Building an attack against a high press


Up to full pitch


Balls, bibs, cones, 4 mannequins, 2 full size goals

No. of players

20 players + 4 goalkeepers

Session time

Free man to progress: 15mins, Build-up against a high press: 15mins

The build-up phase can be defined as the process of progressing the ball into the opposition’s half. In modern football, more teams than ever want to build attacks from their goalkeeper, and in turn more teams than ever are looking to counter this by pressing high.

The development of the new goal kick rule coincided with the arrival of Pep Guardiola to English football, and this particular phase of the game has increased immensely. As more teams build short, the question is posed to the defensive team: do you press high or retreat back?

My topic here is based on the idea that the opponent has chosen to press high to stop ball progression and win possession back.

One key thing that I ask players to consider is around the concepts of ‘opportunity’ and ‘risk’. Of course, there is naturally a feeling of risk in build-up play, but this is anxiety-inducing language. Instead, I reinforce with the players that if we build well and break through the press, we have big spaces to attack between and behind the opposition lines. By doing this we can create high value attacking situations. So therefore, this moment is really an opportunity for us, not a risk.


We set up on half a pitch coned off to a width of 40 yards, with a full size goal at each end. We position four mannequins in a central zone marked out across the width of the playing area. We’re using 10 outfield players and two keepers split into two teams of five. Each team has three defenders and a keeper in the end zone it is defending and two attackers in the end zone it is attacking, meaning the defending team has a 4v2 overload including the keeper.

Players are restricted to three-touch in their own end zone but can have unlimited touches when attacking in the opposition’s end zone. Play starts with the defenders combining with the goalkeeper in order to progress the ball beyond the mannequin line. The two opposition attackers press the ball high, in order to win the ball and score. In the diagram below [1], the full back is free and dribbles through the central zone. The free player will change depending on how the red attackers decide to press. The exercise is designed so the blue team have to understand which of their players are free to progress with the ball. When a blue player dribbles through he makes it a 3v3 attack against the three defenders and the goalkeeper in the opposition’s end zone.


1. The three blue defenders and the goalkeeper start play by combining at the back
2. The two red attackers press high and try and win the ball
3. The combination play leaves the blue right back free from the press and after receiving the ball from the keeper, he dribbles through the central zone
4. The blue defender and the two blue attackers now go up against the three red defenders and try to score

Once the attack has played out, the defender recovers to his original position and the attack is now run in the opposite direction, with the opposition building play from the back in a similar fashion.

We play for 15 minutes, using two different groups of 10 players simultaneously on adjacent playing areas.

What are the key things to look out for?

The emphasis is on the process of positional play to get one man clearly free to progress the ball up the pitch. Good technique is important in ensuring the passes are made with the correct weight and accuracy. We also want to see players using efficient and simple build-up play from the back, with clean, fast, quality passing.

When attacking in 3v3 situations, we want to see good receiving skills, imaginative combination play
and inventive movement off the ball.


We’re using 20 outfield players split into two teams. We set up on a full pitch with a goal and a goalkeeper at one end. In the defensive wide areas, pressing traps are marked [as shown] to give the red team a tactical emphasis for their pressing. At the other end, a funnel-shaped penetration zone is marked.

For the blues, the aim is to attract the reds forward, take advantage of the space created and arrive in the penetration zone behind the red defence to receive.

In the example above [2a], the pressing red team allows the blue centre midfielder enough time to receive the ball on the half turn and quickly exploit the space in behind the defence with a lofted pass
for the left winger to run onto.


1. The goalkeeper plays short to the left centre back who recognises the central midfielder has space to turn
2. The red centre midfielder is slow to press, allowing the blue centre mid to turn and exploit the space in behind the defence with an angled, lofted pass to the left winger in the penetration zone
3. The blue left winger scores a point by receiving the ball in the penetration zone

If the reds succeed in winning possession, they quickly counter-attack the goal. The reds have the incentive of double points if they force the blues into the wide pressing traps and regain possession before scoring. I do this because almost every team tries to force you out wide with your build up play.

If necessary, we use a varied starting position determined by the coach, meaning that we can start the move from any position on the pitch. For example, we may start with a pass to a different outfield player in order to change the dynamic of the press.

In the next diagram [2b], the red defence has dropped deep to avoid leaving space in behind and the front six have pressed man to man, leaving space behind the midfield for the blue attackers to drop into in order to receive the ball from the keeper. This is a common example of what could happen if the red defenders are reluctant to squeeze up with the pressing front players.


1. The goalkeeper plays a lofted pass to the right back in the pressing trap who turns back to retain possession
2. If the reds win possession, they can counter attack against the blue team
3. With the reds pressing high, the right back plays it back to the centre back to keep possession. The centre back then returns it to the keeper
4. The striker drops into the space to receive a lofted pass from the goalkeeper and plays forward for the winger to run onto and receive the ball in the penetration zone to score a point

If the ball goes dead, the play resumes from the goalkeeper and the emphasis is on the blue team to sprint back to the starting build-up positions in quick transition, as shown [2c].


1. The blue team loses possession following a misplaced pass going out of play
2. The blue team must then recover by sprinting to the starting positions ready to receive the first pass from the goalkeeper to restart play

We play two seven-minute games. I like to reinforce to the players the fact that it is the opposition taking the ‘risk’ by pressing high, rather than us by playing out from the back, as by pressing high the opposition are opening space for us to exploit.


  • Ball movementBall movement
  • Player movementPlayer movement
  • DribbleDribble
  • Optional movementOptional movement