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Roker Ramble: ‘High press’ is the flavour of the month in football, but is it killing defending?

Tammy Abraham rocks and David Luiz sucks but do the teams chasing the Premier League leaders have the right style to succeed? It’s the Roker Ramble.

Chelsea FC v Sheffield United - Premier League
Two seconds later he realises his harmonica’s been nicked.
Photo by Visionhaus

If someone had asked me a while ago who Tammy Abraham was I would’ve said she was a long-haired country & western singer from the 70’s, well known for the classic ‘Stand By Your Man’. Now I know better - he’s the single thing keeping Chelsea off the bottom of the Premier League table, because were he not slotting them in with regular aplomb at one end of the pitch, their woeful defence would be condemning them to the long view up the table at the other.

It’s the same story across the rest of the so-called ‘chasing pack’ of clubs, each one striving to be first behind Liverpool and Man City again this year. Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United have all thrown away leads this season due to defensive or goalkeeping errors and it’s fast becoming a trait at the top of the Premier League.

Part of the reason at least is that they’re are all playing the same style – the high press, as personified by the success of both Manchester City and Liverpool. But, as the recent history of both clubs show, it’s a style that needs time to bed in - for the attackers to be coordinated and prolific, for the midfielders to press further up the pitch to close down space and above all for the whole team to be fit enough to play at the pace that the style dictates. For as the game goes on, if the press can’t be maintained high enough up the pitch then spaces open up and pressure starts to build on the defence who may not have the protection they’re used to.

In Arsenal’s case the purchase of Pepe has given them a front three to rival the firepower of Liverpool, but their defence has been shocking since the latter days of Wenger, hence their ‘swoop’ for David Luiz in the transfer window.

Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
Only their mother can tell them apart.
Photo by Visionhaus

Luiz has always had the potential for unmitigated disaster making him such an exciting viewing prospect for the neutral, but to say he’s lost his speed doesn’t cover it - if he was any slower he’d fossilise. For the experienced defender this can be tempered by sound decision making, however in Luiz’s case our current Parliament is more decisive, so if he’s the answer then I’m not really sure what the question is.

Spurs have the same problem - they allowed Trippier to go abroad in the summer and have a defence partially populated by players who Pochettino doesn’t necessarily see as part of his ongoing squad. They weakened physically as the North London derby progressed and surrendered a two goal lead calling into question their fitness to sustain their agreed game plan.

Same story at Manchester United. They gave up winning positions against both Wolves and Southampton in their last two games due to errors in defence, and this is despite bringing in Harry Maguire and Wan-Bissaka to prevent just this from happening. In addition they really need some competition for De Gea - he’s playing like a pre-Thatcherite trade unionist knowing he’s got a job for life. He needs to know that if he doesn’t perform he’ll spend some time out of the team and that doesn’t look like happening at the moment.

Southampton FC v Manchester United - Premier League
There’s a thin line between diving to make a save and just falling over.
Photo by Jon Bromley/ MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So, all of these teams are where Man City were three years ago, when Pep first came down from the mountain and championed the high pressing game, bumbling his way through press conferences because no-one could understand what he was trying to achieve, and where Liverpool were two years ago when they were throwing away two goal leads against Bournemouth.

Both teams, once they’d sorted out their attacking options and instilled their style of play into the team psyche, had to seriously address their defences before they could mount a credible challenge to the title - and as things stand, the chasing pack look to have to do the same to keep pace with them.

But do they? The ‘high press’ is trendy and sexy, it’s flavour of the month, and does provide for good viewing but it’s not the only style of play. Leicester look likely to take advantage of the defensive frailities of their peers, and they still use the long ball to great effect – as demonstrated on Saturday.

The long ball (the ‘hoof’) is the the bad boy of the game, its reputation established as being uncouth, uncultured and too costly in relinquishing possession. But, if the opposition are still in your own half then the ball over the top with your forwards running on to it seems to make a lot of sense. Sir Alex Ferguson used it as part of his counter-attacking style of play and seemed to do okay off the back of it.

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League
Proof that the long ball can work....
Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

Even Jose’s style of ‘parking the bus’ - soaking up the pressure and hitting on the counter, isn’t the most attractive thing to watch but it’s effective, especially against teams that may not be quite as fit or able to play an effective pressing game for the whole ninety minutes.

Which is exactly where the England Ladies are becoming unstuck – Little Neville has them playing the high pressing game up the pitch whilst at the back demonstrating the most atrocious defending. It looks to the untrained eye (mine) that the team is playing a style that either doesn’t suit them or that they haven’t been coached in sufficiently to deploy successfully.

Neville ‘apparently’ has been linked with the vacant USA coaching role, but if he can’t introduce a style of play more in keeping with the whole of his team then surely he’s not in a position to be considered for the World Champions? Personally I think it’s all just media talk anyway but at least he’s dropped the suit on the touchline look.

It’s going to be interesting to see how things develop – is the high pressing game the only model to play if you want to compete with the best or are there alternatives? I guess that’s why managers get paid millions a year to find out.

There’s a classic Monty Python sketch based on award shows where one of the winners, who can’t attend, sends along his fridge to collect the award on their behalf. The fridge, torn with emotion, breaks down in tears during the acceptance speech and the sketch pretty much nails the superficiality and crassness of a lot of these ceremonies. Which is why Eric Cantona should be invited to speak at all of them.

UEFA European Club Football Season Kick-Off 2019/2020 - UCL Draw
Eric picks up ‘Best Album’ at the 2019 Folk Awards.
Photo by Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

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