The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press - 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 March 2020 magazine. It's called, "Theory: The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press."

As football data continues to evolve, we’re seeing that most goal-scoring actions are produced with limited time in possession and few passes. With the emerging trend of quick, direct actions towards goal, top coaches are looking for ways to force the opposition into low losses.

At this point, most are aware that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool averaged 7.81 seconds of possession and an average of 2.51 passes en route to a UEFA Champions League title. The Champions League average of 12.50 seconds and 3.89 passes per goal-scoring action are indicators that most goals are the result of mistakes in the defensive and middle third or quick counterattacks.

With the game moving away from the “death by a thousand passes” approach, the new challenge is to create attacking conditions that mirror that average goal statistics. One of the re-emerging trends is man-marking in a high press.

In this tactical analysis, we’ll engage in a deep analysis of this philosophy, examining the objectives, setup, and cues. As with all tactical models, analysis of what can go wrong and the solutions to get out of trouble are also explored.

Re-entries and baiting

Given the large number of re-entries per game, preparing the defensive tactics for opposition goal kicks, deep free kicks, and throw-ins are an important means of gaining an edge. As apply man-marking tactics in their attacking third, one of the most important concepts you’ll notice is the desire to make the goalkeeper or a centerback the playmaker. While many modern goalkeepers are very strong with their feet, effective pressing teams can still force critical errors. When teams man-mark in the high press, they’re eliminating all short options.

The remaining options are intermediate-range passes. The players offering this outlet are under heavy pressure, so the pass and first touch have to be perfect to keep possession. That’s easier said than done.

One of the reasons is that high-pressing teams use the intermediate options to bait the opponent into pressing traps. Since dead-ball situations allow the defending team to start from a highly structured setup, the onus is on the attacking team to solve the press and beat the trap. A common tactic among teams that man-mark in the high press is to give the wider options some space. That said, someone is always close enough to quickly close the gap, especially since the path to that player generally requires a flighted ball. Those passes are time-consuming and are quickly pressured.

With few teams willing to take that risk, it’s common to see the attacking team play centrally before playing wide. On the flip side, that’s exactly what the defensive team wants. Funneling play centrally, especially with intermediate and long-range passes better suits the more compact shape of the defense.

With the intermediate and long-range passes offering low-percentage outlets, the first few passes generally go short. As pressure builds on the centerbacks and goalkeepers, the defending team readies itself to intercept the progressive pass. Some of the best man-marking, high press teams thrive in this situation.

In Bayern Munich 5-0 home thrashing of Schalke, the man-marking high press was employed, including during Schalke goal kicks and any deep re-entry. Schalke goalkeeper, Markus Schubert, was left with two options. First, risk a pass to Jonjoe Kenny, one that safely cleared the presence of Ivan Perišić, but also allowed Kenny to play around the pressure of Alphonso Davies. Second, play short to one of the centerbacks, which is ultimately what he decided, sending the pass to Ozan Kabak. The pass to Kabak was returned to Schubert as Perisic pressured the defender.

As Perišić pressured Schubert, the keeper opted to play long. Other than the long option, you can see he had 2v1 on the right-side of the pitch, but, with Thomas Müller lurking, any pass into that zone comes with a great deal of risk attached. In the clip, you can also see Benjamin Pavard cheating forward to pressure, much like we saw from Davies on the opposite flank.

Jérôme Boateng won the header and Leon Goretzka won the second ball. In this sequence, Bayern effectively forced Schubert to play into Bayern’s strength, Boateng’s aerial battle against Rabbi Matondo.

One other thing to notice is the positioning of Joshua Kimmich. He’s positioned behind Boateng, ready to clear the danger and giving Bayern a plus one at the back. His defensive coverage is critical to the success of the man-marking tactic.

After the pass out of pressure

Let’s say the opposition does make a pass out of pressure and connect with a higher-positioned player. If the defending team has adequate numbers behind the ball and coverage for the 1st defender, the typical response is to apply pressure on the attacker.

If too many players are caught high up the pitch, leaving the backline vulnerable, the goal is to delay the opposition’s attack. Funneling play into the wings is a great way to slow the opponent and recover numbers near the ball. Counterattacking teams want to move from Point A to Point B. Adding another stop or two will delay, and maybe prohibit, the arrival at the intended destination. Plus, it will allow the defending team to get numbers behind the ball in key positions.

In the Austrian Bundesliga’s biggest match of the season, Red Bull Salzburg hosted LASK with the winner taking control of the league table. This scenario saw LASK lose possession deep in the Salzburg end. Facing heavy pressure, Maximilian Wöber decided to bypass the LASK lines, playing the pass high and wide.

Great pressure on the ball carrier delayed the attack and allowed the LASK midfield to recover its ground.

LASK is still in recovery mode and trying to contain the Salzburg attack. It no longer has the plus one at the back, but the key is close proximity to Mwepu. Denying him the time and space to play his top option with the right technique was critical. Further, he really only has one option; the through ball to Daka. With Philipp Wiesinger intelligently taking away the touchline pass to Okugawa, Gernot Trauner was able to cheat centrally in anticipation of the through ball. That movement led to his interception, starting the next wave of the LASK attack.

Even though LASK’s lines were bypassed with the first ball and Salzburg controlled the second, a commitment to recovery and pressure on the ball carrier denied Red Bull the opportunity to play the killer pass. With the attack suitably delayed and attacking options restricted, LASK made the play more predictable and was able to claim the attempted through ball.

That’s all for today. The original piece still has three other sections, offering much greater detail on man-marking in the high press. Be sure to check it out, available exclusively on Total Football Analysis.

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