Collingwood's press has developed over many generations

Pressing Issue

Friday, September 09, 2011

By Peter Schwab
AFL Director of Coaching

Finals time is again upon us and as much as the discussion turns to the players who can light up the big stage, it's just as common to hear commentators and punters measuring one team's game style - and game plan - against another.

The biggest talking point is the 'Collingwood press' and how teams will counter it. But far from being a new phenomenon, the modern press has developed over many generations of the game.

The basic philosophy is simple - come up with a defensive structure to make it hard for the opposition to either use the ball cleanly or to find a teammate in space.

Variations have been used to great effect by a number of teams through history. John Kennedy’s Hawthorn teams of the 1960s and early '70s would crowd the centre bounces to provide their champion full-forward Peter Hudson space up forward while taking advantage of the team's physicality around the ball.

The next, more sophisticated tactic from a defensive position came after Robert Walls, when coaching Fitzroy in the early 80s, introduced the kick-in huddle. Players would gather in a tight group about 40-50m from the kick-in and then spread to provide the kicker with plenty of options.

This tactic initially caught teams out as Fitzroy players easily gained the necessary break, often through teammates blocking opponents who were instructed to play man-on-man at kick-ins at this time. The Lions players would run into the open space created out wide by the huddle formation, receive the kick-in and play on.

Today, coaches would respond to such a tactic in one quarter by adopting a countering manoeuvre, but in less sophisticated times, Fitzroy was able to get away with it for more like a month before the kick-in zone defence was developed.

The initial kick-in zones were players corralling the huddle but morphed into the basic 3-4-5 zone. There was little change to that zone structure for a very long time before it evolved into an 18-man press today.

Flooding entered the vernacular and the game in the 1990s and was seen by many as blight on the game. Many purists called on the League to introduce rule changes to combat it.

North Melbourne coach Denis Pagan created a form of flooding termed 'Pagan's Paddock', in many ways set up to suit their champion centre half-forward Wayne Carey, but Pagan had experimented with it years before when he coached North Melbourne Under 19s.

Pagan described the Paddock concept simply, "We employed a three-quarter ground squeeze on the opposition where we'd push the half-forward line up into the midfield and then the full-forward line became the half-forward line. We'd kick it over their heads into space inside our forward 50m so our forwards could run on to it."

Pagan said there were variations to the structure and it was not always focused on providing an advantage for Carey.

The basic counter to this tactic was to keep an extra player back covering space. Carey said too often he was double-teamed and the space was left open anyway.

Rodney Eade, when coaching the Sydney Swans, used the confines of the SCG in a similar was to Pagan, which wasn't surprising as he had spent time as an assistant at North Melbourne. Eade similarly moved players up a line when the opposition had the ball in an endeavour to block their space - and he also had a champion forward in Tony Lockett.

Eade says the players took the initiative and pushed up harder than he anticipated, so it got to the stage where nearly the entire team was back in their defensive half of the ground.

The advantage was it stifled the opposition's chances of finding players free inside forward 50m, but it also made it difficult for the Swans to score themselves, as it required a high work rate to dash back the other way. The smaller SCG lent itself a little more to this tactic.

Terry Wallace, when coaching the Western Bulldogs, famously manufactured a game plan based on the flood to inflict Essendon's only loss in 2000. The Western Bulldogs started at least eight players in their defence at every centre bounce, with the wings pushing back immediately.

Following the bounce the ruck and centre player would quickly zone back. The half-forwards pushed up and the Essendon forward line was constantly zoned with up to 15 players from the Bulldogs.

Some say Wallace took the idea and extended it from his basketball background, I also believe he had asked coaches from US sports when he visited how they would play our game. Either way the tactic frustrated the Bombers and when the game was in the balance he reverted to a more normal set up and the Bulldogs recorded a great tactical victory.

Having watched that match and scheduled to play against the Bulldogs the following week, Hawthorn was able to plan how it could best combat the tactic should the Dogs use it again.

A key was not to bomb the ball, but to find the spaces inside forward 50m and be patient. We also thought if we could score early and apply scoreboard pressure it would force the Bulldogs to change as the tactic didn't allow them to score quickly. All went to plan and we won the match.

Hawthorn's Alastair Clarkson created the rolling zone or cluster in 2008. It was an extremely effective tactic, catching his opposition out, and with limited planning time in-season they found it hard to combat. It was a big factor in the Hawks' surprise premiership victory over Geelong.

In essence players remained within a 70m radius from the ball, no matter where it was on the ground. They compressed the field by forming multiple defensive zones, putting themselves in a position to close down their opponents.

When they won back possession they were in a great position to rebound quickly as they had effectively already spread because of their zoning. This also allowed them to switch the play quicker.

In reality this remains the forerunner of the forward press that St Kilda 's Ross Lyon was the first coach to really refine, but it was picked up and used to greater effect by Collingwood in their 2010 Grand Final victory, ironically against St Kilda.

The biggest difference between Clarkson's rolling zone and today's forward press is that Hawthorn didn't close down the player in possession as quickly or as aggressively, and the next line of players now comes up in a wave of defensive pressure much more quickly than they ever did in the rolling zone. Finally the players across half-back and on the open side of the press are very quick to fold back if teams penetrate or switch.

St Kilda's Sam Gilbert and Sam Fisher have been very good at using their pace to re-adjust within the press, as are Collingwood's Harry O'Brien and Alan Toovey. These players ensure the ball doesn't get through the press and out the back where opponents have clear runs toward goal.

Collingwood captain Nick Maxwell is a great reader of play and is able to readjust constantly, although he works best at stoppages when he pushes back to defend in front of the opposition's key forward at just the right moments.

There is no doubt that to play a good forward press you need a very disciplined team who know their position and how to hold it or adjust it well, and then attack the player in possession at the right time and with speed; they can do this with confidence as they know they have back-up support.

The forwards have also become much more defensively-focused and are incredibly important in holding the ball inside their forward line to create turnovers, stoppages, or at the very least slow the ball movement. Carlton's speedy trio of Eddie Betts, Jeff Garlett and Andrew Walker are excellent at this type of pressure.

Hawthorn has innovated again in 2011 in an attempt to combat the press - kicking the ball shorter and maintaining possession, keeping the press working and spreading until they can find an opening, and then utilising a fast break into an open forward line or at the very least to dangerous positions.

In soccer terms they would call Hawthorn's style 'circulation' - the retention of possession by passing from player to player without taking unnecessary risks.

The interesting aspect of Hawthorn's recent game against Collingwood was to see how the Hawthorn tactic would stand up. On that day Collingwood's pressure saw the kicking precision of some of the Hawks' younger players falter.

Sitting outside this has been a Geelong team whose pinball wizardry and speedy possession game mesmerised teams - until Collingwood's press and pressure saw the Cats' high possession game unravel in last year's preliminary final.

The Cats have regrouped in 2011 and while they still play a high possession game to great effect, they are more defensively-minded, without applying the press to the same degree as Collingwood, Carlton or West Coast.

None of this is as new as it seems. Take this from a book written in 1957 titled Soccer Tactics, A New Appraisal: "Correct positioning in defence entails the double responsibility of keeping on the goalward side of the immediate opponent and being within striking distance. While preparing to tackle, the defender needs to shepherd the opponent, moving him away from the danger zone, or into an area packed with players."

As I noted, the press is not that new: perhaps it's just an old ploy with a new title. 

No comments

Comment on this story

* - required field