How PPDA has helped plot course of Rasmus Højlund’s career
Written by Simon Austin — January 18, 2024
ALTHOUGH he was only 18 and had made less than 20 appearances for FC Copenhagen, Rasmus Højlund was already carefully plotting the course of his career.
The striker had decided to leave his hometown club because of a lack of playing opportunities and his next choice of destination was key. Reading manager Ruben Selles was assistant at FC Copenhagen throughout Højlund’s time with their first team - from his debut at the age of 17 in October 2020 through to his departure in January 2022.
“Rasmus Højlund is a learner,” Selles told the TGG Podcast (which you can watch below). “He learns a lot from the environment. From the time when he stepped into the first team in FC Copenhagen, he didn't have enough playing time and found a league like the Austrian league.”
The reason why he chose Austria is interesting.
“Austria is the league with the lowest average of PPDA, so that means it's a league of high pressure and high transition moments,” Selles explained. “That was his game in that time.”
PPDA means Passes Per Defensive Action. This is an advanced metric that was introduced by Colin Trainor in 2014 and is used to quantify high pressing. It is calculated by dividing the number of passes by the in-possession team in the final 60% of the pitch by the number of defensive actions (fouls, interceptions, won defensive duels, sliding tackles) in that area by the out-of possession team.
Low PPDA generally signifies strong pressing, while high PPDA tends to show the opposite. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as some teams have a game model where they retreat quickly into their defensive shape when they lose possession, like David Moyes' West Ham (more on that later).
As Selles said, Austria was the league with the lowest average PPDA in Europe (in fact it still is, as you can see in the table below), which Hojlund felt would best showcase his skillset.
When Sturm Graz expressed an interest in the striker, they had to present about their game model to Højlund and his agent.
“We convinced him and his agent about our playing style, coaching approach, and the opportunities we could offer,” manager Christian Ilzer later remembered.
The move worked extremely well for both player and club. Hojlund was with Sturm Graz for only half a season, but scored 12 goals in 21 games, catapulting his reputation.
“Immediately when he went there he became a key player for his team - score goals, win balls really high, intense and that gave him the confidence to go into the next level,” Selles said.
The player's next move was to Serie A with Atalanta - another team that remain known for a high-intensity, high-pressing style. This season the club are third in Serie A, behind only Fiorentina and Napoli, for PPDA.
“In six months he makes his move to Atalanta, with Premier League clubs having him in the in their agenda,” Selles said. “He went there, another team that likes to play that kind of high-pressure football, playing forward quick, and now in Manchester United he's also getting in that level.”
As Selles said, United stepped in to sign the player for an initial £64m last summer, continuing his meteoric ascent. United's recruitment has been described as haphazard in recent seasons, but you can see why they went for Hojlund.
Manager Eric Ten Hag was ridiculed in October when he insisted his team were improving, despite pundits like Jamie Carragher suggesting otherwise. "In high ball regains, we are a top of the Premier League," he said. "In the middle [of the pitch] ball regains, we are top. The pressing is very good."
This is the out-of-possession style he demands, with PPDA a key metric. Throughout his burgeoning career, Højlund has proved he fits the bill for that.
Selles is sure that Højlund will become one of the world’s best strikers when he and United find their feet.
“I think with Rasmus you can expect him to be rated as one of the best strikers in the world,” Selles said. “I think he will become that when also the United team will become more established.
“Every young player has moments where they have this set-back and then come back again. I think he's in a really good moment. I think he already scored that goal that was just breaking that barrier for him in the Premier League (against Aston Villa) and I think you can only expect better things from him at Manchester United.
“He’s a mentality monster. He has a good family that take care of him. His two brothers are playing for FC Copenhagen actually for the first team right now. One of them was even in the squad when they played (United in the Champions League) and his environment is really strong and he's a really strong character.
“You don't have that often, that young talented player with that kind of mentality. It’s Premier League, the exposure is the biggest in the world, and when he has missed, everybody is talking about it, but it's just part of the process and he will he will become a better player and he will become stronger in his mind through this process.
“He has been brilliant in all the other competitions. I think it's a matter of time that he's going to connect that with the fans and once he will make this break he's going to be unbelievable brilliant.”
PPDA is a critical metric for Selles’s own teams.
As you can see from the table below, his Reading side are third in League One for PPDA, behind only Bolton and Portsmouth this season.
“We try to be the protagonist, having situations where we can press and force the opposition to find the spaces where we can win the ball back and exploit the spaces in transition,” the Spaniard explained.
“And (we are) a team that is good in possession that tries to find the quick triggers to attack. We try to have those games where we are very intense and we try to be very front-footed, so that is the main part of the philosophy. We don't believe in being passive or just waiting or being in a low block.
"I think we have a established team right now, very young, energetic, that that know how to win football matches in any category and that's the best part - to see all those boys and the team growing in terms of competitiveness and spirit."
Liverpool, famed for their gegenpress, are top of the Premier League for PPDA this season, as you can see below. Assistant Pep Lijnders has previously told the TGG Podcast about how counter-pressing is part of the team’s DNA.
"One of our main principles is counter pressing," Lijnders said. "Jurgen says it isn’t a proposal, it’s a law. That’s what makes us, us. Counter pressing is the moment when you lose the ball. At that moment, do you go back to defend, or do you want to use that moment to create & score?"
Like Lijnders, Selles makes counter-pressing a fundamental part of his training sessions.
“Our training methodology is similar to what Pep and Jurgen (Klopp) are doing in Liverpool,” Selles said. “I think your playing style is linked with your training style. So if you see one of our sessions now, we start with a warm-up that ends up with a passing drill, trying to get some synergies between play, but also trying to work in some specific situations - second-man, third-man situations.
“Then we try to put every time a different counter pressure drill - it can be a counter-pressure rondo, it can be a counter-pressure possession, it can be a counter pressure game, but always encouraging in every training at least one drill with that concept for the counter press.”