Cavani apply pressure there is a lack of support from behind, meaning that if Bordeux can find Besic or Otavio they can then turn under no pressure and play forward. Secondly when the ball does go wide Neymar is too deep and unable to influence Sabaly when he receives the ball. When Sabaly is able to find Besic, Veratti leaves his slot on the first touch of Besic, rather than when the ball is travelling.  This then gives the Bordeux midfielder time to play through and evade pressure.  

Again, PSG were able to recover the situation and allow the ball to go out for a throw in, however, if we look at the Dortmund’s second goal against PSG in the Champions League, teams with higher levels of quality can exploit the space through poor defensive positioning and a lack of awareness of space behind the opposition lines.

Conclusion

It is no secret that PSG will continue to dominate Ligue 1 this season and go on to secure the title fairly convincingly. In possession, they have a number of attacking options that allow them to break down opponents in different situations based on the characteristics of themselves but also the opposition. Out possession, it is clear to see that Thomas Tuchel wants his team to regain the ball high when possible and although they have the capabilities to defend high they can still be exposed to counter-attacking moments and being played through due to a lack of compactness. Although this will have little impact domestically it may be the fine line between success and failure in the Champions League.

How to press using a diamond

Is there going to be any tactical innovation in the future, or did we reach the end of any development? Interestingly, this question is asked regularly on Twitter. In my opinion, it does not take into account why tactical “innovations” happen in the first place.

No coach in world-football simply tries something new because he thinks this would be fun, contrary to every innovation one tries to solve a problem. To apply the definition of innovation to football one has to the extent it because there are two motives why a coach creates a new pressing structure or changes the positioning of one of his players in a new way. One motive, of course, is to solve a problem, however, creating a problem for your opponent is also possible. As we know everything in football is connected, so we can conclude that solving a problem of your own team leads to a new challenge for the opposing team.

Let´s assume your team struggles to get behind the lines of the opponent and you, therefore, change the structure in possession. Pep Guardiola, for instance, introduced the inverted fullback during his time at Bayern because his team stuck into circulating the ball in an u-shape.

Or you try to press the build-up of your opponent effectively. Therefore, you maybe use a different positioning of your players. For example, Leverkusen under Lewandowski once noticed that most of the teams they faced would build-up through the halfspace. Therefore, their 4-3-3 pressing focused on closing this space.

However, everything in football is connected and therefore we can´t clearly distinguish between creating and solving problems because the approach a team selects depends on the characteristics of each player, but details are adjusted depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent. In the end, the goal is to win more games than before and not to try fancy tactical stuff.

In this piece, I want to discuss a formation used during the defensive phase which causes problems for many teams. Although the formation is not used widely, a few significant teams are quite successful with it. As you may guess due to the title, it´s the diamond in midfield. Specifically, I want to discuss why pressing in a 4-3-1-2 causes so many problems for the build-up of the team in possession.

Therefore, I´m going to show you strength and weaknesses and the different ways teams used the diamond in pressing in order to regain the ball high up the pitch. For those of you who follow European football carefully, it´s no surprise that the main focus lies on RB Salzburg under Marco Rose, however, also other teams like RB Leipzig or Wolfsberger AC used/use the diamond quite successfully.

I wouldn´t call using the diamond in the centre an innovation, nevertheless, rarely did teams in history use the diamond during the pressing phase so systematically that it was hardly possible for the opponent to build-up.

The centre is the key to control the game

This seems to be common sense that in order to control the game you have to control the centre, however, not necessarily with the ball. By using the diamond, the focused area of pressing is the centre. Because by creating a numerical overload the opponent has to either play through tight spaces or try to find other routes into the central space in front of the opponent´s defence often referred to as zone 14.

By closing the centre, the team out of possession has a major advantage that they can isolate certain players more easily. In football, the centre is the space which allows a continuation of play in every direction. Therefore, it is crucial to advance into the half of the opponent and to connect both wing-zones and the halfspaces.  

One of the main strengths of using a 4-3-1-2 during the defensive phase is the fact that the centre, as well as the halfspaces, are covered while the players are positioned diagonally to each other. In order to understand why this is an advantage one has to understand the three different directions a pass can be played as well as the pros and cons of each pass.

There are three types of passes in football:

  1. Horizontal
  2. Vertical
  3. diagonal

While a horizontal pass is quite safe, it does not generate any gain of space. Different to the vertical pass, however, here the opponent can press more easily because the receiver will most likely receive the ball with his back to the goal, however, the team in possession can advance into higher zones.

The diagonal pass more or less combines the strengths of horizontal and vertical pass. For one bypassing the ball diagonally you can gain space, however, it is harder to press because the ball usually goes through different zones covered by different players and simultaneously can break through different lines. Furthermore, the receiver faces the goal of the opponent giving him a quicker overview of the structure of the specific situation.

Therefore, a diagonal pass changes the location of play both vertically and horizontally.

A diamond in pressing closes most of the diagonal passing option due to the players being positioned diagonally to each other. As a consequence, it is harder for the defenders to play penetrating passes behind the first pressing line.

Especially when the opponent is playing with two defensive midfielders against a diamond, the team which uses the diamond has the advantage that they close effectively every passing lane and multiple players are close to the defensive midfielders which eventually helps to press them.

For instance, in the example above, the striker closes the passing lane to the midfielders while the number ten can cover the space behind or orient towards one midfielder. That’s why the triangle of the number ten and the strikers is so important. Not only does it close the diagonal passing lanes in the sixth space but also protects the player who is pressing. If the three players do shift correctly, every switch can be pressed immediately with two other players covering the space behind.

Furthermore, the diamond in the centre allows the covering of space behind the strikers and further creates close connections between the players. Doubling or tripling as well as closing the space available in every direction is no problem because of the structure in the centre. Here, the right and left midfielder can have different tasks. For instance, to cover the defensive midfielders or the central midfielder of the opponent depending on the formation is used. Or the player a bit wider, simply closing the halfspaces and press aggressively once the ball travels to the wing.

To do so, the anchor of the diamond, the number six, is crucial. Although it depends on the interpretation of the diamond, he is the one filling the gaps and closing the passing lanes while being able to move out of a position quickly if necessary.

Especially the connections between each midfielder due to the short distance allows a team using the diamond to create an extremely compact defensive shape in the centre. Besides that, the system is quite flexible, for example against a back-three it is easy to move from the diamond to a flat 4-3-3 with the strikers closing the halfspaces as Leipzig did against Hertha BSC last season.

While the Wolfsberger AC Gerhard Struber created a 4-3-1-2 with the three midfielders playing on the same horizontal line quite often due to different man-orientations. In contrast, RB Salzburg under Marco Rose used the central midfielders in a slightly higher position creating a 4-1-2-1-2. However, this always depends on the shape used by the opponent.

Now one could argue that the wing zones are the weakness of the diamond, while this is partly true due to the lack of players there, however, the structure allows teams to easily press at the wing by isolating the ball carrier.

Dynamically closing space – the idea of space and time

The lack of coverage on the wing seems to be one of the reasons only few coaches select this formation during the defensive phase. However, Johan Cruyff once said that every disadvantage has its advantage. This also applies for the 4-diamond-2, because the space on the wing can actually be one of the major threats for the team in possession.

In order to understand this paradox, we have to introduce the concept of a dynamic game which football is, although when people start thinking about football tactics, they start by talking about formations. I did this mistake as well, and I would say that formations still matter, but not the one you see at the beginning of every tv broadcast. It is more about the formation in every phase of the game as well as the movements in it.

So, for instance, a 4-4-2 during a high press does not have any meaning without context. It depends on the movement of each player. However, it can be helpful to take the formation as the starting point of the explanation as well as an approximation of the spaces covered due to the positioning of the players. The problem with formations is, that they convey static although football is a dynamic sport.

Maybe this focus on formations leads to the association of chess. Although various concepts of chess can be useful for football as well, for instance controlling the centre, the major difference between football and chess is the component of dynamics. Especially, during the pressing phase, dynamic is better than static.

If I would simply shift all the time without pressuring the ball carrier, the team in possession would have an easy life advancing with the ball because they would have time which leads to better technical execution and decision making.

On the contrary, if you attack your opponent dynamically, time and space change quickly forcing the ball carrier to make quick decisions in a constantly changing environment. Consequently, more mistake will be made leading to turnovers and counter-attacking possibilities.

Take this example as an illustration of the dynamics created due to the open space. Mukiele receives the ball wide due to the space available, however, this pass functioned as a trigger for Schalke 04. As you can see, multiple players have access to this space and are therefore able to isolate the right-back of Leipzig.

Once the pass is played towards Mukiele, Schalke starts pressing aggressively. By timing their moves so perfectly, they make use of the short time span in which Mukiele aligns his body and controls the ball. Consequently, between the last checking and the ball control, the environment in which Mukiele is, has completely changed. As a consequence, he has to orient again while not having the necessary amount of time leading to worse decision-making.

This principle of early anticipation and therefore immediate pressure isn´t exclusively reserved for the pressing in a diamond but is used in every formation. However, the diamond in midfield favours those situations due to the different spaces covered.

Now there are several ways of pressing at the wing. For one it depends on the philosophy and risk-aversion a team has, for second the positioning of the opponent plays a crucial role too. As one could observe at RB Salzburg, the striker was often the one forcing the centre-back to play the pass to the wing to the fullback. Consequently, the striker would apply pressure by continuing his run simultaneously using his cover shadow to block the passing lane to the centre-back.

The fullback now would be either pressed by the fullback or central midfielder depending on different factors. For example, on the position of the ball receiver or his teammates. Further, the way the ball ended up in this space. Usually, the fullback of Salzburg anticipated the pass and once the ball travelled to the fullback of the opponent, he would start his run and dynamically close the space. Two important things that needed to be considered. Here, the timing and speed of the fullback is crucial. If he starts too late or too early, he can easily be outplayed or the pass won´t come in the first place. If he is too fast, the ball carrier can use a quick body feint to unbalance him, if he is too slow, it gives the receiving player enough time to turn and make a decision.

The central midfielder had to be in position to close the diagonal passing lane which the fullback can´t close. At the same time, he has the possibility to press the ball near number six of the opponent. By using his cover shadow, the fullback has the task to close the vertical passing lane down the line. In order to cover the space, the centre-back would orient towards the hole and could eventually take on the winger of the opponent. Lastly, the number ten closed the horizontal pass in the centre leading to high compactness for Salzburg at the wing with lots of passing lanes blocked and a diagonal shape covering the space behind.

Alternatively, the central midfielder can press aggressively at the wing as we could see in the scene of Schalke against Leipzig. The Wolfsberger AC under Struber used this movement as well. It gives you a better-secured wing-zone but makes you more vulnerable in the centre because you have one man less. Especially, when the central midfielder does not have the perfect timing, the number six can have a hard time covering the space left, giving the opponent the chance to play through the centre.

Lastly, the specific movement depends to a huge extent on the positioning of the opponent. For instance, if the centre-backs of the opponent are positioned relatively wide and they use the goalkeeper to create a back-three the striker might start his pressing run more diagonally out of the centre, having the defensive midfielder of the opponent in his cover shadow. Then, the central midfielder of the team defending can push outwards to press more easily because the risk of getting exposed is lower.

Pressing triggers and the direction of force

Interestingly, several teams which use the diamond not only force the opponent to the side what seems to be common sense across many countries but rather force him inwards into the centre. Logically, the overload centrally playing in the 4-diamond-2 is the major reason. Nevertheless, it is worth discussing both forcing inwards and outwards.

The reason why most teams try to force their opponents to the side is simple. The sideline helps to defend because it limits the available space for the attacking team. As a consequence, the defending team is able to isolate the ball carrier more easily because they only have to close five directions instead of eight (vertical both directions, horizontal, diagonally forward and backwards). Usually, three players are enough to literally close every available passing lane for the ball carrier while pressing him.

Furthermore, the forcing of the opponent to the side has the advantage that the concept of pressing through is applicable by the striker. With pressing through I mean that one player presses the ball carrier dynamically but does not stop his run when the ball carrier passes the ball to a teammate but continues pressing and consequently leaving the passer in his cover shadow.

By forcing the opponent in the centre of the pitch, it is possible to use the numerical superiority to press. The 4-diamond-2 is perfectly prepared to press in the centre of the pitch due to the diagonal structure in place.

In order to understand a few principles in pressing with the diamond it is worth taking a look at different teams using the 4-diamond-2 mainly RB Salzburg under Marco Rose and Wolfsberger AC under Gerhard Struber.

Ways to dictate the direction of play

To start things, we can take a look at the pressing of Wolfsberger AC. Wolfsberg´s striker presses the centre-backs with curved runs from the outside, therefore forcing the opponent in the centre of the pitch directly. This leaves the centre-backs of the opponent in a position in which they get pressed quickly and have to decide quickly in an environment uncomfortable for every last man.

The big advantage of pressing from the wing towards the centre is that the ball carrier is usually forced on his weak foot. Usually the right centre-back is right-footed while the left centre-back prefers his left foot. When the striker presses inwards, he actually presses from the side of the strong foot of the centre-back. Therefore, he is not able to protect the ball unless he uses his weak switches to his weak foot – quite often centre-backs have only one strong foot. As a consequence, the team pressing has an advantage.   

Furthermore, the ball carrier is under immense pressure because the diamond closes the passing lanes to his central midfielders while he is pressed by Wolfsberg´s strikers. Quite often, the horizontal pass to his partner is the only option along with a long ball. However, then the same movements happen again. Because the ball far striker of Wolfsberg closed the halfspace while orienting towards the deeper fullback, he can immediately start a curved run and forces the centre-back inwards again. Only this time, the other striker is closer and along with the number ten able to press aggressively.

By using those movements during the pressing phase, Wolfsberg applies the principle of denying the switch and effectively isolating a player. Because of their pressing movements, the pitch gets slowly tighter for the team in possession. Mistakes appear more frequently, and a calm and coordinated build-up is not possible anymore. Here, I want to stress how important the use of the cover shadow is, something every coach should teach his players.

Interestingly, Salzburg under Marco Rose used similar movements, although with a significant difference. While the ballnear striker also presses from the outside in order to force the switch, Salzburg reacted differently. The second striker would press more from the inside to the outside, forcing the opponent to the wing.

Therefore, he often waits in a slightly deeper position starting his run once the pass is played rather than waiting for the pass. Again, this creates more dynamic pressure as well as a more compact shape centrally. However, it always depends on positioning, body position and height of the pressing line.

The difference to the pressing of Wolfsberg? Salzburg creates even more dynamic by forcing the opponent in one direction. This allows the players to continue their runs once a pass is played instead of changing direction. Furthermore, the opponent only finds space at the wing, consequently, they have to pass the ball in that zone. Of course, by pressing through, Salzburg is able to isolate the fullback/winger receiving the ball on the wing.

How to react once the first line of pressure is overplayed?

Logically, it is unrealistic that the opponent always plays around the diamond and never finds a hole in the defence. Therefore, it is necessary to know how a team using the 4-diamond-2 can react.

On the one hand, the diamond provides a numerical overload against most teams in the centre of the pitch, along with the diagonal structure, many passing lanes are still closed for the opponent once the first line is overplayed. Besides, the strikers can quickly press from behind creating a high local compactness.

A good example would be a pass from the fullback in the space behind the strikers. Here, the team using the diamond against the ball is still able to press with the central midfielder and the number ten while the number six covers space behind and the strikers can recover. More dangerously would be a pass behind the central midfielder, although the defensive midfielder as the anchor of the diamond would still be able to press quickly along with the centre-back pushing out. Essentially, this is one of the biggest risks, when defending with the diamond. Because once the central midfielder is pulled out of the centre, the compactness is lost and the team in possession can play quick diagonal passes against the direction in which the defensive block shifts.

While the diamond provides a high degree of local compactness, the overload in the centre has a downside. The far side is less well covered compared to a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 against the ball. Therefore, the main goal should be to prevent switches especially to the far halfspace in your own half because it makes one vulnerable and one losses a lot of energy because of the long ways to shift.

The goal should be to either gain the ball as quickly as possible in the centre or push the opponent towards the wing and out of the dangerous spaces. Then, the normal pressing movements can begin again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the diamond is an interesting formation to use during the defensive phase because it essentially covers the most important spaces in modern football while giving a team flexibility to change the system quickly according to the structure of the opponent.

However, simply using a diamond is not enough. Compactness, isolation of the opponent and pressing with a clear plan in mind is essential to take advantage of the various options a diamond provides. That’s why I wanted to present you certain movements and ideas teams like RB Salzburg use in pressing. Essentially, those principles are best used in a diamond. So it is more about the philosophy and the players why a team should choose the 4-diamond-2.