It’s no secret that football is in the 'Age Of The Press', it has been for many years now. It’s more common than ever to see teams take an aggressive approach to winning the ball back, to varying degrees and across various areas of the pitch. The rise of the press-resistant midfielder has been a by-product of this era, so let’s take a look at some of Europe’s finest.
It’s now more important than ever for a squad to contain players who can handle the ball under pressure, with opposition pressing traps and triggers becoming more sophisticated by the year.
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. The German is arguably the modern-day archetype for this style of midfielder and this is reflected in the data, completing 90% of his passes under pressure and registering only 1.43 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. Germany 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.”
This vision and intelligence is clear when examining Kroos's actions after receiving opposition pressure from behind. Kroos is a master at keeping the ball either by moving the play horizontally, recycling the possession, or by drawing fouls in the middle third.
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 these days, having players that can handle the ball under pressure when building out from the back straight after a turnover is vital. We're 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, or pass.
Julian Baumgartlinger takes the crown this season, having kept the ball 100% of the time when receiving under pressure in his own half, though he has only registered 1.9 under pressure receipts in the defensive half per 90. Contrast that with Paul Pogba who receives the ball under pressure nearly twice as often at 3.4, but has retained the ball only 78% of the time.
Despite a mixed few seasons since his 2017 move to Chelsea, Tiémoué Bakayoko’s control under pressure sees him second only to Baumgartlinger with a retention rate of 97%, and this coming from more pressured receipts than Baumgartlinger too.
This is a consistent strength of Bakayoko's having been similarly reliable when receiving under pressure last season as well. Whilst at AS Monaco in 2019-20, Bakayoko had the best retention rate in Ligue 1, keeping the ball 97% of the time from 2.7 under pressure pass receipts per 90.
Looking at what happened after those receptions, we can see from the subsequent passes that Bakayoko wasn’t necessarily progressing the play – difficult to do when being harried by an opponent – but was regularly recycling the ball to safer areas or moving the ball horizontally to shift the defensive block.
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.
Clearly Rodrigo De Paul and Téji Savanier are the standouts in this regard, as well as André Zambo Anguissa who manages nearly three successful dribbles per 90 – a rate that most wide players would be pleased with. But it’s Marco Verratti who warrants some adulation, not just for his ability in this area but because he also showed up well in the previous two categories.
Taking all the criteria we've looked at into account, Verratti emerges as one of the most effective players under pressure in the big 5 leagues. His pressured pass completion rate of 91% eclipses that of Toni Kroos - albeit Verratti has been guilty of twice as many Turnovers + Dispossessions at 2.8 per 90 to Kroos’s 1.4. His retention rate when receiving under pressure of 87% has also been one of the better rates in the big 5 leagues this season.
Verratti matches this close ball control and composure under pressure with a more aggressive approach in possession and a willingness to take players on to carry Paris Saint Germain up the pitch. With steady contributions out of possession and a passing mastery too, these assets combined make Verratti one of the world’s most complete midfielders between both boxes.
Whilst Verratti may not complete the volume of dribbles that Anguissa, Savanier and De Paul manage, he does complete his at a higher rate, failing at only 4 of his attempted take-ons this season for a success rate of 86%, the highest clip for central midfielders in the big 5 leagues who attempt at least 2.0 dribbles per 90.
And it’s a similar story with his carries under pressure, where he retains possession 91% of the time when carrying the ball under close attention from an opposition player. Mauricio Pochettino will undoubtedly be looking forward to utilising this calibre of press-resistance in his midfield.
The days of aggressive pressing don’t look likely to dissipate soon, so being able to identify players that can handle the ball under pressure remains vitally important to clubs around the world.