We’re six games into the Premier League season, and things are beginning to settle down.
Sure, it’s still early to highlight too many trends about team performance at this stage, but as The Athletic has previously shown, it is worthwhile looking at certain metrics that stabilise quicker than goals — or indeed points — which show stylistic intent from each club.
Today, we’re looking at teams’ approaches to pressing to pick out the front-foot fiends from the low-block ballers.
According to Opta’s definition, pressures are a defensive event attributed to an individual player, which can be applied directly to the ball carrier or indirectly to potential receivers. You know what it looks like on the pitch, but having a quantifiable log of off-ball events per team is useful in allowing us to look beyond defensive actions and instead show a side’s intent to close the opposition down.
Breaking this down by location on the pitch, we can analyse the percentage of each side’s total pressures across the defensive, middle and attacking thirds. Looking at the proportion of the total allows us to account for the opportunity that each team has to defend — as raw numbers alone would not be a fair comparison between the pressing requirements of Manchester City and Luton Town (sorry, Rob Edwards).
Crucially, we can then calculate how each side’s share of pressures differs from the league average across the respective thirds, as an indirect way of seeing who is more likely to play in a high, mid, or deep block when they don’t have the ball.
As you can see in the graphic below, the blue shade represents a team’s share of pressures being above the league average. The more red the shading is, the greater degree by which that club’s share of total pressures is below the league average in that third of the pitch.
Again, there have been just a handful of games played, but there are some interesting observations already.
Last season’s final top six (Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle, Liverpool and Brighton) have all been similarly front-footed out of possession so far, performing comfortably above the league average (blue shade) for their share of pressures in the attacking third.
Chelsea’s near-average volume of pressures in the middle and attacking thirds matches their pale, washed-out start under new coach Mauricio Pochettino, but a closer look shows their out-of-possession numbers are actually rather strong. Chelsea’s PPDA of 8.8 — as a proxy of pressing intensity — is currently the most intense in the league, with their 40 possessions won in the attacking third bettered by only two teams after matchweek six, suggesting they are efficient and coordinated in the press after ceding possession.
However, you know the rules by now. Context is key when digging into the data, and Chelsea’s desire to win the ball back quickly has been as much about necessity as it has been a stylistic choice.
When considering the share of time each team has spent in each game state (that is, in a winning, drawing or losing position), Chelsea have only been ahead for 12 per cent of their total Premier League minutes — less time than Fulham, Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and another 10 of the division’s 20 clubs.
Put simply, that means Chelsea have been forced to chase the game and retrieve the ball quickly in a desperate attempt to change the scoreline. That said, Pochettino is a manager known for his teams’ high-intensity, aggressive style out of possession, so it will be interesting to see how Chelsea’s approach continues if their results pick up.
Manchester United lead the table with 47 possessions won in the attacking third, only just ahead of an Ange Postecoglou-inspired Tottenham (41), whose stylistic gear change in these early weeks has been the most notable of any Premier League side in and out of possession.
Under Antonio Conte last season, just 21.1 per cent of Spurs’ total pressures were made in the attacking third — 4.2 per cent below the league average and representative of their passive style upon losing the ball. “I don’t like to play open, to concede a lot of space and concede six, seven or eight goals,” Conte, a five-time league champion as coach of Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan, said last October. “I won in England and I won in my past, and I think I can teach football to many people.”
Conte’s philosophy is about as contrasting as it gets when compared with the one held by Postecoglou: “As a coach, when I am watching the game, I am just not comfortable when the opposition has the ball. So our whole defensive setup is, ‘Let’s get the ball back off them as quickly as possible’.”
Spurs’s new coach has already stamped his style on the team after just over 100 days in the job, shifting from being the division’s least front-footed side to its most front-footed out of possession — with only Arsenal having a higher share of pressures in the final third than their 37 per cent, nearly 10 per cent above the league average.
Crucially, this approach has clearly borne fruit from an attacking perspective, with only Brighton registering more goal-ending high regains than Tottenham’s two so far — including a memorable winner for Dejan Kulusevski against Sheffield United.
As Anel Ahmedhodzic plays the ball out of danger in the final seconds, Spurs’ left-back Destiny Udogie sees the opportunity to pounce…
…and get in front of Cameron Archer to sustain the attack.
This allows Tottenham to work the ball to Richarlison — with seven players high in Sheffield United’s defensive third in the dying seconds — who plays a simple ball for Kulusevski…
….to finish emphatically.
It’s a goal that would not have come had it not been for Spurs showing such aggression to win the ball back quickly in an advanced area.
At the other end of the league table, Everton might be struggling to find some consistent results so far but Sean Dyche looks to have embedded his style after eight months in charge on Merseyside.
It may seem anomalous to see Everton’s above-average share of pressures in the final third, but their approach is interesting compared with the rest of the Premier League.
With only Sheffield United (18 per cent) and Luton (19 per cent) having a higher share of long balls attempted than Everton’s this season (15 per cent), Dyche’s side will be direct in possession by getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and picking up second balls from there.
For example, against Sheffield United at the start of this month, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford launches the ball forward to striker Beto, who is able to pin his opponent and make first contact to bring it down.
A loose touch means the ball falls to United centre-back Jack Robinson, but Everton have the requisite players supporting Beto and pushing high to press and recover possession.
As Robinson’s pass goes astray, Arnaut Danjuma intercepts and is able to get the ball out of his feet…
….to fizz in a shot that goes just wide of the target.
It might not be glamorous, but it can be an effective tactic to maximise possession high up the field — surely enough to bring a tear to Dyche’s eye.
We end on England’s south coast, where Bournemouth’s team style has seen a similar shift since the summer arrival of Andoni Iraola.
During a difficult return season to the Premier League in 2022-23, briefly under Scott Parker and then with Gary O’Neil, Bournemouth were pragmatic in their out-of-possession approach, electing to press most commonly in the middle third and at an above-average rate when the ball was in their own defensive zone.
Contrast that with their approach so far this term, where Iraola’s side look to be pressing more aggressively high up the pitch. Last season, one in five of Bournemouth’s total pressures came in their attacking third. That has shifted closer to one in three across their six games under the Spaniard.
It is an approach built into Iraola’s way of playing, which proved productive in his homeland last season — no team in La Liga won the ball more often in their attacking third than his Rayo Vallecano (237).
Rayo’s brave approach saw them beat Barcelona three times in four meetings under Iraola, while also getting the better of Real Madrid, Villarreal and Sevilla last season.
Pressing high up the field is a key part of that bravery, and Bournemouth have logged two goal-ending high regains so far — with Dominic Solanke’s finish against Brighton last weekend adding to David Brooks’ goal against Brentford at the start of the month. Results have been tricky to come by, but Iraola is beginning to stamp his authority on the way his side are playing, and the numbers back that up.
Of course, a high press is not necessarily analogous to scoring goals, with West Ham’s successful low-block, counter-attacking style showing that an aggressive approach in advanced areas can be overrated at times.
Instead, these metrics simply show us style rather than substance, providing us with an interesting window into the early-season approaches taken by each manager when their team do not have the ball.
Whether each side will maintain this approach across the 38-game campaign is an entirely different question.
No pressure, lads.
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