Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Art of Effective Pressing

A common phrase when referring to principles of defence is "close down space and time". While this is not in objection, and rightly so, it carries a meaning that has been slightly generalised as a result of the commonality in the use of the phrase. What I propose is to explore the often overlooked tactic of positioning of defending players - not in an attempt to tackle a player in possession - rather, to place himself between opponents in order to intercept the ball. To purposefully seek to gain possession of the ball without having to resort to physically confronting a ball possessor requires a subtle and intelligent approach, not to mention a great appreciation for sophistication. Hence what I will now put forward to you is the idea that defending is not simple - the notion that it is more than just simply tackling. I offer the concept that defending to a large (and overlooked) extent is about positioning - the art of interception.

The whole concept of defending to intercept is only applicable by virtue of intelligence in the players executing the actions. The theoretical advantage of positioning to intercept can be represented and explained through a game which has been around longer than football and perhaps the only other game that can lay claim to being as popular - chess.

Chess pieces are variable in that they have different starting positions, legal movements and special qualities. One could therefore suggest that different pieces have different relevant values to the player. By virtue of common acceptance, it is said that a queen is of greater value to a player than a bishop since a bishop has limited movement compared to a queen. It can also be suggested that two of the same piece can have two different relative values depending on the position of those pieces. For example, a pawn protecting a knight can be said to be of greater value than a pawn that is isolated. Therefore, it is more accurate to suggest that the relative function of a piece, immediate or potential, determines the true value of the piece. Since a queen can engage in many more actions, and therefore can perform many more functions than a pawn, it is more valuable than a pawn, pound for pound.

A further examination can reveal that we can compare the average relative values of each piece.  C.J.S Purdy and G.Koshnitsky's 1998 short paperback Chess Made Easy gives us these values:

  • minor piece (Bishop or Knight) = 3 Pawns
  • Rook = minor piece + 1.5 to 2 Pawns
  • Queen = 2 Rooks, or 3 minors; or Rook, minor and 1.5 Pawns
  • Summary: minor 3(3.5), Rook, Queen 9-10

These values are only proximate but they nonetheless demonstrate the liberalism with which the chess pieces are representative. The conclusion from these set of insights which one can make, is that to gain maximum advantage a player must endeavour to increase the value of each of his pieces in order to maximise the functional capabilities of his whole army. The hidden art of pressing is that every player performs two roles at once, thus increasing the value of every individual to the team.

A football player who acts as fictional pawn would be undesirable compared to a more functional player. The aim is make more players on the team a queen, instead of a pawn. It is a characteristic of the modern game that players are becoming increasingly functional, capable of performing a wider range of roles within the limits of time and space. This functionality is also essential for an effective pressing tactic.

Pressing can simply be described as physically closing down the distance between you and another player who is usually in possession of the ball. By pressing a player, you are vacating the space you just occupied, thereby opening up a potential space in which the ball can arrive. If another opponent manages to occupy that newly formed space, the pressing has been ineffective, since one of the objectives of pressing is to deny space. Therefore, the solution is to press the ball carrier, while at the same time cutting off the passing lane to the space the act of pressing has created. Therefore, the pressing player must perform two roles in the same action: press the ball carrier & cut off the passing lane to the space created. The only way to achieve this dual function is by pressing from the correct angle - approach the ball carrier in a way that you also block off a pass to one of his team-mates. This dual functionality forms the core rationale behind the concept of effective pressing. In effect, this mechanism represents the theory that has been borrowed from chess, that of a focus on improving the relative functionality of an individual piece in order to strengthen the army as a whole.

Take this example from a Champions League game between Bayern Munich and Valencia. Watch Toni Kroos carefully (he is playing in a #10 position) and pay close attention at how he turns his head behind him a few times and then very subtly adjusts his positioning so that he blocks the pass to the nearest Valencia midfielder. The angle of approach is key and this is why he manages to intercept the pass.

Toni Kroos in this example has in effect raised his value to his team in that specific moment because he was essentially screening two opponents at the same time. If he would have positioned himself slightly to the left or the right, he would not have been blocking a passing lane, thereby reducing his value to his team in that instance because he would have only been screening one player. In other words, Kroos was functioning as a relative queen. A step to either side and he would be functioning as a temporary knight. Had Kroos been standing completely still, he would have been functioning as a relative pawn, rendering him completely ineffective. If multiple team mates can also replicate Kroos by pressing a player while simultaneously blocking a passing lane, the effectiveness of the whole team will increase exponentially. In effect, we are essentially outnumbering the opponents since every player is doing the job of two players.

The ultimate objective of every single midfielder and forward is to press your own man while blocking off a passing lane to another opponent. The opponent on the ball should theoretically have no options left except to inevitably lose the ball. As a side note, Toni Kroos is one of the best players I have seen who is exceptional at effective pressing so I encourage you to watch him closely.

These ideas within the tactic of pressing are not new by any means. However, I do believe they are somewhat misunderstood and people tend to generalise the whole concept rather than observe and acknowledge the micro-details. What I have briefly explained is only a part of the wider art of pressing. What I hope to leave anyone who has read this is a sense of the complex intricacies that truly make pressing an art form.

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