As Tottenham were picked apart Sunday by Liverpool, first carefully, then giddily and ultimately rampantly, it was pretty obvious that the major issue was their high line. There was limited understanding between Michael Dawson and Etienne Capoue, and their lack of pace made it easy for Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson to burst into the space beyond them.
But that was only part of the issue: A high line is fashionable these days, and it works better with at least one rapid centre-back. But it also requires work from the midfield, something neatly explained by the former Brazil centre-back Marinho Peres.
Peres was a tough and physical player who projected an aura of authority. Yet in the second phase of the 1974 World Cup, he was so unsettled by the pressing of the Netherlands that he smashed an elbow into Johan Neeskens' jaw. This was a type of football he hadn't experienced before, and he admits now, he felt so suffocated by it that he panicked and lashed out.
A few weeks later, Marinho joined Neeskens at Barcelona, managed by Rinus Michels, who had been in charge of the Dutch national team. At first, he was nonplussed.
"Michels wanted the centre-backs to push out to make the offside line," he explained. "In Brazil, this was known as the donkey line: people thought it was stupid. The theory was that if you passed one defender, you passed all the others. But the Dutch players wanted to reduce the space and put everybody in a thin band. The whole logic of the offside trap comes from squeezing the game. This was a brand new thing for me. In Brazil, people thought you could chip the ball over and somebody could run through and beat the offside trap, but it’s not like that because you don’t have time."
It took Marinho time to adapt.
"In one training session," he recalled, "I pushed up, and we caught four or five players offside. I was pleased, because it was still new to me, and I was finding it difficult, but Michels came and shouted at me. What he wanted was for us then to charge the guy with the ball with the players we had spare because they had men out of the game in offside positions. That’s how offside becomes an offensive game. If when we got the ball like this, we couldn’t create a chance, the defenders dropped back and made the pitch bigger. It was all about space."
Tottenham’s failure, both at Manchester City and on Sunday, was not so much the high line as playing a high line without pressure on the ball. Between them, according to stats on WhoScored.com, Tottenham’s midfield trio of Sandro (then Lewis Holtby), Mousa Dembele and Paulinho made a total of five tackles and one interception. For Liverpool, Joe Allen alone made eight tackles and two interceptions. The pressing simply wasn't aggressive or organised enough, and so, Liverpool could pick their passes at will.
What’s intriguing is that Chelsea suffered something similar under Andre Villas-Boas, with John Terry cast in the Dawson role as the committed but slow central defender left exposed by his midfield: think of Terry’s struggles in Chelsea’s 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal in October 2011.
The question then is why, and that’s rather harder to answer.
Pressing is difficult: It requires discipline, application and can be exhausting. Is it that Villas-Boas is incapable of organising his sides to press properly—although he seemed to have few problems at Porto or at times last season—or is it that players lose faith in him, something perhaps stimulated by the reported abrasiveness of his personality and thus reach a point at which they lose the will to press?
Either way, it’s an issue that needs addressing in his next job.
All quotes obtained firsthand.