This season has seen a closer battle between teams using the low block and high press with only 7 points between the top 5 teams. In the previous 3 seasons both Manchester City and Liverpool have taken the high press to new levels. their points tally’s have been extraordinary with 95+ points needed to secure a title. But this has changed this season due to coronavirus and the counter attacking teams are making the most of it.
High Press High Line
Liverpool have been the main gainers in the high pressing stakes as of late. The current champions average between 160-180 presses per game. Jurgen Klopp calls it gen-gen pressing. Most notably though is they press in the opponents defencive third which means a transfer of possession hurts the teams more. Manchester city are the next best at this under Pep Guardiola who used this method at his Barcelona side with a “3 Second rule”. This means he expects his team to win back possession within the first 3 seconds of losing the ball. City play a high risk man to man strategy which encourages even fullbacks to press onto the opposition high up the field.
Other managers have a similar philosophy and it is refreshing to see others adopt this in the Premier League with Southampton and Leeds United also following suit. The Saints are having a superb season under Ralph Hasenhuttl and are proving a handful to all teams they play. Leeds United having had success in the Championship using a high energy man for man strategy are now plying this in the Premier League with varying levels of success.
What is high Press?
Simply put you press the opposition from their kick outs in their defending 1/3 of the field. This involves a few things to get your team into place. The team as a whole need to push to the halfway line. Most players will go man to man, meaning the opposition will have nobody free to pass to. The front men tend to trigger the assault by closing down with pace and power. Everyone must anticipate the next pass and push forward as a unit to close off the probable passes. Sounds easy right?
The knock-on effect is winning the ball high up the field. Meaning you will be closer to the opposition goal when you start your attack. A successful possession turnover will usually catch the opposition off guard and out of position. The reward for this strategy is huge in a few ways. You gain momentum and confidence in turning over possession and the chances to score are greater as you will already be closer to the goal. It also has a phycological advantage as you feel in the ascendancy by being in possession more than your opponent.
What are the risks?
Playing high press is a risky tactic especially if you are not on your game. By pressing so high and usually man to man leaves you with even numbers at the back at times. Meaning that if the opposition can go over your press, or pass through your press you are immediately vulnerable in defence. Playing with this intensity usually also means it is extremely hard to keep it up for 90 mins and usually tires the team out quicker. Stats show that most pressing teams tend to score more in first half of games than the second due to fatigue.
Managers that play this system also tend to stick with the same personnel for large majorities of the season. The reasoning behind this is if 1 cog in the machine is not on the same wavelength the press breaks down. This again plays into the thought that fatigue over a long period can cause some players to suffer.
The biggest issue with High Press is of course the high line itself. It takes a lot of coaching to make a backline comfortable with constantly pushing forward. In this you leave yourself susceptible to a ball over the top that catches everyone out. Defenders need pace to cover each other and in particular you need quality center backs to read the game. Low block teams will be patient enough knowing that eventually you will allow them in one time. It is like a game of cat and mouse.
Low Block Low Risk – Counter Attack
There are a number of teams that are successful in using the low block this season. With both Liverpool and Manchester City not at their standards from previous seasons, this is a huge chance to see a low block team steal the title away. It has been 5 years since Leicester City incredibly won the Premier League title against all odds with a counter attacking style that took the league by storm.
This season Manchester United, Leicester and Spurs are all playing the same style in an attempt to re-create that incredible win. All 3 sides have similarities in their approach. Teams usually play this system due to their managers style. Pragmatic knowing that no matter how much possession they give up they will still create enough chances to win the game. There are a number of ways to win a game of football and nobody said they all need to mirror the current champions.
Jose Mourinho is a master of tactics. To be fair to him he has won titles at Chelsea and Madrid with attacking football but also in a manner that would not suit the palette of every supporter. His Spurs side this season have conceded only 17 goals so far only bettered by City with 13. Jose knows that this Spurs squad is perhaps not the best in terms of quality all over the pitch but makes up for it with 2 talismatic players in Kane and Son.
Jose makes no excuses for playing Hojbjerg and Sissoko as deep as possible giving cover to his defenders. This makes them hard to break down and then allows the a platform to release Son with a quick counter. Spurs invite teams onto them in the hope that they leave gaps at the back and then exploit them.
Manchester United are currently top of the Premier League with similar tactics as Spurs. Fred and McTominay play their low block and this allows Fernandez and Rashford to shine in their roles much like Son and Kane. Interestingly they have conceded 25 goals this term already, the worst of the top 11 teams in the Premier League. But their ability to come from behind is what makes them contenders in this style.
What is Low Block?
Low block doesn’t necessarily mean that you are you are defending on the edge of your area. It simply means you prefer not to press the opposition into their own half. It is like setting a line in the sand stating “This is where we engage the players when they reach this point”. For some teams this could be the halfway line and others 20 yards further or back.
Low block also requires a little extra safeguarding. Deploying two defencive midfielders to protect the backline is normal. These players are not employed due to their technical ability more so their defencive nous and pitbull like aggression. It is not a requirement to split a defence with a pass but if the player can do both even better.
The shape of the team can vary with a back four or five. The idea is to limit space behind the defence and have almost two layers of cover all over the field. Wingers usually become defencive players first and foremost then spring into attack when the opportunity arises. The level of the block becomes deeper and deeper when playing a team more toward the top of the table. We’ve seen West Brom and Burnley take it to new heights this season with little or no intention to attack. Whereas Leicester rarely steer from their path despite who they play.
Are there issues with Low Block?
There is no issue with the low block exactly, however it can be seen as negative. There is less risk with it from many mangers point of view. There’s not much point in every team going high press if they are going to lose badly due to it. Some managers might not think they have the personnel to carry out a good press. Leeds United are a good example of a team that plays completely man to man high press and they’ve had mixed results this season. The positive is that they are easy on the eye and the negative is sometimes they take a bit of a pasting.
The biggest issue most supporters will have with low block is that you are usually surrendering the possession of the ball somewhat. Spurs for example have under 50% possession this season and that still includes games against the weaker teams. It can be frustrating to watch your team give away territory and possession time and time again. Once you are winning it is less of an issue of course. Everton would be very similar to these stats preferring to maybe nick a goal on the break rather than outplay the opposition.
Obviously the biggest issue until this season with playing the low block counter is that it has been 3 years since any team playing this method has finished on top of the league. They have been 20-30 points behind! Also if you look across most of the leagues in Europe the top teams in their respective leagues like Bayern, Madrid and PSG all attack from the front. Possession and pressing are key to winning.
But this of course is no ordinary season. Could this season see a title go to Old Trafford/Tottenham Hotspur or the King Power stadium? We are sure to see a much lower points return than the last 3 years. Low block and counter really could be the best way to win this war of attrition.
How do your team rate as Counter kings or pressing monsters?
Man Utd – Low blockers with McTominay and Fred epitomizing what it means to cover your defence.
Man City – Pressing machines when in full flow.
Leicester – Perfect counter press team with an identity for years.
Liverpool – Pressing monsters at a different level when in form.
Spurs – Low block then park a bus behind it.
Everton – Low block then assualt your attackers and knock over a bank.
West Ham – Newfound counter press this year.
Aston Villa – Well oiled counter pressing machine.
Chelsea – Not quite sure if they are either. They could do both.
Southampton – Ralphs pressing his way to top form.
Arsenal – More defencively sound this year seem happier in the counter.
Leeds – Press press do or die.
C Palace – Counter attacking always.
Wolves – Pure counter, not been the same when missing the talisman.
Burnley – Park the bus, burn it out, when the fire engine arrives put it in goal.
Newcastle – Rafa used to have them counter attacking. Bruce is not quite sure if they want to attack.
Brighton – Pressing at times a good balance.
Fulham – Balance of deep lying and counter.
West Brom – Park the bus, borrow Burnleys truck. No need to attack.
Sheff Utd – Used to press well as a unit but now broken.