One of the major developments in football tactics in recent years has been the rise of counterpressing. In fact, counterpressing or its German equivalent gegenpressing have become a thing for the football hipsters among us. The act of pressing and closing down the opposition immediately after the ball is turned over has been made popular by managers like Guardiola, Klopp and Heynckes. Just for reference, this is what I mean.
The aim of said counterpressing is to prevent the opposition from counter-attacking, and to win the ball back as quickly as possible. It relies on the team in possession reacting as quickly as possible to the moment of transition when possession is lost. I have written about this subject before, on two occassions even. This blog-post is an effort to re-fine my earlier endeavors.
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The duality between possession and counter-pressing
The next bit is going to make me sound like a bit of a football hipster, but I do feel it’s necessary to discuss is the link between counter-pressing, possession and strikerless football, because the former two form, in my eyes, absolute prerequisites of a properly functioning strikerless style of play.
A common theme to many teams playing counter-pressing is their shared interest in dominating possession, which isn’t a coincedence. This aggressive approach to pressing and a lust for dominance in terms of possession often go hand in hand, simply because a team that wants to control as much of the ball as possible will naturally want to win it back as quickly as possible when they lose it. One, in essence, cannot successfully exist without the other.
Indeed, possession and counterpressing are very much intertwined. If a team dominates possession, then they strive to retain the ball and forge attacks with short, decisive passes. This particular brand of short passing means that teammates have to positioned close together, as a cohesive unit. When and if they are positioned close together, there will always be more numbers close to the ball when possession is turned over, thus effectively empowering the pressing system. After all, the more players there are close to the ball, the more likely the counterpressing is going to be effective.
When we look at the average heat-map for my most-used formation, we can quite clearly see a compact shape, with the wing-backs adding some width to the formation. On average though, the players are positioned less than ten metres apart, which makes it easy to pass the ball around and to gang up on an opponent in possession without leaving someone terribly exposed.
When one of my players is in possession, this is the average situation. There are plenty of players nearby, with a few risky, long-range passing options available to him. Should the ball be turned over, the team can transition from offence to defence rather quickly by aggressively pressing the opponent in possession with two or more players. The transition-phases are generally short, aggressive and decisive, but it demands a lot from the players in terms of concentration, team-play and physique.
The double-edged sword that can be counter-pressing
These quick and aggressive transitions tie into another important element of counterpressing: when to stop pressing? As we mentioned before, counterpressing relies on the defending players aggressively moving towards the ball to close down the forward passing options for the opposing player in possession. When it all goes right, it’s a beautiful thing, which can look a little like this.
We can see how the defenders are relentlessly chased down in an effort to win the ball back, ultimately forcing them to play a long ball clearance, which is is then intercepted and leads to a quick counter-attack against an unorganised, chaotic defensive line.
We can see the various passing options the defender on the ball, Mário Rui, has. We can also see that with a few moves, our players will be on top of who-ever receives the ball or they will be able to even block the passing-lane completely. Ultimately, the defender does the one sensible thing and passes the ball back to his goalkeeper.
At which point the whole process starts again, as one forward moves in to close down the keeper, effectively blocking most of his passing options. The other forwards stand by and the midfielders close in and shuffle forward, anticipating the long ball clearance. Quite a lovely concept, isn’t it?
There are a few risks involved with playing a counter-pressing style. These are calculated risks, but nonetheless risks. Counter-pressing looks great when it works, but it could end catastrophically when it blows up in your face. For starters, you rely on your players aggressively closing down the opposition. But what happens when the opposing player manages to evade the press?
In this instance Sérgio, the winger, has evaded the press and skipped past two markers. This means that there is space elsewhere on the pitch. When two players are pressuring one opponent, logic dictates that one player has no direct opponent right now. A team that is quick on the break could exploit such weaknesses. This means counter-pressing can be risky when you’re playing opponents with superior players, who can take on your defenders one-on-one and beat them.
A second risk you run when using a counter-press involves the space you give to the opposing team. A counter-press often occurs in the opposition’s final third. This is because a team that dominates possession is generally able to retain the ball inside their own back and middle third with relative ease. When the ball enters the final third, such teams often encounter a massive wall of opposing players, making space scarce and turn-overs more likely.
In order to maintain the compact shape that makes counter-pressing work, the defence has to push relatively far up the pitch to make the space between the various lines manageable for the other players. This does mean you give away a fair amount of space behind your own defensive line, again something that could be exploited by teams with fast forwards or teams who like a quick break. You tend to concede the odd goal when a cross or direct pass finds space behind the defensive line for a forward to run onto. It’s an inherent risk you take when using this style. It generally looks a bit like this.
The fact that we were liable to concede goals like this was the main reason why I started applying the counter-pressing concept I have in place right now. The best defence is an aggressive offence. If the opposing team is allowed no time on the ball, there’s less chance of a through ball and more time for the defence to reorganise.
One of the side effects I have noticed to the whole counter-pressing concept is the added risk of my players making tactical fouls. A tactical foul is a foul where the offending player knows he will pick up a card and is happy to collect it to prevent the opposition breaking quickly. His side can get back into a good defensive position, and the attacking side has been robbed of a potentially crucial situation. By committing a foul, the defensive side is better off.
In the clip above, you can see Barcelona applying the concept in real life. In the moment they fear a forward is going to flick the ball on in a way that may jeopardise the defensive line, they barge him in the back, committing a tactical foul and allowing the defence time to re-group. This is a problem, the third problem in fact, because you run the risk of your players getting booked too often and missing games through suspension or getting sent off.
The settings required to use counter-pressing in FM15
There are a number of settings that make the counter-pressing happen in FM15. It’s not just a matter of mindlessly ticking a number of boxes, it is a delicate and complex balancing act between various interacting settings and the utilised formation. We’ll start off by looking at the Team Instructions.
The first Team Instruction I want to look at is the Work Ball Into Box setting. Whilst this is a passing instruction, it does impact the way the team lines up on the pitch and thus influences the team shape, which in turn influences the counter-press. If we want to press successfully, we can’t go and give the ball away in silly situations, so I do want my players to work the ball into the box with caution.
Giving the ball away needlessly could cause serious problems, especially when it happens near the halfway-line or on our half. Opting for patient and more safe passes, especially during the transition from defence to offence, tends to minimise the risk of losing the ball, because a counter-press can’t be successfully initiated in these circumstances.
If we were to lose the ball in the situation above, we would have a serious problem, as there are two strikers lurking in an off-side position. Both could drop back before chasing after a direct pass, there is plenty of space because our defenders have pushed up to keep the lines compact and the team shape cohesive. I’d rather have the player in possession opt for a safe pass wide rather than a risky pass down the central area.
The situation listed above ties in nicely with the second Team Instruction I want to look at is the Push Higher Up setting. While a counter-press can occur in any part of the pitch, it often occurs in the opposition’s final third. When the ball enters the final third the opposition is often looking to protect that space, so it becomes more difficult to retain the ball reliably, so your own players are more likely to turn it over in this area of the pitch. If you want your players to press hard, you want the gaps between the various lines to be as small as possible, so you need the team to push up as high as possible.
Despite the risk of losing the ball when playing a central pass, you can see that there are three players of our own team close nearby to attempt to take over possession should something go wrong, so the setup for a successful counter-press is there. Still, why risk something going wrong, when a safer route is available down the left flank?
The next Team Instruction I want to look at is the Close Down More setting. I do want my players to harass the opposition where-ever possible and in terms of sliders (I am old skool like that), this instruction would increase the amount of closing down my players do. I want them to seek out opposing players to win back the ball, cut off passing options or simply allow others time to re-group.
There is indeed a Close Down Much More option and yes, I have tried it. In fact, I started out by using this option, as it does induce the most relentless form of pressing you can achieve in FM. However, do you remember the bit about balancing the team? When I used this instruction, I noticed my players being drawn out of position far too often, thus ruining the team shape and the cohesion of the formation.
The next Team Instruction I want to look at is the Use Tighter Marking setting. The Use Tighter Marking instruction pretty much re-inforces the previous instruction. I want my players to get up close and personal and stay with their markers, especially in defence and midfield. Don’t give them time on the ball, don’t give them time to pick out a pass. I want my players to aggressively assault who-ever is in possession, whilst others (Very Fluid setting kicking in) join in by cutting off passing options.
The next Team Instruction I want to look at is the Prevent Short GK Distribution setting. I’ll be brutally honest and say I haven’t really seen much difference with this box ticked and without this box ticked, but I’m just going to leave it in there, just in case. Philosophy-wise, it should be ticked anyway. I reckon it mostly applies to players in the forward strata, which is an area where I generally don’t have a lot of players by default. Still, it feels right to just to keep it ticked if you want to use a counter-press.
The final Team Instruction I want to look at is the Be More Disciplined setting. I want my players to be part of a cohesive unit and I want them to keep in mind that every decision they make impacts the team shape. I reckon this instruction will prevent them from getting too carried away with their pressing, so they don’t sacrifice the team shape in an effort to win the ball when it’s really not responsible to do so.
Despite not selecting either one, I want to briefly discuss the Stay On Feet and Get Stuck In instructions, since I tend to use both during the season. Whilst I must admit that it may sound counter-intuitive to use the first one instead of the Get Stuck In shout, I assure you it makes perfect sense when you think about it. A player who slides in for the challenge takes two risks, in my eyes. When he mistimes his challenge, he’s down on the floor and will need time to get back and get involved in the game again. That’s precious seconds lost in terms of counter-pressing. Secondly, and that’s speaking from experience here, offensive players are not the most accomplished of tacklers. To have them slide in like maniacs generally generates a fair amount of bookings and injuries to my own players. I’ll have less of that, thank-you-very-much.
On the other hand, sometimes you are facing superior opposition in your matches. When your players are clearly inferior, you run the risk of opposing players evading the counter-press and you have to compensate somehow. Some raw aggression and power could come in useful. Yes, you still run the risk of miss-timed challenges either getting your own players booked or injured or taken out because they’re on the floor, but you have to compensate somehow and in quite a few cases, you manage to intimidate the opposition this way.
That brings us to the Team Shape part of the counter-pressing routine. There is only one setting that I use and it is basically a prerequisite to making this whole concept work.
I opted for the Very Fluid approach because I want the team to act as a cohesive unit. I am going to sound like a proper hipster for referencing famous real life managers, but bear with me on this one. People like Michels, Cruyff, Lobanovskiy and Sacchi strived for universality, where every player on the pitch takes a collective responsebility for each aspect of the game. Not in the sense that the forward is now tracking back to help with the off-side trap, but more in the sense of for example a forward pressing an opposing defender on the ball, allowing his team-mates either time to link up and help or fall back to take up a more reliable defensive stance.
Anyway, since universality is closely associated with Total Football, it’s becoming a sort of buzz-word. In a way, universality is part of some mythical style of play, which combines the aesthetics of short and intricate passing, aggressive pressing, fluid movement on and off the ball and positional interchangeability with the results that deliver trophies.
That really isn’t what I’m after. I want all players to take equal creative and defensive responsebility during all stages and phases of the game, resulting in a very fluid style of play. Because of this style of play and by pushing up the defensive line, I try to keep the lines compact. This means the players can press without being too concerned about leaving huge gaps behind them. So in my eyes, a Very Fluid setting is a necessity if I want to keep a tight and cohesive formation through-out the match, because the defenders have to think of their positioning when attacking and the forwards have to contribute defensively by pressing.
That brings us to the Mentality part of the counter-pressing routine. There are generally three settings that I use, depending on the match and the settings.
If you want to press aggressively, you have to have players high up the pitch to actually achieve this. Look at the description. Look at what it says on the tin. “Win and … dominate possession in your opponents half.” It would make no sense what-so-ever to maintain a more cautious approach, when this is the kind of pressing you hope to achieve. If you want to counter-press, you need to get men high up the pitch and I do believe Attacking is the best Mentality setting to do so without compromising defensive stability.
In some situations, a Control setting will work as well, but the pressing will start slightly deeper and it does allow an opposing team slightly more time on the ball to build their attacks. This could be useful when you are playing a superior opponent, because all-out pressing gone wrong could end in disaster, in which case it might be smart to start the pressing slightly deeper, more in the proximity of the half-way line.
The Overload setting generates an even more aggressive form of pressing, but with most players flooding forward to join in, you become very vulnerable to opponents who employ a more direct style of play. If you play the Tony Pulis-style AI managers, this kind of pressing becomes useless. Why bother pressing the defenders into giving a long ball, when it’s their intention to do so anyway? Sending too many men forward will leave you exposed at the back against opponents who are not only able but very willing to go head-to-head (pardon the poor pun) with your defenders in aerial duels for the ball.
The attributes required to use counter-pressing in FM15
The key to successful counter-pressing lies in the mindset of your own players, without an instantaneous change in the mentality of the player from an attacking mindset to a defensive mindset, the moment to counterpress is lost. Counterpressing in itself is not a particularly revolutionary tactic in the wider scheme of football history, but the recent rise of teams like Barcelona, Bayern and Dortmund being able to execute it effectively has made it one of the more fascinating developments in current football tactics.
That means I am looking for players with high Determination, Work Rate, Teamwork and Decisions, whilst high Aggression probably isn’t a bad thing either. These mental attributes are especially important for the players in the midfield line. I am going to quote an FM-Base article here for the definitions of the various attributes.
Decisions is one of the most important attributes in the game. A player is constantly presented with options, and the decisions attribute controls if the player chooses the best option. It also controls how and when an option is performed. Decisions is what, when and how.
A low Determination attribute means a player ‘gives up’ earlier. High attribute means the player would fight until the end.
A low attribute for Work Rate means the player would not spend too much time in off the ball decisions, and rather wait for an opportunity to arise instead of trying to create the situation himself. A high attribute means the player would make himself available and involve himself in play as much as possible.
A low Teamwork attribute means the player will put his own best interest before the best interests of the team, like trying to shoot for goal instead of passing to a team mate, even though the team mate might be in a better position to score. A high attribute means the player would base decisions on what is best for the team, not what is best for himself.
You can see it makes sense to have players with high attributes like these, since it improves the chance of them being actively involved in the counter-press.
Because all of this running and challenging players is pretty demanding, you are looking for players who can last an entire match, so high Stamina is probably a good idea. The higher the Stamina attribute is, the longer a player can keep going without getting tired. It’s fully connected to the match condition of the player.