The next bit is going to make me sound like an absolute cunt of a football hipster, but I do feel it’s necessary to create a sort of framework and explain some of the definitions I intend to use. What I want to discuss is the concept of “counter-pressing,” because it’s an absolute prerequisite of a properly functioning strikerless style of play.
Counter-pressing basically means that you try to win back the ball as soon as you lose posession, transitioning back and forth between attack and defence quite fast. The pressing is extreme and aggressive and starts deep in the opponents half. The pressing is not random and wild, but well-organised, and the whole team moves as a cohesive unit to squeeze the play and place a strangle-hold on an opponent. One player will press the player on the ball, whilst others look to cut off any available passes, and the defence will move up in unison with the pressers to make the pitch compact. As more players are higher up the pitch as a result of the pressing positions, a quick attack with numerous players can occur, which is always a danger.
The aggressive pressing inside the opponents half has two reasons. For starters, if the ball is won immediately, you catch an opposing team when they are still transitioning from a defensive to a more attacking phase, which means their organisation is often poor and your players can go through on goal with a single pass. Let me show you what I mean.
What we can see is that the left attacking midfielder, Vankan, is quite aggressive as soon as the keeper releases the ball towards a defender. When he intercepts the ball, the defence is in disarray. They planned to build up an attack so most defenders are spaced far apart. A quick break and a single pass sees Kadir Kurt with an easy shot inside the box and a quite simple goal. The entire goal is made possible because of counter-pressing.
The second reason why I want my team to pressure deep inside the opposing team’s half, is to cut off the passing options an opposing team has, disrupting their build-up play as early as we possibly can. Ideally, you want to force an opposing team into playing risky back-passes or pointless long balls forward. If you manage to pressure your opponents into giving the ball away recklessly, you can again catch a defence off-guard and benefit from their lack of organisation. Let me show you what I mean.
Juventus are unable to clear the ball effectively, because of the relentless pressing. Their defenders are immediately pressured into clearing the ball without looking for a team-mate, which means our team, moving forward as a cohesive unit, is able to win back possession quite high up the pitch.
Looking at the post-match analysis from this specific game against Juventus, we can see that most interceptions happen around the mid-way line, the result of my players picking up poor clearances or rushed long balls from the Juventus defender. We can also see a fair few interceptions closer to the Juventus box, leading to goals like the one from the first match clip.
I started off claiming extreme pressing was a prerequisite for strikerless success. Because you lack a focal point for your passes upfront, you are heavily reliant on pass and move strategies and desorienting the opposing defence, creating disarray by overloading or pressuring them into making mistakes. Allow me to show you yet another match-clip.
Straight from the kick-off, you can see my team snap into tackles, swirl around their opponents, pressure them, even deep in their own half. It was a remorseless, bewildering assault, the opposing team was given no quarter, no respite anywhere on the pitch. It paid off with a goal in this instance, but I want my players to have this mind-set all the time.
When we break down this clip, we can see three different instances where counter-pressing is used to swiftly regain possession and carry on with an attack. First up is this following situation.
Juventus winger Capan is closed down on the wing by my wing-back Schramm. He only has three realistic passing options, all three of which are virtually cut off by my players. In case of a back-pass, the outer midfielder can simply block the passing lane. A pass to the more central player would be extremely risky, with three of my players nearby who can either intercept or immediately challenge the intended recipient.
The second phase shows a similar situation. Let’s have a look.
One of my players dallies on the ball and is muscled off the ball by a Juventus midfielder. Within seconds, the ball is won back by a midfielder surging forward to re-claim the lost ball. Even a short pass over a few metres can be intercepted if the pressing is relentless and swift. The match clip shows this, as the ball is won back almost instantly. Counter-pressing again.
The third situation is another prime example of counter-pressing.
The header is cleared forward, more or less immediately relinquishing possession. The screenshot shows the defensive pairings made and there is actually only one Juventus player left unmarked, their left-back. Heading the ball side-ways towards him would probably result with him being pressured by my right midfielder, who is coming in behind his opponent, which would be an extremely risky approach to take. All in all, almost every passing option was blocked or cut off by my players, forcing Juventus to give up possession quite easily, as well as catching their team off-guard during a transitional phase quite high up the pitch.
Now imagine what would happen when the midfielders would not actively close down their opponents, instead opting to drop back into midfield, maintaing the defensive shape. The premisse of a strikerless formation is that your side is going to dominate by having more men in midfield, drawing in opponents and then exploiting the space they give away. If an opposing defender can take control of the ball and either pick out a pass unopposed or even worse, dribble into a midfield position, negating the numerical advantage you once had. By keeping the opposition pinned at the back, you force them into a long ball or reckless pass and allowing your midfielders to win the ball.
Usually players are pressed when they cross the halfway line and begin to threaten the goal, or during turnovers of possession. This makes sense really, as players who have just taken possession, have usually not had a chance to assess their passing options and are thus unwilling, or unable, to release the ball quickly, especially if they are facing their own goal or the touchline, with limited options available.
When you’re playing strikerless, you’re almost forced to play all-out pressing, to hamper the oppositions build-up game. Allowing them a proper build-up is potentially opening up your midfield to a penetrating run or pass by a defender, negating the numerical advantage you once had and indeed require to successfully play your own game.