Jesse Marsch’s Principles for Pressing and How to Coach Them

Before the 19/20 season, the relatively unknown American Jesse Marsch was named as the new head coach of Red Bull Salzburg. Born in Wisconsin 1973, Jesse started his footballing career first as a player, playing in the MLS before continuing his coaching career in the same league, joining New York Red Bulls in 2015.

Marsch’s first European coaching experience came in the 2018/19 season when he joined RB Leipzig as the assistant of Head Coach Ralf Rangnick. In 2019/20 he left the Saxony-based club to replace Marco Rose as the new Head Coach of Red Bull Salzburg for the 2019/20 season. Marsch is not only known for his tactical ability but also for his strong man-management. On top of that, he is the first North American to ever to lead a team in the prestigious UEFA Champions League.

Marsch’s philosophy is well-aligned to the typical Red Bull style of football, namely an emphasis on collectivism, verticality in possession, dominance, a focus on transitions and an intensive high-pressing game. So far this season, Salzburg have utilized different structures (4-2-2-2, 4-3-1-2, 5-2-1-2) depending on the structure of the opponent but with the same intensity and principles in defence/when pressing.

Salzburg dominated early on in the season with good results in the league and more notably in the Champions League but also experienced negative results in recent months. A significant reason for their downturn in results was the sale of Erling Braut Håland to Borussia Dortmund and Takumi Minamino to Liverpool in the January transfer window. Marsch has had to enter a period of adaptation and re-adjustment in order to find a new equilibrium for his team in order to play at the level they did in the 1st half of the season.

Jesse Marsch’s principles summarized which he shared in a webinar with Beyond Pulse.

Pressing and the Control of Space

The philosophy of Red Bull is known for its detailed, explosive and efficient pressing game with a big focus on dominating transitions. Jesse Marsch himself explained his pressing as being ‘ball-oriented’, meaning that in defence they are ball-oriented and compact in relation to the ball, controlling space in a collective and compact structure. The purpose is to be proactive and even though you are not in control of the possession you are still able to decide/control the game by forcing opponents into the spaces you want them to play into

In defending overall, there are some reference points to adapt to collectively and prioritize such as the ones mentioned by the world-renowned Arrigo Sacchi:

Position of the ball
– Teammate

Opposing player

Individually within the structure the player has reference actions such as:

Attacking to win the ball/pressing
Intercept the pass (the ideal way of winning the ball back as it is ‘cleaner’ and probably less chaotic when starting a positive transition)

Covering your teammate – locally or in ball-far spaces
– Covering opposition player (block passing options)

In one way or another, teams always use these reference points during the defensive phase, but what distinguishes teams from each other is in the order which they prioritize them both collectively and in the individual actions. The Red Bull playing style is influenced heavily by Helmut Groß and Ralf Rangnick who advocate and prioritize the ball, space and teammates, in turn advocating the actions of winning the ball/pressing as early as possible, covering your teammate’s action by being compact and thus being able to intercept the potential pass. As mentioned above, all structures of defending include all reference points in one way or another and even the most ball-oriented ones have man-marking sequences (situationally) while, for example, creating a pressing trap towards the flank, where a team can basically block all passing options, situationally creating a man-marking phase in relation to the ball.

In a collective manner the pressing team moves while controlling the space in relation to the ball, which explains the term ‘ball-oriented’ used by Marsch. However, in order to create a pressing game, you have to attack the opponents too (without the ball). So in relation to the ball, the pressing team tries to create a structure to control space, passing options and generate access to the potential options of the next pass of the opponent, in order to win the ball back. To create controlled pressing moments, simply shifting collectively in the formation according to the position of the ball and controlling space is not enough. The team must have clear triggers that, for example, activate the execution of the press where the team begins defending on the front foot and attacks the opponent.

The trigger can change with regards to a specific opponent or potential ball-winning situations where players make the decision. These triggers can be activated when players deduce how bad a pass is, if the opponent has a bad body position or a loose touch. These can be used as efficient triggers because of the uncontrollable situations that occur from these moments. For example, one common trigger can be the shifting pass from the near central defender to the ball-far central defender. While the ball is travelling, the closest player to the potential passing receiver is able to ‘attack’ the opponent and thus decrease his time on the ball and potentially force him into worse situations. Also, while the ball is travelling, the closest teammate of the pressing player can close down the potential pass receiver (in the successive play) and thus decrease his distance towards the opponent but also decrease time for the opponent to make proper decisions.

“The touchline is the best defender” 

Pep Guardiola

Forcing opponents to a specific zone where you as a team can create worse progression phases for the opponent in order to “trap” the opponent and potentially win the ball back – it is also called a pressing trap. A pressing trap can be created in central zones with one example being Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig when pressing in high-zones. Another example is Pep Guardiola’s sides who also create traps on the flanks. Guardiola himself said that the touchline acts as an extra defender which forces opponent into a worse situat ion because of the limited playing space. 

Salzburg in a 4-3-1-2 structure versus Liverpool’s 4-3-3. Notice the level of access Salzburg’s players have when pressing. 

When Salzburg faced Liverpool in the Champions League at Anfield in October 2019, they used a 4-3-1-2. The purpose was, as shown in the picture, to dominate the central zones. By remaining compact down the centre in relation to the ball, they could eventually force Liverpool to play towards the flanks. The structure itself is not enough to achieve the purpose but during the game, the players constantly adjusted whilst also maintaining compactness, small distances between teammates diagonally, horizontally and vertically. This could also allow them to generate proper access to opponents while controlling spaces. This meant that Salzburg tried to dictate and direct Liverpool’s attack with the aim of anticipating and preparing an efficient pressing scheme.

Salzburg’s 4-3-1-2 structure while pressing on the flank. 

In the image above, Salzburg’s two strikers have central support behind which allows them to remain high, increase access to and press for them to centre-backs who are split. At the same time, the No.10 controls the central zones and maintains access to passing options behind the first line of pressing/defence. The two No.8s control the half-space areas, discouraging play into the centre and guiding play into wide areas. From the half-spaces, the no.8’s are in a position with reasonable distance for access to Liverpool’s full-backs in the wide areas. From there, they can press diagonally and in turn the No.6 and the rest of the back shift across in a ball-oriented manner. 

One approach which can be seen in the Champions League is that Marsch’s team do not start their pressing too early with an advanced defensive line. Rather they begin by retreating into a deeper a semi-high midfield press. The aim is to begin pressing from deeper zones in order to defend on the front-foot/vertically and activate the ball-winning pressing approach. By lowering the defensive line Salzburg attempted to prevent of Liverpool’s main weapons in possession: long-balls into space in behind the defensive line.

The switch pass triggers pressing by the ball-far No.9 of Salzburg

As mentioned above, passing switches or passes to the sidelines are used by several teams as a ‘trigger’ to execute a more intensive pressing due to the fact that while the ball is travelling and pressing players can decrease the distance between themselves and the pass receiver. Consequently, the opponent will also have less time to control the ball, prepare for and play a clean progressive pass forward.

The player closest to the ball, No.9, starts pressing and the whole team moves forward accordingly. 

“We press in order to attack

Jesse Marsch.

The pressing game is not only used for the purpose of defending and recovering the ball. It also creates a certain control without the ball that sets up an attacking situation. In the sequence above where Liverpool are being prevented from progressing and having to play a pass back to their goalkeeper, Salzburg are able to move forwards, create a better structure to press in higher zones and potentially win the ball back. As a result of winning the ball high up field, they can use the transition phase to attack with little distance towards goal. Marsch makes sure that his players understand the rewards of winning the ball as the purpose is to recover it and score in transition without having to travel very far en route to goal. 

Back passes to the goalkeepers are often used as a trigger to press and defend on the front foot in order to force the goalkeeper to play to one side of the pitch, which allows the pressing to continue. 

(Above) Salzburg’s right-sided No.9 continues his pressing towards the goalkeeper while using his cover-shadow to prevent a pass back to the centre-back. This forces Liverpool to the left side of the pitch where they can again execute their pressing and forces them into a pressing trap on the flank. There, Salzburg succeed by forcing Liverpool to play a long ball towards an area where the visitors can organize and compete for the 1st and 2nd balls (a long ball can also be seen as a trigger to activate an aggressive press). Even though Salzburg faced a very dominant counter-pressing opponent, they were able to win the ball back and counter-attack vertically fast because of the negative phase which Liverpool were forced into.

Alisson here is forced to play a long ball while being pressed, which leads to an unsuccessful pass that Salzburg intercept and exploit quickly in the positive transition. 
Salzburg in a 4-2-3-1 structure versus Napoli. 

At home against Napoli, Salzburg lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 system. In an interview with Beyond Pulse, Marsch mentioned that the formation itself is not the most important factor for success, the principles are. The principles always remain and the formation follows suit according to the opponent. Marsch also explained that Salzburg have used nine different systems/structures this seasons with that compactness being the most important principle. As seen above, Salzburg have a very compact and central oriented 4-2-3-1 structure but in order to cope with Napoli’s system, they have created different triggers and roles for this specific game in contrast to the Liverpool game. The principles, however, remained: being ball-oriented, controlling central spaces and force opponent into wide zones, creating traps wide. 

As Napoli had a 2vs1 situation against Salzburg’s first pressing line, Håland’s role was to split the centre-back from each other using his cover-shadow, preventing horizontal switches in the back-line. This scheme occurred when Salzburg had generated enough access to do so or whenever the centre-backs moved forwards with the ball, closer to Håland, who would guide Napoli into the half-spaces and using the access to further guide Napoli towards the touchline. 

When Napoli’s centre-back dribbles forward, the winger Patson Daka drops a bit deeper in order to avoid losing access to the full-back while preventing the passes into the half-space option with his cover-shadow. 

Minamino’s role as the No.10 was to shift across and block the passing option to Napoli’s No.6, while the ball-near winger located in the half-space would drop a bit deeper in order to adjust his line of position in relation to the Napoli’s full-back, thereby preventing Napoli from creating positional superiority with the full-back.

Salzburg’s 4-2-3-1 pressing trap with Patson Daka forcing play out wide and subsequently pressing the full-back. 

When forcing Napoli to play wide, the ball-near winger continued his pressing towards the full-back with an angle which forced him to continue to play forward but only down the flanks or diagonally inside. Below, we can see how Red Bull Salzburg have forced Napoli into a wide area and creating a 4v3 numerical advantage. 

The full-back of Napoli plays a diagonal pass which is intercepted by Junuzović, Salzburg’s ball-near No.6. 

“We value intercepting the pass rather than tackling. If we try to lure the opponent to play the passes we want and intercept the pass, it enables us to win possession back ‘cleanly’ and in that way start our transitions more efficiently

Julian Nagelsmann.

Salzburg not only forced Napoli wide and created a 4v3 advantage around the ball, they also managed to limit Napoli’s passing options which allowed them to anticipate passes in order to recover the ball. For example, when the Salzburg’s wingers pressed Napoli’s fullbacks or by intercepting the next pass as seen in the scenario above. Junuzović, Salzburg’s ball-near No.6, shifts across and intercepts the diagonal pass in front the Napoli fullback which allows them to win the ball cleanly without a tackle. This type of individual action is highly valued and called by Jesse Marsch as: ‘fore-checking’ (intercepting the pass in front of an opponent).

If Napoli did not play into the fullback and were able to switch play to the between centre-backs or create overloads around Minamino in the 10 space (2vs1) behind Håland, the ball-far winger of Salzburg was responsible for pressing both of the potential passes in order to prevent switches and progressions.

Napoli tries to create a 2v1 numerical advantage against Salzburg’s No.10 which triggers the ball-far winger to press.

The ball-far winger shifts across to prevent Napoli from creating a numerical superiority and with the aim of recovering the ball or to force the receiver to play a pass back to where it was initially played from. Due to the fact that the structure is so compact and ball-oriented, the ball-far winger had access to prevent Napoli from progression.

With Napoli switching play horizontally between their centre-backs, they’re forced into a worse situation as Salzburg use their compact shape to press control the central and wide options. 

In some cases, Napoli’s centre-backs had space to progress and attack the space in front which attracted the wingers to press or, as seen in the example above, switch to the second centre-back. These situations were triggers for the ball-far winger (anticipating the pass before it would be played) to press the second centre-back, Koulibaly, and to defend the half-space using their cover-shadow. In the image above, Minamino shifts across locally and Salzburg’s ball-far winger shifts across in referencing the ball in order to stay compact and to prevent the loss of connections/access to Napoli’s players. 

We can see how this forces Koulibaly/Napoli to again play wide and again Salzburg can create a pressing trap on the flanks by having either winger back-press the full-back or by having their own full-backs continue pressing but with pressure now applied on Napoli’s full-back, yet again creating a touchline pressing trap. 

How to Coach it?

Aside from the  intellectual, tactical (decision making) and physical aspects of this demanding style of football, it’s very important to, as Marsch points out, have the right mentality and understand that the approach to defending is a way of being proactive, and as mentioned above, to view it as an offensive weapon in order to win the ball back efficiently, and begin counter-attacks zones closer to the goal.

“If you want to increase the speed of your game, though, you have to develop quicker minds rather than quicker feet. Improvement translates as taking things in more quickly, analysing them more quickly, deciding more quickly, acting more quickly. At RB, we work on increasing the memory space and the processing pace.

Ralf Rangnick

This means that it’s not only important to be physically fit in order to play this type of explosive, high-energy pressing game but fit in terms of faster decision making/intelligence in relation to individual actions within the collective reference points and structure.

Below we’ll take a look at a few exercises that can be used to improve the individual and collective actions through games focused on improving and speeding up the decision-making processes. 

Exercise Example #1: Double Zone Pressing Game

Double zone pressing game No.1

The first exercise is a double zone game with two goals each at both ends. It’s a directional game which can vary in sizes and organization depending on the structure and overload you want to develop. In this case, the blue team is organized in a 2-2-2 structure out of possession (4-2-2-2 system) as they have 1 less player. You can also play with ‘overload’ or neutral players in order to create more continuation in possession. However, they can be also be excluded if the aim is to increase the probability of recovering the ball back and to make pressing easier with equality in numbers.

One of the two zones (Zone 1) is in the centre of the pitch. If the team in possession finds a pass into a player in this zone and then out again using the 3rd man, the play is rewarded with a point. One of Marsch’s principles is to be centrally compact, and thus to prevent passes centrally. In order to prevent the attacking team of playing centrally, the defending team has to focus on:

Collectively control central spaces
Prevent opponent from playing centrally
Stay connected and compact
Force the opponent out wide

If the opponent still manage to find players centrally, it’s important to prevent the opponent from turning with the ball and facing play openly, towards the goal (fore-checking).
The defending team must put pressure quickly in order to prevent progressive plays from the centre. In order to create even more desirable actions for the team without the ball you can give points per 10 passes within the team, this is to force the defensive team to defend offensively and press as early as possible to be proactive without possession and not reactive in order to win the ball back.

This exercise creates lots of transitional phases and chaotic moments too, forcing players to constantly adjust and make decisions in relation to the reference points mentioned above.The coach can also focus on the transitional phase and create your own principles if needed.

Exercise Example #2: 3 Zone Pressing Game

Pressing game variant No.2 using 3 Zones: two teams in a 4-2-2-2 structure, playing in a full-sized pitch.

A variant of the double zone pressing exercise is the use of 3 zones (full-size pitch) with the central zone being zone 1. In this exercise, the same rules apply as in the first variant with central compactness being the main coaching point but due to playing in a full sized pitch the exercise includes 3 zones.         

The ball-near striker presses the centre-back after a switch, creating a split with his cover-shadow and subsequently forces a pass towards the flanks. As the striker initiates the press, the rest of the team shifts across in a ball-oriented manner while controlling options. The pass to the full-back is diagonally pressed by the winger who prevents the red-team from progressing. A pressing scheme influenced by Jesse Marsch utilizing a 4-2-2-2 structure at Red Bull Salzburg. 

Above is an example of a narrow 4-2-2-2 structure used to force the opponent wide and continuing with the concept of pressing-traps, creating a situation where the opponent cannot progress further and pass options can be anticipated with increasing the probability of being intercepted. This though is just one of many examples, and coaches should adjust and in order to create triggers suited for their own team in relation to whichever system/structure is used and approach to pressing traps in order to win the ball back. 

The ball is won and blue players make runs into depth in order to take advantage of the positive transition phase. 

In this variant of the 1st exercise, you play (11v11) in a full sized pitch using 3 different zones. Every attack/play starts inside of the zone 2 (blue zone). In order to play into the zone 3 (black zone), you must reach the last 3rd of the pitch (close to the penalty area). Implicitly this rule in turn also gives a ‘reward’ for the pressing team in a way that the earlier/higher up they win the ball back (inside the zone 2), the closer and faster are they able to reach the zone 3 to score a goal via counter-attack. The mentality here can be that if you press high and try to win the ball back as early as possible, you’re able to counter-attack from positions much closer to the goal which leaves a higher chance of eventually scoring from a positive transition phase.

Examples of coaching points can be: “Maintain compactness vertically and horizontally” – the importance of having proper distances between the teammates

Prevent opponents from progressing through central areas” – since the rule itself rewards progression through the centre, it implicitly alerts the pressing team to the need to protect this area, while the possession team sees the value in playing through it. 

The players closest to the ball decide the trigger, the rest adjust to the player and the ball” – in order to keep the team proactive, collectively creating and responding to triggers and moving together in relation to the reference points. The ball, teammate, space and opponent. 

Different triggers include loose touches, bad body positioning/orientation, side passes (that gain no superiority). Players should understand the concept of how these sequences can create potential advantages when defending, with the aim of recovering possession as early as possible.

With the coaches guidance coach and with periodisation, the team will increase its ability to work for longer periods in the game, which will lead to more pressing sequences and eventually better actions thanks to the improved physical fitness. In the exercise, the coach is, as explained, also able to help players understand the purpose of pressing, improve the collective spatial awareness. This will help as well as work on creating well-timed pressing actions and drive home the importance of being compact in order to most importantly: win the ball back!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Well put, thank you. Also, heads up, there is a paragraph or two that is in black font on a black background, cannot be seen unless it is highlighted.


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