Watching Barcelona playfully demolish Arsenal on Tuesday night made it seem like there were no potential downfalls to playing a high-intensity pressing game all over the pitch, especially in the opposition half. On the rare occasions that they lost it, the Catalans had the ball back within moments. Villa, Pedro and Messi were all over Arsenal’s defence when they were in possession, and in the unlikely event of the ball advancing any further, Iniesta, Mascherano and Xavi stepped in. Arsenal’s failure to register a shot-on goal tells you that Barca’s interventions were 100 percent successful.
Playing a pressing game in a fifth division encounter in Germany against a team that beat you 7-1 earlier in the season is a little bit different, but, if well executed, no less effective. Step forward Tennis Borussia Berlin (TeBe), who held joint top of the table Rostock II to a battling 1-1 draw at the Mommsenstadion on Friday night, using a mixture of good organisation, discipline, blood, sweat, tears and a no small measure of good luck.
The men from the Ostsee found little space to play football right from the off, with TeBe’s Beyazit Taflan more than willing to chase down causes so lost that his actions practically redefined the concept of optimism. To his credit, his ability to accelerate from a scamper through a gallop into an outright charge in seconds often forced the Rostock defenders into panicked errors and created a couple of half-chances for the home side. His movement off the ball and trickery on it made him, excuse the pun, difficult for the Rostock defence to stick to.
One of the main disadvantages of playing a pressing game is that your constant hassling and harrying of the opposition requires you to be in very close proximity to them. Therefore, when you do manage to finally dispossess them, you don’t have any space to effectively redistribute the ball (unless, of course, you are Andres Iniesta and you’ve just dispossessed Cesc Fabregas on the edge of the area after an ill-advised backheel). So even though TeBe managed to stifle the life out of Rostock’s attacking play, thanks largely to Manuel Zemlin’s combative domination of the midfield, the game was in danger of turning into Oberliga Nord trench warfare, with neither team able to make any appreciable advances into the opposition half.
While TeBe’s best hope of a goal was from a set-piece aimed towards the head of big Yann Nkanga, right-winger Onay Tokgöz’s penetration in the second half was helping to open the game up. In the end, it was a combination of a set-piece and Tokgöz’s opportunism that lead to the opening goal. A free-kick pumped forward from midfield was headed clear to the youngster at the edge of the box, who took a touch before rifling it home into the bottom right corner – an outstanding finish, and a lead deserved if not for the effective creating of chances, but for effectively denying them.
Alas, the pressing game has another disadvantage that Barcelona didn’t allow us to see last week. Since they’re alright at passing the ball, they don’t have to do much running in trying to get it back. TeBe, however, lack an Oberliga equivalent of Xavi, and therefore can’t force the ball to do the running for them. Constantly snapping at opposition heels and occupying space like air into a vacuum is both physically and mentally draining, and the tiredness was beginning to show.
With 25 minutes left to play, Rostock II introduced Max Kremer and Marcel Kunstmann, two attackers, and their fresh legs made an immediate difference. The visitors were suddenly finding space, and 10 minutes after their introduction, the substitutes linked up for the equaliser, Kunstmann heading home after TeBe-keeper Konstantin Filatow parried a Kremer shot into his path.
The floodgates threatened to open, especially after Mateusz Trachimowicz’s red card, but TeBe held on for a point. The situation is still dire – three points separate TeBe from safety, with fellow relegation battlers Altlüdersdorf next on the agenda for the Veilchen. However, if they can reproduce the discipline, determination and flickers of skill shown in Friday’s encounter, there may just be enough time before June to haul themselves out of the relegation dogfight.