Pressing and full-backs in focus at Tokyo 2020

2 Aug 2021
  • FIFA’s Technical Study Group have been analysing the Olympic action

  • Steve McClaren looks closer at the development of full-backs' responsibilities

  • Pressing styles are also discussed in detail by Christian Gross and Javier Mascherano

Yesterday, the experts on FIFA’s Technical Study Group at Tokyo 2020 threw the spotlight on tactical trends at the Women’s Olympic Tournament. Today it’s the turn of the men, with Steve McClaren analysing the evolution of full-backs, while Christian Gross and Javier Mascherano put different kinds of pressing under the microscope.

The evolving role of the full-back

We saw an interesting development concerning this position throughout the group stage. Steve McClaren, one of the FIFA experts, spoke about the changing nature of the full-back’s role, both in and out of possession: “The full-back position seems to be evolving. There has always been the attacking element of their play - overlapping the winger - but adaptability seems to be the key word for this position now.” In build-up play, full-backs are increasingly being used more often as an additional player, serving as the third man when opening up against two attackers (3 v 2). Another example of their ever-changing role can be seen when they progress into a midfield position, acting as a third midfielder if playing 2v1 with two centre-backs. This means that they take on more and more responsibility in build-up play. This could be due to the fact that we are seeing an increasing number of players with good technical ability in these positions. In attack, there are two situations that constantly recur: wingers dribble towards the opposition defensive block, whether inside or wide. “When wingers are in possession inside, full-backs provide them with two choices of position: wide and the traditional overlap,” explained McClaren. “When wingers are in possession wide, we can see a lot of underlaps happening. Both options disrupt the thinking and positioning of the defensive full-back, with either the winger or the attacking full-back penetrating behind into the box.” ‘Inverted’ full-backs also often find themselves in a good position for counter-pressing. As for the full-back’s behaviour in ‘rest defence’ (preparing the defence while their own team is currently in possession), it can be observed that the full-back inside the winger protects the defensive midfield players. This leads to more players joining the rest defence (two or, in some cases, three players).

Analysis: Argentina-Australia

De la Fuente (4)’s position in Argentina’s game against Australia can serve as a good example for the versatile position of the full-back. He is well-positioned, and quite advanced on the field while preparing counter-pressing.

De la Fuente (4)’s position in Argentina’s game against Australia can serve as a good example for the versatile position of the full-back. He is well-positioned, and quite advanced on the field, while preparing counter-pressing.

Counter-pressing

Spain did well in winning the ball back immediately after losing possession. This demands a quick-thinking mentality and desire to win the ball back with high intensity as soon as possible. Attacking players that were not in possession needed to position themselves in the right way, with ‘keeping it compact’ the mantra in these situations. Christian Gross discusses the importance of this philosophy: “Keeping it compact is essential when preparing counter-pressing. In the contemporary game, top teams cover little more than an area between 25 to 30 metres as a unit. Centre-backs are positioning themselves in their opponent’s half, with a sweeper-keeper behind them.” As important as preparing counter-pressing through perfect positioning is, it is the physical intensity that makes it so effective and hard to defend against. Gross also argues that, “The overall intensity and determination to win possession of the ball is what matters most in any type of pressing.”

Analysis: Spain vs Egypt

Spain are trying to switch the play to the left wing by means of a driven pass, but Egypt’s defender intercepts it.

Spain are trying to switch the play to the left wing by means of a driven pass, but Egypt’s defender intercepts it.

Immediately, counter-pressing is under way. This is working so well because of good preparation, and it is happening with high intensity

Immediately, counter-pressing is under way. This is working so well because of good preparation, and it is happening with high intensity. The Spanish players position themselves in a way that – in case of an interception – they can either counter-press and retain possession, or provide cover in order to prevent a counter-attack.

Other forms of pressing

Counter-pressing wasn’t the only form of pressing used in the group stage of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament. There was also a wide display of more ‘traditional’ forms of pressing. We saw a broad range of teams using classic pressing triggers – such as passes to a specific player (for example, full-back to a defensive midfielder). Consequently, pressing principles apply to all players directly and indirectly involved. When possession is retained, transitional play happens quickly in order to make use of the unorganised state of the opponent’s defence. Japan did an outstanding job of applying well-organised pressing, and it helped them secure top spot in Group A. “Quick thinking and high intensity by everybody involved are key when pressing,” said Christian Gross. “Vertical passes can be pressed easier than, for example, balls that are played diagonally into the midfield. In these situations, the receiving players are often already in an open position. The touchline can also be very helpful when pressing.” Javier Mascherano, another of FIFA’s technical experts for Tokyo 2020, added: “Overall commitment is essential when pressing. We saw great examples of high intensity and full commitment from all players involved with the likes of Japan and Spain. They are trying to retain possession as soon as possible and are well organised.”

Analysis: Japan vs Mexico

Right after the centre-back releases the ball, and it is being played towards the defensive midfielder, Japan put pressure upon him.

Mexico’s centre-back controls the ball. Japan’s offensive line is trying to lure him into playing the ball towards a defensive midfielder.

Right after the centre-back releases the ball, and it is being played towards the defensive midfielder, Japan put pressure upon him.

Immediately after the centre-back releases the ball, and it is being played towards the defensive midfielder, Japan put pressure the latter. There are not many options for this player, pressure is high and there are many Japanese players around him, forcing a mistake that leads to a goalscoring opportunity. All this happens in under 10 seconds.