As an ever-increasing number of foreign managers have sought to make an impression on the English Premier League, more and more attention has been given to the concept of counter-pressing. Previously, such tactical musings were the domain of pretentious hipsters trying to be interesting by brandishing such terms or the odd tactical aficionado. With the arrival of the likes of Mauricio Pocchettino, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, the act of pressing and closing down the opposition immediately after the ball is turned over is receiving more attention, which inevitably leads to people trying to emulate such a concept in Football Manager.
Counter-pressing is intended to win the ball back as quickly as possible when possession is lost, simultaneously aiming to win back possession as well as snuffing out potential counter-attacks. For the concept to work as designed, the team needs to play as a compact and cohesive unit, reacting as quickly as possible whenever the ball is lost. Can we make this work in FM17?
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The duality between possession and counter-pressing
As you can tell from the hipster-style brandishing of big-name managers in the introductory paragraphs, there’s a definite correlation between attempting to dominate possession and a specific brand of counter-pressing. Teams who like to keep control of the ball are also quite keen to win the back as soon as possible. One reinforces the other in essence.
These two elements of play are so intertwined that they generally require a specific kind of team instructions to work efficiently. Possession-hungry teams often use a particular brand of short, patient passing which requires the members of the team to be grouped quite closely together, in a closely-knit unit. This has the fortunate side-effect that when the ball is lost, there are always plenty of team-mates around to help make an effort to win back the all, effectively empowering the pressing system.
When we look at the average heat-map for my current formation, we can quite clearly see a compact (slightly lopsided) 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. Since those are the average positions my players take, you can imagine that the shape the team lines up in when in possession.
Four different “flavours” of counter-pressing
Counter-pressing is more than simply having physically fit player, capable of harassing the opposition for 90 minutes all over the pitch. There is the tactical aspect we need to consider. Depending on the setup of the team, specific forms of pressing might be effective or ineffective. If the formation is too wide, players will become isolated, making their press easily evadable by opposing players. If the team features few wide players, pressing opposing wide players will necessitate the entire team to shuffle sideways or perhaps even opt for not pressing wide players at all.
Setting up your preferred style of pressing is down to personal preferences and the material at hand. You can opt to target a particular weakness in the opposition squad or perhaps reinforce a strong suit within your own line-up. Where do you want the team to be narrower and more compact to create the best possible counter pressure?
I reckon there are four types of counter-pressing possible.
- You can pressure the player in possession;
- You can pressure the space the ball is in;
- You can shut down the passing lanes;
- You can press with the team as a cohesive collective.
Pressure the player in possession
Using this form of pressing, which is what teams like Bayern and to an extent Atlético do, the opposing ball carrier is not pressed by the entire team collectively. The pressure is applied by one or two nearby players, while the rest of the team is not fixed to specific positions. Instead, the remaining players take on the nearest opponent in a kind of man coverage. This pairing-up ensures that if the player in possession can evade the initial press, the next player to receive the ball is automatically placed in a similar situation. There is never extreme pressure, but always enough to force the ball carrier to make an often rash decision.
In this example, the opposing left wing-back has intercepted the ball. The nearest player, the one who lost the ball, immediately presses, which forces the wing-back to pass the ball towards one of his own defenders. At this point, my team pairs up. Some of them link up with nearby opponents, while others move into spaces that might become threatened. The nearest passing options are blocked off by the presence of one of my attacking players moving in. The situation ends as the opposing defender simply hoofs the ball clear, turning over possession back to my side.
Compress the space
Instead of taking on the man in possession, it is based heavily on restricting the available space of the opponent. You cut off the passing lanes and press an opponent wide, denying them space in a specific area. When the ball is trapped in this sector, the opposition is either forced to play a long ball forward, or the player in possession is challenged for the ball.
In this particular situation, the ball is turned over to an opposing central midfielder. Immediately after losing possession, our central midfielder closes the distance to pressure the opposing ball carrier. The other midfielders also close in, compressing the amount of space the ball carrier has, limiting his options. There is no real passing outlet available, except for a pass backwards, which would necessitate the ball carrier to swivel rapidly, risking a tackle or challenge from our on-rushing central midfielder.
Choke the passing lanes
The idea is really as simple as one might presume. When the ball is lost the pressing forces the ball carrier into a particular situation. The ball carrier is provoked to play a high-risk pass because all the shorter, easier-to-reach passing outlets have been compromised. The ball is rarely directly won from such pressing, what usually happens is that the high-risk pass is intercepted.
In this example, the ball was intercepted after a poor cross by Ozawa and carried out by the opposing midfielder. This midfielder is immediately pressed, and my team quickly moves in to restrict the space around the ball carrier, without making a direct challenge. The ball carrier has a few options, but the safer, shorter options are all in a position to get pressured as well, whereas a long, direct pass is a risky choice, but really the only viable option. The long-range option is left open because most of the time these long-range passes are easily intercepted. This form of pressing provokes the opposition into a particular type of pass. If the ball carrier delays his decision, it allows the team more time to regroup and move into a more narrow defensive shape.
Collective counter-pressing (ball-oriented)
It’s basically the most complicated and impressive form of counter-pressing; the one where the entire team turns into a wolf pack, chasing down the opposition and ball. As a Dutchman, I feel compelled to show you this clip of the ’74 Dutch national team executing this to perfection during the World Cup.
A more modern proponent of this chaotic, energetic and oddly mesmerising style of pressing would be the Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa during his tenure with the Chilean national team and various other clubs, who, in case you managed to forget, let his teams play in a similar fashion.
It is a gloriously chaotic form counter pressing because the players themselves are all heavily focused on the ball carrier and not his options, which means they get dragged out of position. This was usually countered by making sure a few players remained behind the ball to protect the space the other left behind them.
In this specific example, the press is executed near the penalty area of the opposing team. As soon as the ball is lost, you can see five players moving in towards the ball, trying to intercept. You can also see a defensive midfielder maintaining his position behind the first press to pick up loose balls and protect the space behind the others.
Why FM17 cannot fully implement counter-pressing; pressing triggers and various other factors
Having implemented a sort of counter-pressing setup as early as FM15, I feel I can comment a bit on the effectiveness of the setup. While what we manage to do looks like counter-pressing and certainly has specific elements of counter-pressing incorporated, it feels at times like using an axe to cut a cake instead of the refined tactical tool that it ought to be. Why is that?
For starters, I am going to refer to my friend Matthias (@DerFM) and his explanation of pressing triggers (starts at around 10 minutes into the video).
Did you notice that Matthias mentions using opposition instructions to create pressing traps? That means that the pressing triggers as described earlier are not something that is built into this match engine. Instead, it takes a combination of the right mentality, fluidity, player roles and opposition instructions to pull off a specific brand of counter-pressing effectively.
When you are serious about implementing counter-pressing, these are some of the questions you need to be asking yourself.
- When does the manager want his team to press? Immediately after losing possession? Only when players receive the ball in certain areas? Do they do this for as much of the 90 minutes as possible or only for certain portions of it?
- What triggers the press? Is it focused chiefly on the ball being turned over or is it more about specific cues, such as an opponent receiving the ball in their own half with their back to goal or a player being forced to chase down a pass played out to the wing?
- Where on the field do they look to press the ball? Do they press all over the field or do they only focus their pressing around one area of the field?
- How long do they press the ball? Do they continue to chase the ball after the initial press or do they back off if the first wave of pressure fails to win the ball?
Do I have any clear-cut ideas on how exactly these should be implemented? To be fair, it all depends on the context of the match. It depends on how your team lines up, on how the opposing team lines up, it depends on the players at your disposal and on the players available to the opposition and probably a few more factors. So no, I do not have a clear-cut, plug-and-play approach as to how to make this work. Sorry, FM-Base.
The easiest version of counter-pressing to generate is the Bielsa one since it has the least amount of triggers. It essentially boils down to making the team act like a puppy with ADHD chasing after a tennis ball during a Grand Slam Final.
The settings required to use counter-pressing(ish) structures in FM17
There are a number of settings that make the counter-pressing happen in FM17. 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. While 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 affects the counter-press. If we want to press successfully, we can’t go and give the ball away in ridiculous 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 more patient and safer 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.
The next Team Instruction I want to look at is the Close Down Much More setting. I do want my players to harass the opposition where-ever possible, and regarding 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 just allow others time to re-group. Close Down Much More does induce the most relentless form of pressing you can achieve in FM. Sometimes 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, so you could always dial it down a notch.
The next Team Instruction I want to look at is the Use Tighter Marking setting. The Use Tighter Marking instruction pretty much reinforces 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 whoever is in possession, while 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.
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. While 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.
The final instruction is the width. I have opted for a fairly narrow approach, to create that compact and cohesive unit of players I need to make this work. If the players are spaced too far apart, the pressing will be less effective and thus not very useful for what I want to achieve.
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.
“Very Fluid” means the team will tend to be more compact (with more creative freedom). Since I want the team to act as a cohesive unit, this makes sense. 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 responsibility 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 responsibility 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 throughout 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. I generally use all settings, depending on the match and the settings. You are basically free to use whatever you feel works best for your side.
The attributes required to use counter-pressing in FM17
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 counter-press is lost. Counter-pressing 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, while high Aggression probably isn’t a bad thing either. These mental attributes are particularly 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.
The attribute “Decisions” is one of the most important attributes in the game. A player is consistently presented with options, and the decisions attribute controls if the player chooses the best choice. It also controls how and when an option is performed. “Decisions” influences what, when and how.
A low Determination attribute means a player “gives up” earlier. A high attribute indicates the player would fight until the end.
A low-value attribute for “Work Rate” says 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 teammate, even though the teammate 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 entirely connected to the match condition of the player.
The disclaimer; it can be a double-edged sword
These quick and aggressive transitions tie into another essential element of counter-pressing: when to stop pressing? As we mentioned before, counter-pressing 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. When the initial press is evaded, which is a risk you run, the opposition has a lot of space to break into and they can really punish you for that.
What I am saying is this; counter-pressing is not a sure-fire way to win matches. It is not some sort of miracle tactic. It will not make you win every game. Like every other tactic and strategy out there, it has its merits and it has its inherent flaws. If you do use it, make sure you know what you’re doing and make sure your players can actually execute your ideas.