Aggressive pressing and direct football: How Čukarički are challenging for the Serbian SuperLiga title – tactical analysis
After a long period of irregular top-tier football, Čukarički was newly promoted back in 2013/14 from the second division to the Serbian SuperLiga. Since then, they managed to finish four times in the third spot, always behind Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade. They even qualified for UEFA Europa League‘s first rounds and only finished once in the ‘relegation group’.
Former AEL Limassol manager for five seasons, Dusan Kerkez, filled the vacancy in the Belgrade team. With one of the youngest squads, he has taken Čukarički to the second spot in the league table, one point behind Red Star Belgrade, playing fun and interesting football from a counter-pressing and direct possessions view.
The 4-2-3-1 has been the favourite for Dusan Kerkez at the start of the 2022/23 campaign. Nevertheless, formations in football in the past years have only become numbers and a systematic way to see the teams’ lineups. The roles assigned to each player are what matters on the pitch today. And we can see this concept in the Čukarički team, with such mobility from their players.
One of the keys of Čukarički’s game is the high-pressing they deploy on the grass from the first whistle of the referee. Normally, when you think of direct-football philosophy, the first idea that comes into your mind is a low or mid-block, waiting for turnovers of the opponents because they can’t find space between the lines or to get into the area. However, Čukarički try to get enemies to very dangerous areas with their high and counter-pressing philosophy, forcing defenders, goalkeepers or midfielders to make a mistake and give the ball make to them.
In this example, we see Čukarički playing away to Voždovac, where they apply a mixed high-pressing where wingers mark centre-backs, the centre-forward man-marks the pivot, and one midfielder lifts up on the pitch, in this case, Marko Docić, that is aware of the opponent midfielder and wing-back too, Dorde Ivanović shadowing the other midfielder, and Nikola Petkovic looking to intercept an attack from behind. Only one player is man-marking someone, and the others are marking zonally, waiting to pull the trigger if a mistake is made.
When the ball is played, Čukarički try to force it all the way back to their defenders or goalkeeper, with a counter-pressing style, suffocating the rival players on the ball, with one or two men following and marking him.
In the next case, we see the ball has been played, but Kerkez’s side force them to get it back to the goalkeeper. The centre-forward switches target in this situation and he follows the goalkeeper almost in a 1v1 duel. The left-winger is aware of the LCB and the LB, Ivanovic shadows their pivot, and Owusu goes for the RCB. In this occasion, the pressing was successful, and they made the keeper play a long ball, intercepted by concentrated and proactive midfielder, Nikola Petkovic.
After a turnover from a teammate, the counter-pressing is on almost every time that player that has lost the ball is coming back, with a lot of intensity and determination, to try and get the ball back and start a new attack for their team.
Vladimir Lučić has lost the ball after trying to dribble past their opponent in the picture below. After that, he latches an intense press, accompanied by three teammates around the rival midfield, who are waiting to see the following action, and we can see also Nikola Petkovic (down in the picture) who’s zonal-marking and lifting up his position in the pitch, if the ball is robbed, to start a counterattack.
Another situation we can see in the high-pressing moments from Kerkez’s side is when they have to pull the trigger. After a slow back-pass is made to their goalkeeper, Badamosi accelerates and almost catches him, forcing him to execute a bad long-pass that was intercepted by Marko Docić, to then pass it to Lučić, who finds space to latch a strike on target, saved by the keeper.
But what’s interesting in this example, is that when the trigger is pulled, players like Petkovic (right-midfielder) or Owusu (right-winger), pinned rivals to block options and force these second-plays that Čukarički are better prepared (positionally and numerically) to win.
After twelve games this season, Čukarički is the fifth-best team in the Serbian SuperLeague in terms of PPDA (Passes per defensive action). They allow 7.74 per 90. It is true that in certain moments, this is a very risky idea to play, and some of their weaknesses are seen when the counter-press doesn’t work, and rivals find space behind the first line of pressure.
Is also true that players can be out of batteries in some phases of the game, and they slow down the pressure or in other matches, they’re not in the need to go up front to grab the ball. However, when it works, you get the ball a few meters away from the rival penalty box, which can be turned into a goal within 5 or 10 seconds.
As a team that averages 35 to 45% of possession in each match, their build-up phase is based on first-touch passes, mobility between the spaces, runs in-behind of every kind, striker pinning centre-backs and pivoting, long-balls behind full-backs, or diagonal balls from midfielders to wingers. These are the kind of things you see repeatedly at Čukarički when they’re on the ball.
A few things were kind of interesting to see on their direct possessions. One of them was that almost every attack happens from the right side of the team, and with through balls from the right-back, Miladin Stevanović. The 26-year-old was one of the standouts as we see in the picture below, which shows one of his clinical balls to the penalty box where Nikola Petković has made a clear run to attack that space.
This was one of the trademarks from their build-up: The runs to the box by 19-year-old right-midfielder Petković, and the execution from the back, almost every time by the right-back.
Centre-backs are always looking to get the ball through the middle, breaking the high/mid-block the rival are displaying against them. Dorde Ivanović has a very functional role, in which he locates where the ball is. If the ball is on the left side of the pitch, as the picture below shows, he’s going to try and make a passing option for the holder of the ball at that zone, in this case, left-centre-back, Darko Puškarić.
As told before, another blueprint we can see in the Serbian side is the diagonal balls from centre-backs to wingers.
Another time, we see left-centre-back Puškarić taking the responsibility in possession, where he has seen right-winger Samuel Owusu very wide and shooting a long-pass looking for it to land in that zone. The idea when these passes are made is to try to control it and pass it quickly (or make a headed-pass) to the midfielder that is appearing in the half-space in front of them, to then carry the ball forward.
Although, they’re not always playing wingers that wide. Owusu is a very important player in Kerkez’s system. He has the ability to make chaos and disorder in the opponent’s defence with his skill, pace and agility on the ball. He tries to cut inside when he receives the ball and then carries it to the other side of the pitch, where Vladimir Lučić sits, almost very wide.
Sometimes he offers himself in the half-space, very low on the pitch, almost as a right-midfielder. When Čukarički wants to be more dominant in possession, this is a situation we get repeatedly.
The image below shows what we are explaining. The striker has left his zone, and Owusu has dropped off as a right-midfielder, leaving all the wing to the right-back, and Ivanović (the closest player to Owusu) is making the run to the space Badamosi (striker) has free behind him. Another way of building up possession, also in a direct way, but moving some chess pieces to find better and new spaces.
When you’re a direct football team, you have to dominate your rest-defence and also your defence-to-attack transitions. Čukarički has shown to be a very intense side, so when they robbed the ball, they attack like never before, with several runs from their teammates from everywhere, offering tons of passing options.
Here Čukarički was in a forced low-block situation, Samuel Owusu has dropped to make his part and tackle the opponent player, he wins the ball back and Puškarić makes a run to carry up forward. He sees the run from his forward and executes a through-ball to create a 2v2 situation, that ended up in a cut-back pass from Ivanović to Badamosi, where the centre-forward found the net.
Here we see another type of transition, where Samuel Owusu has taken the striker place, as Badamosi had dropped to support defensively his teammates. The right-winger stayed up to create these kinds of moments after Ivanović robbed the ball and execute a beautiful pass to the pacey right-winger.
Čukarički are very rapid in every phase of their game, even in the attacking one when teams close all lines possible down, they find a way to break them down, and it’s all because of their speed and one-touch elaborations in front of the goal.
Dorde Ivanović and Mohamed Badamosi are two vital players in this part of the game. As one is very intelligent to play as a ‘10’, the other one leaves his zone to drop and pin defenders, also helping the team with one-touch passes that he performs very quick. Ivanović finds pockets of space behind the rival midfielders line, and the build-ups in the attacking phase accelerate by a mile. He has the ability to turn and connect with wide players or midfielders in front of him that could strike a one-touch pass to their wingers/full-backs.
This is a thing we see often – Ivanović, Petković or Docić executing these kinds of passes to their full-backs, looking to get them into dangerous positions and find a teammate in the penalty box with a low, cut-back cross.
We also can see the surprise factor, Nikola Petković, stepping into these kinds of zones in the penalty box, trying to connect with a teammate to score easily. This time he finds it, but the pass was too quick for the forward.
FK Čukarički are a very impressive side, which mixes good experienced players, with some at their peak, and others starting their careers. All of them are guided by a coach who has been doing things quite well in past years, and he’s bringing it to the Belgrade side. With some areas of improvement like defending lateral crosses, set pieces and some failed counter-pressing moments, Kerkez has displayed so far a team that can fight and be tactically smart with what he and his staff are asking.
Only one point behind common leaders, Red Star Belgrade, with only 12 games played, he has enjoyed quality performances like the breakout season of Badamosi, loaned in from Belgium Pro League‘s KV Krtorijk, scoring 9 goals in 11 appearances. N’Diaye helping from the bench, the recent signing from Asian Al-Fayha, Samuel Owusu’s (called one of the 10 best players of the league) pace and intensity, the order and determination of his double-pivot Petković/Mijailović-Docić, the young and fresh legs coming in from the bench, or the commitment of absolutely all the squad to attack, press, defend and try their best to win. They could be on their way to making something special.