Pressing is the Premier League's big trend, but it's not without its problems
If Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool win the Premier League title this season, we might look back upon Monday's 1-0 victory over Everton as among their most significant triumphs. It was a classic "the mark of champions" win: an away trip to local rivals, a poor game, a below-par performance and a late winner. Liverpool supporters haven't celebrated so hard for years.
For neutrals who anticipated a good game at Goodison Park, however, Monday was a damp squib. There was intensity and aggression throughout but few examples of good combination play or moments of individual magic. There was just one outstanding piece of football: Sadio Mane played a lovely one-two with Roberto Firmino, with the Brazilian instinctively back-flicking the ball onto his onrushing teammate. The incident also resulted in the departure of Everton goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg through injury when he collided with left-back Leighton Baines.
But this was an isolated moment: for long periods there was plenty of huff and puff with little else.
Matches like this are not unusual in the Premier League these days. Whereas three or four seasons ago teams were focused largely upon possession, the dominant concept at present is pressing. Both Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp have revitalised Tottenham and Liverpool respectively, with an approach primarily around squeezing space in advanced positions albeit in slightly different manners.
Pep Guardiola is another proponent of pressing while Antonio Conte's sides press in a less exaggerated, but arguably more effective, manner. Even Arsene Wenger, who sometimes appears out of step with tactical trends at any particular moment, has noticeably started asking his players to press high up the pitch... even if Sunday's defeat at Manchester City wasn't a good example.
There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with pressing in itself. Perhaps the most revered European side of all-time, the Dutch team of the 1970s, made pressing sexy. The recent trend for pressing, meanwhile, was largely kickstarted by Guardiola's Barcelona side, themselves considered the most attractive side of their generation. But these were both extremely technically gifted sides whose pressing was secondary to their possession play and interchanging of positions. They were not, first and foremost, pressing sides: it was their secondary tactic, purely a method to force turnovers so they could enjoy more long spells of possession play.
Tottenham and Liverpool, though, are essentially pressing sides. Spurs occasionally string together effective attacking moves while Liverpool can work the ball quickly between their dynamic attackers: Divock Origi's goal against Middlesbrough last week rounded off a marvellous team goal. Nevertheless, Liverpool's style of play is about disturbing the opposition as much as building their own attacks and when that becomes the major point of a game plan, things start to become scrappy.
Take Monday night's match at Goodison, for example. Ronald Koeman clearly understood that Everton needed to match Liverpool's tempo, so he handed his players very obvious instructions to get tight on opponents and close down quickly. In a sense that's a typical Merseyside derby, the fixture that's seen the most red cards in Premier League history, but there wasn't a single bad tackle in the first half and the game only became truly physical after Ross Barkley's awful challenge on Jordan Henderson with 20 minutes remaining. Until then, players simply got rid of the ball before the challenges came, often with panicked, hurried and wayward passes that were more like clearances in nature.
Everton focused on a long ball strategy. They also used this approach against Arsenal and Manchester United, too, but on Monday it was notable that they wanted to bypass the opposition's press by hitting Romelu Lukaku quickly.
The Belgian, who thrives primarily on through-balls slid into the channels, instead became a target man, simply charged with chesting the ball down to midfield runners. Barkley, the only creator in Everton's midfield trio, wasn't tasked with collecting possession in dangerous pockets of space and playing penetrative passes, as he did particularly brilliantly in the thrilling 3-3 draw in this fixture three seasons ago, but instead about collecting second balls.
Indeed, such is the blind panic evident throughout Premier League sides this season, "second balls" has re-emerged as a crucial concept. A couple of years ago, it would have been only Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce concerning themselves with second balls; now, it's Guardiola. After Manchester City's 2-1 victory over Arsenal, he said he'd devised long training sessions based around quickly winning second balls. This is Guardiola, the world's most forward-thinking tactician, focusing upon the bog-standard Sunday League concept of getting to loose balls quickly.
"You have to adapt to the second ball, and the third ball, and the fourth," Guardiola said in a recent interview with his former player Thierry Henry. "I never before was focused on that because in Barcelona or in Spain, the players more or less try to play for the culture. That's why they won World Cups and they won the Euros, won the Champions Leagues, the Europa Leagues, all the time, all of the years, Spanish teams are in the latter stages, all of the teams.
"In Germany it was more physical, but not like here. Here it is all the teams -- except maybe Chelsea, because Antonio is playing really well and having them build up [possession] -- but the other teams are taller, stronger, physical, and you have to adapt and build from that."
On one hand, it shouldn't have come as such a shock to Guardiola that English football is more physical and direct. On the other, even three or four years ago, he would have discovered a Premier League packed with teams attempting to replicate his Barcelona side's long, patient build-up play.
There's a balance to be struck, of course (many found tiki-taka boring too) but things have probably shifted too far in the opposite direction. High-tempo, pressing football is perfectly attractive when featuring players who have the composure and technical quality to play intelligent passes. When matches become a scrap to win second balls, it feels like something has gone wrong.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.