It’s no secret that football is in the 'Age Of The Press'. It’s more common than ever to see teams take an aggressive approach to winning the ball back across various areas of the pitch. The rise of the press-resistant midfielder has been a by-product of this era and it’s now more important than ever for a squad to contain players who can handle the ball under pressure, so let’s take a look at some of Europe’s finest.
The introduction of pressure data to StatsBomb’s dataset in 2018 was an important and novel one for the industry because it allowed us, for the first time, to more accurately analyse team's out-of-possession approaches and pressing triggers using data, as well as examine player actions under pressure. We can now confidently answer how players respond to being pressed, both in the success of their subsequent actions but also in any behavioural changes compared to the choices they make when not under pressure from the opposition.
For the purposes of this piece, we’re going to highlight central midfielders who can be considered safe retainers of possession when under pressure, players who can receive effectively when under pressure, and players who can break the press and progress the play forwards.
Starting with the safe retainers. These are the players that you can trust not to give the ball away when being pressed, and allow you to recycle possession and maintain pressure in the build-up phase. Of central midfielders in the Big 5 European leagues, we're looking for players who have infrequent Turnovers and Dispossessions, paired with an ability to complete passes when under pressure.
Turnover: How often a player loses the ball via a miscontrol or failed dribble. Dispossession: Number of times the player loses the ball by getting tackled.
Of course, we do this with all the usual caveats about using pass completion rates: they contain no context around the difficulty of the pass attempted. Some of the players with lower completion rates could be attempting ambitious passes in behind the defence once the opposition have pushed onto them, for example, but it’s a good starting point for evaluating players you can trust not to turnover possession whilst being harried by an opponent.
I'll bet most of you were already thinking of Toni Kroos when reading the criteria above. Kroos is arguably the archetype for this style of midfielder and this is reflected in the data, completing 90% of his passes under pressure and registering only 1.2 Turnovers + Dispossessions per 90.
A World Cup and 4x Champions League winner, Kroos is a product of the possession-heavy era that preceded the current pressing era, but his skillset is still crucial to the heart of the Real Madrid midfield thanks to his ball-retaining capabilities that allow Madrid to control games and impose themselves over the opposition. Former German National Team manager Joachim Löw succinctly summarised what Kroos brings to his international side:
“You can pass him the ball at any time and he'll find a way to deal with it, even if he's under pressure. He has great vision and a sense of where he is on the pitch.”
Being able to complete passes after drawing in pressure is one skill, but being able to retain the ball when receiving it under pressure is another. Let’s look at players who can deal with immediate pressure in the early stages of build-up.
Receiving Under Pressure
With attacking teams regularly employing a counterpress after losing the ball in the attacking third, having players that can handle the ball under pressure when building out from the back is vital. We're now looking for players that receive the ball under pressure in the defensive half and examining whether their next actions are successful in retaining the possession, either through a dribble, carry, pass, or foul won.
Kroos again takes the crown, having kept the ball 100% of the time when receiving under pressure in his own half, averaging 2.0 under pressure receipts in the defensive half per 90. Contrast that with Sergej Milinković-Savić who received the ball under pressure nearly twice as often at 3.9 receipts per 90, but only retained the ball 86% of the time.
There's also some familiar names we'd expect to see performing well by these measures: Marco Verratti, Bruno Guimarães and Alexis MacAllister. MacAllister's summer move to Liverpool becomes particularly interesting when you contrast his performances here to those of Jordan Henderson, who seemed to struggle when receiving under pressure in 2022/23.
It's Guimarães we'll focus on in a little more detail here, as his transfer to Newcastle in January 2022 signalled the upturn in on-pitch fortunes that saved Newcastle from relegation and then carried them into the Champions League places last season.
Guimarães is clearly one of the most technically-gifted players in the Newcastle squad and indeed the Premier League - his 93% success rate with his actions after receiving under pressure highlights this. Looking at his passes after receiving under pressure, whilst a few of them are safe sideways or backwards passes, there are a few there that look to be press-breaking, either played to the flank or punched through the lines.
To this point, a press can still be considered successful if it keeps the play away from the defending team's goal. So now let's look at players who can beat the press.
The zone movers. The players who turn defence into attack. These are the players who can either beat their opponent on the dribble or draw a foul to relieve their team of the pressure whilst still allowing them to move up the pitch.
The likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Thiago Alcântara are predictable names here: players with superb technical ability and the trickery to beat opposition pressure on the dribble. But it's impossible to ignore Jude Bellingham here.
Taking all the previous criteria into account, Bellingham emerges as one of the most effective players under pressure in the Big 5 Leagues. Where he could perhaps improve is in the Turnovers + Dispossessions metric, in that he gave the ball away ~5.0 times per 90 in 2022/23. But his Pressured Pass Completion % was above average, he received the ball under pressure nearly two times per 90 and retained the ball 93% of the time, and in terms of progression we can see that Bellingham was capable of beating defenders on the dribble and drawing fouls.
Add in his ability to get into the box to score goals and his desire and talent for breaking up play on the other side of the ball, and you can see why Real Madrid were so keen to get him to the Bernabeu, especially with his prime years still to come.
Looking at where the successful dribbles occurred and what he did with the ball afterwards, we can see that Bellingham was excellent at driving into the final third and transitioning Dortmund from the buildup phase into the attack. There are also several completed dribbles inside his own half in the first phase of buildup, highlighting that ability to break the press.
The days of aggressive pressing don’t look likely to dissipate soon, so being able to identify players like Bellingham that can handle the ball under pressure remains highly important to clubs around the world.