Pressing is now arguably the most studied and talked about tactical concept in the sport of football, having entered the mainstream since the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp in the Premier League some eight or nine years ago.
Nowadays, the ability to coach an organised press and aggressive press is considered key to success in the English topflight, while coaches who have failed to embrace this tactic (like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) have struggled to create a viable identity within their teams.
In this post, I’m going to take a more detailed look at pressing and so-called “pressing triggers”, which can vary and help to lay the foundations for your side when out of possession.
Pressing – A Brief History
Pressing is a concept that can be traced back the sport of ice hockey, where it’s commonly known as ‘forechecking’.
At the heart of this idea was sportswriter-turned-coach Thomas Patrick Gorman, who observed the innate but unquestioned impulse of players and teams to immediately retreat towards their own goal after losing possession.
He subsequently devised a tactical plan to do the opposite, by compelling his forwards to aggressively swarm opposing players as they looked to build from the back. More specifically, one player would challenge the player in possession while his teammates remained tight and blocked the available passing lanes, while the whole team pressed high and in unison to squeeze the space as effectively as possible.
Despite a rocky start, Gorman’s Chicago Blackhawks blitzed the NHL that year and romped to the title, so it’s slightly surprising that the tactic didn’t reach top level football until the mid-1970s.
At this time, legendary Dutch manager Rinus Michels created a high-pressing game while coach of the Netherlands, who reached successive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978.
Since then, the art of pressing has become more prevalent and sophisticated, while different iterations of the tactic have emerged. Coaches like Ralf Rangnick, Jurgen Klopp and Louis Van Gaal have played key roles in the evolution of pressing, while introducing different pressing triggers and organisational rules.
Different Types of Pressing and Their Triggers
Pressing is best described as the act of creation tension with the intention of winning possession, rather than simply applying pressure to opponents individually and without any specific goal or organisation.
This can be sustained by a side during all defensive phases of the game, while this differs slightly to so-called “counter pressing”. The latter tactic is applied when pressing teams in the transition between offensive and defensive phases, and for a period immediately after a side has lost possession of the ball.
These are important distinctions, particularly as they’ll require different organisation and have variable pressing triggers.
When pressing during a defensive phase and as your opponents play out from the back, for example, you may identify specific players who are weak in possession. Your attacking players and midfielders will then close down specific passing lanes, forcing the opposition to move the ball towards the targeted player (or area), subsequently triggering an aggressive press.
Other triggers may be a little more reactive in nature (such as the ball entering a specific zone or a heavy touch from an opponent), but the key is that your team is able to respond quickly and in a highly organised way.
When counter pressing, the goal is usually to win the ball back within a predetermined period of time, while the opposition is at its most disorganised and its players potentially out of position. Once this time period has elapsed, the team will fall back into their defensive shape and become compact once again.
Pep Guardiola has always been an ardent fan of counter pressing, due to this penchant for adopting a high defensive line and desire to protect his defensive line. He employed a ‘six second rule’ to control how his all-conquering Barca side counter pressed, with this describing the amount of time they would aggressively hunt the ball for immediately after losing possession.
In this respect, the act of losing the ball itself is the immediate trigger for counter pressing, with this is one of the most aggressive defensive tactics in the game.
The Last Word
As we can see, there are different iterations of pressing, and therefore variable triggers that can be used to prompt and organise the collective movement of players against the ball.
Training, repetition and communication are key to successful pressing and counter pressing tactics, as are physical fitness and mobility. Your team must also be adept at transitioning back into its defensive shape, or run the risk of being overwhelmed when your opponents beat the press.