Tactical Analysis maestro Tom Dent returns this week with a look into Strømsgodset's performances this season & how their pressing game is helping them pick up some crucial points already in 2020. However, there are still issues to be addressed by Henrik Pedersen & his team in order to avoid another battle against relegation this season.
Having already highlighted issues with Aalesund, Valerenga & Rosenborg this year, Tom takes a look at some ways this Strømsgodset side may become exposed during their intense pressing play. It's worth noting that since this piece was written, Henrik Pedersen's side picked up a crucial home win vs. Brann in the most recent midweek round, a game that highlighted both praise & concern from Tom raised in this article.
by Tom Dent
Henrik Pedersen won many plaudits at the back end of the 2019 season for not only keeping Strømsgodset up, but by doing it in a proactive style. His team pressed high up the pitch, making the opposition feel uncomfortable, and punishing mistakes that came as a result. It was believed that with a full pre-season under his belt, Pedersen could get the physical levels up to a point where his pressing style could become even more efficient. 10 games in to the season and Strømsgodset sit 9th in the table with a record of 4 wins, 3 draws & 3 defeats.
Heavy Metal Football
There are 2 quotes from Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp that typify the benefits of a well-oiled and effective pressing game. In an interview with the BBC while at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp described his team’s style of football as “heavy metal football.” Football that was full energy, full intensity, and high octane with all the unpredictability of a Jimmy Page guitar solo. Fast forward to a Monday night football appearance on Sky Sports in England and Klopp went one further to say that a team with a pressing trap was “the best playmaker a team could have.” His rationale was that if you win the ball while the opposition was in their build up phase you could take advantage of the opposition not being in an organised shape. This pressing trap was seen as just as good as the best playmaker in the world at unlocking a team in a low block. This identity and ideology landed in Drammen in May 2019, with Henrik Pedersen and Strømsgodset
During the 2020 season, Strømsgodset have so far set up in a diamond 1-4-4-2, with 2 out & out strikers, a deep midfielder, 2 box-to-box midfielders and a “10” behind the strikers. It has been utilized to allow the strikers to press as a pair and the 4 central midfielders to overload the central areas, “snapping the ball” should a team look to play centrally. By having 2 strikers, it means that any counter attacks that begin around the midfield line will allow these 2 strikers to threaten behind immediately, leaving space for the number 10 to come in and take the space made vacant.
When it comes to Strømsgodset’s press, it begins with the strikers. They press the central defenders to prevent the pass out to the full backs, and lead them towards the available central defender, where the second striker is lurking ready to pounce.
Lars Salvesen and Moses Mawa, the two strikers, fit the bill perfectly for this setup, as they have speed and repeated sprint qualities that mean that they have the intelligence and physical capabilities to start the pressing. To close the full back option, the strikers create a funnel through their body shapes, which forces play down the centre of the pitch where the four central midfielders have locked on to the options down the middle and are waiting to steal the ball.
Upon regaining the ball, this now means that 3 players are ready to counter centrally high on the pitch. The details with this press are vital, as if the body shape of the striker is wrong, or the distance between the players are too big, the team will be exposed as the opponent will now have numerical superiority and therefore will control the situation against an unbalanced team.
Of the 11 goals scored by Strømsgodset this season, just under 50% of the goals have come in transition:
The above table shows that the method Godset are using is creating good returns and that the way they are setting up is bearing fruit in terms of goals. As the clips before showed, they are coming to scoring situations and taking to them. Their xG over 10 games is 15.7, with an output of 11 goals, meaning that they are coming to chances and are currently underachieving with the total amount of goals. This is best seen against Molde and Rosenborg, as they had chances in the first half that certainly Lars Salvesen should have done better with. Nevertheless, Strømsgodset from an attacking sense are getting chances and it should be a matter of time until they match up with their xG stat.
The Return of 'Vending Av Spill'
If you remember my first piece about AaFK, you will remember that I highlighted that the tactical problem facing Lars Bohinen was that if a team switched the play, it left the wing backs exposed and likely 2 vs. 1 against the full back and winger.
Unfortunately, the same trait has started to be exposed with Strømsgodset and Pedersen. The challenge when you have a pressing trap as mentioned above, is that you are reliant on the trap being present, and therefore pressure on the ball at the right times. However, without the trap set, it is clear from the tactical setup that there is space on the wings for opponents to expose if they 'VAS' (vending av spill, or rather switch the play).
This has become particularly apparent in a 'null tilstand' situation (1st and 2nd ball) moment, such as a goal kick, as should you win the first ball against Strømsgodset whilst the second ball can be played wide and therefore cause Strømsgodset to become unbalanced:
The other challenge, as highlighted above, is that the press is a fantastic weapon when successful, however, if the opponent gets out of the press, or goes over the press (plays into the backspace), then it can expose individual flaws to players defensively 1v1/2v1 as Strømsgodset tend to be unbalanced. If you look at how Strømsgodset have conceded their goals this season, this picture is painted even further:
It is important to highlight that some of these transition goals are from when Strømsgodet have tried to press, but the opponent has found a way out and therefore caused Strømsgodet to become unbalanced. Either way, it is a clear flaw and a problem that will need to be addressed by the coaching staff to find a solution in how to avoid teams attacking them in the wide area. This could be through the use of tactical fouls, similar to ones we have become accustomed to seeing in the tactics of Manchester City, whereby they can nullify that attack and reset the trap without exposing any more space.
Also, with an xG by the opponent currently at 17.7 goals after 10 games, this is a little below the 19 goals they have actually conceded. However, it is still too many goals conceded in relation to the level of chances Strømsgodset themselves have created and the question of risk vs. reward might need to be asked. Even Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp adapted and evolved their press so that they press less often, but gained more success when they did.
The other worrying fact is that they are conceding many goals from set pieces, 42% in fact, and while it would be easy to say that the best way to not concede goals from set pieces is to not give set pieces away in the first place, a high octane pressing style isn’t always easy to control body motion. The defensive strategy isn’t therefore just about the collective, it is about reading the situation and committing to regain the ball. The set piece weakness was also something that early Klopp at Liverpool were criticized for, but they adapted and evolved to a point where in the 19/20 season they barely conceded from set plays.
It is important that when we talk about this Strømsgodset team and their playing style, that we have to take into account the effect the enforced break with COVID-19 had. It was common knowledge that with Henrik Pedersen pre-COVID, the amount of training and intensity of the sessions was very high: double sessions, a lot of sprinting and a lot of work on the press.
But, the enforced break when Strømsgodset put their players on some sort of furlough, coupled with the training restrictions, meant that the affects from January to March were lost. The short “pre-season” before the season properly started wasn’t enough time to catch up. Couple this with the first four games being played in 11 days + a total of 10 games in 39 days, it does not give Strømsgodset enough time to recover fully both physically and mentally, while being able to maintain the quality of their pressure that they wish for 90 minutes. This is showed in the following table:
This should be a major concern for Henrik Pedersen. Notice the amount of goals that are conceded in the last 15 minutes of each half. Nearly 60%! While there is no question that his pressing style has brought success and can be something that can work in the future, the build up into this season has been both the longest and the shortest ever in equal measure.
The start of the season has also had the highest saturation of games any league has experienced before, so the lack of preparation physically has caused the team to suffer. To be clear, this is not because of the amount of games, because with at least three days of recovery inbetween matches it is possible to still be at 100%. However, the ability to be able to maintain the quality of the press over enough time has been compromised, as the preparation and physical build up to the season was once tailored to a 'normal' season and not the condensed schedule we are seeing now. Therefore, Pedersen is having to condition the players in-season, which is difficult because of the psychological affect the games have on the player (the feeling of winning games compared to losing).
The three game weeks will not allow the player to improve their total number of quality actions, because they will only just about be able to recover from the previous game. Therefore, trying to stretch the number they can do while trying to win a game of football, never mind the travel load and other external factors, mean that repeating the high quality of pressing actions throughout this period just isn’t possible. This means that the number of these actions are less for each game, so it is no surprise that Strømsgodset have not won any of the 'third games' they have played this season when playing three games in seven days, particularly in the last five games as accumulated fatigue has set in.
In conclusion, there have been many positives that Henrik Pedersen has brought to Strømsgodset and he was key in keeping Strømsgodset up last season. However, the extreme circumstances that Eliteserien teams have had to face coming into this season has meant that the team are somewhat on the back foot.
When the pressing traps have worked, they have been a big weapon for Pedersen and co., but the fact that they are most susceptible to conceding goals in the last 15 minutes of each half mean that they have a short term decision to make regarding how they make sure they are not sucked into a relegation battle this season. Henrik Pedersen must now act fast to avoid the exploitation of the space on the wings and recover the freshness and quality of pressing from the players. Failure to do so could lead to further fatigue related injuries, or a playing style that has a lack of clear cohesion.