There is no doubt that football has transitioned, like most things, in the last three years or so. The football that managers such as Sam Allardyce enjoy to implement is dying out– replaced by braver, more modern football. Yet, one aspect of that so-called modern approach that is becoming more and more of a vulnerability is football’s high-line.
It is a tactic with plenty of benefits, that’s undeniable, but do the positives outweigh the negatives?
Football’s High-Line: Tactical Genius or Flaw in the System
What is a High-Line?
Essentially, a high-line is when a team’s back line push up as high as possible, attempting to catch the opposition offside and, in-turn, suffocate them with an offensive press.
The tactic is meant to limit space for the opposition to manoeuvre. It is meant to pin the opposition against the wall, flood their half so that, when they do win the ball back, it comes straight back to the team implementing football’s high-line, who are camped in the half.
If implemented correctly, it can dismantle the very best of teams, just ask Manchester City. On the other hand, one misplaced player could lead to a goal at the wrong end. Liverpool are prime examples of how well the tactic can work, just look at last season. But they are also at the centre of what can go wrong when using the tactic, just look at this season.
How Liverpool Showed the Positives and Negatives of a High-Line
As alluded to before, Liverpool are no strangers to a high-line. They’ve expertly combined it with a ‘gegenpress’ in the past to dismantle all of the Premier League’s top six. The pace and tactical awareness plus sheer ability of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez ensured the tactic worked.
That stability allowed fullbacks Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to bomb forward without hesitation. That, plus the cover of Jordan Henderson, kept the league-winning system ticking over. Strip that stability away, however, and replace it with inexperience and a lack of tactical know how, and things can soon go very wrong.
Without the usual stability, the all-out press has turned rather passive. Yet the high-line still remains. When playing a high-line, there is a simple rule. If you are going to press, go for it, do not implement a passive press which allows the opposition time to pick the perfect pass into the depths of space left with a high-line- especially if one of your central defenders is no longer Van Dijk.
Yet Liverpool have consistently made the same, costly mistake. It was exposed against Real Madrid, Newcastle United, Fulham and plenty more. The tactic allowed one of the best passers in world football in Toni Kroos to pick a pass with relative ease over the top of the exposed high-line.
The press that day was non-existent. They shot themselves in the foot. A week later, they finally learned their lesson. They suffocated the Madrid midfield, but failed to take their chances and were dumped out of the competition. The same story then haunted them against Newcastle.
Bayern Munich Also Vulnerable With a High-Line
Like Liverpool, Bayern Munich have also suffered the effects of implementing a high-line in one of football’s best competitions: The Champions League. The first rule of what not to do with a high-line has been explained. The second? Don’t use it when coming up against Kylian Mbappe- especially if it is already a weakness of yours.
Hansi Flick found this out the hard way. Mbappe and PSG destroyed them on the counter-attack. For all of the possession of Bayern Munich, all it took was one PSG ball in behind to dismantle the Germans.
Defensively, they’ve been far from their best this season. For the most part, goal-machine Robert Lewandowski has helped them to victory. He wasn’t around against the Frenchmen, however, as their weakness was exposed for all to see.
Pep Guardiola: Becoming the Master of Football’s High-Line
Guardiola and Manchester City, themselves, are no strangers to being exposed when playing a high-line. Adama Traore and Raul Jimenez took them apart at the Etihad last season as Wolves took the three points. So change was needed. And change is exactly what Ruben Dias has brought.
The Citizens are back to their ruthless best. On the ball, they can turn the game into a marathon for the opposition. Off the ball, their weakness in defence is no longer there. There is no longer a way out for the opposition. Instead it is attack after attack after attack from City until they find their goal.
With each switch of play, they tire the opposition more and more before the inevitable goal. Many believed that PSG and Mbappe would expose that high-line once more, in a similar way to how Stuart Dallas and Leeds United did not long before the European clash.
But that was a wake-up call for Pep Guardiola. Since then, it seems he has eradicated any flaw. In the Champions League clash, Kylian Mbappe failed to even have an attempt at goal; any attempt at a counter attack was easily squashed.
PSG may have taken the lead, but City continued to probe, to tire the Frenchman before finally finding the two goals necessary to take the lead. They implemented football’s high-line and used it as a foundation to suffocate PSG with a ruthlessly executed press. That game was a prime example of what happens when a high-line and press combo works to perfection.
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