Isolation-based Pressing in a 4-4-2
Porto played excellently in the 1st leg of their Round of 16 tie against Juventus at the Estádio do Dragão. The principal factor behind their victory was the efficacy of their pressing which successfully confined Juventus and prevented them from sustaining dangerous pressure. Federico Chiesa’s late goal means the game is still open going to Turin, as Juventus could hypothetically progress with a 1-0.
Porto must do more than simply defend their lead and play low-risk microcosm football, which views the game as a series of individual events where prioritising those individual events is key rather viewing the game as a collection of these events which are all interconnected and influence each other. This article will look to explain the theory behind Porto’s strategy and how they executed it expertly.
A crucial part of pressing high in a 4-4-2 is the ability to isolate the deep players, pushing them backwards without support as they become increasingly distanced from teammates whilst continually removing options to introduce greater depth which is uncovered meaning the in-possession situation becomes increasingly precarious as they further isolate themselves.
The important aspect for the side defending in the 4-4-2 is to make the space in between the lines ineffective through remaining compact horizontally thus closing off passing options, while simultaneously having the pitch coverage to quickly shuttle out to a flank to constrain to force a turnover. The vital concept here is that of limiting options causing isolation, the team defending in the 4-4-2 seeks to achieve.
Vertical compactness and coverage are not diametrically opposed because compact positioning to an extent is required to establish connections to players. Therefore, through increasing distancing and taking control of the situation, the opponent can be pinned, similarly to how the touchline has a constraining effect in wide areas.
Moving backwards does introduce more space in advanced regions as the defending team cannot compactly cover as much ground deep in the opponent’s half; however, that space can still be made ineffective by limiting the time and space the players in-possession have. This is perhaps where the space-time concept becomes important to consider as the longer the ball is in deep regions whilst under pressure, the less time the players typically have as they become increasingly vertically pinned.
Man-orientation is often used to achieve this constraining effect because it makes reception difficult and instantly exposes the opponent to pressure, thus limiting the time they have in possession. It, moreover, seeks to force reception with back to goal which limits passing options to backwards, where their teammates can subsequently be pressed similarly resulting in the ceding of ground without maintaining the benefits typically associated with deeper possession which are space and time.
The trigger for man-orientation is a critical aspect because it turns an otherwise risk-averse pressing strategy (microcosm) into something which can leave space exposed in between the lines because it requires midfielders to push high whilst the defence are limited in their capacities to support because a presence must be maintained close to the half-way line.
This is typically most dangerous when the opponent successfully receives on the half-turn because they can progress into the space in between the lines, forcing a defender to come out and engage to cover for the lack of midfield coverage exposing space in higher regions or alternatively continue to retreat hoping for support to arrive thus covering deeper passing options but allowing the opponent to continue gaining territory.
Engaging aggressively through further man-orientation of potential players receiving in these scenarios can be useful in helping to sustain pressure, recover for an error and benefit from other aspects of high recovery, particularly as the opposing side are in offensive transition which would upset their defensive shape.
Although the risk associated is exposed space and continued progression which makes failing these duels often result in a tactical foul as losing a duel for a player typically on the last defensive line can be disastrous (caveat of typically on rather than on because the duel typically occurs in between the lines, but is achieved through a player on the last line stepping out).
Therefore, a necessary risk of the strategy is the reduction of compactness between the 1st and 2nd lines due to the necessity of the 1st to remain near the half-way line, working under the notion of decreasing effective space through limiting time in possession for deep actors to access the players in between the lines.
In summation, the theory behind the pressing is that when a player on the first line seeks to move it backwards due to pressure, the player receiving their pass is typically in as bad a predicament because the opponent’s man-oriented pressure has been triggered thus meaning they receive under similar circumstances where they are facing backwards.
Receiving while facing backwards allows the opponent to compact the pitch through limited options as progression is difficult/risky until the opponent reaches their goalkeeper where the nearest player then pressures hoping to force an error. The principle is thus that of vertical constraining through using the goal line.
The isolating of the centre backs initially is caused by the compact 4-4-2 shape limiting progressive central options whilst the coverage means any pass to the fullback is quickly used to constrain and potentially force a backwards pass, restarting the situation provided the opponent do not switch quickly.
The shape is ideal for this type of pressing because of the midfield and forward coverage it allows while being adaptable against back threes as the ball-sided winger can join the press with the ball-sided full back becoming man-oriented around the wing-back. The zonal 4-4-2 attempts to confine options for the central and forward-facing player to wide regions or deeper dropping midfielders which act as the trigger to isolate.
Man-orientation is only an effective tool where numerical parity can be achieved and space is confined to the extent where it is difficult for the opponent to receive. Moreover, because of the high risk/reward nature, defensive provisions such as far-sided zonal coverage is often required to recover from potential errors.
Therefore, when the opponent has the ball central and facing forward, adopting a man-oriented stance is not sensible as they have too many in possession options to successfully cover whereas when the ball is in wider regions or the opponent is facing backwards, opportunities to compact space through limiting options becomes available as the opponent are unable to turn out of pressure leading to gradually reduced space.
The efficacy of this isolation-based pressing is demonstrated by Porto’s first goal against Juventus. The intense pressing by Moussa Marega was catalysed by a poor headed back pass by Adrien Rabiot which meant Giorgio Chiellini’s passing options would be limited as he lacked the time to consider his surroundings, turn or try anything more ambitious than a back pass.
This was as Porto followed Juventus’ back three in a man orientated fashion as they were the potential effective actors. Rodrigo Bentancur drops but is instantly under pressure and cannot pivot, which likely contributed to the poor first touch. Now limited, he cannot pass to either centre back because they are susceptible to quick man pressing which would result in a turnover.
Mehdi Taremi stayed close to Wojciech Szczęsny while cutting the passing lane to Matthijs de Ligt, thus rendering him ineffective whilst Marega focused on Chiellini. Therefore, Bentancur had no passing options as through continually reducing the size of the pitch through funnelling Juventus into a compact area via man-oriented isolation pressing.
Porto exploited the constraining effect of the touchline line in combination with man-orientation, which successfully limited time in possession, the primary prerogative of the strategy, reducing the space Juventus could play in until they were restricted to their goal. The best thing Bentancur could have possibly done following the somewhat forced poor touch would be to follow the adage of ‘if in doubt, boot it out’ although continued subscription to that philosophy might have negative macrocosmic effects, it suffices in this instance.
Porto’s system otherwise is a compact zonal 4-4-2 which creates the question of when is the opportune moment to trigger the man-oriented press considering the risk associated with its failure? One is a deeper dropping midfielder who gets followed in a man-oriented manner, which seeks to force the error à la Bentancur whereby a poor touch or pass back triggers the rest of the team subsequently.
Time is the important thing to consider; Porto must have enough time to successful limit all options available to the ball carrier to make the press successful, therefore they require time to get adequately positioned, which can be earned through forcing a poor touch because it slows down the opponents play and makes their passing lose fluidity, otherwise the limited options trigger by the backwards reception can often be enough to trigger the press.
Perhaps more accurately, the act of the deeper dropping midfielder seeking to receive informs the forwards positioning of potential future scenarios which begins the orientation around the centre backs, allowing for the time element to be considered through thinking ahead to what happens after the dropping midfielder receives before he receives. This initial stepping out from the midfielder is facilitated through the ball-sided midfielder compacting.
The far-side wide midfielder is already in a narrow enough position to not have to adapt in addition to the pressure being applied not coming from his side not requiring instant adaptation. Whereas the near-side midfielder needs to move inside to cover more valuable territory in the half-spaces so that if the pressing midfielder’s man-orientation fails, the play is funnelled out wide rather than allowing central progression in the space he previously occupied.
Moreover, because the pressing is predicated on isolation, Porto used underloaded sides as a trigger as the opponent lacked passing options making prospective passes predictable thus allowing for the adoption of man-orientation within those isolated areas. This is facilitated through the zonal 4-4-2 shape allowing good far-side coverage due to the two wide players on the opposite flank often matching their opponent and having the capacity to adapt from the ball-side shuffle because of the inertia period between the players being free and the ball reaching them.
Easy anticipation is typically a sign of the lack of options that can allow for man-oriented confinement to take place. The logic here is similar to the tracking of the deeper dropping midfielder – through their backwards body orientation their options are often limited to either of the centre backs making them easier targets to isolate.
A strategy used by Porto to artificially create isolation based pressing situations was to distribute short into wide regions of their own half to reduce Juventus compactness as they had to cover space in deeper regions. Porto did not have the ambition to play through the press. Rather, they exploited the reduced compactness between 1st and 2nd lines to create 2nd ball opportunities where they could pressure the player on Juventus second line receiving instantly and force the ball backwards.
This allowed the Porto player running from deep to have momentum upon receiving to expose the space left in behind by Juventus pressing. Moreover, losing possession from the 2nd ball was not an issue, as Porto always had control due to their ability to quickly limit the options of Juventus players after a turnover which then allowed for the crafting of better opportunities in more advanced regions through pressing.
Sérgio Conceição’s side were aware of their plan which allowed them to think actions ahead when preparing, meaning they had the momentum receiving, as their deep dropping was a decoy to create space and their feigned playing out could draw the press. Porto’s second goal came from a comparable situation, in that it could be premeditated considering it was from kick-off and was predicated on winning the 2nd ball through engaging in tight marking and using superior knowledge of what they had planned to exploit Juventus who were unaware.
As for recommendations for Juventus in dealing with this type of pressure, I would advise higher goalkeeper positioning when they have the ball around the half-way line and are about to engage with Porto’s block to allow for a player to receive possession with a forward body orientation from the last line which would stop the press being triggered or introduce the goalkeeper as an extra man before space has been compacted to the extent where that advantage no longer exists.
Additionally, perhaps a more passive pressing approach that remains compact in between the lines is advisable to prevent Porto from vertically stretching to create 2nd ball opportunities where they are superior due to greater knowledge of what will happen, and when. The important aspect for Porto is to continue pressing with intensity throughout the game and to prevent Juventus from sustaining pressure using comparable tactics discussed above.
Playing through a game with that intensity is physically demanding; however, it successfully prevented Cristiano Ronaldo from becoming influential, particularly in the final 3rd – ceding too much territory and dropping deep makes them too susceptible to errors, the provocation of retreat by Juventus through balls as centre backs and midfielders go unpressured and perhaps most importantly, it provides the conditions for Ronaldo to thrive.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Octavio Passos – Getty Images