The halfway point of the season offers a good opportunity to take a step back and study the league table in greater detail. The sample size is large enough to highlight and explain any trends with confidence and every team has usually had the chance to compete against all other teams in the league. One tactical facet that can be investigated and described with the use of data is a team’s pressing intensity and efficiency. Many of the top sides in Europe in recent years have employed high, intense pressing in their tactical styles such as Champions’ League winners Bayern Munich and Liverpool, but, increasingly often, more teams are also finding success by defending deep and quickly counter-attacking when in possession.
A key pressing metric that has gained popularity in recent years is Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA). This metric measures the average number of passes made by the opposition team in their own half before a defensive action is made by the team without the ball. A defensive action can be an interception, tackle or a foul. A lower value for PPDA suggests that the team without the ball are pressing high up the pitch with increased intensity whereas a higher value implies that they are instead sitting back and holding their positions as the opposition progresses the ball towards them. By looking at the PPDA metrics at this stage of the season, it is possible to get an idea of how each team chooses to play without the ball in most instances.
The bar plot below displays PPDA values and league positions for each Ligue 1 team as of the end of Matchweek 19. Due to scheduling issues caused by the effects of the pandemic this season, Marseille had only played 17 league matched at this point, Lens and Nice had played 18 matches, and the remaining sides had played 19 each.
An initial observation from the bar plot is the slight positive relationship between PPDA and league position. Although there are some noticeable outliers, it is clear to see a general rise in PPDA as the league position increases/worsens. To a certain extent, this trend is expected, as the stronger teams in the division generally push high up without the ball whereas weaker teams are more likely to sit back and defend deep. However, this relationship between PPDA and league position isn’t perfect and there are plenty of outliers in the plot which confirms that a high intensity press doesn’t exactly guarantee that a side will perform well in the league.
With a value of 7.75, PSG hold the lowest value for PPDA at this stage of the season. Since Mauricio Pochettino has only managed 2 of the 19 league games that this data is based on, it is still a suitable representation of Thomas Tuchel’s influence on the side. Both managers have a reputation for a high intensity, high-pressing style of football which demands every player on the pitch to work hard. However, in a recent pre-match press conference, Leandro Paredes was asked how things have changed under the new manager: “The intensity in training has certainly gone up compared with what we were used to. As I said earlier, the ideas are different.” His response suggests that Pochettino’s tactics require an even higher level of work-rate and intensity from his players. Despite already displaying the highest intensity pressing in the league, PSG could become even more aggressive in their efforts to win the ball back as the players become comfortable with the new manager’s tactical style.
On the other end of the scale, Montpellier were responsible for the highest PPDA of the 20 Ligue 1 sides, with a value of 15.86 after their first 19 league games. Despite displaying the least intense pressing in the league, Montpellier have enjoyed a good start to the season and ended up in 8th position at the time of writing. Manager Michel Der Zakarian chooses to set his side up in a solid defensive structure without the ball and the 3 attacking players will rarely press the opposition defenders, preferring to sit back with the rest of the team. The team stays compact with the attackers dropping back and occupying the centre of the pitch, making it difficult for the opposition to build through the middle. The graphic below displays the average positions of the Montpellier starting 11 in their 2-1 win against Lyon early this season.
The deep defensive shape is clear to see, and Montpellier even played with the extra man for the majority of the 2nd half thanks to Houssem Aouar’s red card before half-time. Throughout this season, Der Zakarian has set his team up in what could be considered a “low block” with a good amount of success.
Despite the top 6 clubs displaying most of the lowest PPDA values in the league, there are a couple of examples, further down the table, of teams with low PPDAs that have been less successful in their overall performances. Nice and Saint-Etienne sit 13th and 16th in the Matchweek 19 table, respectively, while their metrics suggest that both sides attempt to win the ball back in the opposition half with an above-average level of urgency. However, intense pressing does not always correlate to efficient pressing, and overall team performance can’t be defined by only one metric. According to FBRef, Saint-Etienne make the 2nd highest number of final third pressures per 90 in the league, another metric that suggests a focus on high intensity pressing. Along with the PPDA value of 10.12, it is fair to conclude that they are a side who like to play aggressively and with intensity, but they are a side that ranked 15th for goals scored while also conceding a high number of goals from set pieces and ranking poorly for individual errors as well.
Monaco rank impressively for both PPDA (9.08) and Successful Pressure Percentage (43.6%) which suggests that they employed one of the most intense, but also efficient presses in the first half of the season. The graphic below displays their average positions in a 4-0 win against Bordeaux in November.
In contrast to the earlier graphic of the Montpellier average positions, the high defensive line utilised by Monaco, along with the advanced positions of the two forwards, underlines the aggressive tactical approach taken by the team. Their opponents were forced into making a number of errors and giving away numerous free kicks in dangerous positions, including an error from midfielder Yacine Adli which led to Monaco’s second goal, and was the result of some efficient closing down from the Monaco forward players.
On the whole, PPDA does not tell the full picture but it can still be a useful metric when studying the pressing intensity of sides. Although high intensity does not necessarily correlate with a high efficiency, it is no coincidence that the top sides in the table all display the lowest PPDA numbers in the league. The likes of Marseille and PSG, who both have a reputation for utilising effective presses, are responsible for the two lowest PPDA values which reinforces the association that has been placed between PPDA and a successful pressing system. In contrast, Saint-Étienne have struggled so far this season, despite their similar pressing metrics. The overall performance of a team, with and without the ball, is built on more than just one aspect of the tactical style and teams such as Angers and Montpellier are examples of alternative styles that can still produce successful results. It will be interesting to see how the distribution of PPDA values adjusts at the end of the season, whether it be due to a new manager, a shift in objectives or the effects of new signings.