What makes soccer great? Some would argue that it is the players, others will say the fans or the ability to unite people from all walks of life. It is a sport embraced the world over regardless of the different backgrounds.
Part of what makes soccer special is the different styles of play. We have seen teams like Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone (from 2013 to at least 2021) grind out results without much of the ball. Similarly, we saw the Barcelona era (2008-2011) coached by Pep Guardiola dominate possession and play to the point of sealing virtually every major trophy on offer.
It is not all about attack. National teams like Italy have built their success on a solid defensive display. Think of their success in the 2006 World Cup and more recently, the 2020 European Championships as case examples.
Soccer systems have evolved in different eras. One of the most popular systems of play is called the high press. It is a system majorly employed by teams like Manchester City, Leeds United and traditionally mastered by Bayern Munich in their dominant control of German soccer. Let us unlock the philosophy that is the high press.
What is a high press in soccer?
The high press, from an offense irrespective, is a system of playing soccer that revolves around putting intense pressure on the opposition by constantly attacking and pushing the players back to their half of the field.
The high press, from a defensive perspective, refers to the system of play where one team’s mentality is drawn towards quickly recovering the ball as soon as they lose it. This involves charging at the opposition at high speeds which could at times lead to unforced errors.
What does it take for a team to have a high press?
Speedy wingers and defenders
Speed is a constant presence when a team wants to establish a good high press. The team needs players who can quickly move the ball among themselves even when playing out of the back.
Speedy wingers are crucial to stretch the defense as well as chase down the opposition full-backs. Additionally, their speed will be crucial in providing cover defensively when tracking back.
Quick defenders are also a crucial piece in the high press. It means that they will be able to play quick passes forward and pick out runners behind the defense. They can also build the play from the goalkeeper and move the ball through the midfield or strikers.
- Ball control
In order to have a good high press, players need to have good ball control. This means that they are skilled at holding the ball, especially with their first touch.
Think of playing out from the back in which central defenders will be used. If he or she has bad ball control, then it could result in being dispossessed in a dangerous area and in turn, conceding a goal.
- Good passers
Passing is a critical skill needed for the high press. A team needs good passers of the ball in order to effectively move the ball around.
The midfielders, as well as defenders, should be built for passing to maintain ball possession and wear down the opposition. This system of passing creates open spaces in and around the box.
Who said that a goalkeeper is not key in a high pressing team? The goalkeeper sets the tone of playing out from the back. He or she needs to be alert to play a sweeping role in the event the team is exposed to a counter attack.
A prime example is German legend Manuel Neur. He revolutionized the concept of sweeper-keeper since he burst onto the scene in the 2010s.
How to beat a high press in soccer?
As much as the high press is a dominating style of play, it does have its point of weakness. When executed correctly, even the best of teams can be held or even suffer defeat.
The funny thing is, some high pressing soccer teams have suffered massive losses which is not a true reflection of the match. An example is the 2020-2021 Premier League season. Leeds United, notorious for high pressing, was dismantled 6-2 by Manchester United.
United did not particularly play well that day and was constantly pegged back to their box. In fact, it looked like Leeds was going to score with each attempt. However, every counter-attacking Manchester United had seemingly ended up in the back of the net.
Accurate passing when with the ball can break the momentum of the high press. If the opposition charges at high speeds and the ball moves around, then it means that there is a chance to make those precision passes to the opposition half and create goal-scoring chances.
For example, deploying the 1-2 passes comes a long way in helping to break down a high press. Do you remember those short drills in training with one-touch passing? This type of passing comes in handy in freeing up a player with the opposition breathing down their neck.
Making successful passes when pressed by the opposition not only builds confidence for going forward but opens up some chances.
Multiple players from the pressing side may be engaged in a bid to try and recover the ball but who will cover those vacated positions in the field? There is a chance there to exploit.
The danger with passing against a high pressing team is that even one misplaced pass can be catastrophic as there will be multiple players from the opposition ready to capitalize.
A good coach will have done his or her homework and know if they are a high pressing team. To counter their play, the coach would ideally set out players who can hold the ball. Ball retention helps players escape pressure from markers.
For example, to properly hold the ball, you need to create separation between you and the opposition, adjust your body away from them and bend your knees to create a low center of gravity. This creates room for players to do a soft dribble before deciding on how to proceed.
Also, the players can then shield the ball before distributing it to the open teammate. Players such as Jorginho and Paul Pogba can hold off a couple of players even in a high-pressure situation.
Players who are good at ball retention can easily alleviate pressure on teammates. This gives the other players confidence to also step up and play to their strengths by expressing themselves on the pitch.
Holding the ball for too long is dangerous as there is the risk of losing it in the defensive third of the field. We have seen cases where referees have failed to intervene for players who may be notorious for holding on to the ball for too long even when brought down.
One of the ways to deal with a high pressing team is playing a high line. Defenders especially a number 5 and 4 to urge the rest of the team to maintain a high line at the halfway point.
For example, defenders cannot simply push out from the back at their own pace. They must push out from the back as a unit. The central defenders need to monitor that straight backline and ensure that the full-backs are also ahead.
This will force the pressing team to move back so as to avoid being caught offside by the linesman. In the modern game, especially in the top leagues, there is video technology in which offside calls can be reviewed.
The offside trap forces the pressing team to adjust their tactics because of their offside rule. A player cannot stray behind the defense and get away with it. With a high line, the team will look for penetrative passes from which the goalkeeper can sweep.
It does not matter if the opposition bosses ball possession all through the match. At the end of the day, the forward players have to stick to their position in front of the defense. The defenders have to confidently maintain their shape while engaging the rest to fall back when needed.
The offside trap will only be effective when the team is playing together as a unit. It becomes particularly difficult to play with this system for 90 minutes especially if the attackers are playing center off the shoulder of the defenders.
One penetrative pass is all it takes to unlock this defense and could lead to conceding a goal. If the goalkeeper is not accustomed to playing a sweeper role, then it could be a disastrous system to play.
Keeping it neat and tight in the middle of the park can help mitigate the dominant play of teams who press high. The offense may be limited due to the extra bodies in midfield but it will help neutralize some element of penetrative passes.
For example, using an estimate of 25 meters between the defenders and the forward line at all times will help keep things compact. It could be a defensive-minded approach to games as we have seen with teams of contrasting strengths.
Ideally, there will be fewer forwards starting and more dynamic midfielders even if you are playing for a draw against a very top side. The midfielders will play the role of disrupting the rhythm while on occasion venture forward to source for goals.
A compact midfield helps to maintain tactical discipline. Remember, when the midfield is overrun, there are higher chances of conceding goals or the defense being worn down.
There will be reduced opportunities to score especially because the formation will only allow one or two forward players. The midfielders on the pitch will heavily be relied upon to produce offensively and defensively.
It is widely perceived that counter-attacking soccer is the traditional answer of the high press. This system can also be looked at as “catching them on the break”. This system of play basically involves a fast-paced approach of moving the ball in the opposition half with the aim of scoring.
This tactic requires teams to have the ability to quickly switch from defense to attack and do the same from attack to defense. What is required is players who can read the game and cover for one another.
If a full back for example makes a darting forward run on the counter, then the winger on that side of the field goes to cover at full back in the event the ball is lost against a high pressing team.
Manchester United, for example, used this system to silence Manchester City three times during the 2020/2021 campaign. How did they do this? They packed the midfield area and relied on the pace of forward players to get behind the midfield.
Counter-attacking soccer needs pacy players especially on the wings and to get behind the defensive line. Also, this system works well with attack minded midfielders who can easily join in on the attack.
The team will only use bursts of energy while counter-attacking as opposed to the pressing team that dominates the play and movement. The more the defensive shape is maintained, the more frustrating things become for the pressing team.
With every counter attack, there is the prospect of leaving yourself exposed. By counter-attacking, you basically commit players forward in numbers. This means that some positions on the field of play will remain undefended.
The pressing team will therefore have an opportunity to attack the goal should the counter-attack be foiled before completion. It even becomes more difficult the longer the game has been played because energy levels are depleted with every second.
Some may call it ‘parking the bus’. This is a system deployed with the sole purpose of frustrating the high pressing opposition.
The coach names a lineup of overly defensive players to avoid conceding goals. This is seen particularly used by smaller teams that have a gulf in class with more fancied opposition.
The mantra of this system is to “defend, defend, defend at all costs’’. A team can purposely go into a match with the aim of securing a draw which will be like a win for them. They offer very little attacking intent but put their bodies on the line to prevent a loss.
Tactical discipline by players is required to effectively execute this system. Players need to maintain their shape and carry out man-marking as assigned. The goal may not be to win but to contain the opposition.
Changing up positions and switching to attack against such oppositions can result in conceding goals. Even strikers need to contribute and play a bit deeper as they will not receive much of the ball. This system does not allow much room for attack unless during set pieces.
This system can get a good result for a team and even squeeze in a win whenever a chance presents itself. It can also psychologically and physically wear down the pressing team. Picture wave and wave of attack with no end product. This can be frustrating.
If you only park the bus without trying to attack on occasion, then tired legs may creep in later in the match and the high pressing team will be on hand to capitalize on that. Parking the bus is dangerous especially if you have no lead to protect.
There are many different systems deployed in soccer as each team strives to secure a favorable result. High pressing teams tend to also dominate possession and viciously try to regain ball possession. Those high pressing teams with quality players get a lot of wins as they allow little room for the opposition to play.
However, high pressing teams are not unbeatable. Using tactics such as counter-attacking has been known to unlock goal scoring chances for teams that are being pressed. This tactic can result in a goal or two with the team later protecting the lead as opposed to going toe to toe with their high pressing opponents.
It all goes down to a coach understanding his or her players and fundamentally asking, “does my team have the ability to adapt to different systems?” Then, work on it on the training ground. Beating the high press is not easy but at the same time not impossible.
Having the right players who fit into the preferred system of play helps to manage the strain put by high pressing teams. A tight locked midfield, as well as speedy wingers to offload the ball to behind the defense, have been known to cause problems to the high press.
Sitting deep and absorbing pressure is not a bad strategy as long as the defense is able to maintain its shape with support from the midfielders. Doing so for the entire match is risky though due to fatigue levels. Setting an offside trap can work a couple of times but the opposition too adapts.
Hi there, I’m Jay.
The Pitch is Ours is a new beginning for me and a stepping stone to prepare before retiring from the professional soccer team. Soccer is everything in my life! My friends and I have created this blog with all our enthusiasm, passion, and understanding after years of playing pro soccer. Hope you will enjoy it!