Mourinho lying low as rivals put their faith in high press

Following the traditional ‘slamming shut’ of the transfer window, albeit at the markedly un-traditional time — before a ball has been kicked in anger — attention can now turn to how teams will line up and not to what gaps still need to be filled.

Mourinho lying low as rivals put their faith in high press

Michael Hayes

Following the traditional ‘slamming shut’ of the transfer window, albeit at the markedly un-traditional time — before a ball has been kicked in anger — attention can now turn to how teams will line up and not to what gaps still need to be filled.

For some, the rush of deadline day is another layer of intrigue to the Premier League season, but for fans of Chelsea and Arsenal at least, what is happening on the training pitch may arouse even greater curiosity.

In Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery, two clubs vying to reclaim a coveted Champions League place have put their trust in two Premier League novices. Joining an already illustrious list of managers and head coaches in the top-flight, both will hope to make an impression on their players and fans alike.

For the Arsenal faithful any change is welcome, while Sarri has already won fans for his intentions to play on the front foot.

The former banker has endured a slightly chaotic pre-season with his predecessor Antonio Conte taking the opening sessions before his departure was confirmed, and the Thibaut Courtois debacle was a distraction any new manager could do without.

The late arrival of players who featured in the World Cup and the earlier transfer deadline have also cast doubts on his ability to quickly transfer his “Sarriball” style of play onto the pitch.

But when even Pep Guardiola is an admirer of your style of play you must be doing something right.

It is expected that the Italian will employ the same 4-3-3 formation that worked so well at Napoli, discarding the three at the back that led Chelsea to their last Premier League title two seasons ago.

His Napoli team were renowned for the intensity in their play, pressing high and harrying opponents into mistakes, but their attacking play was just as scintillating.

Eden Hazard will revel in the fluid front three and new signing Jorginho has already mastered Sarri’s brand of football. The late loan acquisition of Mateo Kovacic represents an upgrade on Tiemoue Bakayoko and a midfield of Jorginho-Kovacic-Kante could work very well.

Despite ultimately losing out to Juventus in last season’s pursuit of the Scudetto, Napoli thrilled with a style of play that married possession and intricate passing with lung-bursting high pressing when without the ball.

Emery will similarly provide a breath of fresh air at the Emirates and has not had the pre-season disruptions of his Chelsea counterpart. Arsenal have augmented their squad well in the transfer window, with reinforcements at the back and in Lucas Torreira the defensively-minded central midfielder that they have long been crying out for.

Emery is markedly the Arsenal head coach as opposed to the manager however, with Ivan Gazidis placing recruitment in the hands of Raul Sanllehí and Sven Mislintat.

Like Sarri, Emery is likely to dispose of the back three that Arsene Wenger persisted with last season in favour of a more dynamic 4-2-3-1 formation, and has already emphasised playing with intensity and hunger when not in possession.

Alexandre Lacazette has already spoken both of the change in approach and its benefits to the team, with the head coach focusing on “high pressure and positioning”.

The former Sevilla coach is known for his meticulous approach on the training pitch and three-hour video sessions, an approach that is likely to reap dividends on an impressionable and open squad more than the ego-driven dressing room of PSG.

Joining the likes of Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp, Chelsea and Arsenal are just the latest in a number of Premier League teams who favour the high press, forcing mistakes from the opposition high up the pitch and rushing the opposition out of their own style of play.

Their style of play with the ball may differ, from Liverpool’s frantic transitions to the numerical overloads and hypnotic passing of Manchester City, but without the ball all five coaches demand a fierce work-rate from their players, tactical discipline and team-wide organisation.

The high press may appear haphazard, but at the highest level it is a coordinated attack on the team in possession, targeting loose balls and isolated players where maximum damage can be inflicted.

Of course any discussion on the top six clubs can’t go by without mention of Manchester United and Jose Mourinho, a man whose success was built on a more patient and passive defensive style.

In sharp contrast to his closest competitors, Mourinho is happy to invite teams to attack, absorbing pressure deep in United territory.

His dismantling of peak-Barcelona with a workmanlike Inter Milan side in 2010 remains the benchmark for this style of play, and so much time has now passed that it is only right to question its effectiveness as other playing styles have evolved.

Victories since the turn of the year at home to Liverpool and away to neighbours Manchester City show the low-block defensive dog will still have its day, but grumblings over the style of play at Old Trafford suggest Mourinho would do well to get off the bus and get on board with the high press favoured by so many others.

Michael Hayes is editor of thegegenpress.com

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