Analysis

Who REALLY invented the pressing game – and why it works

Everybody talks about it, from confused TV pundits to bluffing pub bores – but where did pressing come from in the first place? Uli Hesse has the answers...

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

In 1934, a sportswriter-turned-coach by the name of Thomas Patrick Gorman 
had an idea. Since time immemorial, teams had followed a natural impulse when not in possession: they retreated to protect their own goal against an attack. What would happen, Gorman wondered, if they did the opposite? What if they surged forward and put such pressure on their opponents that they couldn’t even mount an attack in the first place?

Gorman told his forwards to aggressively bear down on opposing players who were trying to build from the back. One forward would challenge the player in possession near his own goal, while the others blocked the passing lanes. Gorman then instructed his defenders to advance and position themselves in the middle of the field of play in order to intercept a rushed pass or block the path of an opponent who had somehow managed to wind his way through the web built by the forwards.

Gorman’s men scratched their heads. It sounded suicidal. If one of them failed 
to do his job, the opposition would be left with an open field ahead of them. 
And even if every player did manage to fulfil his duties, a group of nimble and technically astute defenders could escape the stranglehold with a series of quick, short passes. We don’t know how Gorman convinced his team. Maybe he told them that nimble and technically astute players didn’t tend to be defenders.

It took his side some time to come to grips with the new tactic. They lost four 
of their next five matches. But then something clicked, and Gorman’s team turned into a machine. “We steam-rollered our opponents and wore them down,” the 47-year-old Canadian explained. Three days earlier, his team had won the league for the first time ever.

Forechecking 

The name of this league was the National Hockey League, and the team was the Chicago Blackhawks. The title that the ice hockey coach gave his tactic was ‘forechecking’. He told reporters that “the forechecking won the championship. Instead of backing out of the enemy zone, the Blackhawks kept charging in. The system worked better than expected.”

Eight decades later, Gorman’s innovation is on the lips of almost everybody in 
English football – only not as ‘forechecking’. What everyone is talking about these days is ‘pressing’. The reason this tactical ploy is suddenly all the rage is pretty obvious: Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have used it to great effect in the Premier League with Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City respectively, and each are fond of talking about it. Far less obvious is the exact nature of what they’re talking about.

Before their teams met at White Hart Lane in October 2015, Pochettino said his own pressing game was different to the one Klopp had used in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, which the Argentine referred to as a “medium block”.  

However, in Germany Klopp is closely associated with only a certain form of pressing: gegenpressing – or, literally, counter-pressing. To complicate matters further, many of Klopp’s fellow coaches back home would refer to Pochettino’s system not as pressing but as – get this – forechecking. It’s all so confusing that you can almost empathise with Harry Redknapp. Once asked for his views on the tactical trend, 
he scoffed: “All this stuff about pressing is nonsense – it’s nothing new. All teams who are successful have to work hard.”

Old or new?

It wasn’t until the 1974 World Cup that Gorman’s aggressive forechecking was successfully transferred to top-level football

There was some truth to Redknapp’s rebuttal, just not the bit about working hard. Pressing is not the same as ‘putting a shift in’ or ‘covering every blade of grass’, although most forms of the tactic do require a lot of movement from the players. Where ’Arry was right was when he said it was nothing new.

While observers had noted how effective forechecking was in ice hockey, it seemed impossible to implement something similar in football. After all, football has twice as many outfield players, and the playing surface is almost twice as long 
and three times as wide, which means the under-pressure defender has too many options (including playing the ball over the heads of onrushing opponents, which you couldn’t do in ice hockey).

Then there was the problem of stamina. Gorman could give his players a rest every few minutes by bringing on substitutions or changing lines. A football coach wouldn’t have this privilege.

It wasn’t until the 1974 World Cup that Gorman’s aggressive forechecking was successfully transferred to top-level football. Archive footage shows how Rinus Michels’ legendary Dutch side never gave their opponents time to properly build from the rear, relentlessly putting pressure on their rivals until they were rushed into attempting a pass they don’t want to make. It was just a pity that Gorman, who had died in 1961, never got to see it in action.

Dutch innovators

This is what I wanted to create with my Ajax side and the Dutch national team in 1974: create a basic game where all 10 outfield players push forward even when we don’t have the ball

- Rinus Michels

The breathtaking style of this Dutch team has gone down in history as ‘Total Football’, but Michels himself preferred another term. “I want to get people away from Total Football, as this is not my expression,” he wrote a few years after the tournament in West Germany.

“For me, it would be better to call my game ‘pressing football’. This is what I wanted to create with my Ajax side and the Dutch national team in 1974: create a basic game where all 10 outfield players push forward even when we don’t have the ball. We’re always pressing forward.” Michels would approve of one YouTube montage in particular. It’s titled ‘The hard pressing of Total Football’.

Writer David Winner, an authority on all things Dutch, memorably defined Michels’ pressing as “hunting in packs and defending on the halfway line”. That’s a good description of what you see in those YouTube clips.

Two, sometimes three, Dutch players move towards the man with the ball. One of them attacks the opponent, while the others either mark his team-mate or block any possible path of the ball. The unfortunate soul who is in possession when this orange wall appears can’t even hoof the ball upfield. The Netherlands’ last line of defence is near the halfway line, meaning any opponent in the Dutch half is offside.  

Where did this strenuous but smart and orchestrated football suddenly come from? Most people agree that Michels was not the inventor of the pressing game. He was merely in a position to perfect an early version of it because he had outstanding players at his disposal, especially the ultra-aggressive and hard-working Johan Neeskens.

Michels himself wrote: “To play the game to its full extent you need at least three or four of the world’s best players. Lesser teams will be hit on the break and this could lead to disaster.”

NEXT:  How high can you go?