What do Jurassic Park and a hockey press have in common?

By Simon Orchard

Let’s talk about press, baby…

The first round of the Sultana Bran Hockey One league is in the books and already it’s fascinating to see which pressing strategies are being used by each side.

For the uninitiated, a ‘press’ is the defensive structure and tactics employed by the team who doesn’t have possession of the ball in order to win it back.

The ‘stack press’ is currently in vogue and as the name suggests, it’s formulated by three or four stacks of players lining up in defensive rows across the field. The idea behind the stack is for individual defenders to guard a patch of space on the field instead of a particular player.

The purpose? To encourage the opposition to pass the ball into a particular area of the field where the pressing team can apply immense pressure from several different angles.

Two strikers typically set the ‘stack’ by positioning themselves on or close to the halfway stripe and in line with the opposing fullbacks. They are supported by stacks of players in behind (usually two rows of four equally spaced with a goalkeeper at the back).

When the ball moves side to side, the ‘stack’ moves together – like a school of fish gliding around the ocean in perfect harmony.

When the ball goes into the middle of the field however, the ‘stack’ imitates the notorious Malachi brothers from Happy Days and crushes the ball carrier from all angles.

Being an opposition midfielder against a stack press is a bit like being Robert Muldoon in the first Jurassic Park movie (he’s the guy that gets hunted down by the velociraptors). Just when you think you know where all the opposition players (raptors) are, one pops up and nabs ya. Clever press.

Energy is conserved by players not straying too far from their zone and not chasing opponents up, down and around the pitch.

It’s a style championed by the Belgian national team and is currently being used by several of the clubs in the Sultana Bran Hockey One League.

But there are other methods to call upon.

When I walked into the Kookaburras setup in 2007, coach Barry Dancer was intent on mixing things up. He had several styles of press that were all initiated by a key word.

A ‘pointed’ press saw a centre striker setup in the middle of the field while slowly edge his way forward, waiting for the opportune time to split the passing lane between the two opposing fullbacks. Once the fullbacks were split, the centre striker would chase and pressure the ball carrier, herding them towards a waiting defence. The Brisbane Blaze men did this to the Tassie Tigers quite a bit in Round 1 with success and it’s a good way to keep the ball away from the more dangerous of the two opposition fullbacks.

The ‘fallaway’ press involved the defensive team falling back into its own half to either protect a more condensed area or to regain structure and composure.

And the ‘surprise’ press (not the most imaginative of names) involved the team running back towards halfway looking disinterested. Once the opponent saw our lack of intent, often they would relax. That was the queue to attack.

I liken the surprise press to the first time I went for a surf in the ocean. There I was at age 14, enjoying what I thought was a pretty flat day in the breakers.

There were no waves in sight so I decided to lay down on my board and catch a few rays. Unbeknown to me the next set was building momentum. Before I knew it, bombs away! Within seconds I was upside down, my face was scraping along the sand and my boardies were down around my knees.

That’s how I imagine teams felt when the ‘surprise’ press hit them. Blissfully unaware that their pants were about to be pulled down.

After the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Dancer retired and Ric Charlesworth took over. With the change of coaching personnel came an alteration of pressing tactics.

Oppositions were forced to adjust from the sporadic and uncertain nature of Dancer’s pressing system to a full scale blitzkrieg under Charlesworth.

Charlesworth’s teams put the opposition under constant pressure for the duration of the contest. Remember that scene in Bad Boys 2 where Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith) grill 15-year-old Reggie ahead of his date with Marcus’ daughter? That’s what a Charlesworth press felt like the first time you ran into it. Stressful as hell!

Several immediate ‘rules’ were instilled in the playing group to ensure we had a rough blueprint for success.

A player always had to ‘man the mark’. That’s a footy term here in Australia and it meant a player (usually a striker depending on the location of the free hit) would stand five metres away from the opposition free hit to apply immediate pressure. This soon evolved into ‘working the mark’ and required the player in question to spring side to side with an active stick in the hope of eliminating any easy passing lanes through the centre of the field.

Midfielders were told to be ‘IFIT’ or ‘in front and in touch’. Being in front of our opposition number denied our opposition easy ball along the ground into the centre of the field, and being in touch meant we were close enough to them that if an aerial ball was thrown we could recover back in time to quell penetration that way.

There was always a spare defender patrolling the middle of the field and he was often on the ‘hotline’ between ball and goal. Depending on the aerial threat of the opposition player taking the free hit, he’d push higher or sag deeper up and down the field. Mark Knowles filled this role mostly and there were games where he got more touches than a beer fridge on Boxing Day, such was the success of the press higher up the field.

Once the ball was mobile, the team would move too and there were two main ideas behind the method.

Firstly, no one loves being put under pressure and back when games were 70 minutes long, it was a hell of a long time to be constantly under siege. The weight of our sustained attacking press often broke teams’ resolve and we starved opposition midfielders and forwards of any meaningful ball.

And secondly, we wanted to turn teams over in our attacking half to create easier goal scoring opportunities against lesser numbers. We also wanted to avoid having to play through congested fall away defences if we were to instead win the ball back in our own half.

The downsides to a full press – it’s hard yakka and can leave your deepest defenders alone in a lot of space with their opposite number.

Ultimately there’s no right or wrong way to press as long as each individual in the team thoroughly understands the team’s purpose and their role within it. As the Sultana Bran Hockey One League continues, keep an eye out for how each team is pressing their opponents.

Any coach worth their salt (n-peppa) should have all of these systems and structures in their pressing playbook and a great team will morph seamlessly from one press to another without missing a beat.