Inspired by the successes of men like Guardiola, Bielsa and Klopp an ever-increasing legion of managers is looking to change their tactical approach to the beautiful game. One of the elements they always look at is pressing (or counterpressing). This means they will inevitably look at pressing traps and pressing triggers as well. Previously, such tactical musings were the domain of pretentious hipsters trying to be interesting by brandishing such terms or the odd tactical aficionado.
Pressing, counterpressing, pressing traps and pressing triggers are very popular concepts that are associated with the most exciting and dominant teams in modern football. But what do these terms really mean, why are they so important to modern football and how can you use these concepts in Football Manager? I’ve covered counterpressing extensively before, so in this article, I’ll focus on pressing traps and pressing triggers.
What is pressing?
Pressing is basically moving your players into a position where they can generate pressure on the opposing team with the intent of getting the ball. The keyword here is “intent.” When your team is pressing, they are actively trying to win the ball from the opposing side by moving out of position and/or actively disrupting the formation of the opposing team. If a team moves close but their intent is not to win the ball but merely to contain the opposing team, that is not pressing. Your team’s intention is to defend their own goal by stopping them from getting into positions where they can take a shot, without actively trying to win the ball.
The difference between these two opposites becomes clear when you look at a few match examples. We will start with an example of aggressive pressing, where the defending team is intent on winning the ball as quickly as possible.
In the match clip above, you can see how the players are not standing off. They actively track down the opponents in possession and go in with the intent to win the ball. You can see sliding challenges and tackles and definitely no standing off and try to contain the threat the opposing team poses.
In the second clip, we can see that our defenders stand off more. While they will track an opponent, they do not engage the player in possession in order to avoid any sort of disorganisation which would stem from being counterpressed or losing the ball after a counterattack. The defending team does not want the ball because when the opposition presses and wins the ball back, we lose our position. Players move forward, start their transition from their defensive to their offensive role which means the cohesion and compactness of the team start to change. A turnover of possession could be exploited. By just nullifying the threat the man in possession poses without actually engaging, the defensive integrity is maintained throughout the match.
The pressure generated towards a player in possession creates a scenario in which said player potentially can’t control his own actions, resulting in a turnover of possession. Pressure forces such events to occur rather than allowing them to occur based on the will and qualities of the player in possession. Pressure forces a player to act more quickly, both in deciding what to do and in executing what he intended to do. When a player is lacking in quality one or both of these aspects can be manipulated into winning possession if not directly then maybe because his pass towards a team-mate is not good enough or can be intercepted.
If you manage to manipulate your opponent into making a mistake in any of these three elements, you are presented with an opportunity to win back possession. The concept of it all looks easy enough on the drawing board, but there are literally hundreds of ways to implement pressing in your tactics.
How does pressing work in FM?
The concept of pressing is a bit more complicated than merely ticking one or two boxes in your team’s tactics screen. Really, it is. As with most concepts, it’s a balancing act between being too involved and being too conservative. Pressing in FM is determined by two instructions but in conjunction with any and all instructions and settings that change the team shape. As we mentioned earlier, pressing can be defined moving your players into a position where they can generate pressure on the opposing team with the intent of getting the ball. Any instructions that allow you to move your players into or away from such positions influence the team’s pressing effort.
When looking at the various instructions and settings FM offers, I want to differentiate between the instructions that influence the team’s shape and those that influence how the press is executed.
Influences team’s shape:
- Defensive line;
- Use off-side trap;
- Team shape.
Influences execution of the press:
- Closing down;
- Prevent short GK distribution;
- Tighter marking;
- Get stuck/Stay on feet.
The player instructions are mostly there to nuance specific team- and role instructions. While they can make a difference, they are mostly in place to nuance the team instructions or override to some extent specific role instructions.
How can we use a team’s shape for pressing?
Which brings us to the instructions to alter the team’s shape and how they effect your team’s pressing. One of the key components to an effective press is being in the position to actually being able to press. Your players should be positioned to establish access to the ball. You can’t pressure an opponent if you’re nowhere near him, barring the odd psychic wonder perhaps.
This where the aforementioned instructions come into play. They determine how your team’s current formation and shape is altered. When your team’s pressing efforts are proving ineffectual, you may want to alter the team’s shape somewhat. As with all elements in Football Manager, this is a careful balancing act. Every advantage has an inherent disadvantage as well.
For example, playing a wider formation could grant your players easier access to opposing wide players but it can also leave them more isolated, with their teammates further away than they usually would be. Similarly, playing in a more narrow formation creates a compact and cohesive unit of players, while simultaneously ceding the wide areas of the pitch to your opponents.
You have to look at what kind of pressing game you want to play, where your players should position themselves in order to establish access to their opponents and the ball. In this regard, football literature distinguishes various pressing zones. The German FA has created a nifty model for distinguishing the different types of pressing. Just have a look at the awful piece of photoshopping below.
In this German model, the field is split into three horizontal thirds; the attacking, midfield, and defending thirds. As anticipated, attacking pressing occurs in the attacking third, midfield pressing occurs in the midfield third, and defensive pressing occurs in the defensive third. The model also divides each third into a high and a deep zone. In the picture above, the red/yellow third is the attacking third, where the red zone represents the high attacking zone and the yellow zone represent the deep attacking zone. Similarly, the green third is the midfield third, where the light green zone represents the high midfield zone and the dark green zone represent the deep midfield zone. Finally, the blue/purple third is the defensive third, where the blue zone represents the high defensive zone and the purple zone represent the deep defensive zone.
Back to the balancing act. Your initial formation determines your defensive outlay. The instructions you select to alter the team shape can help you to establish access to the ball for your players. When your team can pressure the ball this action allows the rest of the team in the deeper layers to push towards the ball and leave space on the far side of the field open.
In the screenshot above the red lines indicate the offensive movement by my team, whereas the orange lines indicate their potential movement in executing the press. You can also see that my team plays with a high defensive line which did not join the press. If the defenders had moved forward as well, the defensive line becomes susceptible to long balls over the top into the space behind the defenders. By aggressively closing down the player in possession and minimising the amount of time and space he has on the ball, we exponentially increase our chance to win the ball, either because one of the players closing down manages to win it or because we force the player in possession into making a poor pass and gifting us possession.
This is where the team instructions come into play. If my team has limited or no access to the ball then we need to re-establish access without being exposed. Again, balance is the keyword. Every instruction you add or remove has an influence on many aspects of the game. There are multiple ways to address the balance of the tactic. The most common way is to ignore the ball and the man in possession and collectively move towards the space in front of the own defence, the area on the pitch where the ball will eventually arrive. In other words, drop deeper and in a narrow shape to protect the space near the goal. At this point, you sit back and wait to force the ball backwards or wide and away. It’s Parking The Bus 101.
Another option is to move collectively towards the ball and play with the offside rule. If prepared and timed correctly this can be an extremely valuable way to win the ball back even without access to the ball. Oddly enough, despite the high defensive line and off-side trap, a narrow shape still works best because of the team cohesion and the close proximity of a team-mate to help out. At this point, we’re looking at Pep’s 6-second-rule, Pocchettino’s pressing or Klopp’s counterpressing
All these instructions barring one are used to increase the proximity of our press towards opposing players. There is no sure-fire way to make it work because you have to look at the matches you’re playing and make a judgement call on how to bring your players into a position where they have access to the ball and their opponents. The exception to the rule is the team shape instruction, which determines if the team acts as a fluid unit willing to abandon its positions or more as a rigid entity where everyone has their own task and sticks to it.
When you press with a fluid or very fluid team shape, you basically concentrate on leaving the opponents with the worst possible pass and not leave the opponent with multiple options. This means an enormous collective effort, but it’s possible to harass and completely destabilise teams through a concentrated team effort, which is what a fluid or very fluid team shape helps to generate.
You can press in a rigid or very rigid team shape if your team is properly balanced. Pressing is about organisation rather than merely energy, and you can attempt to close down opposing players in ones and twos rather than as a collective unit. This means your team will maintain a more sturdy shape defensively with only a few players stepping out to actively engage players.
How can we increase the effectiveness of pressing?
There are various ways in which we can increase the effectiveness of the press. The previous paragraph detailed how we can establish access to our opponents, this paragraph details how we can increase the effectiveness of the execution of the press once access has been established.
The first and most obvious team instruction in this regard is the closing down setting. The higher the bar is, the more aggressive the press is executed. The downside to a high closing down setting is that players are also more likely to break formation and get drawn out of their respective defensive positions. As with most settings regarding pressing, it’s all a precarious balancing act.
The second pressing setting we want to look at helps you in establishing cover for the press. Tighter marking means that your players who are not actively closing down the opposition player on the ball will now stay closer to their direct opponent. If the initial press is evaded, it automatically creates a secondary press. It establishes easier access to your opponents, allowing you a safety net in case the opposition manages to evade the initial press.
The downside of tighter marking is that when possession is won, your more advanced players will have less time on the ball because of their close proximity to an opponent. While it is a solid and sound idea defensively, it can lead to problems going forward if your advanced players are up against a strong defence.
The third setting that can help you achieve a more effective press is the “prevent short GK distribution” option. Especially when you are looking at a high block press in the attacking third, it makes sense to tick this instruction. It means your forward line will spread out and actively engage opposition defenders when the opposing goalkeeper is in possession.
This harassment makes it difficult for the opposing team to build from the back, often forcing them to play long balls up the pitch. This automatically makes it easier to press the opposing team, because you always know where the ball is going to end up. It also forces opposing forwards to drop deeper to link up with their midfielders, effectively leading them away from your own defensive line.
The final pair of instructions is used to nuance the pressing. When you ask your players to get stuck in, they will attempt earlier and riskier tackles when engaging an opposing player who is on the ball. It may lead to more ball recoveries but it could also lead to more yellow cards and fouls. You could use this instruction when your regular pressing is not working. Step it up a notch and be more physical. Please keep in mind that more attacking mentalities will have your players tackle earlier by default. Asking them to get stuck in at this point could be counterproductive.
On the other end of the spectrum is the stay on feet instruction. When you ask your players to stay on their feet, they will attempt later and less risky tackles when engaging an opposing player who is on the ball. It may lead to fewer ball recoveries but it could also lead to fewer yellow cards and fouls. You could use this instruction when your regular pressing is yielding too many fouls or yellow cards. If the referee is handing out yellow cards like it’s Christmas, it might be wise to ease up on your tackling intensity.
What are pressing traps and pressing triggers?
A pressing trap invites the opponent to act in a specific zone in their formation. Pressing traps can vary as well; aspects of the trap include where the trap is set up to isolate the opponent, how many players participate in the trap, the type of pressing when closing the trap, how the opponent is isolated, when the trap is set, and more.
The picture above shows you a press high up the field in the attacking third. The defender (#16 Schneider) has intercepted a through ball at which point the central pressing trap is triggered. The wingbacks close in on their respective markers and the three-man forward line surges forward to pressure the defensive line. The central midfielders maintain their position because the opposing midfielders are already drawn back by the presence of the attacking midfielders, which makes the central midfielders ideal for winning the second ball.
Facing an aggressive press, the man in possession is left with two real options. He can play a low-risk pass to his team-mate in the heart of the defence, but that team-mate will immediately be pressured by one of the other forwards. The man in possession can also attempt a long range pass towards the central forward, who is covered by two central defenders. There are no central passing options because of the aggressive press.
Our aggressive pressing in this situation takes away options for the team in possession. Effectively, you are guiding their efforts away from the pressured areas, steering the offensive movement of your opponent or winning the ball. Opposing players have to think quickly and on their feet and every mediocre or even poor pass becomes a liability to the entire team and it’s structure and cohesion.
Above is a variation to the screenshot we showed earlier. My team press early and aggressively, choking all passing lanes in the central areas of the pitch. They effectively spring a pressing trap on the opposing defence by moving in specific routes, forcing the player in possession to play a long ball up the pitch to relieve the pressure. My defenders and midfielders have pushed forward and are ready to combat for the second ball, before quickly transitioning to the attack, using the disorganisation in the opposing defence to their advantage.
Looking at this from a different perspective, you can clearly see that once the opponent is isolated from his teammates and has no escape route, the team can move towards the ball collectively and either win it in a good area which would likely result in a great counter attack or force a long ball which is easily intercepted. We were quite active as the initial press by the attacking midfielders pinned down the defensive line and forced a long ball, snapping the trap shut. All passing routes were shut down and having the man in possession swivelling on the ball to pass the ball to the left side would allow our forwards to close in and engage the man in possession in a position were losing the ball would have calamitous consequences.
Pressing triggers are the conditions that start the press when your players are in a position to do so. In real life, these triggers normally depend on aspects like players’ field of view, control of the ball, ability of the player, connectivity of the opponent, or the nature of the pass. In FM, these nuances are not present. You can instruct your players to press specific players and even show them onto their weaker foot, but that’s about as in-depth as it gets.
Despite their limitations, you could use the opposition instructions to create pressing traps by pressing key positions in the opposing team’s formation. This should allow your team to isolate the ball and then win it or force a poor pass.
For example, in the example above the entire back line and defensive midfield strata are extensively pressed, while the wide players are shown onto their weak feet, which automatically forces the ball back into the central areas, towards our waiting players. Similarly, the midfielders and attacking midfielders are not heavily closed down to maintain the structure and integrity of our own defensive line. Our players won’t be drawn out of position to engage these players. Our attackers start the pressure, the midfielders push forward onto their opposite numbers and the defence holds a high line.
Creating your own pressing traps isn’t awfully difficult, but it requires you to have some idea as to what you want to achieve. When you look at the formation and team instructions you have, you will inevitably be able to tell if you want to press in a specific zone and how aggressively you want to press. The opposition instructions allow you to target a specific opponent and isolate him in order to recover the ball or force a mistake.