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The Offensive Defensive Tactic That Has Defined the World Cup

From Argentina and Germany to Spain and Senegal, Russia 2018 has been all about the press

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

So far this summer, the difference between finishing top of the group and squeezing into second place four minutes before elimination isn’t that far apart. Each team deals with its own issues of personnel and tactical execution, but the constant in the demise of some and the success of others at this World Cup has been each team’s ability—or inability—to press.

As Argentina has come to find out, even if you have the greatest player of all time, consistency of style within your player pool, and the perfect coach to implement the aggressive style of play, things can still go wrong. With Lionel Messi, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, and Éver Banega all playing in different variations of pressing systems with their current club teams, the hiring of the man who brought an enigmatic style of pressing to both Sevilla and Chile, Jorge Sampaoli, seemed like a perfect marriage. And yet Argentina needed a Messi hat trick in the last game of qualification just to make it to Russia and then a last-minute goal from Marcos Rojo just to get out of their group. For the Argentines, the press just hasn’t worked.

Pressing is an inherently risky action. The off-ball team looks to disturb the natural order of the game by swarming the opposition in an attempt to win back possession high up the field. Part of the reason teams look to press is because it can serve as a substitute for chance creation. As Jürgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool, puts it, “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.” A basic counter-press has two prioritized goals: The first is for players nearest to where possession was lost to force the first pass backward by swarming the opponent. This stops the team in possession from taking advantage of the newly available space through a direct long pass. The second goal of the counter-press, which depends on the specific team, is usually to try to create a chance amid chaos by regaining possession. Since the ball has changed feet so many times within a short span of time, the team that wins back the ball will then get to attack an unsettled defense.

Why a team like Argentina, with the greatest surplus of attacking talent on the planet, would need to benefit from that particular dynamic may seem strange, but talented teams face a stylistic disadvantage when going up against nations that are packing it in defensively. If a manager can organize their team so that it wins the ball close to the opposition’s goal, the lock doesn’t even need to be picked—it can just be broken.

Argentina’s inability, up until the final game, to either pick or break the locks in front of them has come down to their failure as a pressing team. Since they’ve been the team to dominate possession in their group-stage matches—66 percent against Nigeria, 58 percent against Croatia, and 72 percent against Iceland—they’ve needed to efficiently counter-press to avoid being exposed on the counterattack. Since Argentina was without an efficient balancing measure to the massive possession time they saw, teams found it easy to exploit the space behind their elevated fullbacks and isolate their two or three central defenders. Argentina’s basically had one or two options when the other team has tried to counter: commit a foul or give up a goal.

While Spain has also had to deal with the onus of possession—68 percent against Morocco, 70 percent against Iran, and 61 percent against Portugal—their counter-pressing has worked. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué’s ability to hold a high line compacts the pitch when in possession and allows the counter-pressing of Andrés Iniesta, Isco, and David Silva to be more efficient because there’s less ground for them to cover. Those three come from a trio of different club teams—all of which are dedicated to the press in some form.

Meanwhile, Germany came into the tournament as the most stylistically similar team to the Spaniards—both teams lapped the field in terms of goals scored after 10 passes or more—but their pressing has lagged way behind that of the 2010 champs. The midfield Germany played against Mexico—Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, and Mesut Özil—featured three players who are neither particularly mobile nor defensively inclined. Although Sebastian Rudy’s involvement against Sweden helped Germany be a bit more effective in limiting the counterattack before he got hurt, the defensive maps (the “X” marks a tackle [green for success, orange for failed], and the diamond marks an interception) from each side’s second game show how Spain’s press spread all across the field:

Another team that has a variety of great individual pressing players is Senegal. By mimicking some of the tactics that his team’s star player, Sadio Mané, has had immense success with at Liverpool, manager Aliou Cissé has combined the talents of his players with a more traditional style of pressing that launches from a defensive formation as opposed to an offensive one. If counter-pressing balances high possession time, traditional pressing is the proactive action that allows defensive teams to spring forward and take the game to their opposition. By manipulating the opponent into moving the ball to areas where they have the best chance of winning possession, Senegal uses the tactical intelligence and athleticism of Idrissa Gueye, Sadio Mané, Alfred N’Diaye, and Ismaila Sarr to take full advantage of their opponent’s mistakes. Though they’ve lacked solidity in controlling the game once they’ve scored, their use of an aggressive pressing structure could allow them to make a deep run this summer.

It’s with the success of these nations that the performance of Argentina looks even worse. At the World Cup, teams that can’t press have mostly been decimated by those that can: Belgium’s 5-2 thrashing of Tunisia, England’s 6-1 win over Panama, and Croatia’s infamous 3-0 desecration of Argentina. Although Argentina have tried to press, they’ve mostly failed. A couple of moments of brilliance from Banega, Messi, and Rojo saved them against Nigeria—and now they have at least one more chance to finally play the way they seem meant to.