Pressing, pace, etc

Marc Overmars on the run

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.

5 thoughts on “Pressing, pace, etc

  1. Not for the tenth time, this does seem acute analysis.

    Regarding pace, even allowing for the `first yard is in the head’ factor, we have been lacking in modern times. There were a few speed-merchants in the lower divisions, but of course they were along Eddie Johnson lines. Saha in his prime briefly fitted the bill, since when AJ- and Radzinski-levels have been our maxima. Unfortunately blistering fast and more besides isn’t common outside the really top clubs, and even there, practitioners struggle to maintain standards — think Walcott, vexing Gooners for most of the season until recently.

    Recollecting our thrashing by ManU, you mentioned it wasn’t simply about player pace, but also that of the passing. Correct. Sometimes the ball needs to be paced so as to allow a teammate to run on to it. More often, though: the quicker, the better — and the better the team, the higher the average pace of passes. It was noticeable on Kakuta’s first couple of appearances, for instance, that he shifted the ball more quickly than his new colleagues (wasn’t much good for us overall, so there’s more to it than that, but still…).

    You’d imagine that passing pace could be addressed to some extent even without recruitment of new players. The latter’s trickier. Hope your prediction is right.

  2. This makes total sense. (What you’re proposing at the end also seems similar to the way Jol was trying to use Frei earlier in the season, but the weaknesses in his game were still too limiting.)

    I definitely thought AVFC lost a step in the second half, and Fulham were able to maintain possession much more easily. But they didn’t abandon the tactic completely — it was more like a swarm of flies that slowly started to shrink — and the occasional pressing/harassment continued to cause problems.

  3. You’re right about the value of pace, provided it is used intelligently, but even players of the calibre of Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott are, according to John Giles, lacking in that vital department.

    Which brings me on to your point about tactical adjustments. Why, why, why can footballers not think on their feet? Our captain appears to have one of the Premier League’s better football brains and he is surrounded by enough players of experience and, one would think, intelligence. So why do they have to wait for the manager to give the order to change at half time when the first forty-five minutes have made it blindingly obvious that Plan A was not working?

  4. I agree with your prediction. As we discussed last week, at best I see Dempsey playing more centrally as a support striker, because otherwise we’re deficient down the left. Noticeably, against Villa, Dempsey did play through the middle from what I observed, with Johnson out on the left. But, as you say, Johnson isn’t really all that quick. Neither, it seems, are Frei, Ruiz, Duff or Davies.

    Having said all that, I don’t see it as too much of a problem if we continue to develop our passing game. Good movement and quick passing is the key. Some additional pace would be nice. But not absolutely crucial to our success.

  5. I agree that pace is important when dealing with pressing, but at the same time I also think that the value of pace can be overplayed. The fact is, if a team presses well (Athletic Bilbao v United the other night) there is very little you can do other than weather the storm.

    Against villa it would have been good to have had the extra pace, but whilst we may have opened them up, if the player was not appropriately technical we might have struggled to finish off chances.

    You are definitely on the money when it comes to bringing in a technical but pacy winger in the summer. Chadli has been repeatedly linked along with a host of wingers and I think they will be brought in with a view to replace the fading Duff and Davies.

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