Ball rolled across defensive line. Pressure applied with little intent. Wide is out. Option found and into gear. The press now comes, man to man, as tight as possible, as quickly as possible. Ball moved with pass, forward and through to advancing bodies. Through the lines. Opposition retreat, no press from their defensive line, rather scrambling middle men hurrying to effect, now behind the play. Pressure broken.
Pressure. The application of a physical force, the use of persuasion or intimidation. Coercion or stress caused through the overloading of demands. In football, it seems to apply in a number of ways. When out of possession teams can mark tightly and close down space quickly in the attempt to force their opposition to retreat, to delay them or to cause them to surrender the ball. When in possession, pressure can be applied by maintaining control of the ball, particularly in the final third. By creating chances through quickly turning over the ball allowing the team to create openings that exploit poor positioning, decision making or lapses in concentration.
More recently, the concept of ‘pressure’ and ‘pressing’ have become common place in football fan lexicons. Probably due to increased exposure to more European football and punditry that focuses in on the details of coaches tactical plans. Jurgen Klopps, ‘Gegenpress’ and Pep Guardiola’s ‘Juego De Posición’ have been poured over by the football community, and rightly identified as a means of creating exciting and effective football, nullifying oppositions capacity to counter attack and allowing for attacking players to regain possession of the ball in more advanced positions. These pressing principles encourage a high press, where the most offensive players are encouraged to press as high and as quickly as possible, while encouraging positional discipline elsewhere.
“Put him under pressure!’” “Press him!” Are now regular retorts that many fans will recognise hearing being hollered by fellow supporters. These shouts tend not to recognise the reality that there are many ways to tactically set up a football team, and even though the buzz words in contemporary elite football tend to lean towards an aggressive pressing style, you will also find a whole host of alternative approaches all the way up and down the football pyramid. For my money, Tooting and Mitcham set up with principles that do encourage a level of pressing when the team is out of possession. However it is not a on off switch, it is clear that some have been instructed to not press, others to press in particular scenarios, and in the case of a few it is clear that they have been told to get tight to the opposition quickly and with energy.
Sometimes sitting off the opposition can be just as effective as pushing players up to press. In many cases it ensures that the opposition cannot just bypass your front two or three with a simple pass that cuts through the pressing line. In other cases it forces your technically limited opponents to try and play, allowing for possession to be surrendered through poor control or passing accuracy or by them resorting to a lumped long ball to no one that your deep defensive line can deal with, with little effort. Many times this year the shout to press at Imperial Fields has seemed to be used to communicate something else entirely. ‘Press’ seems to be used as a byword for ‘try harder’ or ‘do something’. I appreciate this, especially in the games at home where the performances seen on the road have not always been forthcoming. The desire to will the team on is totally a natural one, however it seems strange to conflate this with a tactical terminology. Pressing the defensive centre back or opposition goalkeeper might look like the lung bursting effort we want to see from the Tooting & Mitcham players, but it seems to be add odds with the principles that the management team are trying to put in place.
A minute left. Game posed. Only one point needed. Chance to put title push to bed slipping. Ball rolled into the wide, into talented feet. Intentionally heavy touch takes ball towards touchline. Deft and light control defies defender and ball is whipped into box. Past one lunging head, not intercepted by leaping defender and ball drops wantingly on corner of six yard box. Left leg stretches out to reach cross and nick win. Near miss, balls perfect flight uninterrupted. Chance not taken. Pressure broke ‘em?
Pressure can be felt by players in a way that we as fans can probably all relate to. In the big matches, in the games that matter, in the moments that shape the success or lack thereof of a season, how a player deals with the pressure of the situation usually is the difference. Last week, the under 23s hosted Ramsgate FC at home knowing that a win would secure the league title. Having just lost their first game of the season the previous week to the same opposition, after an incredibly impressive run, I can imagine that some nerves were present before the match. The game played out with little to no excitement until the last few minutes of the game. The clearly talented Tooting & Mitcham under 23s made hard work of the game and only really forced a series of half chances in the dying minutes. These chances went begging, as did the chance to wrap up the league title. I do not want to suggest that the young men involved in the game where undone by the pressure of the situation alone, but to illustrate that at times the players that we fete as the future (and in many cases the present) of the club, might be fallible and we would be well served to support them with positivity and encouragement. I would hate to think, as fans of the first team and the excellent youth set up at the club, we in some part create an atmosphere that our younger players struggle to excel in. At the Fans Forum, hosted by the members club this Wednesday, Peter Wedgeworth (aka ‘Wedgie’) was asked what could be heard from the stand by the players on the pitch. “We can hear everything! Good and bad.”
In many cases it is also worth noting that a players capacity to deal with pressure might not actually be the deciding factor. Some pivotal moments are decided by chance, the bounce of the ball, the decision of a referee, a poorly timed injury. Some situations play out the way they do due to the hard to process reality that a player or a team might just not be of the same technical or tactical quality as their opposition. On top of these very typical football facts, you also have the less typical non-league ingredients where school holidays, unforeseen childcare emergencies and extended work trips also add to the ‘pressure’ fans and management must navigate.