It is one of the great clichés of soccer strategy. The goalkeeper is the first attacker; the strikers the first line of defense. But for a phrase to join the large but select group of terms which have slipped from being inventive and interesting to overused and dull it must contain an element of truth. Never has that been more so than in these days of the high press, the soccer tactic in which the entire team works collectively to squeeze its opponents into making a mistake, thus winning back possession. (The maneuver is defined by the sports data analysis firm, Opta, as restricting a team to no more than three passes within their own first 40m before possession is lost.)
The current Premier League leaders and Champions League winners, Liverpool, are among the greatest exponents of this high-octane style of play. After just seven games, at the time of writing, they hold a 100% win record and sit eight points ahead of their nearest rival in the English league in 2019. It is almost as though that competition is over before it is even a fifth of games have been played.
Chess on Speed
The high press works by narrowing down the options a player has until they are ultimately forced to play a high-risk pass. This in turn results in a transition – the term used in soccer for a change of possession. But more than this, because the pressure is placed immediately on the defense – often even the keeper – when possession is lost, it is frequently in a dangerous part of the pitch. That means that a shot on goal is far more likely to result than if possession is lost in the aggressor’s defensive third.
The team that has just given up possession has little time to re-organize and get back into shape.
At the same time, the team carrying out the high press are working at huge pace to close down their opponents, restricting the passing opportunities that they have. Each player has an individual and complex role to play to deliver the tactic, one conducted at break neck speed.
A Significant Shift in Soccer Strategy
For decades, one dominant defensive strategy had ruled the game. That was to get bodies behind the ball. Thus, teams would often be given free reign to build from the back, with opponents placed under little or no pressure until they crossed the halfway line. From there they would face two banks of four – a midfield line and a defensive one – while a pair of strikers would buzz around like irritating flies. Annoying, but not especially destructive.
This system of play could be stultifying, an attack would begin from deep, run through numerous lateral passes, move forwards then backwards until eventually possession was lost, and the whole process would repeat itself with the opponents in possession.
The High Press as An Offensive Weapon
The high press has two primary aims. Most often, it is designed to win back possession through pressuring opponents into a mistake. It is also a threatening offensive tactic.
By closing down a defender at high speed, while teammates reduce the options for an easy pass, a mistake is induced. Of course, it helps that defenders are not usually the most comfortable player on the ball.
Normally, the press will result in one or two increasingly pressured passes which lead to the double whammy of a receiver getting a far from perfect pass while having an opposing striker breathing down their necks.
The normal sequence sees this defender, or the next one, placed under so much pressure that they either play the ball long, normally resulting in immediate or secondary loss of possession, or make a mistake and hit the ball out.
However, sometimes the defender will lose possession in their own defensive third. They might be dispossessed, or perhaps have their lateral pass intercepted. This then becomes a highly dangerous transition since not only is possession lost in their opponent’s offensive third, but those opponents have numbers forward (because they are pressing) to create something dangerous from that transition.
The Attributes Players Need to Play the High Press
However, as a tactic, to play the high press effectively a team must consist of players with a series of well-developed attributes:
- Pace: the strikers need to be able to close down a pass quickly, to prevent their opponents from gaining good control of the ball.
- Supreme Fitness: The high press involves numerous high-speed chases. Thus, a striker who in the old days might only sprint in offensive situations – making a run or taking on an opponent – is now required to sprint every time their opponents are in possession. This takes a toll on energy levels and requires high levels of fitness and stamina.
- Teamwork: The high press is an eleven-player activity. The whole team squeezes forwards. If a striker expands energy closing down a defender in possession, but a teammate has not covered the next pass, then the pressure on the defender disappears, he or she has an easy pass, and the pressing striker has wasted their effort. Thus, the high press is a tactic into which the whole team must buy, and it is one that must be heavily drilled in training sessions.
- Positioning and Anticipation: These two cannot be separated. The former ensures that players are in a structure to make the high press, the second gives them that microsecond advantage which will allow them to press the player in possession, and also close down his or her passing options. Positioning should always be developed to ensure the only safe option is a long ball, so players place themselves to intercept, or at least pressure, a short pass.
- Concentration: Often, even with top teams, the high press drops as players become tired. This is not only because they are not able to keep up the physical demands of pressing high, but also the mental challenges this presents The high press is an effective system to play, but if any element of the tactic is lacking, it can leave large gaps which opponents can exploit.
Evolution – How Defenses are Dealing with the High Press
It is the fluid nature of soccer that a soccer strategy fall in and out of fashion. The high press works extremely well on teams with defensive players whose control, touch and passing is of only moderate quality. But increasingly all players, including goalkeepers, are placing priority on their technique, partly in order to counter a high press.
If defensive players can develop perceptive passing, then they will be able to bypass their opponents’ press. The best way to progress passing is to improve first touch, because this is what gives players time to make the pass. Alongside this, movement from team mates further forward, particularly coming short in twos and threes to make simple passing triangles, also helps to stretch opponents, give more options to teammates, and negate the press.
Shorter term tactics include playing five at the back, with a central three, plus two CDMs (central defensive midfielders) and full backs who push forward as auxiliary wingers. This creates extra passing options to bypass the high press. Teams who use the high press tactic will not wish to commit too many players to their opponents’ half when out of possession – usually no more than five or six – because to do so leaves too many spaces in their own defense.
The High Press – A Soccer Strategy to Employ
In conclusion, the high press is a highly successful soccer strategy. It allows for possession to be won high up the park, where the most damage can be inflicted in transition. It makes for entertaining soccer, as it is based on high energy, high speed action. It is hard to counter, at least while defensive players have technical skills of a lower standard than their more advanced teammates.
Provided the team is well drilled, it can lead to effective play on the break when the ball is won deeper in a side’s own half, not least because offensive players are already in position and can be fed a quick pass to create danger.
However, it requires supreme fitness from all players, particularly strikers, midfielders and full backs/wing backs (who will need to support breaks as well as undertake their defensive duties.) As a system it falls down if any part of its jigsaw is lacking.
To see the high press soccer strategy used effectively by the Liverpool side, take a look at video below.
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