In January 2013, to great outrage and disdain from many, Nigel Adkins was sacked by Southampton. The man from The Wirral had done a wonderful job on the South Coast, leading The Saints to successive promotions back to the top flight. To be so unceremoniously dumped from the club seemed more than a little harsh.
To replace him with an obscure Argentinean, who spoke little English and had been sacked by Espanyol the previous November, appeared to be outright dangerous. However, it soon became clear that the Mauricio Pochettino was a different breed of manager.
Gradually, Southampton began to play with a higher tempo and started to hound teams in possession to great effect. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all fell victim to this frenetic style at St Mary’s and the Premier League began to wake up to he Argentine’s devastating approach to attacking football.
The top flight of English football has always been evolving and growing. At the top end of the division, the game has frequently taken on new and sophisticated ideas from the continent.
From Wenger’s all conquering, swash buckling football, to the masters of the counter attack in 2004, Premier League football has been through a number of entertaining eras.
Without doubt, they changed the standard and expectations of football at the top of the table. However, it is this current age of the high press, that looks likely to reboot the way football is played and titles are won in this country for the foreseeable future.
It didn’t take long for The Premier League to cotton on to this European export.
As Pochettino started to earn a name in 2013, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund set a new standard in the Champions League. The aggressive pressing adopted by both sides was not brand new, but so finely tuned was it’s deployment, that it was brutally effective and often devastating.
Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Unai Emery, all high priests of the press, have since been lured to the Premier League.
The improvement in Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs since then, has been remarkable. All three clubs have players fully committed to their manager’s methods and are willing to run the hard yards they require.
You only need to look at the difference in Sergio Aguero’s game since Gaurdiola has been at City. He demanded the Argentine, already a club legend, run and harry far more as part of the vanguard of City’s new style.
Even in Guardiola’s early days in charge, he began to cover an extra 1.5 km a game more than he did in Pellegrini’s final season at The Etihad.
Devotion to the high press is essential, and to get an already established, top class player like Aguero, on board and involved, is a testament to the impact Pep’s approach has had in recent years.
At the other end of the pitch, teams just cannot get a glove on them. City concede less than four shots a game from the opposition. By contrast, Manchester United with their stand off, counter attacking style, concede just under eight shots on goal per game on average this season.
The pressing by the likes of City, Liverpool, and at times Arsenal and Spurs, is so aggressive that it bamboozles the opposition. In the rare moments a player is afforded possession it’s hard to do anything productive with it, as he’s often hunted down by two or three players in his own half of the field.
Weak players on the ball are often pinpointed before hand, isolated and constricted, forcing an error. This is particularly prominent in Klopp’s game, which is built on destruction and disruption.
Swept aside and left behind
Even if teams sit deep, it’s often fatal, as they can seldom settle with the onslaught raining down on them. With their line already perilously close to their own goal, it’s a risky strategy to adopt.
In short there, is nowhere for teams to hide when faced with such aggressive pressing and closing of the space in front of them. This was clear in Liverpool and City’s recent games against Cardiff.
In the era of the counter attack, the big clubs could often be stifled and smothered by two deep sitting rows of defensive players. In the 08/09 campaign for example, Liverpool and Arsenal drew twenty-three times between them as they were held and dropped vital points. They were excellent attacking sides, but very easily shut out by stubborn defensive teams.
Cardiff City tried to do a similar job this season, siting deep at home to City and away at Liverpool in recent weeks, but were ultimately swept aside by players that gave them no time to get settled and organised at the back. They were pressed, hounded and ultimately undone by the sheer aggression and pace of the high press.
In previous years the likes of Bruce, Pullis, Allardyce and Hodgson made their managerial careers on their deep sitting, no nonsense approach. They may have stood a chance of taking a few points in a handful of games against the big boys. However, with the chaos and displacement caused in the back lines by pressing tactics, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for these teams to get anything other than a bloody nose in these fixtures.
A generation of supporters and players is now growing up watching City’s cavalier approach earning them one hundred points in thirty-eight games and Liverpool’s fearless hunting game earning them a place in the Champions League Final. It’s also now highly likely that a team employing the press, will win the major honours this season. It’s becoming harder and harder to compete against teams using the counter or long ball tactics.
The old guard of the countering attacking heyday are looking somewhat disheveled and outdated. Mourinho is under pressure to play a more expansive, aggressive game in keeping with his peers. Benitez’s cautious approach looks more and more clumsy and old fashioned by the week at Newcastle.
It’s clear that the age of the high press is now well and truly on us. It will no doubt leave it’s imprint for many years to come on teams looking to win the big honours.