The Evolution of Defensive Compactness

Why attacking is harder than ever.

The luxury player…has faded away with this accent on high-intensity pressing. I mean, you know, it’s not a new thing, pressing, is it? We did it at Arsenal. We practiced it in training till we were blue in the face. We did it very well, pressing from the front.

That’s former Arsenal striker and FIFA video game commentator Alan Smith in a 2019 interview with my Managing Madrid buddy Kiyan Sobhani. He’s responding to a question on how the #10 position has changed since he last played and, in doing so, briefly touches on the relevance of pressing over the course of multiple decades.

If you want some of my thoughts on the larger #10 discussion, I wrote about it here, but that audio bite has always intrigued me: how much has tactics and, specifically, defensive tactics evolved over the years?

Taken in isolation (and for the convenience of narrative), these few lines could be seen as a statement against the idea that there have been noteworthy alterations since Smith’s era. Indeed, analysts and fans probably overestimate the shift in broad, strategic trends. The notion of a game where every player has to possess widely ranging skillsets, rotate into multiple positions, and press to dominate the ball roughly describes the philosophies of Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa, just as it does of “Total Football” and its emergence 60-70 years ago.

This is not to say that the sport ended with Rinus Michels and Cruyff, but that the adjustments since then are probably to be observed at the granular level. Fundamental ideas like pressing, possession football, attacking fullbacks, etc. have been around forever — it’s in their application (i.e. the coordination between players, intensity, individual and collective mindsets, interdependence between different concepts, and reaction to opposition implementation) and the spread of said application where we see more regular intervals of change.

In other words, pressing might not be new, but its nuances and the way it has been executed have undergone significant improvements while being adopted — in its modern form — by an increasing number of sides.

Pressing is where this is probably the easiest to see; one need only look at pressures data and a video of that old, great Netherland’s team hunting for the ball.

The most obvious difference between then and now is in the “compactness” of the defensive shape.

The Netherland’s extreme ball-focused approach melded lines together into a single, heaving mass that completely clogged the immediate space next to the ball but left plenty of real estate 10-15 yards to the side or in behind.

Today, this would be ripped apart, which is why most current pressing structures seek to adopt a more judicious balancing act in their vertical and horizontal spacing and orientation towards the ball.

While there is much that can be said about pressing and its evolution, I would like to focus on the broader idea of defensive compactness, as that represents the granular change within the the concept that has held true over a lifetime (pressing).

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