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Pressing matters for teams at the top of the Premier League

Monday Oct 10, 2016

 Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool currently fill three of the top four places in the Premier League Table. All three sides have been in dazzling form, with the exception of a hiccup here and there, and few would argue against the fact that the trio – perhaps along with Arsenal – have been the best performers of the early season.

 The sides have numerous traits in common: young, non-British managers, dynamic and quick players, high levels of ball retention, fast passing. But above all, City, Spurs and Liverpool are characterised by their high pressing game. The idea of a high pressing game is to hold a high line, push all players up close to the defence of the opposing team and put pressure on the opposition’s backline and midfield in order to quickly recover the ball. In turn, the idea is to use devastatingly quick attacks on winning the ball again. Both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp can be seen as pioneers of the pressing game (gegenpressing), both managers used it to stunning effect with Barcelona and Borrussia Dortmund respectively.

 The way all three teams use gegenpressing can be slightly different in its execution. Spurs employ speedy full backs, who can join the attack with bursts of pace. Liverpool use a false nine position and attacking midfielders (Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino and Mané) to bombard the opposition box with shots and crosses. City, despite the incredible talent in the team, still use Sterling and De Bruyne to feed Aguero as the focal point in the attack.

 So far the philosophy has worked fine for all three teams. Indeed, their positions on the table are a testament to that. But can it be sustained over the course of a season? It was only last year when Leicester City won the league and pundits around the country were heralding the renaissance of four-four-two. While Leicester have struggled (relatively) this season, there have been signs that the masters of gegenpressing may not have it all their own way.

 The answer may lie in pressing the pressing. City looked unbeatable for the first eight games of the season, then Swansea, Celtic (Champions League) and Spurs all frustrated them by playing them at their own game, putting pressure on the City defence with high pressing themselves. Swansea ultimately failed to get a point, but Celtic earned a credible draw and Spurs were clearly the better side in their 2-0 victory. All three sides got under City’s skin by countering City’s pressing by pressing themselves. In the case of Spurs it was a case of two similar philosophies coming up against each other.

 The point is that it is too early to hail gegenpressing as the only way forward. The latest football odds by William Hill have Manchester City as overwhelming favourites for the title, closely followed by Liverpool and Spurs. But as the season progresses there will be many more questions asked about the philosophy. Can fitness levels be maintained with such high pressure tactics? Will the defensive errors that have led to so many conceded goals for City and Liverpool continue? The league season has only just begun and while gegenpressing is the flavour of the month, it may not be the story of the season.

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