If you were able to catch one of my previous posts here on Arsenal Vision you’ll be aware of the ‘3 Ps’. They are 3 facets of the game that are inherently vital in deciding the course of any individual game - Pressing, possession and penetration. Our use and efficacy of all 3 have fluctuated over the last year or two in particular and as such I’ve decided to have a relatively detailed look at them separately starting with this post on PRESSING.
Everyone knows why it’s beneficial to press. It gives a team a greater chance of winning the ball higher up the pitch and consequently produces a higher probability of an attempt at goal. Furthermore, it enables a team to have more possession and therefore dictate the game. Pressing is also beneficial from a defensive stand point. It puts pressure on the opposition resulting in their passing (including final balls) becoming more rushed and thus of a lesser quality for the defence to deal with. I’ll make no apology of using the example of Barça throughout this piece since with regards to pressing, amongst other footballing aspects, they are the pinnacle to which many strive to equal. Consider this quote from Pep Guardiola describing his team:
“Without the ball we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.”
This is such a commonly used quote because it is so fundamental. To aid an attacking philosophy, one where you want to impose your game on the opposition, pressing high up the pitch is a necessity. Barça are by no means the sole employers of the press. In years gone by, teams such as Ajax of the early 70’s and thus 1974 Holland, exponents of ‘Total Football’, have used close variations on this framework and in recent years Marcelo Bielsa, Andre Villas-Boas and Jürgen Klopp have used it to great effect with Chile, Porto and Dortmund respectively. However, it is Barça’s implementation that is arguably the most effective.
One thing that all these teams have (and Arsenal too for that matter) is a relatively open formation. By that I mean that when in attack there are often large spaces between individuals so as to stretch play and utilise the full size of the pitch, which you wouldn’t necessarily get in a conservative 4-4-2. This of course can produce problems when in-between transition from attack to defence. This is where the press is useful to reclaim the ball before the opposition can exploit the open spaces between the lines and individual players along the width of the pitch.
Having an attacking philosophy (as Rijkaard’s Barça had) is one thing but pressing effectively can produce an almost immediate improvement on that strategy. On Pep’s first day as Barcelona manager he told the players “Let’s be clear - you’re going to work hard.” For that to work he needed cooperation from his players and belief in the team ethos to work towards a similar goal. Watching Barcelona you will notice they have what I like to call ‘leaders of the press’ who are highly mobile and can therefore press more effectively. Pedro or David Villa will often be the first to initiate a wave of pressing which involves 3 or 4 players immediately attempting to cut off all available passing options for the opposition player on the ball. Such players are not only tireless in their closing down but also set a wonderful example which is difficult not to follow under Pep’s scrutinous gaze.
So what of Arsenal’s pressing? At its suffocating best at the start of the 2010/11 season and again in the winter months, reaching a peak in the game vs Chelsea at the Emirates. Theo, our leader of the press that day, was snapping at heels and his enthusiasm flowed through the rest of the team which resulted in one of our best performances of the season. But at some stage in the season the pressing stopped. Why was this? In my opinion fitness isn’t a valid reason. Though the Premier League is played at a faster tempo than the majority of leagues, Arsenal have one of the fittest squads (stamina-wise, not in terms of injuries!) which is seen in the amount of late goals we have scored in recent seasons. In addition to this, there are always periods of games where even sides that press well ‘take a breather’ and of course these sides invariably have more possession so fatigue is less of a problem.
So, is our occasional closing down due to instruction? It is partly. On some occasions last season (most notably in both legs vs Barcelona) and at the start of this season it has been clear that there has been a new pressing strategy implemented. Instead of pressing the opposition defence we now seem to drop off and begin our closing down in line with the opposition deep-lying midfielder. This allows us to be more compact but does allow the opposition to make up unnecessary ground and invites them onto us. A slightly odd tactic when we’ve seen that it doesn’t take much pressure to cause our defence to leak. Despite this, the tactic can be successful if used with willing, focused personnel which leads me onto what I consider the main reason of our lackadaisical closing down - The players’ mindset.
A lot of our problems stem from a wrong attitude, a certain sense of apathy. I’ve lost count of the number of times an opposition fullback has been pressed, only for them to pass the ball square and take the player closing down out of the game. If one player presses and nobody follows their lead consistently it’s inevitable that they will eventually stop bothering in the first place. Even if they have the best work ethic in the world and continue to attempt setting an example it’ll still not matter a jot. The efficacy of pressing is reduced greatly if done individually. There has to be an onus on the collective taking both attacking and defensive responsibility. We seem to do the former relatively well but we neglect the latter far too often. With new signings to integrate in the team it becomes even harder to assimilate them into an effective way of closing down if there’s not a pre-existing ethos running throughout the club.
This is where things need to be addressed and in fairness the u18s and Reserves do press rather effectively. It may be that they still need to impress the coaching staff and Wenger to earn a contract or a place in the first team squad whereas those in the first team feel they have already ‘made it’. If this is the case this attitude needs to be quashed as soon as possible since our start to the season hasn’t been up to scratch to put it lightly. Barcelona, on the other hand, have won 12 of the last 15 competitions and consistently work their socks off. This is no coincidence.
We are The Arsenal and our defensive strategy is currently not good enough for where we are aiming to be. It’s a pressing matter which I’m sure we all hope is addressed sooner rather than later.
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