It is an attacking tactic employed by a team that defend high up the pitch, with their backline often just inside their opponents' half.
Pressing requires cohesive team organisation alongside high fitness levels. If the press is not structured and the pressing team lack coordination, operating as individuals instead of as a unit, this can lead to space opening up in areas of the pitch that the opposition can capitalise on.
This article will focus on several teams’ high-press strategy at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Uruguay 2018. The FIFA technical report from the tournament says that "the majority of teams employed a high press both in and out of possession, which was both dynamic and sophisticated".
Key principles of a high press
- Team structure
- Setting traps to regain possession
Having a solid shape throughout, from the goalkeeper to the forwards, is a key factor for teams using a high-press strategy. Defensive organisation requires suitable distances between units and the team have to stay compact so as not to allow the opposition to break the lines with forward passes into pockets of space.
The following video clip highlights Germany's pressing strategy against Korea DPR. The press is slightly disorganised, but still effective enough to force the Koreans to play a direct pass down the middle of the pitch. Germany's defenders are holding a high line, yet the ball bypasses them, with the centre-forward running through. The Germany goalkeeper is slightly deep, but her starting position is good enough for her to run on to the ball and play it forward, eventually resulting in a throw-in for her team.
Setting traps to regain possession
A pressing trap invites the opposition to play in a specific way within their formation. Teams can utilise a variety of pressing traps to encourage the opposition to play in a predictable way, giving them an opportunity to win the ball back.
Ultimately, if a team can use their system and structure to funnel the opposition into favourable parts of the pitch, traps can then be set to regain the ball.
In the images below, the team out of possession allow the opponent to bring the ball out. They then set a trap, encouraging the opposition's play to become predictable by enticing them to break a central line with a pass up to a forward.
The link below shows the footage as the two midfielders position themselves to allow space through the lines, while at the same time being in a position to exert pressure quickly if the ball is played sideways. The centre-forward is well placed to apply quick pressure if the ball goes back to the goalkeeper, though the body position of the player in possession would make this a risky step.
By allowing the opponent to pass forward, the defender is then able to press the receiving player from behind. The image above shows how all the players from the team in possession are covered, with the team out of possession setting a trap to win the ball back. When the player on the ball takes a slightly firmer touch forward, lifts her head, moves her foot back to pass forward and the receiving player shows for the pass, this is the trigger for the defender to press her aggressively from behind.
Once pressure is applied on the receiving player, she is compelled to play backwards, cueing an aggressive press that forces her team-mates to play back to the goalkeeper, whose misplaced kick leads to a shot on goal.
Pressing without intensity is meaningless if a team want to gain possession in the final third. Selecting the moment to press is key because it is hard to press for the full 90 minutes. To ensure the right intensity, it helps to have triggers for when and how to press. It is vital that when the press occurs, every player knows the trigger points, the details of the press and the organisation of their own team.
There are other factors to consider regarding a high press, such as the game state, including notably the scoreline. In the closing stages of the first half, for example, when a team are tiring, they may wish to conserve energy and retreat into a mid- or low block to keep the play compact until half-time. Similarly, if the team are winning with only a few minutes left, they may retreat into a mid- or low block to protect their lead and not give the opposition the opportunity to play through any spaces that may be left from a disorganised team press.
In the images below, Brazil are pressing South Africa, which leads to Brazil winning the ball back from the player in possession and scoring.
The following video shows the full sequence and it is noteworthy how, when pressing, the eventual scorer angles her body to stop a square pass and also to rush the forward pass should the defender take that option. The defender's body shape also works against her, hindering her ability to pass back to her goalkeeper. As highlighted above, the positioning of the other Brazil players allows them to press in the event of a forward pass.
There are a number of considerations when planning a high-press strategy. The structure of the team must be solid, with all players buying into the tactic, knowing their individual roles and responsibilities, and staying connected. The distances between the team's units have to be suitable to stop the opposition finding any pockets of space between the lines where players can receive the ball and retain possession. A high defensive line is also required as it can push the midfield line higher and, in turn, support the frontline. The goalkeeper's positioning is equally significant, with a high starting point needed. This enables the keeper to sweep up any direct balls over the top.