Many people think it’s as easy as:
See the ball…
Chase the ball…
Win the ball.
As I wrote about in my tactical analysis of Liverpool’s win over Spurs, a critical element of Liverpool’s victory was their ability to press throughout the game and dominate the ball. As Brendan Rodgers put it they ‘were like animals without the ball’, and this isn’t always easy to achieve. Successful pressing is dependant on group understanding, collective perception of ball, opponent and team mate, and a massive amount of hunger and desire to have the ball.
It isn’t possible to press for 90 minutes. Teams have to pick their times wisely in order to do it successfully. To co-ordinate the madness, most managers use triggers which signal for their players to press at the right times.
What are triggers? These are moments, situations within a game which act as a signal for a team to go and press the ball. If your players are tracking back, out of position and not close enough to the ball, it isn’t a sensible time to try and press. The best teams in this situation will recover into their defensive shape to protect the space behind them, and then have to wait for a new trigger.
Different teams can use different triggers, and specific ones which can relate to particular players receiving in certain zones. But in general terms, the majority of teams will firstly use a player receiving the ball with his head down as an opportunity to go and press. Why? The players view of the field is limited when he has his head down and is concentrating on his first touch. So the reaction to a sloppy or difficult pass is to go and affect the receiving players first touch and rush their play, they are far more focused on getting the ball under control than building constructive play.
Another major trigger for going to press is when a player is facing their own goal. At this exact moment again, the player does not have a view of the whole field and cannot pick a forward pass, so this is the perfect time to apply pressure onto the player himself, and his passing options. This will usually include the striker shutting off the space for the keeper and centre-backs, the wingers shutting off the full-backs, and by process of elimination, the midfield can determine who to press and where.
Liverpool executed their pressing plan perfectly against Spurs, and it won them the game. There were many examples of it.
This was Liverpool’s basic shape with the ball, a 4-3-3 with the midfield triangle of Lucas, Henderson and Allen. At times without the ball you could even call it a 4-1-4-1, with Henderson and Allen the first line of central pressure (Suarez influences the back line into playing into pressure). Coutinho and Sterling made the first line of wide pressure, Lucas as secondary or covering pressure behind the other four midfielders, and also the protector in front of the back four. Below we see Liverpool’s midfield recognising the triggers to break from their shape and go and press the ball.
Here Sterling is the closest, he has just monitered the situation as Coutinho sprints to Dawson who forces his pass into Naughton. Sterling notices both triggers to press (Naughton head down, facing his own goal) and sprints straight to him to unsettle him.
Here you can see him getting on Naughton’s first touch and he can poke it into Coutinho’s path and he is instantly set free.
Upon Coutinho taking over, Sterling can then run beyond him to take away Dawson, Joe Allen makes a similar run across his path to overload him, and Suarez pulls out in space to the left for a chance on goal.
There were many more examples of this, Liverpool hungry without the ball and determined to close the space on the player receiving simply to rush and crowd them out of possession. A collective effort which is extremely difficult to implement within a team. It is part of what separates the pro’s from the semi-pro’s and the amateurs, as there is nearly always a weak link who either fails to recognise the trigger to press, lacks the fitness to press, or simply doesn’t know how to press.
Here is another instance, with pressure from three different directions. As Spurs play the ball out of defence, Lucas recognises the triggers (Dembele head down, facing own goal), and gets tight into him forcing him back towards his goal.
This is where Allen and Sterling play crucial roles, most players will see Lucas stepping up and look to cover in behind him and regroup. Instead they break their necks to attack him with Lucas from the front and the side:
Dembele manages to shake off the pressure of Lucas, but he still has two more players to deal with, and as you see below, they crowd him out – there isn’t a Spurs player in sight for him – and Suarez is free on the shoulder of his defender to be released for a quick counter. This example is proof that one player pressing on their own is not enough, it has to be collective and instant.
This continued throughout the game, and importantly stopped Spurs from playing. Not only did they press well from the midfield to shake the opposition (Joe Allen finished the game with a massive 8 tackles, twice as many as any player on the field), but they also intercepted well:
Here we see Allen and Henderson both inviting the pass between them, but in perfect positions to intercept it when the pass is made. They didn’t just win the physical battle, they won the psychological battle too, as they were smarter and cuter at nicking the ball.
This was just a brief summary of Liverpool’s pressing game as it was difficult to touch on this thoroughly in my post-match article. It is a facet of Liverpool’s game which can really aid their top four ambitions, but they have been guilty earlier in the season of not doing this. Many times they have sat back in defensive shape rather than pressed, whether due to tiredness, protecting a lead, or lack of the right personnel. However Brendan Rodgers seems to have found the right formula for the brand of football he wants to employ, so Liverpool fans will be long hoping this can continue.