With the arrival of Jürgen Klopp in the Premiership, more and more attention is given to one of the major developments in football tactics in recent years; counterpressing. Before Klopp’s move the Premier League, counterpressing or its German equivalent gegenpressing was already hot topic 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. Ideally, a team needs to play as much as possible in the opposition’s half to get them in a low block where their striker is detached from their midfield line. Once they are in this position, it is about having ideal positioning with the ball ergo players in positions where they are impacting the game and finding spaces with the ball but also where they are able to prevent a counter-attack.
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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 of the ball as much 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.
What we can see in that video is a match situation with several turn-over moments, where my team loses the ball, quickly presses forward and either wins the ball back or forces the opposition to play a risky pass that can be intercepted. Let’s further examine these moments.
Ferranit, one of our shadow strikers, has just been tackled off the ball, the loose ball has been picked up by the opposing wing-back. Our entire team pushes forward, which makes it rather difficult for the opposing player to pick a pass. The yellow lines represent his passing options, whereas the blue lines represent possible defensive movement to block a passing lane or challenge the recipient of a pass. The ball ends up with the safest option possible, the right winger.
The winger runs into serious trouble. He really has nowhere to go. The presence of a wing-back means he can’t dribble into space without having to take on a defender in a situation where he’d rather not lose the ball, as his own team is transitioning from defence to offence. Most realistic passing-lanes are blocked by my players. In the end, the turnover is forced because the winger tries to dribble his way out of trouble and loses the ball. By closing down the passing-lanes and keeping the space on the pitch limited and our formation cohesive and compact, we force our opponents into making mistakes.
When the next turn-over occurs, the opposing team is pushed back around their own box, again with most easy passing-lanes blocked or under threat of being blocked. The defending side works around the pressing with a long, risky cross-pass, which pays off initially and then results in another turn-over because the ball was difficult to control. As the long ball goes in, the whole process starts again, as the entire team shuffles over, effectively blocking most of passing options. The defenders close in as well 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?
Whilst the goal is a bit flukey, it does showcase some of the problems that can occur when an opponent has evaded the press. In this case a midfielder has evaded the press by flicking the ball back. This means that there is space elsewhere on the pitch. When two or more players are pressuring one opponent, logic dictates that one or more players have 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.
As I mentioned before, the finish is a bit flukey, but the fast forward moves into the space vacated by the left wing-back joining the press. His cross is overhit and comes back off the bar, presenting the other striker an easy chance, but the concept of players being caught out of position is nicely illustrated this way.
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 FM16
There are a number of settings that make the counter-pressing happen in FM16. 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 is a striker lurking behind the defender in possession. This forward is unmarked right now, a single turnover and direct pass could result in this unmarked forward chasing after a direct pass into space, 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 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 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. 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 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.
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.
“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 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. I generally use all settings, depending on the match and the settings, but my favorite setting has to be attacking.
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.
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.