Hello, and welcome again to soccer for dummies. Or futbol for football fans. Or footy for Americans. Or how to enjoy a soccer game without feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. Regardless of where you come from, I hope to bring a little more clarity and a deeper understanding as you support Columbus Crew SC.
As the Crew prepares for the team’s MLS Cup first-round matchup against Eastern Conference foe, the New York Red Bulls, the Black & Gold are tasked with a major challenge: overcoming the press. A widely popular system, the press requires total buy-in and can be very dangerous. But if not executed properly, even momentarily, holes do exist that can be exploited.
It’s a system that has given Columbus fits this season and the team meets a particularly difficult test on Saturday, facing a team that has been drilled in the system almost exclusively. While the Crew has had success against New York this season, the Black & Gold will need discipline from their playmakers and a defined plan of attack to counter an ingrained philosophy that spans the entire Red Bull family of soccer teams.
New York is the MLS branch of Red Bull GmbH, a group most known as the power behind RB Leipzig. Red Bull also has “branches” in Brazil, Italy, Ghana and Germany’s lower division. What all of these iterations have in common is a commitment to a pressing system. A tactical philosophy that dates back to 1934 when a German amateur team coach instructed his players to aggressively converge on attacking the opposition.
Some of the biggest names and development movements in soccer history have employed the press. Arrigo Sachi, the modern-day father of pressing, was successful in several Italian sides, including seven years of championship pedigree at AC Milan and an impressive time with the Italian National team. Before him, legendary manager Rinus Michels brought the system to the Dutch national team of the 1970s, bringing pressing to national recognition with a commitment to “Total Football” as it was referred to. One of Michels’ converts, the legendary player and eventual manager Johan Cruyff spread the gospel of pressing to European Club royalty during his time managing Ajax and Barcelona.
More recently, pressing play has become the bread and butter of progressive soccer with successful managers Pep Guardiola (a branch of the Cruyff coaching tree in Barcelona) and Jurgen Klopp both employing concepts of the press to multiple championships and multiple levels.
In MLS, a system-based philosophy is trickier to execute because of the relative mobility and flexibility of the roster. It is more challenging to institute system philosophies when your roster is turning over every two-three years. New York FC and the New York have seen a lot of short-term success, but haven’t been able to build the long-term consistency of their European counterparts because of a lack of consistency of roster.
This Saturday, the Crew faces a Red Bulls team that it handled fairly soundly in the MLS is Back Tournament in July. But as of late, Caleb Poter’s side has had struggles with the press. Let’s take a moment to exam the press and understand why Columbus might have struggled against this system.
The Press on Defense
In essence, the press exists to put the offensive team in bad positions to create turnovers and counter-attacking situations in advantageous positions. Fans could equate the philosophy to the blitz in football or the forecheck in hockey, very effective when executed correctly but mistakes can leave openings for exploitation quick response.
The press works to control the space on the pitch. A pressing team wants to force defensive play outside and force the attacking team to make hasty decisions and turn over the ball in advantageous positions. Basically, if the ball isn’t center (where the goal is), the ball can’t go in the goal.
Coordinated traps and presses (similar to football blitzes) are utilized to force players to make unwise decisions and turn over the ball in their own zone. When the opposing side begins its attack, the pressing side will immediately descend upon the man on the ball and try to control the space and the passing outlets. Putting pressure on the ball will force bad decisions and ideally lead to interceptions in advantageous positions or poor buildup at the very least.
This system requires a lot of commitment to the effort. There is not a lot of time off in a game when you are playing on, or against a pressing side. When the other team has possession, your responsibility is to pressure the ball and any possible outlets to force mistakes. Lack of effort or hustle, even for a moment can allow drop off in the system that can be exploited.
If the pressing team is on the defense, it is working to control where the attack can or cannot go in order to force decisions. Oftentimes play is forced outside in order to make use of the extra defender, or the touchline. Watch for play to move out from the center of play (where the Crew will want to control possession) to the flanks to limit offensive chances.
The press requires effort even when not engaging the ball carrier. Preventing outlet passes and trapping non-possessing attacking players is just as important as pressing the ball. A singular lapse in commitment to the system can lead to a counter attack and a quick goal.
The Press on Offense
At its purist, the press shines during the transition from defense to offense. A strong effort to press the opposition will trigger a well-rehearsed counter attack reacting and creating quick offensive chances in advantageous locations on the pitch.
Generally, the offense, like the defense, will work from the center to the outside. The Crew will need to be disciplined in the middle of the field. Captain Jonathan Mensah, and whomever Porter partners with him at center back, will need to maintain disciplined positioning and not chase the ball when defending to avoid leaving spots open. Offensively, Columbus will need to maintain disciplined ball security in the offensive build up and push defensive play outside on the counter attack.
Like most offensive systems, the press requires a lot from the central midfielder. The No. 10, or playmaker, will ideally control central zones and maintain passing options in the last third. With New York’s Designated Player, Kaku, out on international duty, it is unknown whether he will be available. But the Black & Gold must be mindful of who New York puts in that No. 10 spot and how he will control the game.
Additionally, the defensive midfielders will assist in buildup by pushing play outside to the wings. New York has not had consistency here, heavily rotating between the team’s central midfielders and its wingers this season, so there may be some opportunity to exploit that lack of consistency if the Crew’s wingers can capitalize. This could be a big game for Pedro Santos if he is quick and decisive.
The key is quick, disciplined decisions to counter the counter-press. Columbus displayed decisiveness when the team beat New York 2-0 in the MLS is Back Tournament in July. In that game, both goals came from quick decisions. After the Black & Gold were able to sustain the initial 15-minute wave, the team struck first.
Columbus’ first goal came from a quickly executed throw-in at the halfway line which was converted to a Gyasi Zardes chip in. The second also began from a throw-in, this time deep in the Crew zone that was almost immediately turned around and brought out in counter attack by Derrick Ettiene Jr, allowing a cross to Lucas Zelarayan who took the shot from just outside the penalty box. To win in July, the Crew struck quickly to avoid getting caught in the press. If they are to be successful on Saturday, they will need to replicate that quickness.
The Black & Gold have been perplexed by the press at times during this less-than-usual season and that is not unsurprising when you consider the injury issues and lineup rotation Porter has had to deal with the heart of this season. Lack of consistency in a lineup can limit effective communication and create a lack of team cohesion. These communication breakdowns are just where the press excels. Now that Columbus has almost all of the regular starting lineup and more than two weeks to prepare, the Crew won’t be so easily caught off-guard.
How to beat it
Most Crew supporters will be most concerned about how the Black & Gold can beat the signature Red Bull press and advance in the MLS Cup playoffs. Luckily, several key players are returning to form just at the right time. Combined with some inconsistency in the RBNY team, Columbus should favor well.
With communication and coordination crucial for the press, New York may be at a disadvantage. Current manager Gerhard Struber has only been on the job for just over a month. Lack of managerial consistency combined with some question marks at key spots (Kaku first and foremost) may provide some weak spots in the press.
In order to exploit these weak spots, the Crew will need to be disciplined in its possession. Nidfielder Darlington Nagbe will be crucial to keep play central to avoid the press outside, or worse yet: a loss of possession in dangerous areas. If play is pushed outside, whoever is manning the wings will need to work to push play centrally. Fullbacks will need to work the ball inwards, more than just wild centering balls. They will need to coordinate with midfielders and wingers to move the ball inside and allow Gyasi Zardes some room to create.
More centrally, the wingers will need to be prepared for quick outlets. Santos and whoever is on the right will have their moment to shine, catching the Red Bulls off guard and feeding Zardes or Zelarayan.
Additionally, the Crew will need to be quick and decisive. With nearly two weeks to prepare, Black & Gold supporters can take solace in the fact that Porter will have plenty of time to install well-rehearsed systems to break down the press. If the Crew can make some smart early decisions, the press can be caught off guard quickly and exploited (as the Crew did in July).