Pressure Passes, Playing on the Precipice and Reconsolidating
“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him” – Sun Tzu.
Notable already in Antonio Conte’s tenure at Tottenham Hotspur is the proclivity to play ‘pressure passes’, which are lateral or backwards passes around the back 3 (in the case of Tottenham, although the concepts apply regardless of set-up) which allow and encourage opposition encroachment. Through this process, Spurs seek to introduce depth which subsequently increase the vertical spaces in between the lines as demonstrated by Liverpool forwards advancement below. In this case, the direct 3 to 3 high pressing scheme produced by a back three against a narrow pressing front three developed near lateral symmetry in possession.
Figure 1: What an analyst! He discovered the numerical superiority in build-up. Pep Guardiola, step aside, please.
This is a concept I like to call playing on the precipice which entails maximally baiting the opponent forward to produce as much space as possible for the player ahead to work with. Knowingly entice pressure, through actions which oftentimes seem counterintuitive when isolated to reduce opposition compactness and catalyse a transition. Introducing depth and baiting pressure in this instance allowed Harry Winks to receive in better spatial conditions, while Sadio Mane’s requirement to prevent the full back up-lateral pass meant his body orientation was out-to-in, allowing the central pass directly. In the sequence, Winks proceeds to turn backwards towards Eric Dier as no opportunity arises, which functions as a pressure pass to Mohammad Salah due to Jota pressuring Winks, subsequently vacating space for the left centre back which allows for ball progression after a well-executed reverse ball from Dier. There was serendipity in how the subsequent chance was created but the large spaces produced in between the lines create transitional conditions as the Liverpool players seek to spatially recover and Spurs are forward in their orientation giving them the dynamic superiority to carry forward to both win possession and quickly transition from that. Even for Ndombele’s pass to Emerson Royal, Winks lay off lacked crispness, which maximised Mane’s recovery commitment centrally and increased intensity of pressure therefore reducing his agility. These are minor differences; however, automatisms are predicated on existing on the fringes because they are transitional manoeuvres seeking to exploit space: generally, the more, the better, and with regards to creating space, ‘under hitting’ passes or playing it to a receiver who seems potentially isolated can prove advantageous if planned with foresight. In this regard, Conte has used technical faults as a tactical tool. René Marić recently discussed this concept, relating similar ideas vis-à-vis press baiting.
A player who embodies this concept is Sergio Busquets: watch this video (Is There Any Point Pressing Sergio Busquets? - YouTube) to see the art of delay and the value in waiting for opposition commitment before acting to maximise subsequent space.
In addition to playing on the precipice, which can apply in macro (Spurs collective slow weighting) and microcosmic (Busquets understanding spatial dynamics and opposition thought processes) circumstances, Spurs seek to add depth which has similar rationale to playing on the precipice in that it allows them to vertically stretch the lines of the opposition creating more optimal transitional conditions as there is greater space to work into consequently. Thus, introducing new space is key to transitions and it is additionally useful for the team in possession to maintain a degree of control as staticity allows the opponent to condense the pitch. Forward movement goes into the compactness and permits offside exploitation, hence, moving backwards to generate the time to execute automatisms is pertinent, whilst having the complementary benefit of creating greater spaces ahead of the defensive line due to reduced opposition compactness. Automatisms are predicated on the dynamic superiority, where the player benefits from acting first. They are superior in timing through initiating the movement (because the automatised team have superior knowledge to act upon), which generates speed due to accelerating first, combined with increased speed of thought conferred by superior knowledge. The more space there is, the more the dynamic superiority can be seen, because they are first to act on the vast swathes in front of them, which allows them to carry momentum where otherwise compactness would crowd out. The principles can be elsewhere such as the use of backwards link passes where you evade the compactness to generate more time to execute difficult passes into space. In these more attacking instances, attacking rather than creating the space is more pertinent, as the act of the opposition compacting around the ball implies potential transitional conditions because of their commitment to compactness on the ball-side contrasted to pitch coverage leads to an underload. Once the transition is flowing there is typically greater emphasis on moving the ball quickly to exploit the space, slower passes can act to create the space.
Moving backwards directly from attacking is moreover pertinent with regards to space creation because of the varying intensities of the defenders having the potential to increase potential spaces in between the lines. This is as the initial defensive compaction upon progression leads to the back three having time and space in possession, while the back pass can trigger an intense opposition press as they seek to exploit potential isolation opportunities (generate numerical inequalities hence isolating each respective player). Passing backwards provokes positional reconfiguration, while the act of moving backwards creates space in between the lines if followed as the opposition are expanding vertically. This often occurs at varying intensities as the defence must maintain a coordinated line and thus not vary heavily in intensity whilst the forwards are seeking to isolate available passing options and limit time in possession to prevent evasion of the press. This creates transitional conditions with space in the midfield while control is maintained at the back due to progressive backwards movement into space. The possession team control the backwards space and its access, making the option safe for vertical expansion and reconfiguration. Thus, the possession team must moreover undergo this positional reconfiguration as they support the ball carrier and adapt to newly introduced backwards space. Moreover, the potential for defensive isolation is real, particularly if the defender himself is either lacking ideas or lacks composure.
The solution to the idea and composure problem is automatisms. Automatisms are centred on predictable circumstances, the consolidated base before the transitional spring. Hence, should a midfielder not be capable of receiving due to effective opposition pressure or lack of subsequent options due to say, backwards orientation, going backwards towards the goalkeeper as a free pass can allow for defensive consolidation and grant additional time for possession reconfiguration. From this, circumstances similar to goal kicks can commence as predictable situations are created due to the consolidating effect of the +1 of the keeper, which allows for moves to be practiced and honed on the training ground, granting superior knowledge and hence the possibility to attain the dynamic superiority in the newly created space. This moreover applies against more passive opposition moreover, where the backwards movement may be more centred around centre backs as the opposition do not seek to apply pressure to the centre backs, where progressive moves which are predictable because of opposition patterns of pressure begin further up, thus with reduced space to attack but correspondingly less direct turnover risk.
This video here demonstrates the potential for using the goalkeeper as a +1 to generate predictable circumstances on a stretched pitch via the use of wall passes vs tight pressure and a man-oriented opposition.
The team in possession (Swansea) have awareness of what is happening next and can act quickly to exploit opposition pressing commitment, whilst meeting the +1 with parity would concede too much space in higher regions making direct threats more dangerous. This element is why lack of constrainment facilitated by a larger pitch is such a massive element; there is space to attack and space for the possession team to move into to find accessible routes. Oftentimes in these predicaments the half-spaces are open for direct passes to dropping forwards because of the horizontally stretched conditions by the wide accessible players combined with the symbiotic effect of the vertical stretching which amplifies the effectiveness of the forwards dynamic superiority through giving them more space to move into and exploit, covering for technical errors associated with intensity and often allowing them the time to turn or play wall-passes for up-back through type sequences (As I have noted elsewhere, upon playing the ball to the FB, out-to-in passes are easier in vertically stretched conditions because of reduced chance of interception due to poorer opposition compactness, making the horizontal space more effective if actions are taken quickly). Another notable commonality of these sequences is beating the cutting in-to-out running which initially blocks a pass by opening a lane beyond the striker a player (often central) directly under pressure. These are particularly common in Conte systems on the flanks, where a wingback will play an ‘automatised hoof’ where superior knowledge of free space and player positioning allows him to act under pressure because of reduced thinking time - see:
This element of quick thinking is moreover what makes Scanning paramount (refresh on Busquets if need be). Because the players in this video are under reduced collective pressure as the opposition after time become more compactness oriented (as the video progresses, opposition line of engagement reduces generally speaking) these circumstances are often more consolidated and are oriented on finding the free man which is the same principle as transitional circumstances, with the difference being positioning and spatial conditions ahead leading to this being more oriented around slower progression, territorial gains and looking for potential openings via up-back throughs and central third man runs. The opposition concede space and the ball to control deeper regions via compactness, while conceding control via worse coverage to the opposition nearer their half. This type of strategy looks to embrace the vicissitudes of verticality by playing this deep but has the alternative of consolidating, attempting to bait pressure and escape it where possible and make territorial gains slowly - embracing the vicissitudes of verticality does not always entail the opponent taking the bait. Swansea here look happy with both circumstances, and that element of adaptability around opposition pressing preferences is key to building a team that can successfully build from the back – preferences around which is optimal can differ; however, often the opposition’s approach is forcing which confers onto them a greater degree of control of spatial conditions. Fundamentally, you cannot force the opponent to press – all you can control is your capacity to play out of it, and subsequently, the capacity to adapt around passivity to a more sustained pressure model. In essence a team should be flexible around varying levels of opposition pressure, and the goalkeeper can be used as a tool to consolidate and build to grant extra time for the players to spatially adapt.
Going deep moreover allows for easier attainment of numerical superiorities to allow for quick circulation and greater space available because of forced opposition greater coverage in higher regions should they press higher which makes this a more transitional mode. Hence, the higher pressing opposition moreover embrace the vicissitudes of verticality which generates a more dangerous, but simultaneously more rewarding game-state as the transitional game-state with vast amounts of space to attack and be attacked generates potential for both sides. This is why I think Pep is not disingenuous when he praises a team which plays risky high pressing football against Manchester City which can often appear reckless. It generates a less controlled game space with higher variance because of the risks associated for either team compared with City’s confidence in sustaining pressure and slowly breaking a team down while suffocating a compact block with a counter press preventing any transitions. The 2-0 is more reliable than the 6-3 to use an extreme example.
I think a manager like Conte would prefer sequences oriented around overloading to isolate because of the supporting compaction which occurs between the 3 near-sided players in a wide diamond in most instances to create space for the forward player in the half-space to drop into or to link with others as it provides initial compact base to counterpress and has easier routes of clearance for reconfiguration via throw-ins for or against. Notwithstanding the general associated possession benefits of overloading to isolate which facilitates larger switches into space for surging wingbacks and far-side forwards. Central progression is dangerous because of how stretched play must become for the centre to be reasonably vacated.
One last note is that the act of going backwards crucially functions to give time and space to the ball carrier whether pressured or unpressured in the relative sense which allows them a greater amount of time to pick out a pass and understand their surroundings, to know which automatism should be enacted etc., or in the case of more passive opposition just allow Eric Dier usually the potential to play longer balls into space accurately to exploit lack of opposition pitch coverage. Even against an active defensive side in Liverpool, this willingness to add depth to create distribution space led to direct chances in behind. This type of play functions partially under the assumption that a back pass to the goalkeeper is a viable option which carries with it its own series of alternatives which are viewed positively as the goalkeeper is the supporting player if isolated. This is why potentially staggering the goalkeeper deeper against higher pressure and when building backwards is preferable because it allows greater time for thought and positional reconfiguration to make risk assessments and build support against pressure, as too compact supporting positioning makes the pitch smaller, and thus easier to press. The connection backwards towards the keeper is almost always safe and attainable from central possession making the large distances unproblematic in that regard, with the 2v1 generated exploiting the space well if pressure is followed, as demonstrated in the previously linked video. The goalkeeper playing on the precipice and using the false pretence of being a pressing target to stretch the opposition conceptually can apply as mentioned with other positions, particularly due to the overload generating safe passing options nullifying the threat of opposition commitment short-term - altering of pressing to cut the passing lane when introducing significant depth is a sufficiently time consuming process to allow the for additional support to be received and for the goalkeeper to make a considered decision.
The message attempted to be conveyed in this article can be summarised as: “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him” – Sun Tzu.