Identifying the best moments to engage opponents - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from the February 2023 magazine. It's called, "Tactical Analysis: Identifying the best moments to engage opponents.”

The game’s best pressing teams have an orchestral quality to them.

Each movement is heavily synchronized and rhythmic. These sides often alternate between low-tempo structural movements and high-intensity chasing. These teams collectively identify the best moments to engage the opposition and showcase hypnotic teamwork to execute the defensive phase.

There’s so much to learn from these sides and this tactical analysis aims to identify the top principles of defensive engagement from the best. Running data on UEFA’s top 5 leagues, we have identified 17 distinct clubs to serve as examples of high press and middle block execution.

The original 5.2k word article covers…

1) Immediate pressure in the high press

2) Delayed pressure in the high press

3) Mid-block objectives

We’re going to keep our attention on that second topic, delayed pressure in the high press.

Instead of that pressure being a hard and fast rule, we’re going to look at teams that take a more nuanced approach to the high press. Pressure is delayed as teams look to engage the opponent within certain tactical parameters.

One of the nice things about this approach is that it’s highly adaptable, as we’ll see in the examples below. Each team may have a preferred approach to a passive high press, but as this analysis will show, it’s also adaptable to specific opponents. One of its strengths is the ability to adapt the press to account for the opposition’s strengths and exploit their weaknesses.

Let’s start with Lecce. The newly promoted Serie A side is one of the most complicated opponents in Italy. While they have struggled to score goals this season, their defensive discipline has them closer to the middle of the table than the relegation zone. Unlike most newly promoted sides, Lecce will push high up the pitch in search of high recoveries. Their setup against Atalanta led to two quick goals against Gasperini’s side, leading to an improbable victory against one of Italy’s top clubs.

With Atalanta in a back three, Lecce kept three forwards in close proximity to the opposition’s back three. To limit entry into midfield, they also man-marked both pivot players. Other than the goalkeeper the next most available player was Memeh Caleb Okoli, the central player in the back three. As the only realistic short option, Atalanta funnelled play into him.

That’s exactly what Lecce had hoped for.

Marco Sportiello’s pass into Okoli was the pressing trigger. Notice his poor body orientation as he receives the ball. His two options are to touch the ball away from pressure and attempt to play forward or set a risky pass back to his keeper. This approach is specifically designed for a back three. The pass into the centre-back, especially from the goalkeeper, comes from a poor angle and limits the centre-back’s ability to properly orient his body for his next action. Further, since he’s facing his goalkeeper, pressure is now coming from his blind side.

The passive high press is often used to funnel play into specific players. This is an example of a positional trigger. As the central player in a back three, Okoli’s body orientation would mean receiving from his goalkeeper was a vulnerability Lecce could target.

Another approach is to gradually force the opposition into deeper areas of the pitch. It’s very similar to the scenario in the first section, except here, the pressure on the first attacker is less intense. The sequence of negative passes tends to be more gradual in the space between the out-of-possession team’s forward line and the in-possession team’s backline or goalkeeper is gradually nullified. As PSG pressed Rennes, the defenders were virtually in line with a goalkeeper, cueing PSG to apply pressure now that the distance to the first attacker was shortened.

The first two examples showed us positional targets, both from deeper areas of the pitch. Another approach is to funnel play into the opposition’s weakest or most error-prone players. To set up this trigger, the pass to the targeted player must be the most appealing option for the attacking team. In other words, the targeted player should be the only realistic option to play into. Once the ball arrives at his feet, intense pressure is designed to take the ball off of him.

In these last couple of examples, we’ll transition to a discussion on funnelling into the wide areas. The key reasons teams will funnel the opposition into the wings are to limit the number of outlets for progression, use the touchline as an additional defender and seal the opposition into one area of the pitch.

Perhaps no one in the game is better in this area than José Mourinho. An analysis of his Roma side shows that the wide pass is virtually a given. Once the pass is made, pressure on the first attacker is applied. Notice the two central players limiting the angle into the AC Milan holding mid. The next pass is not going central given the risk associated with that pass. It’s clearly going out to one of the two wings.

Once the ball is played to the left wing, the pressure defender makes it a 1v1 scenario. He doesn’t fly at Theo Hernández. Rather, he gives him the pass down the line to his checking teammates. The ball is passed forward and a give-and-go is attempted before it is turned over.

Notice the area of engagement. By the time AC Milan gets into the middle third, the true 1v1 they had seconds earlier is now a 4v3 favouring Roma. Additionally, the space is very tight. As space reduces, the angles to play out of pressure are also smaller, as are the distances between the defenders and attackers.

Roma offers an example of funnelling playing to the wings and sealing the opposition there. With limited options to play out of pressure, the attacking conditions give immediate feedback to the defending team. Space and angles are tight, so ramp up the intensity of the pressure.

The Roma example gives us a recovery in the wing. However, funnelling the opposition into the wings doesn’t necessitate a wide recovery. Instead, if options to play backwards are out of the equation, that pass into the wing can be designed for central recoveries. It’s not the pass into the wings that the defending team expects to recover. Rather, it’s the next pass.

Let’s turn to our last example in the section. Atalanta has played high into the wings and has limited options to play a negative pass. Lecce plays the scenario perfectly. At first glance, the pass into the half space looks uncontested. However, Lecce has numbers around the ball and is close enough to the second attacker to move to him as it pass is played.

Lecce’s recovery shows us that funnelling opponents to the wings doesn’t necessarily force teams to aim for a wide recovery. Rather, that wide pass itself is a mechanism for a central recovery. Baiting the opposition to set a negative pass into the half spaces or do attempt a lateral distribution can pay huge dividends.

Whether pressing inside or outside, funnelling play to a positional vulnerability or into the weakest link on the opposing team, passive high presses are highly adaptable and profitable. Each match may see slight modifications to match the tactics of the opposition, adding a layer of unpredictability to the approach.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents