Since the ascent of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, it has become commonplace for tactics writers to talk about a team being committed to pressing. Unfortunately, however, this term is becoming increasingly useless as it is being used to describe a variety of fairly different tactical philosophies. You can say that Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Diego Simeone all believe in pressing—and you’d be right. You’d also have said practically nothing useful about how the managers set their teams up given that each represents a unique take on how to attack the ball when out of possession.
Like many tactical innovations, pressing first became popular in eastern Europe.
Pressing requires shared movement by an entire team to be effective. If one player chases the ball around the field independently of any shared movement with the rest of the team the player will wear out quickly and obvious holes will open up in the defense which the attacking team should be able to exploit with minimal difficulty. (Brett Rainbow’s breakdown of Tottenham’s inconsistent press in Mauricio Pochettino’s first season is essential reading on this point.)
Thus it is not a surprise that it was the eastern Europeans, who were predictably less individualistic in their sensibilities than England or most South American nations, who first developed pressing as a consistent tactical method.
In particular legendary managers Victor Maslov and Valeriy Lobanovskiy helped to develop a system that squeezed the field and limited the opposition’s time on the ball. They rode this system to remarkable success at Dynamo Kyiv and their influence gradually expanded to the rest of the world and has been particularly felt in Spain, Germany, and Argentina.
In the modern game, there are several different approaches to pressing.
We should begin this discussion by talking about what these systems have in common. All of them expect players to run a lot. Jurgen Klopp has exiled players who wouldn’t run for him, most notably marquee striker signing Ciro Immobile last year at Dortmund. Mauricio Pochettino did the same at Southampton with club-record signing Gaston Ramirez . Pep Guardiola showed no hesitation in selling Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Diego Simeone, meanwhile, butted heads with striker Mario Mandzukic over the Croat’s low work-rate and was seen laughing at new signing Luciano Vietto as he struggled with the intense training Simeone requires after first arriving at the club:
A second point is that pressing systems can actually be incredibly effective defensive tactics if practiced correctly. Though it is often thought of as being primarily about how a team attacks, pressing styles are often as much about defending as they are attacking. Diego Simeone’s Atletico conceded .68 goals per game during their title-winning campaign in 2013-14. Klopp’s Dortmund gave up .64 goals per game in 2010-11. And though stats for the Clasico clubs are always a bit skewed, Barcelona gave up .55 goals per game in 2010-11 under Guardiola.
That said, there are a number of key differences in how different managers use pressing. The problem with many discussions of the term is that it fails to account for these differences or to understand how these differences shape the overall philosophy of the club:
- When does the manager want his team to press? Immediately after losing possession? Only when players receive the ball in certain areas? Do they do this for as much of the 90 minutes as possible or only for certain portions of it?
- What triggers the press? Is it focused chiefly around the ball being turned over or is it more about specific cues, such as an opponent receiving the ball in their own half with their back to goal or a player being forced to chase down a pass played out to the wing?
- Where on the field do they look to press the ball? Do they press all over the field or do they only focus their pressing around one area of the field?
- How long do they press the ball? Do they continue to chase the ball after the initial press or do they back off if the first wave of pressure fails to win the ball?
The Three Main Approaches to Pressing
There are three main schools of thought on how to use pressing. Each answers the above questions in different ways. Sometimes the differences between the schools are small; sometimes they are enormous.
These are the three schools:
- The Bielsa school (Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa, Mauricio Pochettino—and yes, if you want to call this the Guardiola school that’s fine. I’m going with Bielsa because he came before Guardiola chronologically.)
- The Mourinho school (Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone)
- The German school (Jurgen Klopp, Roger Schmidt)
Tellingly, each of these three schools has either sent a team to a Champions League final or won a Champions League title, which goes some way to explaining the appeal of pressing as a general element of a broader vision for how soccer should be played. Teams that perfect a pressing system often end up becoming far better than you’d expect them to be given their talent level.
The 13-14 La Liga winning Atletico side that beat Ronaldo’s Real Madrid and Messi’s Barça to the title is a case in point, although Mauricio Pochettino’s over-achieving 2013-14 Southampton side and Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund teams also probably over-achieved given their talent levels and competition. Klopp’s Dortmund was certainly talented, but then two of his most important players, Shinji Kagawa and Nuri Sahin, have never looked remotely close to the same elite level when playing for anyone other than Klopp.
The Bielsa School
The Bielsa approach has been chiefly developed by Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa. Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola are two managers whose approach most closely mirrors that of Bielsa, although both have also altered the system in some ways. That said, for all the variation between the three managers, there are some identifiable similarities across all three systems:
- Teams press all the way up to the opposition goalkeeper. This means that when the ball is played back to the goalkeeper it is not unusual for Bielsa sides to keep pressing, even when most other pressing teams would back off. (This is a point Mauricio Pochettino made in comparing his approach to new Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s.) This pressing nearly led to a goal in Tottenham’s 5-1 win over Bournemouth last weekend:
- Teams play with an advanced defensive line that helps to squeeze the field and limit space for the opponent, thereby making it easier to press.
- When in possession, teams use lateral ball and player movement to force opposition defenders to shift left and right across the field, which creates gaps in the defense to attack. Thus Bielsa teams typically post the highest possession numbers of the three schools.
- Central forwards are often used in unconventional ways, routinely being played in wider parts of the field and making outside-in runs to receive through balls played into the spaces created through fast, lateral ball movement. I wrote about how Spurs do this under Pochettino recently, but a similar principle applies to Pep Guardiola’s use of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, and, most notably, David Villa.
- Bielsa teams generally play more narrowly with only two players typically operating as true wide men. This is because these teams not only squeeze the field vertically with a high defensive line, they also squeeze it horizontally because keeping multiple players within close proximity of each other makes pressing much easier as well as enabling the teams to play their preferred short, lateral passes that create gaps in the defense. Bielsa often achieves this narrowness with a 3-3-3-1 formation. Guardiola has also used a three man backline at Bayern and relied upon a similarly narrow approach that has, at times, been too narrow. Though he uses the more conventional 4-2-3-1, Pochettino teams are likewise quite narrow as the wide forwards tend to crash inside and play more in the channels then out on the wings, leaving only the fullbacks as proper wide players.
The most important features of the system are the narrow play and lateral movement, the relentless chasing of the ball once the press has been triggered even so far as the opposition goalkeeper, and the unconventional use of center forwards. It is not a coincidence that two of the more creative uses of central forwards in recent years are both products of this school with Pep Guardiola’s false 9 at Barcelona and Pochettino’s wide number 9 at Southampton and Spurs.
The system runs on versatile, industrious players who are comfortable all over the field and understand how to move as a unit in order to keep the defensive shape of the team and prevent defensive breakdowns.
The Mourinho School
It’s counter-intuitive to hear “Jose Mourinho” and “pressing” in the same sentence because in the popular imagination “pressing” and “Pep Guardiola” are basically linked and Mourinho has always been painted, due in no small part to his own encouragement of this image, as the anti-Guardiola.
That description is not entirely inaccurate. But it is not because Mourinho does not believe in pressing, but rather because of how his teams practice the press. Mourinho’s chief concern as a manager is reducing risk. He (rightly) sees soccer as being governed largely by chance and so he wants to do everything he can as a manager to hedge his bets and reduce the element of risk for his team. This piece in the Guardian is the essential article for understanding Mourinho’s vision for the game.
This basic desire to reduce risk means that Mourinho teams renounce one of the most important staples of both the Bielsa and German schools: the high defensive line. While the high line can be devastating because of how it squeezes the field, it also accounts for the biggest vulnerability in both the Bielsa and German schools. Teams with fast, clever strikers can simply lump long balls over the top for their strikers to chase. This, of course, was the cardinal failing of Andre Villas-Boas‘s Chelsea and Tottenham teams as Villas-Boas tried to impose a high-line scheme on defenses that featured John Terry and Michael Dawson in prominent roles.
However, although Mourinho teams play a much deeper defensive line (sometimes also called a “low block”) they do press quite aggressively in specific situations once the ball is in the defensive third.
Consider, for example, this chart of tackles from last season’s 1-0 win against a hot Manchester United team that had just picked up what is still their finest result of the post-Ferguson era in a 4-2 Manchester derby victory over City:
In the game Chelsea attempted 39 tackles. Of the lot, 28 were attempted in their own half and seven more were attempted just past the halfway line. For comparison’s sake, this year Tottenham attempts more tackles per game than anyone else in the Premier League and they are only attempting 24 tackles per match.
This, however, was something of a classic Mourinho match as Chelsea closed on the ball with a fanatical energy in their own half and then launched quick counter-attacking movements which, though they don’t necessarily have a high chance of success also did not have a high chance of putting the team into a dangerous position. Mourinho knows he only needs one of those attacks to work. And “work” could mean that it ends with a normal, open play goal, that it wins a penalty, or sets up a high percentage set piece situation. But he should only need a single goal with his defensive system.
In this particular match that is precisely what happened. United had 70.7% possession and out-passed Chelsea 606 to 199. And Chelsea won 1-0. On Expected Goals it was close, but when you compare the chances created you understand what Mourinho did:
Chelsea’s three best chances were all better than any chance created by United even though United outshot Chelsea 15-7. (The Chelsea goal came from the shot that is on the elbow of the six-yard box on the left side of goal.)
The way these chances are created is also fairly apparent from the tackle chart above: Chelsea presses most regularly when the ball is played into wide areas. This is because pressing in wide parts of the field is more effective for the simple reason that the sideline serves as an extra defender. Additionally, when the ball is won in wide areas the passing lanes to get the ball forward quickly are typically more open because there are fewer opposition players in wide areas. You can see this, for example, in this Atletico goal from 2013-14:
Besides Mourinho, the most notable proponent of this approach is Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone. Depending on how you analyze Simeone’s tactics, he either commits fewer people to defense or more. While Mourinho has always used a lone striker system, either in a 4-3-3 as in his early days at Porto and Chelsea or in a 4-2-3-1 more recently, Simeone typically uses a two striker system and defends in the famous two banks of four.
However, Simeone’s two banks of four are set extremely deep and the two strikers tend to set up closer to midfield than the attacking third when defending. Though this is an extreme example, you can see the basic idea below (image markup via Liviu Bird):
In the above case the Atleti are playing Barcelona so they have an even deeper line than normal. However, the difference is simply one of degree. Atletico always play a deep line and they always defend in two banks of four with two strikers sitting on top ready to chase the ball if afforded the opportunity or spring into a counter attack should they win the ball in a position that allows them to counter.
The other thing to note in this approach is that teams playing this low-block pressing style are going to maintain the same narrow shape we see in the Bielsa and German schools, but for a different reason. Bielsa teams are narrow both because they want to press effectively and they can play short, lateral passes more easily and at a higher percentage. German teams play narrower because they want to press more effectively and break forward in numbers.
Mourinho teams are narrow because they are playing the numbers and know that the central attacking zone is by far the most dangerous area of the pitch for defenders. This area, sometimes called “zone 14” if you use the map shown below, is the area they want to defend. So the two deep, narrow banks of four essentially concede the entire field up to about 35 yards from goal and then concede the half circle around the goal from that distance on in. Their goal is to block all access to zones 14, 16, 17, and 18:
You can see how this works in the gif below from an Atletico sequence against Barcelona:
Note how the Atletico defense basically concedes the half circle around the danger zone to Barcelona. But also note how quickly they close on the ball once the ball movement stagnates a bit on the Barcelona left wing. From there if they win the ball and spring a counter to one of their strikers you basically have the Mourinho-Simeone approach captured in a single sequence.
The German School
In many ways, the German school is similar to the Bielsa school. (I argued just last week that Jurgen Klopp‘s hiring at Liverpool signals that Liverpool is basically mimicking Spurs in their approach to competing against richer rivals.) Both systems emphasize a high defensive line, narrow play, and pressing high up the field.
However, there are several key differences in the systems.
To begin, consider the striker play. In the Bielsa school the lateral movement is key to creating space to attack. Though it is far from possession for possession’s sake, there is a lot of drifting left to right as the team waits for the opposition to crack open. The German school, in contrast, pushes the ball vertically and so requires strikers to stay more central in the majority of cases.
The two heat maps below illustrate the difference. The first shows Harry Kane’s passes received in last weekend’s 5-1 win over Bournemouth. As has often been the case with Kane, he spent long chunks of the match drifting out onto the left wing to receive the ball:
Now contrast that with the passes received by Robert Lewandowski in Borussia Dortmund’s 5-1 belting of Werder Bremen in Lewandowski’s final season at the Westfalerstadion:
Note that while Kane is always coming wide to receive the ball so that he can then run at the channels of space between defenders, Lewandowski is receiving almost all his passes in central areas. And most of the passes he is receiving above are medium-to-long range passes. The goal in the German school is to increase the pace of the game as much as possible by pushing the ball vertically down the field as soon as it is won. The brief clip below illustrates how this works:
This, obviously, means that German school teams will turn the ball over more regularly. But this doesn’t bother them. They simply win it back. This is another notable difference between the German school and the Bielsa school. The Bielsa school presses when certain pressing cues are activated, such as a player receiving the ball facing his own goal in his defensive third:
Bielsa teams press in that situation because they have a high chance of winning the ball if the player tries to turn and play it forward and, if he plays it backwards, they can simply continue the press all the way up to the keeper which will likely lead to a turnover or a throw in.
German school teams, in contrast, focus on winning the ball back as quickly as possible after it is turned over. For them the press is triggered the moment the ball is lost to the opposition. However, if the opposition can retain possession after the first wave of pressure, it’s not unusual to see German school teams back off slightly and drop deeper, defending in the classic two banks of four shape as the two wide attackers drop off and link up with the two midfielders.
This is something you’ll also see Pochettino’s Spurs do on occasion, particularly in matches when the Argentine boss thinks a more cautious approach is necessary. However, you’re not likely to ever see Bielsa or Guardiola do anything like this, despite some of their other similarities to the German school. Bielsa teams, for example, are rather notorious for using a strict man-marking scheme which means you almost never see them sitting in two banks of four. Guardiola, likewise, stubbornly refuses to adopt such a defensive approach, even in games when he probably should.
The best way to get at the difference between the two approaches may be talking about the idea of verticality. German school teams want to be attacking vertically as much as they possibly can. The goal is to push the ball forward and create a shot as soon as possible.
Bielsa teams typically want to win the ball just as quickly, but they are not going to simply launch the ball forward to create a shot. Once the ball has been won there will be an initial look to see if a quick break could be on and, if it isn’t, you’ll see more lateral ball movement as the team probes the opposition defense. It rarely hits the same levels as the Guardiola Barcelona teams, of course, but it is more patient than the classic German approach of Dortmund from 2010-11 through 2012-13 or last season’s Leverkusen.
To illustrate the point, consider this Christian Eriksen passing chart as a left attacker in Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 with that of his new teammate Heung-Min Son in action for Leverkusen last season:
Now compare with Son’s performance in Leverkusen’s 5-1 battering of Cologne last year:
Though he still plays a lot of short passes passes what you’re seeing are less the kind of back-and-forth passes that you often see in Bielsa teams and more the short quick one-touch passes that define the Leverkusen rush. (Michael Caley’s piece on Leverkusen is the must-read piece on Roger Schmidt, but I have also written about him as well.)
Pressing is one of the great topics du jour in the world of soccer blogging and quite understandably given the number of elite managers who use it in one way or another. The list of managers we’ve discussed in this piece is a who’s who in soccer management—Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa, Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone, Jurgen Klopp, and Roger Schmidt.
That said, different pressing styles can vary a great deal. The Bielsa, Mourinho, and German schools all vary a fair amount and even the individual managers mentioned above differ in smaller ways. Pochettino, for example, is the lone Bielsa manager to play 4-2-3-1 consistently. Schmidt, meanwhile, has his teams shoot more frequently than Klopp teams typically do. And Simeone plays a 4-4-2 while Mourinho typically goes 4-2-3-1. So if we’re going to talk sensibly about tactics and pressing in particular, we need more specific ways of doing that. We need to talk about high blocks vs low blocks, pressing triggers, and player movement. When we do that, then we’re on our way to having an interesting conversation about this ubiquitous trend in soccer tactics.