Pressing from the Front – Tactical Trends in 2020

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One of the most consistent tactics of the past decade has been the reliance on pressing from the front from some of the biggest clubs in the world. It would be foolish to say that pressing did not exist until the 2010s. What is perhaps more true is just how systematic pressing has become in recent years. In 2020, pressing evolved in unique ways, with many teams bringing their own unique approach to the tactical trend. Here are some of the trends seen in 2020 with regards to pressing from the front.

a slight decline in pressing behaviours?

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Pressing seems like an obvious choice for good footballing teams, especially those that want the ball as much as possible. But a high pressing approach is not necessarily suited for every team, and it requires tremendous energy and discipline. As far as 2020 goes, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the use of pressing decreased. One such reason for this could be the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the energy spent on pressing requires players to be more relentless and resilient than perhaps their managers were willing to in 2020. That almost seems a bit outrageous to say given what it implies about the sensibility of managers like Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, but it is probably true to a certain extent that managers have been more cautious this year with just how much energy they are willing to let their players expend.

Despite that, every team adopts some level of a pressing approach to their game – that is the desire to win the ball back through quick and intense pressure on the player in possession. The desire to win the ball back is not always directly through that pressuring player winning possession and more often through their pressure forcing the opposition into a bad pass, where another player picks it up. What distinguishes different sides in their approach to pressing is just how high up the field and how aggressive they press. Sides like Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Liverpool are just a few that adopt an intense high pressing approach, often attempting to pin the opposition in their own half. This is also known as ‘pressing from the front’. The specifics of pressing are more clearly and systematically identifiable on goal kicks, but the approach can take place anywhere on the field, especially from teams who like to keep hold of the ball and win it back as quickly as possible when they don’t have it, such as Manchester City. So let’s start with one of the masters of the art, surprise Premier League performers Southampton.

ralph hasenhuttl’s PRESSING 4-2-2-2

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Ralph Hasenhuttl has recovered Southampton from the clutches of the heaviest away defeat in league history, to genuine top six contenders this season. The Austrian’s 4-2-2-2 system has worked like a dream for the Saints in 2020, and aids in their high-pressing approach.

Southampton can be considered a possession-based side. Possession and pressing often go hand and hand more than people think, as both involve attempts to control the game in the opposition’s half. But when considering Southampton’s pass accuracy, they’re quite low (79%). This suggests two things – that they attempt riskier passes than most, but also that a lot of their possession comes from winning the ball on the press, losing it, and then working desperately hard to win it back again. The Saints trust their ability to win the ball back should they need to make a higher, longer, riskier pass. They don’t just lump the ball up field. In fact, they’re quite patient in possession. But by attempting the odd risky pass, they can feel comfortable in their ability to either catch their opposition off-guard and create a chance, or win the ball back in a more advantageous position than where the ball had just been.

Southampton’s press, more than perhaps any other team in Europe, is aided by their system of play and it is one of the key reasons why Ralph Hasenhuttl has reverted to the 4-2-2-2 system that worked so well for him with RB Leipzig. The main function of Southampton’s press is not just to win the ball back, but as a mechanism for creating chances. Southampton don’t have a creative attacking midfielder or ‘number 10’ figure in their side. But with inverted wingers, they still adopt a fairly vertical approach in possession. This means that when they lose the ball, they always have men on the scene right away. The 4-2-2-2 means that Southampton are never horribly exposed, as they were in 2019 against Leicester City. It also means that they don’t need that creative type of player to create chances. Their press creates opportunities all on its own.

Southampton’s press is essentially to block passing lanes, such as in vertical channels, and force their opposition into either longer passes or into the wide areas. High up the field, Southampton are well prepared to press right away, aided by the fact that they have a striker on either side of the field. The central midfielders will push up, the wingers will remain inverted, and the entire back-four can be found in the opposition’s half.

If the Saints are able to regain possession, they then often have four men in attack, who are able to overload the off-balance opposition. In possession, teams will often stretch themselves with width and may even overload one specific side. This can cause them to be off-balance, should they lose the ball. High pressing teams like the Saints are able to take advantage of that, by winning the ball back high up the field and going on the attack right away.

intentionally forcing to one side

Southampton are not the only team to use pressing in a systematic way. Ole Gunnar Solsjaker is slowly rebuilding his reputation at Manchester United, and one of the hallmarks of their underrated success in 2020 was due to their systematic high press.

Solsjaker’s Manchester United meticulously force their opposition to their left side through careful shifting and shuffling, and body angling during their press. This is the side in which United’s two most dangerous players – Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes – often like to operate. It is also the side in which the Red Devils often position their more defensive midfielder, such as Fred when playing alongside McTominay, or Matic when playing alongside Pogba. By implementing this approach, Rashford and Bruno Fernandes are often able to drift and cut inside/in-field on their dominant foot, rather than their weak foot.

Liverpool adopt a similar approach to their left side at times, attempting to get their most aggressive tackler, Sadio Mane, to be highly involved in the Reds’ press.

stopping the opposition’s key individuals

Pressing is not only a mechanism for winning the ball back, but often a direct strategy to stop the opposition’s most influential individuals from playing. There is perhaps no manager better at this method of systematic pressing than RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann. Nagelsmann will frequently change his shape to combat the opposition’s most dangerous players. Against sides that have talented fullbacks like Bayern Munich or the Borussia Dortmund side of 2019-20, they are more likely to stay true to their 4-2-2-2 shape, attempting to channel the opposition into central areas and not let them out. They may also change to a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 to push even more numbers into central areas. Against teams with a talented defensive midfielder, the German manager may change shape to a 3-5-2, pinning the defensive midfielder down with an attacking midfielder of their own. In short, Nagelsmann’s Leipzig have a constant approach toward numerical superiority in central areas, often regardless of formation. But it is their high press and desire to stop the opposition’s key individuals in the build-up, that often seems to serve as a basis for their formation.

man to man orientation

Pressing can also be oriented towards a “man to man” approach. Sides like Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United or Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, specifically man-orient their players up against specific individuals in the opposition’s roster. This allows the press to be systematic in a different way. Quite simply, if your player has the ball, it is your job to pressure them. If your player has drifted to a particular side, it is your job to follow them. This can have limitations, such as the defensive midfielder (say Leeds’ Kalvin Phillips) following their marker, the opposition’s attacking midfielder (say Bruno Fernandes) to one side of the field, and leaving a massive gap for another opposition player (say Scott McTominay) to exploit. But it can also be an effective method for pressing. Man-orienting in the press decreases confusion for all players involved. It also means that passing options can be very limited. As opposed to trying to cut off passing lanes such as seen when players orient themselves in front of a player, man-orienting means that if a player receives the ball, they often have a pressing player instantly on their back.

pressing advantages & disadvantages

– Allows teams to win the ball back close to the opposition’s goal

– Allows teams to regain possession quickly after losing it, hypothetically allowing them to create more chances and stop their opposition from creating chances

– Keeps the ball in the opposition’s half

– Limits opposition orchestrators from having space and time to make decisions.
– Possibly exposes wide areas as most teams try to force the opposition out wide, which tends to be where teams want to go naturally already

– Forces teams into a high-line, where they can be exposed by quick attackers in behind

– Forces fullbacks high up the pitch in certain defensive situations, when they might be better served retreating

– Physically demanding for players

So there it is! Just a few of the trends top teams deployed with regards to pressing from the front as a tactical concept in 2020. Be sure to check out more on Pressing, and more of our Tactical Analyses. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…
-> How To Coach Pressing
-> Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis
-> Pressing From The Front – Session Plan & Key Coaching Points


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