Assessing press intensity and press resistance in the National League.
We've all become familiar now with "Gegenpressing", the tactical style popularised by Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund and now synonymous with the German coach's Liverpool team.
Gegenpressing or "counter pressing" has quickly become a key feature in the modern game particularly here in the UK and if you think it's a tactic employed mostly by football's elite think again.
So far this season the average PPDA for teams in the top 5 leagues in Europe is 11.42. However in the National League, tier 5 of the English game the average PPDA for the same period is currently 9.18.
Confused? Well hopefully not for much longer.
In this article we will focus on the Vanarama National League and use Wyscout’s PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) and PPDA Against to assist us in providing examples of how the metric identifies those teams that have adopted a high press, those that appear resistant to it and how it can assist with player recruitment.
How is PPDA calculated?
All values recorded relate to actions in the final 60% of the pitch. In this zone, we calculate all opponent passes that started there and divide them by the sum of defensive actions (fouls, interceptions, won defensive duels, sliding tackles) of the pressing team and divide opponent passes by defensive actions.
For example 'Team A' accumulates 230 passes in their lower 60% zone during a match. Team B has 12 won defensive duels, 17 interceptions, 6 fouls and 5 sliding tackles in this area. This equates to 230 / (12 + 17 + 6 + 5) = 5.57 PPDA for Team B.
Essentially PPDA reflects how many passes in the opponent defensive zone the opponent can make per one challenge. The lower this number, the better the defending team is doing high pressing.
By contrast you can also look at 'PPDA Against' by making the same calculation for the opposing team.
A high press intensity would indicate a team that presses the opposition high up the pitch, deep in their opponents defensive 60% zone, with the intention to force a ball loss as quickly as possible. This results in their opposition having fewer passes before losing possession of the ball.
A high press resistance would indicate a team that has a patient, passing style of build up in the passing phases. This results in them completing more passes before losing the ball but may also indicate their opponents lack of pressing.
PPDA in The National League
Hopefully that has helped in understanding the philosophy behind PPDA so let’s have a look at how this translates to clubs currently playing in the Vanarama National League.
Data was collated on the 10th February 2022 and relates to league games only for the 2021/22 season.
We can see from the above that PPDA is represented by “Press Intensity” on the ‘x’ axis. PPDA Against is shown as “Press Resistance” on the ‘y’ axis.
The dashed lines through the middle of each axis plane represent the league average.
We should maybe look at a couple of the outliers and try to identify what sets them apart from the ‘average’ clubs.
Notts County have the highest press resistance at 14.56. This shouldn’t be a surprise because they currently have the highest number of passes and ball possession in the league, on average per game.
Even when pressed, in most cases County will stick to their philosophy of patient build-up play. This will see them switching play across the pitch two or three times to try and create spaces for them to progress the ball into areas that offer them higher value opportunities in the final third.
Another reason for their higher than average press resistance is the fact that they currently have the highest success rate in the league for completed progressive passes, progressive runs and deep completions so lose the ball less than other teams during an attacking phase.
Weymouth have the least pressing intensity allowing opponents over 12 passes on average when in their opponents lower 60% of the pitch.
This would be indicative of a team that rarely employs a high press and maybe prefer to set up with a mid/low defensive block. However, we should also consider the current league position which suggests the season has been a bit of a struggle for Weymouth. With 51 goals conceded so far in the league you might conclude that they often find themselves penned back in their own defensive third leaving their opponents unchallenged and with more time on the ball.
We are now building a better understanding of how PPDA offers a fundamental insight into a teams playing style. Do they press with high intensity to force a turnover of possession, do they defend deep, happy to allow their opponents time on the ball knowing they have an effective defensive shape which allows them to essentially ‘park the bus’?
A clubs playing style, shape and philosophy will have an impact on their PPDA numbers. If a team is averaging a low PPDA this would indicate that they regularly employ a high press and a more direct style of play, whereas a high PPDA would indicate they are happy to defend deep and not employ any press on their opposition.
Again, looking at the National League chart above we can probably deduce that Woking play with a reasonably high press intensity, however they appear to allow themselves to be pressed as well stringing together just under 6 passes per attacking phase on average.
Stockport County display impressive numbers for both PPDA and PPDA Against. Could this suggest that good PPDA numbers tend to relate to the level of success experienced on the pitch as well as league position?
Well there is an argument to suggest this could be true. Stockport, Chesterfield, Wrexham, Solihull, Halifax, Grimsby and Notts County all have above average press resistance and are all currently in the mix for promotion.
The visuals below show the PPDA and PPDA Against for every club in the National League.
A Tactical Perspective
How could this type of data be useful in helping a side prepare for a game?
One example might be considering how press resistant a side is. If the opposition are considerably press resistant (Stockport for example), it might make little sense to knowingly just battle against it and hope for the best.
Stockport again provide another insight into the intricacies of PPDA. In their recent 1-0 win at home to league strugglers Dover Athletic they recorded a ridiculously low PPDA of just 2.69 with Dover recording an uninspiring 13.23 in return.
Was this because Stockport were just way too good for Dover on the day or was it down to intense pressing by the Lancashire outfit? Well a quick look at other key indicators would suggest that Stockport had nearly all the possession, had nearly 600 passes to Dover's 106, played with a much higher tempo and had 24 shots compared to 2 shots for their opponents.
It becomes clearer that this wasn't simply a case for press intensity but more to do with the overall shape of the game which clearly suggests some relentless defensive work from Dover, who on the face of it defended deep, allowing Stockport much more time on the ball than they might usually get.
Essentially this was a game were one opponents press was non-existent and time on the ball came more in the way of interceptions, clearances and unsuccessful long passes than possession.
As we delve deeper we can also now see how interrogating the data further might give you some insight into how to best work against a side that maintains possession well and recovers possession quickly.
Is there, for example, a period within games when their PPDA is at its highest? Does this indicate the optimum offensive opportunity? Where and when does press intensity reduce in efficiency? Does individual player data highlight a particular player who cannot maintain the pressing intensity of their teammates?
As with the Stockport versus Dover example it is important to question the data too. Or have access to someone who has witnessed the opposition first hand. If, for example, a side has faced a number of teams operating a mid or low block, their own PPDA Against figure might be deceptively high when, in reality, they’ve just been allowed to pass the ball about in the entry point of their defensive 60% of the pitch.
With this in mind we can maybe look back at Woking who we mentioned earlier. Their high press intensity and low press resistance might in fact be an indicator for a team that employs a more direct style of play. It should be noted that direct doesn't necessarily mean going long, a direct team will purely look to get the ball into the oppositions final third as quickly as possible, much like Klopp's Liverpool.
In some cases a team might choose not to (or have the time/resources) to interrogate the data too minutely, instead deciding to apply a particular tactical shape to counter-act the press intensity.
A low defensive block, for example, full in the knowledge that you will be conceding possession but hopeful of pouncing on lapses. Using data can also be purposeful here, too. Selecting your own side with a skillset of defensive duels won and impressive distance run per game/recoveries could help counter the threat.
If your own side lacks the ability to retain and progress the ball against such an opponent, breaking play with fouls and utilising offensive set pieces might be a way to undo a side with impressive PPDA/PPDA Against statistics.
What about PPDA and Player Recruitment?
Clubs could always use this data to identify potential ways to improve a side, and search for subsequent data to find them. Should Woking or Boreham Wood find, for example, a player capable of maintaining their press intensity through distance covered, recoveries etc. but also has the pass completion record to improve their own press resistance, they may have their heads turned.
When looking at the data it is interesting to see so many clubs on the cusp of breaking into the high press resistance/high press intensity group and, with a few key additions, could achieve a playing approach that currently accounts for 50% of the National League’s top eight sides (15 Feb '22) with Notts County, Dagenham and Bromley possibly needing to increase their press intensity to follow suit.
That’s not to say that high press resistance is guaranteed success, as Chesterfield ably demonstrate with an average PPDA Against of 8.92 yet have a goal difference of +26.
Seeing how they adapt to the unfortunate loss of Tshimanga, either tactically or through recruitment, will be interesting and you might expect to see their PPDA pattern change as it evolves to accommodate a replacement or change in playing style and/or shape.
On the face of it the teams having more success on the pitch appear to have superior PPDA metrics, but as we have seen this could be a bi-product of these 'better' teams being able to adapt and impose themselves on a game more than their opponents.
Finally, you might argue that measuring PPDA is an important factor to be considered, especially when undertaking any kind of opposition analysis. But as with all data you have to analyse it in context and in conjunction with visual aids such as video and an opposition analysis scout report to ensure your findings provide a final output that is both accurate and objective.