How the high press has revolutionised football

Sam Andrew-Power details the innovative tactic that allows Guardiola’s teams to dominate in Europe

As all football fans are all well aware, top-flight football is completely different from the old days. This can be seen in terms of the work put in by the backroom staff and the attitudes of the players themselves, yet the most interesting development can be seen in the changes in tactics. Gone are the days of the simple four-four-two formation, traditional left-footed left wingers and right-footed right wingers that stay wide. Banished too are the full backs that stay back and keepers with only one trick in their locker: lumping it upfield for the target man to deal with. In short, these days, a more fluid footballing setup is desired by fans, managers, and boards alike.

“These teams have perfected the high press, employing a style of football which suffocates their opponents by closing them down high up the pitch.”

In order to see the latest development in footballing tactics, one simply has to look at the top Premier League teams this season, and most importantly the seemingly unstoppable juggernauts of Liverpool and Manchester City. These teams have perfected the high press, employing a style of football which suffocates their opponents by closing them down high up the pitch.

The managers of both these teams have come from abroad, with Pep Guardiola proving himself as a world-class manager in both Spain with Barcelona, and Germany with Bayern Munich, while Jurgen Klopp has built a Borussia Dortmund team able to compete with Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, even beating them to the title on two occasions. Both managers have different styles, Guardiola focusing more on tiki-taka football, favoured by Spain in the 2010s, and Klopp opting for fast pace counter-attacks. Nevertheless, the high press is integral for their games. Klopp even developed his own unique style of high press at Dortmund which emphasises directness and pace, a style given the name gegenpressing – literally meaning “against pressing”.

As the name suggests, the high press works with a high defensive line, with the entire team playing fairly close together, shuffling as a compact unit across the pitch in order to put pressure on where the ball is when the opposition are in possession. The strikers must work much harder in this system than in a traditional setup, as they close down the centre-backs, trying to force either a pass back to the goalkeeper or a long ball either over the top or to switch the play, as behind the defensive line and the opposite side of the pitch are the only areas in which there is space.

If the system is correctly implemented, these long balls will be rushed, usually resulting in a turnover of possession, which means any opposition under the high press are not safe with the ball anywhere on the pitch.

“Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester team also prioritised the high press, with the energy of Vardy up front exemplifying what was expected of the rest of the team.”

Jamie Vardy is perhaps the best example of this kind of hard working striker, spearheading the Leicester City attack in their unexpected title win during the 2015/16 season. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester team also prioritised the high press, with the energy of Vardy up front exemplifying what was expected of the rest of the team. He was a nightmare to play against; his pace and stamina kept the back line on guard incessantly for the full 90 minutes.

Furthermore, the necessity of a striker willing to put this kind of work in for the top teams in the modern game is evident in Guardiola’s treatment of Sergio Aguero when the Spaniard first arrived at the Etihad. Despite the fact that Aguero is easily one of the best goal scorers in the Premier League, boasting the best goals per minutes ratio in league history, Guardiola left him out of the team in favour of the more diligent Gabriel Jesus until he was fit enough and willing to put in the high levels of effort expected of a player under this system.

In fact, the high press system requires intense levels of effort from every single player in the team. If the ball makes it into midfield, players press in twos or threes, giving the opposition the impression that they are outnumbered in midfield. This could even be seen in Guardiola’s Bayern Munich (and for a time at Manchester City). He brought his fullbacks into his midfield, again overloading this area of the pitch. At Barcelona, Guardiola had a six-second rule with regards to this overload tactic, in which the players pressed frantically to try and win the ball back within six seconds before reverting back to their organised formation.

The effort required in this system can, however, be its downfall. Returning once again to Liverpool and Manchester City, this problem was evident at the beginning of Klopp and Guardiola’s tenure. Both managers experienced rocky starts at their respective clubs, and this is largely because the organisation and energy required to perfect the high press means it takes time. Guardiola received a lot of criticism in his first season at City, and after more than three years at Anfield, this season is Klopp’s first with Liverpool as genuine title contenders.

A strong defensive midfielder is also needed in the high press, spotting out any danger and cutting the passing lanes when a player is forced to pass the ball. The importance of this player has become more evident in recent times as well, as this system is employed more and more. Many attribute Arsenal’s lack of success in the final stages of Wenger’s reign to the team lacking such a player. More recently, many have speculated that Man City’s rare losses to Leicester and Crystal Palace are down to their lack of a replacement for Fernandinho.

“The main evidence that proves it has had a huge influence…is by looking at the inability of traditional tactics to remain effective.”

This season has demonstrated just how deadly the high press can be if implemented correctly. However, the main evidence that proves that it has had a huge influence on how top-flight football is played is by looking at the inability of traditional tactics to remain effective. Granted, teams at the lower end of the table will still sit back and play a defensive game effectively, but at the top of the league, people crave the high press.

The most obvious example of this is José Mourinho and his return to the Premier League. In his first run at Chelsea, he was unstoppable, winning three titles. Yet, on his return, he was forced out of Chelsea and Manchester United. Many put this down to his poor man management on his return, however – particularly at the start of this season – but his style of play also came under a lot of criticism. Mourinho was slammed for constantly “parking the bus”, and not making use of his expensive and dynamic team. This shows how top teams can no longer rely on this kind of tactic, ushering in the era of exciting attacking play from every top team, and the high press is the perfect example of this trend.