Pressing, and what can Arsenal learn from Barcelona?

Think back to Arsenal’s first match of the season: 6-1 away to Everton. While the result was remarkable for the amount of goal’s that Arsenal scored it was also remarkable for the way Arsenal pressed. Everton were hardly allowed time on the ball, and they gave the ball away a lot. One example of a goal created by pressing was Arsenal’s fourth: Arshavin won it from Hibbert, and Arsenal were away. Pressing continued against Portsmouth, Celtic, Man United and Man City, and Arsenal were fairly unlucky to lose in those last 2 games. Yet, what has happened to the pressing that Arsenal employed earlier in the season?

In a recent article in the Guardian, tactical genius, and author of the excellent book, Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson discussed pressing. He writes here

“Without the ball,” Pep Guardiola said after last season’s Champions League final, “we are a disastrous team, a horrible team, so we need the ball.” It is a sentence that could equally be used of Arsenal: of course they are much better in possession than out of it. The difference is that Barcelona are much better at regaining possession than Arsenal.

After 20 minutes last Wednesday, Barcelona had had 72% of the possession, a barely fathomable figure against anybody, never mind against a side so noted for their passing ability as Arsenal. Their domination in that area came not so much because they are better technically – although they probably are – but because they are better at pressing. In that opening spell, Barça snapped into tackles, swirled around Arsenal, pressured them even deep in their own half. It was a remorseless, bewildering assault; there was no respite anywhere on the pitch, not even when the ball was rolled by the goalkeeper to a full-back just outside the box.

He then further goes on to describe pressing, as quoted from Valeryi Lobanovskyi, the father of modern day pressing:

In The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, the book he co-wrote with Anatoliy Zelentsov, Lobanovskyi lays out three different kinds of pressing. There is full-pressing, when opponents are hounded deep in their own half; half-pressing, when opponents are closed down only as they cross halfway; and there is false pressing, when a team pretends to press, but doesn’t – that is, one player would close down the man in possession, while the others would sit off.

It is full-pressing that Arsenal employed in the opening matches, and through that they had a lot of the ball; even away to Manchester United they had 53% possession, and away to Manchester City they also had 53% possession. However, injuries, tiredness, and players playing unfamiliar roles, like Arshavin at centre forward, meant that the full pressing went out the window.

There are also obvious problems with full pressing, and a perfect example of the problems are in the 2-2 draw with Barcelona. When teams full press, they become vulnerable to quick counter attacks, or long balls over the top. Full pressing also makes a team get tired, which is why Barcelona were not as good for the final 20 minutes as they were for the first 70 in that 2-2 draw, and they were vulnerable to the quick pace of Theo Walcott. Arsenal have also been vulnerable to quick counter attacks when pressing, as against Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton in that 2-2 draw, Manchester United, and Chelsea again. After that last Chelsea game, Arsene Wenger made a bit of a switch, pushing Cesc Fabregas up, and also not having players full press. Arsenal false pressed more often, and while they didn’t concede as many, they didn’t score as many, evident by the amount of late goals we’ve had to score this year. Against Barcelona though, we couldn’t get away with not full pressing, as they had all the time in the world on the ball, and they punished us, scoring 6 in 2 games. We were also punished against Tottenham and Wigan; Danny Rose had a lot of time for his first goal, even though it was a wonder strike, and against Wigan, in those final 10 minutes, Wigan had lots of time on the ball (see their first goal, and their third), though that can also be attributed to lack of mental focus.

So what’s next for Arsenal, mainly, what kind of pressing should they do next year? Obviously, full pressing, while extremely effective is also hard to do for 90 minutes. For an answer to that, I’ll turn again to Wilson:

Particularly against technically gifted opponents, Lobanovskyi would have his sides perform the full-press early to rattle them, after which false pressing would often be enough to induce a mistake – and often, of course, his side would be comfortably ahead after the period of full-pressing.

Next year, that should be the Arsenal game plan. We have one of the fittest teams in the league, as evident in all the late goals, and they should be able to press, not fully for 90 minutes, but press enough that they can win the ball back, as Arsenal try and conquer the last divide that separates them from Barcelona (aside from Barcelona having much more technically gifted players than us).

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