Training idea: Counter-pressing practice inspired by Maric and Nagelsmann

Patrick McLaughlin
8 min readJan 1, 2023

This is a game inspired by practices from Rene Maric and Julian Nagelsmann, both of which are detailed below. Counter-pressing is an important focus each of their teams and they both use very similar drills to work on this area. I took ideas from both and added mini-goals to give the practice slightly more direction and increase engagement for the players involved.

The Maric Practice

Structure

The area is approximately 30x30–35m, split in to two zones with two teams of 7–9 players. Each team is assigned a zone in which to try and keep the ball. The defensive team is outnumbered, as two players remain in their own zone.
If the defensive team wins the ball, their aim is to transfer the ball into their own zone, either by dribbling or passing. The team that has lost the ball should try to prevent this.
If they successfully transfer the ball, all players move over to the other side, including the defenders with the exception of two players who remain in their own zone.

The Nagelsmann Practice

Structure

Taken from a video posted by Albin Sheqiri on twitter (a must follow), Nagelsmann’s practice could act as a progression to Maric’s.

Set up on a bigger pitch of 45x50m, now split in to four zones. Each team is again allocated one half of the pitch split by the black line, where one player from the defensive team remains. As the game is a 9v9+1, the team in possession still has an overload of 2.

Rules:

- Players are limited to two touches
- When the defensive team wins the ball, they look to transfer possession across the black line, just as in the Maric practice.
- If the in possession team plays five passes in one zone, they must switch play across the red line

Link to the session on twitter: https://twitter.com/albinsheqiri/status/1415932938500386816

A variation of both

The area size is 40x32m, so slightly less square than the ones above and two mini-goals are added at each end. Both team are again allocated one half each to attack in, split by the black line. The defending team are still outnumbered, with two players remaining in the opposite half, but now defend the mini-goals, which the attacking team look to score in.

Rules:

- If the defending team wins the ball, they must transfer it across the black line
- If the attackers play five passes in one zone, they must switch it across the red line
- After a change of possession, a minimum of four passes must be played before a goal can be scored

Scoring:

- Goals = 1 point
- Goals within 3 touches of a switch across the red line = 3 points

Explanation

All three practices require players to counter-press effectively, in order to prevent the ball being transferred to the other team’s half. Alongside quick reactions in transition, players will also need to consider their ‘Rest Defence’ — the shape they take up while in possession to prepare them for the transition. They must have players positioned in a way that they can regain the ball quickly should they lose it, either by pressing the ball or cutting off passes to the other half. The exact configuration will of course depend on numbers and pitch size, but having players on or close to the half-way line is a must. In a game counter-pressing effectively allows teams to sustain attacks, by preventing counter-attacks and regaining possession.

Although Maric and Nagelsmann’s practices are directional (in that players are defending to stop the ball moving across the black line), the reason I added goals was to emphasise this further. As the level I coach at is lower than theirs, I felt that providing a clearer pitch reference for players would improve understanding. The defending team will still try to regain possession as quickly possible, but must now do so while also having to defend the goals behind them. This will likely cause them to cut off the space in front of the goals and defend forwards from there. Attackers now have to attempt to break down the opposition, rather than just keep possession, as well as maintaining a structure that allows them to counter-press quickly if they lose the ball (Rest-Defence). Requiring a minimum of four passes before scoring allows time for the defending team to recover to their defensive half of the playing area and organise themselves. The attacking team should look to organise their rest-defence as quickly as possible, but should be encouraged to retain the ball for more than four passes rather than attack if they have not done so, to ensure they are appropriately prepared for a defensive transition if they lose the ball. This is the same premise behind Pep Guardiola’s “15 pass rule” when building up attacks.

To avoid players standing directly in front of the mini-goals, the goals can be moved back from the edge of the pitch or a small area can be added in front of them which defenders cannot enter. It is possible to keep score in the Maric and Nagelsmann practices, by awarding points for a certain number of passes, however the addition of goals makes this a lot easier. While counting passes as a means of scoring can be useful in some practices, where possible I prefer to avoid it as having a target to try and score in is more realistic to a game. I’ve also found that goals, whether big or small, often improve player engagement.

Counting goals within 3 touches of a switch across the red line encourages the attacking team to draw the opposition players to one side of the pitch, before switching quickly to a player in space on the far side (‘Overload to Isolate’). Playing short passes with an overload on one side of the pitch will naturally lead to good rest-defence as, should possession be lost, the counter-pressing team still has numerical superiority around the ball and the pressing distances will always be short. Care must be taken with the pass that switches play as, should this pass be misplaced, it will be very difficult to counter-press due to the lack of numbers and potentially longer distances, as shown below.

Requiring the goal to be within 3 touches of the switch encourages the attacking team to choose their moments to switch, only doing so when there is an immediate attacking opportunity, rather than just moving the ball from side to side without purpose. The 3 touches can be shared across two players, but should still result in quick goals.

Here are some possible variations and the impact they would have on the practice:

Narrowing the pitch

One variation to make the practice slightly easier for the counter-pressing team would be to narrow the pitch in the middle, making it an hourglass shape as shown below. This decreases the space for the counter-attacking team to transfer the ball to the attacking half, by forcing the in-possession team to keep their deeper players central and improve their rest-defence. For the counter-attacking team, this pitch shape will also likely lead to more diagonal passes, as shown.

Reward central passes in transition

Something of an in-between for this idea and the original is shown below. A blue gate is added in the centre of the pitch on the half-way line and a rule is added that if the counter-attacking team passes through this gate then goes on to score from that attack, the goal is worth an extra 3 points. This implicitly encourages the in-possession team to have their rest-defence protect the centre of the pitch, without forcing them to do so. This is also more realistic to a game, as a pass through the centre is more likely to be dangerous than one straight down the wing and should therefore be the focus for the counter-pressing team.

Extra point for a diagonal switch within two passes of winning the ball

A guide I have used for players when coaching attacking transitions is that one of the first two passes after winning the ball should be long. After they have given the ball way, the opposition players will naturally move towards it, often leading to an overload. The longer the ball remains in this area, the more likely they are to regain possession, so a long pass out of this pressure should be found as soon as possible. To encourage this in the practice above, a point can be awarded for playing a diagonal switch within two passes of winning the ball, crossing both the black and red lines. The counter-pressing team should look to delay this, reacting quickly to cut off the deepest passes.

After winning the ball, two passes must be played before transferring it

Another variation to reduce the difficulty for the counter-pressing team. For the exact reasons discussed previously, the longer the ball stays in the half where the counter-attacking team is underloaded, the less likely they are to keep the ball. By requiring a certain number of passes before a transition, the counter-pressing team has longer to regain possession. I would only use this if the teams were really struggling to counter-press as it doesn’t instil good habits for the counter-attacking team, but it could also be useful for younger age groups. Even if your focus is on the counter-pressing, it is important to not limit the realism for the counter-attacking team too much.

Coaching points

In Possession/Counter-pressing

- Rest defence structure
- Aggressive press and cut off passing lanes after losing the ball
- When to be patient in possession and when to be aggressive
- Overload to isolate

In Possession/Counter-attacking

- Play one of the first two passes long after winning the ball
- Movement of deep players to find lanes to receive the ball

Out of Possession

- Forcing play when defending, to prevent oppoosition switches of play across the red line
- Compactness to defend the mini-goals

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