#Transition to attacking

Passing the press

FIFA, 08 Nov 2021


With so many teams now trying to regain possession immediately after losing it, and with fitness levels increasing year on year, keeping the ball after winning it has never been so difficult.

It has now become imperative for a team in possession to have an effective strategy to retain the ball – even under intense pressure. Passing through or breaking the counter-press, as it is often called, allows a team to play their way out of trouble, no matter how intense the pressure, to progress the play and to create opportunities for themselves.

How does a team pass through the press?

As the tendency for teams to counter-press has grown, opposing sides have increasingly sought to respond by passing through the press.

Like all football methodologies, this requires the team with the ball to map their way out of a high-pressure situation. It also requires players to be streetwise in their positioning and swift in their thinking.

Passing through the press often involves at least three players with distinct roles:

  • The player regaining possession
  • The player receiving the first pass
  • The runner offering the out ball

Player 1 – the player regaining possession

The Brazilian player shows composure to retain possession and then pick out the forward pass to a team-mate while under pressure

It all begins with the player winning the ball. To initiate the break of the press, this player must have:

  • composure on the ball so they do not panic when under intense pressure from the opposition;
  • good awareness of where their team-mates and opponents are as this will enable them to find the first pass out of the press more easily; and
  • the vision to find a player who has a full view of the pitch or the ability to embark on a driving run into space.

Often the player in possession has just recovered the ball, and the best way for them to find a player with a full view of the pitch is by facing their own goal. This will enable them to find a player either behind them or close to them who is under less pressure from the press and has already assessed the options in front of them. If this is not viable, a driving run is a good alternative. The key attributes are quick decision-making and playing with intensity.

Player 2 – the player receiving the first pass

The player on the edge of the box receives the ball from a team-mate who is being pressed. The receiving player can see more of the pitch and make a better decision on where to play

To pass the press effectively, the player in possession requires a team-mate to make themselves available to receive the first pass. Very often the player who receives the ball should:

  • have more time and space than the player who began the move;
  • have the full pitch in front of them. Once in position, it is crucial that the player receiving the ball moves it with purpose and intensity so that the team can move swiftly through the press and progress the play; and
  • preferably have a quick football brain and a good range of passing.

This can be done successfully in many ways. Sometimes it is through a swift exchange of short passes, but sometimes it is by using a ball driven between the players trying to execute the press. It can also be done by using a driving run or a longer ball out to a player in space.

Having time and space allows the player receiving the ball to make the correct decision about whether they can play and to see exactly where the free players are.

Player 3 – the runner offering the out ball

The player receiving the ball needs options to play out. In this instance there are two, with the safer one of playing into the channel taken

Once Player 1 has found a team-mate, Player 2 then needs an option to execute the pass or the driving run that allows them to beat the press and open up the pitch.

The person who often makes this possible is Player 3, who makes themselves available for the out ball so the play can be progressed. In some cases, Player 3 is the same as Player 1, who has now moved into space. For the longer pass, it is usually a more advanced player who has made an intelligent run.

If Player 2's pass is accurate or their run is well timed, the pitch will often open up for the team in possession. To pass the press successfully, the lines will have been broken and the press will have been beaten.

There is no rigid way of executing the pass through the press because it is done in open play and every situation differs. The objective of passing the press, however, is to open the pitch up by taking out at least two or three pressing players. It will often work if executed with both decisiveness and speed.

Generally, the options are to play between the players pressing, or to play around them through swift and accurate passing or a decisive driving dribble.

Key takeaways

  • Quick and composed ball movement to move around the press.
  • Often there is one player playing with their back to the press, laying the ball off to a team-mate who can see more of the pitch.
  • Player looking to break the lines and play through the press, taking out multiple players.
  • Passing the press needs to be done with pace and intensity, as the players must still drive past or away from the final press.


The team looking to beat the press must look to play the ball quickly, as otherwise they will put themselves under immediate pressure.

To break the press, the first player often looks to play the ball backwards. If they take an extra touch or look to turn, there is a higher chance of them losing possession. If they show composure in their play, and trust in their team-mates' ability, the move is usually far more successful. The first pass is often only a couple of yards and either backwards or sideways.

The most important point is that it opens up the pitch, so the player receiving the ball can see the field of play properly. This helps them make the correct decision about whether they can release it or not, and to see where the players in space are.

Generally, the options are to play between the players pressing, or to play around them. All passes should be played with purpose and intensity in order to beat the press and progress the play. Once the press has been beaten, it opens up the pitch and often leads to a numerical advantage as the team looks to build an attack.

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