‘Pressure Cooking’ in football: Tactical analysis

The MMA photo will make sense soon, trust me.
Some of you may not have heard of this tactic, but yes I can assure you, this is a real tactic, used by some of the best teams in the world, and one I believe should be used more.
My definition of pressure cooking in football is basically a period of intense, meaningful sustained possession and offensive play, which tires opponents mentally and physically to the point they concede a goal. This definition reminded me of the way Khabib Nurmagomedov fights in the UFC, if any of you follow any MMA, which if not I suggest you do. To put it simply, Khabib takes opponents to the floor and keeps them there, while at the same time mauling them continuously. Opponents eventually are left with nothing left to do but defend themselves and eventually become too tired to be effective, but the key is this idea of sustained pressure.

Khabib Vs Barbosa.

Sustained pressure is something any defender dreads in a game of football, in that it requires extreme mental concentration for long periods of time, and is also physically draining. During my minimal time playing football at a fairly low level I often judged teams on their ability to tire a team out, and if I was tired as the opposition launched an attack, I would think to myself, This is a good team.
There is a direct link between physical and mental tiredness. It is why goalkeepers train so hard, after all why do they need to be anywhere near as fit as midfielders in the side. It is all down to concentration. Tired players make mistakes, we saw it with John Stones in extra time against Croatia and that is why the pressure cooker is so effective.

But what actually is the pressure cooker and how is it done?

To carry out this tactic successfully, you must box the opposition in their own half, forcing every player on the opposition team to drop back and defend. This is done by playing a high line, which forces the Centre Backs onto the opposition striker(s), and so if the ball is played to feet, defenders must press the forward and win the ball back to prevent the opposition from escaping their half. This means defenders must have good starting positions to prevent the counter attack in the first place, and the team applying the pressure must be excellent in possession, hence why teams such as Manchester City and Barcelona are so effective in the use of this tactic. If the ball is won back, players must play with a sense of urgency and intensity otherwise defenders will not tire and will find it too easy to sit back and defend.
A good starting position for defenders in this tactic would look something like this, with the midfield and forwards pushed very high to press the ball, and full backs in line with the sitting midfielder, in order to have enough time to drop back and win the ball if needed, or to join the attack. If the ball is cleared the full backs must then drop narrow help out the centre backs, and the rest of the team must move back marginally to pick up the ball when won back.

This is the first phase of the pressure cooker, when the opposition have the ball. The nearest players can press in numbers high up the pitch, and attempt to win the ball back. The full backs act almost as midfielders.

If the team does clear, the full backs must tuck in and the whole team must drop to collect the ball. However, the team only drops to just inside their own area.

At Bayern, Pep Guardiola recognised German sides counter attacking threats, and so employed a similar system, and played full backs almost as central midfielders when in possession. This allowed them to overload opposition in possession, and cut counter attacks at their source by pressing the first pass out of possession. He has also employed a similar system at Manchester City.
This tactic is effectively about keeping the ball and constantly attacking your opposition, so that if they do win the ball back, you should have so many players so far up the pitch that you can press to win it back easily. But if a team encourages another to back off and give them space, the attacking team is likely to find it difficult to break them down, and so again there is a reliance on quality, quick offensive play, and when the ball is won, there must be an urgency while the opposition is low on numbers or disorganised.
As teams win the ball back and cannot escape they will become frustrated and disorganised, or become fatigued after a while, and therefore a certain amount of patience is required when attacking, however, particularly in big games at the top level, fans often back this tactic, as their team completely dominate the opposition.

Ways to beat it

The easiest way to get out of the pressure cooker is to launch a ball over the top to a lone striker to chase. Think Jamie Vardy in his record breaking season, or Mohamed Salah in his game vs Roma, where Roma played a ridiculously high line and left space for Salah, Firmino and Mane to run into.
But how do you stop this? How do you stop someone from chasing a long ball? The easiest way is to cut the pass out before it is played, which is usually easier in the pressure cooker as their are so many players within the vicinity of the ball able to press. If the ball does get out though, again the defenders starting positions are important, including the goalkeepers, and full backs who are typically quicker than centre backs can fill in to help.
I think this tactic could be useful to Liverpool, in breaking the lesser teams down when they set up in a deep/mid block. Do you agree?

Side note:

The tactic of pressure cooking is also forced into the game of Ice Hockey, where if teams force their way into their opponents offensive zone, they must attempt to keep the puck in their when attacking, as if the puck leaves the zone, everyone else has to also. I found it interesting that this tactic applies to so many sports, and shows that it is also somewhat of a psychological tactic.
Be sure to keep a look out for my tactical analysis on the page and share if you enjoyed!
By Cam Meighan

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