While football teams have always pressed their opponents to some degree or another, the modern game has seen the sophistication of this tactic and the evolution of more organised, collective pressing.
Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of top flight teams adopt some iteration of the so-called “high press”, with a view to dominating both possession and space and sustaining attacks continually.
But what do we mean by the term ‘high press’, and what are the best tactics to help counter it? Read on the find out more!
Getting Started – What do we Mean by High Press?
The high press is by far the most popular iteration of this tactic, as it requires teams to collectively press their opponents in their defensive third and attempt to win the ball back quickly and as far away from their own goal as possible.
Of course, there are different iterations of the high press, as defined by their key triggers and timings. For example, attempting to win the ball back high for a predetermined period of time immediately after it has been lost is referred to as counter pressing, with managers like Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp renowned for this tactic.
Pressing can also involve set triggers, such as when the ball is played into a specific zone or to a player who’s less comfortable in possession. In this case, players will adopt specific shapes and positions to restrict certain passing lanes, waiting for the ball to be distributed in a certain way or direction that will trigger an aggressive, collective press.
Regardless, high pressing will always occur in your opponent’s defensive third, while the intent will almost exclusively be to recover possession as close to the opposition team’s goal as possible.
How to Beat the Press – 3 Tactics to Consider
OK, I hear you ask, but what the best and most effective tactics when looking to counter the high press? Here are three proven ideas to keep in mind:
1. Bypass it
At the beginning of the 2022/23 EPL season, Manchester United plunged to new lows when they lost 4-0 at Brentford, with the first two goals occurring as a direct result of their vulnerability to the high press.
While manager Erik Ten Hag undoubtedly made the team increasingly press resistant throughout the season, he initially reacted by instructing his players not to play out from the back. This was evident in the subsequent 2-1 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford, when David de Gea completely bypassed the Red’s high press with longer, more direct balls.
Make no mistake; this is a rudimentary but highly effective way of beating the high press, especially if you have a strong centre forward and well-positioned midfield that’s able to aggressively contest (and win) second balls.
With accurate long balls, you can effectively take several opponents out of the game in one fell swoop, potentially forcing them to adjust their own tactics as the match progresses. You may even be able to exploit the excess of space in behind, which can cause even more issues for your opponents.
2. Make the Pitch as Wide as Possible
An extension of this tactic could see you use direct switches of play to counter the high press, or simply shift the ball accurately to one flank or the other (even if the recipient is in their own defensive third).
Regardless, both tactical initiatives require you to make the pitch as wide as possible, by asking wider players to hug the touchline when the ball is in the defensive third or your goalkeeper is about to restart play with a goal kick.
If you intend to play the ball wide in your own defensive third, this responsibility will land on the shoulders of your full backs, wing backs or wide centre halves (depending on your preferred formation). Conversely, wingers and wide forwards should assume advanced wider positions in the case of more offensive switches of play, affording them more time to control the ball and potentially isolate opposing defenders in transition.
This tactic also creates space for players in the middle of the park, developing clearer passing lines and making it much easier to either build attacks or retain possession.
3. Use Purposeful and Constant Movement
When facing an aggressive, high press, one of the worst things that your players can be is static. This rule applies all over the pitch, as static sides that lack constant or structured movement remains incredibly easy to press.
Conversely, constant off-the-ball movement makes aggressive pressing more difficult and tiring for your opponents, while it also creates space in key areas of the pitch and makes it much easier to potentially exploit a high defensive line.
Typically, players must make at least two movements to create space for themselves in this instance. The first should act as a decoy, to create space either in front or for a teammate or third man runner.
The second should then be a sharp and purposeful movement to either receive the ball in space or open up a new passing lane, as this will make it much easier to retain possession and structure attacks.
Such movements and patterns can be coached as part of structured possession sessions, while they can become ingrained over time and established a consistent and efficient way of beating the press!