Journalism student Billy Hawkins talks tactics as Beppe Sannino’s men look to adopt an Italian ideology
Arrigo Sacchi once defined his double-European Cup winning A.C. Milan side as proponents of three styles. Set in a rudimentary 4-4-2, the short distance between defence and attack resulted in naturally occurring pressing in the middle of the pitch, further aided by these three styles: total pressing, partial pressing, and fake pressing.
In Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, Sacchi stated: ‘There was partial pressing, where it was more about jockeying; there was total pressing which was more about winning the ball; there was fake pressing, when we pretended to press, but, in fact, used the time to recuperate.’ Whilst Beppe Sannino doesn’t have two European Cups, a Scudetto, and a Coppa Italia to his name, in the 3-0 victory over Leeds United he represented Sacchi’s ideology played out in the modern game.
After starting with a high level of intensity and going a goal ahead through a move started and finished by Almen Abdi, Sannino’s men sat deep. For a period of roughly 20 minutes they offered nothing in an attacking sense, choosing instead to weather any potential Leeds attack with a display of fake pressing.
Fake pressing – performing the art of pressing without using the high levels of energy required for the actual act – requires a constriction of space, rather than the intense closing down associated with real pressing. It can therefore be performed anywhere on the pitch, as the constriction of space results in a natural rigid pressing, rather than a singular player leaving the rigidity to confront the opposition, thus leaving exploitable space behind him.
Whilst groans from the crowd expressed a severe distaste at Sannino’s methods – with the overtly defensive play inviting the opposition to attack – the team held their shape well enough in the defensive phase to prevent any real chances coming to fruition.
As well as choosing to exert this style, Sannino is bound to what he inherited; if the rumours apropos squad fitness under Gianfranco Zola are to be believed, then the need for recuperation through fake pressing at Watford is large.
Although there has been an obvious increase in match preparation since Sannino’s arrival, he is still imposing his regime onto a squad unused to his methods. Over time – the remainder of this season, and the entirety of pre-season – as squad fitness improves, Sannino should be able to schedule to recuperation breaks to shorter periods, making them less obvious to the opposition, and easier to exit out of.
These three aspects have been the big negative of the current style of fake pressing; 20 minutes is too long a period to sit deep, allowing the opposition more time to find weaknesses in the system and exploit them. Although Leeds – suffering from the current off-field turmoil – offered an almost non-existent attacking impetus, against a better team Watford will be found out.
The third weakness of the current system is the naturalisation of style which occurs whilst fake pressing; or, the desire to continue sitting deep and leaving the ball to the opposition.
In the immediate period before Ikechi Anya doubled the lead, Watford had struggled to leave their own half, with long clearances being returned instantly, and short passes wayward and intercepted. Even the goal came about through misplaced passes, although it revitalised the team into playing the crisp football which characterised the earlier periods of the game. This gifting of the ball to the opposition – whilst part of the game plan – was committed too frequently to be beneficial, and Sannino berated his players whilst encroaching on the area of the pitch.
As mentioned last week, the potential for the final playoff spot has all but disappeared – although it is still mathematically possible – and it appears as if Sannino is using these final weeks to plan for next season. New signing Albert Riera experienced an almost complete 90 minutes, whilst Almen Abdi is slowly being introduced to a system he hasn’t played in before.
The positives are all there for next season, even if it is taking time for the players to adapt completely to their new system. So whilst this style appears as a mistake, Sannino is using the ideology of one of the truly great Italian managers as a focal point.
And that is something to be pleased about.