Pressing is a much-used and much-discussed feature of modern soccer, as clubs around the world adopt the tactic of pressurizing the opponent high up the pitch and/or immediately after losing possession.
Major League Soccer, with its often packed schedule and sometimes long-distance travel for away games can present extra challenges for teams that want to partake in this high-intensity, high-energy style of play, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.
New York City FC is probably more associated with a possession game than a pressing one, even though there have been instances in the past when pressing and counter-pressing have come to the fore. But as we will see, teams are able to carry out both of soccer’s defining tactics within the same system.
On the face of it, the team from across the Hudson River in New Jersey are the best pressing side in Major League Soccer.
Data from FBref shows the Red Bulls lead the league for total pressures — defined as the number of times applying pressure to an opponent who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball. This particular stat is one of the ways we can measure a team’s pressing. If players are regularly closing down the opposition in the manner defined, there’s a good chance they are using pressing as part of their overall tactics.
The Red Bulls press heavily in the middle and attacking thirds, showing they use this tactic as an attacking weapon, even though it mostly happens off-ball. Philadelphia Union and the Red Bulls aren’t too interested in keeping the ball. They know their biggest strength is pouncing on opposition errors high up the field before launching quick, direct attacks to take advantage of the other team’s transition from attack to defense — that’s when the opposition can be at their most susceptible and lacking defensive organization.
This is why Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp, perhaps the highest-profile advocate and proponent of the pressing and counter-pressing game in world soccer, once stated that: “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.”
Liverpool are an example of a team who dominate possession while also producing high-volume pressing off the ball. In MLS it appears that you can’t have it both ways — you can’t be both a pressing and possession team like Liverpool. But dig deeper and you realize NYCFC are making a go of it.
In 2021, Taty Castellanos made the most attacking-third pressures in MLMS with 348, which put him 83 ahead of the next highest, Maxi Urruti. But in 2022, NYCFC’s pressing volume as a team has dropped. In 2021 they were fifth in the league for total presses in the attacking third — the area where the pressing can be at its most useful as an offensive weapon. In 2022 they dropped to 17th.
Looking at attacking-third pressures per 90 minutes (a way of measuring stats on a per-game basis rather than totals) gives us a better idea of how the volume of pressing has dropped. It’s gone down from 41 attacking third pressures per 90 minutes in 2021 to 35 this year. Castellanos has dropped from 11.4 to 9.73.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean they are no longer a pressing team. The amount of possession a team has in games naturally affects their pressing totals: If you have the ball, you can’t press.
In 2022 so far, City averages 59.9% possession, putting them second in the league behind San Jose Earthquakes. This is up from an average of 53% possession in 2021. This could explain the drop in pressing volume, and considering the Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union are in the bottom three for average possession, you see why they are able to rack up such numbers off the ball. When you don’t have the ball, you can press plenty.
You can only press when you don’t have the ball
To really find out whether New York City is a pressing team, we need data that show pressing intensity relative to possession. Seeing that you can’t press when you have the ball, we need to know how much is a team pressing in those moments when they don’t have the ball, and only those moments.
Luckily, there is a stat on Wyscout that measures “passes allowed per defensive action” (PPDA). It does what it says on the box: PPDA counts the average number of passes the opposition makes before the other team applies some kind of defensive action. In this case, it takes the number of opposition passes and divides it by NYCFC’s number of defensive actions.
And the definition of a “defensive action” (possession-winning duels, tackles, interceptions, fouls) is similar enough to the definition of FBref’s “pressures” stat to give us an idea of how much a team is pressing, while removing possession from the equation.
NYCFC allow the fewest passes per defensive action in the league, which shows they are not letting the opposition pass the ball much before applying pressure. It also shows they are still a pressing team. More to the point, according to this metric NYCFC are the most active pressing team in the league.
Though their total pressures have dropped, their PPDA stands at 7.67, meaning on average they are only allowing the opposition around eight passes before making some kind of pressure or intervention. The Red Bulls allow the second-fewest, with an average of 8.02 (Union are 7th on 9.41). This is also an improvement on NYCFC’s 8.76 PPDA in 2021.
There is another stat on Wyscout that measures “challenge intensity”. This counts how many defensive actions (defensive duels, loose ball duels, interceptions, tackles) a team does per minute of opponent possession.
NYCFC come out on top again with an average of 7.3 defensive actions per minute of opposition possession (an increase from 2021’s average of 6.3). San Jose Earthquakes are second with an average of 6.7, Red Bulls third with 6.6.
Like PPDA, this stat only takes into account the moments in the game when NYCFC don’t have the ball, giving a more accurate reading of the amount of pressure they are applying to the opposition.
So, is New York City FC a pressing team? Yes. Maybe even more so than last season.
FBref can also tell us that the pressing has been more productive in 2022. New York City have a “successful pressure” percentage of 31% (fourth in the league) compared to last season’s 29% (13th) — a successful pressure is when the team win the ball back within five seconds of applying pressure. It appears the pressing game has remained the same during the transition from Rony Deila to Nick Cushing, although the sample size for Cushing is small.
No measure of pressing is perfect, but this data gives us a good idea of what’s going on off the ball. Though NYCFC’s total pressing volume has dropped, this has a lot to do with their increased amount of possession in games. When they don’t have the ball, they are applying more pressure on opponents than they were last season according to this data.
We are just over halfway through the season, so intensity levels off the ball could change as the year progresses, but lowering the volume of pressing while also increasing how effective that pressing is should set them up well in the long run, making this part of their game more economical in a physical and taxing league.