Keeping it Simple – Part Two

This is the second part of the mini series by Gareth Millward

Keeping it simple – Pressing

“tl;dr”

  • Press or don’t press – but build this into your overall strategy
  • It’s not just about “closing down” – pay attention to defensive line, mentality and formation
  • It may sound counterintuitive – but playing defensively can be a bad defensive strategy

Having outlined what I “usually” do, there should be something fairly obvious to talk about. What do I do when that doesn’t work?

Well, I’m keeping things simple. So whacking in another “tactic” isn’t really my style. Besides, I don’t have the players to do something radically different. Over the next couple of posts, therefore, I’m going to describe some pretty common issues – and how I tend to address them.

This first one is about pressing and passing.

As I mentioned in the prologue, I want my team to hold onto possession and to close down the opposition when we don’t have the ball. How and why do I do that?

Pressing – pros and cons

Tactical decisions are about trade-offs. There is no “good” strategy. Sure, there are plenty of “bad” ones, but “goodness” and “badness” are not absolute. It’s all relative. It depends on the skill of your players, the skill of the opposition and what the other team is trying to do. That’s before we even begin to take into account other factors such as the weather, the venue, the referee, the scoreline, the quality of the pitch, individual motivation and performance…

Let’s think about those with regard to pressing. What does it do?

Low pressing High pressing
A Maintains condition Requires good stamina
B Holds defensive shape Pulls players out of position
C Regains possession via interceptions Favours hard tackling to win the ball
D Favours off-the-ball marking Favours chasing the ball
E Concedes possession Increases chances of regaining the ball
F Gives opponents time on the ball Makes opponents think quickly
G Encourages the team to sit deep Encourages the team to push up
H Vulnerable to skilful passers Can disrupt passing patterns
I Will hold shape against quick-tempo passing Vulnerable to quick/long passes

The first thing to remember is that this is not a list of positives and negatives. It’s a list of characteristics. These characteristics are relative. Note, too, that they have both defensive and offensive implications. And, naturally, I’ve oversimplified some of these to give a broad outline.

For example, high pressing in (A) may not be a problem if your team has good stamina; or in (B) if you have players in covering positions. Similarly, conceding possession (E) may not be an issue if you’re looking to hit teams on the break, or if the opposition cannot find a way through (see (B)).

Pressing in Football Manager isn’t entirely down to the “closing down” instruction, however. For this reason, I rarely if ever change my settings on this. (I set “closing down” in the team instructions to “more” – see the prologue.)

There are other elements – mainly, the team shape, defensive line and mentality.

Attacking teams press more. This is because they are asked to do so in the match engine, but also because they players naturally start higher up the pitch when they lose the ball and don’t track back as far when the opposition are in possession. An attacking team will therefore be putting more pressure on the opposition defenders and midfielders by virtue of their positioning as much as their “closing down” instructions.

Teams with a higher defensive line also press more for similar reasons. The match engine asks them too, but, again, by their very nature, players pushed further up the pitch are in closer proximity to their opponents.

It’s the shape of the team that can cause tactical issues more than anything else, though. A side with a narrow formation is going to struggle to close down wider players. Either they leave them on the wings with too much time, or run the risk of creating holes which can be exploited.

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In the diagram above, you can see the gap that might be created inside the red team’s full back and side midfielders. Even if the team pulls across in unison, pressing the man in possession on the right-hand side, there will still be space to exploit on the other flank if the white team plays a long, cross-field pass.

Similarly, there is a danger that a wide team with high pressing can squeeze everyone into the centre, giving very little room for anyone to play football. That might be great if you’re looking to kill off the game or smother a technically-gifted opponent. But if you’re the team looking to play possession football, it’s going to neuter your attacking threat considerably.

For these reasons, I have found that my side is vulnerable to sides that sit deep. If I’m sitting deep and trying to press a team that is also sitting deep, my players end up all over the place. Space opens up between the lines, and the opponent can pass the ball through me at will.

Against a side that is playing more defensively and willing to play quick balls forward, then, I have to be more attacking. Even if that seems (at first glance) to be the “wrong” decision. I’m 1-0 up away from home against a better team? The obvious decision is to get more defensive, hold my position and hold onto what I have.

But if my defensive strategy is dependent on both a) pressing the opposition and b) holding onto the ball, I need my players higher up the pitch and putting pressure on their defenders and midfielders.

Example

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Here, the opposition is sitting deep. Their centre back has the ball, and as the nearest man, my striker, closes him down. He’s a long way away, but he has to go out there.

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As the attacking line pushes forward, the centre back decides to play a quick ball to the central midfielder, taking my striker completely out of the game.

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The team scrambles to put pressure on the midfielder, but he and the team know what’s coming. With a few quick passes, they drag everyone out of position, leaving the ball at the feet of their striker.

How do you see this in the match engine?

  • On the highlights you see the opposition passing the ball around you, especially “in between the lines”
  • Despite being told to close down, your players don’t appear to be doing it – they don’t know where to press because the ball is moving around too quickly
  • Your players are yards away from the opposition, even though they have been told to press
  • Their midfield is much deeper than yours, and the strikers may not be playing on the shoulder of your defensive line – this indicates that they are playing a much more reserved style of football
  • Your wide midfielders are playing much wider than theirs, even when out of possession
  • The commentary declares that the opposition are now playing a more defensive style
  • Statistically, the opposition has less of the ball but far more good scoring chances

Pressing without an appropriate team shape is defensively vulnerable. Sure, if my opponent had decided to play a slow, methodical passing game we would have had time to get back into position and regroup. But because the pressure wasn’t on them from the moment we lost the ball, we put ourselves in trouble.

Therefore, I will often go more attacking to improve my defence. It sounds counterintuitive, but by continuing to put pressure on the opposition (especially if you are technically superior) you are doing a better job overall of nullifying their threat.

It’s also crucial to note that this is dependent on what the opposition is doing. I won’t spend all my time on attacking mentality, as that will leave gaps. But I need to make sure that I’m not too defensive compared to the opposition. Otherwise, I leave myself vulnerable to the sorts of problems described above. I need to adapt in-game to the specific problems posed by my opponent at different times throughout the match.

This doesn’t mean endless tweaking. It just means looking out for the sorts of things in the bullet point list above.
As we’ve seen here, pressing is vulnerable to shape and passing patterns. So. How can we use that to our advantage? Next time, I’ll be talking about how I change up the pace of the game to deal with stubborn defences.

Be sure to check out Gareth on Twitter

3 thoughts on “Keeping it Simple – Part Two”

  1. Absolutely fantastic, this will help me a lot, i had found that sometimes my team workedd a lot better if i told them to be more on the attack than in control, and it didn’t made much sense to me…until i read this, now i get it, thank you 🙂

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