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What campaigners can learn from football

Informed consensus has the tactic of pressing as one of the defining features of modern football [1]. An innovation attributed to Viktor Maslov, coach of Dynamo Kiev in the 1960s, pressing is the chasing and harassing of players in possession to win the ball or to at least stop them having time to pick a productive pass. The Ajax side of the 1970s – three-times European Cup winners – and the AC Milan team of the late 80s and early 90s – two-time winners of the same competition – are considered prime examples of sides whose success was based on pressing. The tactic is now universal in application among leading domestic and international teams.


There are some fairly obvious parallels that can be drawn between pressing and campaigning: a desire not to allow your opponents the opportunity to 'dictate play' and a wish to control the tempo of the 'game' and the 'territory' on which it is fought.


Indeed, the analogy can be extended to the very act of campaigning: before the adoption of the tactic of pressing, footballers of the 1950s and early 1960s would enjoy having nobody close them down; likewise, the politicians of the day could take decisions outside the public eye and beyond the scrutiny of a media generally used only to serving up the gentlest of questions. Campaigning has diminished the space available to the powers-that-be, 'compressed the game' that they play in pursuit of their own interests and forced them to be more responsive to the actions and needs of 'the other team', their citizens.


In the elaboration of the concept of pressing by Arrigo Sacchi, coach of AC Milan from 1987-91, the lessons for campaigning become even more interesting. Sacchi's teams switched between three types of pressing:

  • total pressing, that is, pressing the opposition everywhere on the pitch;

  • partial pressing, that is, pressing the opposition at lower intensity and / or pressing only in your own half; and

  • fake pressing, that is, pretending to press while saving energy.


Campaigners face a choice as to what level of intensity their campaigns should operate to and which form of 'pressing' suits each campaign best. This will reflect an analysis of strategic opportunity and internal capacity – what it is possible to aim for and what energies are available.


Total pressing

  • footballing aim: winning the ball

  • campaigning aim: a breakthrough, a decisive outcome


Partial pressing

  • footballing aim: harassing opponents

  • campaigning aim: defending a position, looking for openings, keeping opponents on the back-foot


Fake pressing

  • footballing aim: recuperation

  • campaigning aim: preserving energy, reviewing strategy


This is not a once for all time choice. During any football game, a team will alternate between different forms of pressing. The use of both partial and fake pressing reflects that a team cannot sustain full pressing for the whole game. Opponents only believe that fake pressing is 'real' because they have been worn down by total pressing.


Applying to campaigning the lesson that total, partial and fake pressing only succeed in relation to each other points to the need for campaigns to move fluidly between different levels of intensity. Organisations need to be very clear when a real strategic need or opportunity exists to push for a decisive result through a 'total pressing campaign'. They need to have a clear understanding of what constitutes an effective 'partial pressing campaign' – that level of intensity which maintains a holding position while probing for new opportunities. And they need to be able to maintain a threat even when scaling back the resources accorded a campaign. In turn, this depends on having built up a history of credible and effective action that demands that the organisation is taken seriously.


In football, well-organised teams with effective tactics can prevail over better-resourced opponents. Campaigning can learn from football the importance of managing periods of greater and lesser intensity. Campaigning organisations should operate with an eye on the longer game and avoid giving opponents an unwelcome opening by too transparent a transition from a period of high intensity to a period of reduced intensity. It is a fine art to successfully convey a perception of pressure being applied as well as its reality. The best football teams manage it and so too can the best campaigning organisations.


[1] Inverting the Pyramid: the History of Football Tactics, Jonathan Wilson, 2008.

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