Interesting stuff from Steve Kelly in the headline-tastic Chronicle. Kelly notes that Aston Villa’s pressing put Fulham out of their stride and that this was hard to counter.
Indeed. The trick here is pace and composure. The idea behind defensive pressing is that as a team you are very compact and adopt a high line. So the game is played in your opponent’s half and nobody gets a moment on the ball. And when you win the ball, either through a tackle, interception, whatever, you are that much nearer to the opposition goal and instantly on the attack.
A good example of pressing (perfect for the purposes of what we’re talking about) was Newcastle in the first half of the game at the Cottage this season. We didn’t get any room, time, anything, and were a mess. Nothing we tried was working.
The risk of pressing is that in doing this you leave acres of room behind you. Andre Villas-Boas tried to turn Chelsea into a pressing team, but found that his centre-backs had no pace and that his midfield weren’t used to this approach. Teams picked Chelsea off and results went bad. He had to revert to the tried and trusted Mourinho approach, of sitting deeper and countering quickly and decisively.
Similarly, against Newcastle, Martin Jol realised that for one thing, Newcastle couldn’t keep it up all game, and for another, the pace of Andy Johnson might make a difference in the vast spaces behind the defence. As Newcastle’s pressing slowed they didn’t seem to adjust, and instead of sitting back more, played a suicidally high line without pressurising Fulham’s players. The result was a barrage of goals from over the top, round the back, etc.
Why couldn’t we do this against Villa? I wasn’t playing close enough attention, but Villa presumably dropped off a little in the second half, conscious that aggressive pressing for 90 minutes is hard to do. The other thing, and this remains crucial to everything, is pace. Simply put, this Fulham team remains short of pace. Alright, they all run quite fast, but remember when United came to the Cottage? That was pace. The ball pinged around, the played gliding over the turf, the ball scorched into the net faster than you can say Pavel Pogrebnyak.
We have none of this. AJ is our pace, and he’s not that quick. The last burner we had was Eddie Johnson, but he didn’t know how to use that pace (would he have been better in this side? perhaps he would). But sadly you pay a premium for good players, and you pay even more for good players who are very fast. If Fulham want scorching pace then the player who has that pace will lack some other attributes. It’s a constant trade-off.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, of course. Ultimately you want pace because it helps you make the pitch bigger. If you can get into undefended areas quickly then you’re hard to defend against. We can’t really do that through running fast, but we have a nice combination of players who can exploit space in other ways. Bryan Ruiz sees passes others don’t; Moussa Dembele makes space by committing defenders; Clint Dempsey doesn’t make space but works very well in crowds. He – like Tim Cahill – finds chinks of space where others don’t see them. Pavel Pogrebnyak looks like a clever player whose runs will open up gaps for others. We’re getting better at this side of the game, but none of it helps with stretching the pitch vertically.
Fearless prediction: over the summer, Jol goes shopping for the best Marc Overmars type player we can afford. Someone with technical ability but with that extra gear from a wide area. A good player in this role could be worth their weight in gold.