We live in the Age of the High Press. In the last decade, this defensive tactic has spread through world soccer, constantly being tweaked and retooled by the game’s best coaches. From its modern prophet Marcelo Bielsa, to the man who conquered the world by combining the press with possession soccer, Pep Guardiola, to the young German managers Juergen Klopp and Roger Schmidt, it seems every great manager in the modern game has his or her own version. One thing all these coaches agree on, it seems, is that defending high in the opposition half is not merely a tactic to prevent the other side from scoring. It is indeed a core attacking strategy. Klopp has said that his version of the tactic, named gegenpressing, or counter-pressing, is “the best playmaker in the world.”
What does it mean that pressing is a form of playmaking? A great pass creates a new attacking formation. It breaks up the other team’s defensive organization and forces them to respond to a new threat at a new angle. That moment where defensive organization has broken down is the moment when an attack is most dangerous. What Klopp suggests is that while a great passer can create such moments, a high press does the same. By winning the ball back in a dangerous area while the other team is still in its attacking shape, a high pressing team can start its attack with the opposition just as out of sync as they would after being cut open by a perfect pass from Luka Modric.
This is particularly true of successful tackles in the opposition half. Last weekend’s North London Derby offers a good example of how a tackle can be a playmaker. Christian Eriksen stole the ball off Mathieu Flamini about 35 yards out, and two passes last Tottenham had scored. Erik Lamela’s assist was a smartly worked pass, but the successful high press was the only reason it was available.
I have gone through Premier League matches from the last two years to identify all the attacking moves that began with a successful tackle. Even up to 40 to 50 yards from goal, a successful tackle in the central band of the field leads to a shot about twice out of 10 times. Given that only about 2 percent of attacking moves overall lead to shots, that is a huge improvement in expected goals created by a single defensive action.
Tackles in the central zone of the opposition half are only a small subset of tackles. Most take place on the sidelines of the defensive half. One goal of counter-pressing is to force turnovers in more dangerous areas and maximize the number of tackles and other ball-winning actions in these central and forward zones.
Notably, while tackles right around the 18-yard-box lead to shots at higher rates, the decline in the rate of shots is slow. Any tackle in the opposition half has a good chance of creating a quality attacking move. This is particularly striking in comparison to the rate of shots off interceptions and other recoveries. Interceptions or recoveries of incomplete passes right near the goal lead to shots at very high rates, but the rate decays quickly as the location of the turnover moves out.
This makes football sense as well. A player who either intercepts a pass or recovers a loose ball is often entirely unmarked. There is a good chance, if he is 15 to 25 yards out, that he is actually through on goal already. A good example here would be Victor Anichebe’s goal against Liverpool last spring. He collects an errant pass by Kolo Toure about 20 yards out, and he quickly turns to beat Simon Mignolet from just outside the box.
Interceptions and recoveries, then, may produce big chances at higher rates. But further from goal, it seems that the defense has a somewhat easier time of reorganizing itself. I suggest that this is because of the peculiar feature of a tackle. It often eliminates the tackled opposition player from the defense. In the case of the Spurs goal, defensive midfielder Flamini is supposed to be protecting his back line, but he is too far behind the play to catch up once Eriksen has taken the ball. Tackles, then, have the added value of removing an important central defensive player while also creating an opportunity to attack an unprepared defense. This is why tackles continue to produce shots at reasonably high rates further from goal, while they do not lead to shots quite as often in closer areas.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.