Who is the best playmaker in the world? While coaches around the world may get into arguments, Jürgen Klopp has no doubts. His belief is that nothing creates more chances than gegenpressing.
What is the “gegenpressing” and why is so important?
If you wanted Klopp’s teams the last decade (Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool) you probably noticed that his players are doing an awful lot of running. Welcome to “gegenpress”. A simple translation would be counter-pressing. According to Klopp, “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it since the opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball”.
During his tenure at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp effectively rewrote the tactics book for German teams as he led the club to consecutive league titles and inspired several other Bundesliga teams to adopt a similar approach.
Years before the pair locked horns at Liverpool and Manchester City respectively, Klopp was a big fan of Guardiola’s Barcelona team – not the tiki taka passing that enthralled others, but the Catalans’ commitment to winning the ball.
The UEFA Technical report 2018 – 2019 shows the significance of counter attacking and the increase of possibilities to score. Every year the top clubs are getting better and better regarding counter attacking. During transition to attack, the opponent has not managed yet to get into defensive shape and he is in a vulnerable situation. In order to overcome that challenge, teams needs to perform better in situations of transition to defense and to avoid concede many goals. The teams must counter the counter attacks. Here comes the importance of gegenpressing.
The German manager has been utilizing the tactic, in different forms, since his time with a newly-promoted Mainz side in 2004. However, before we get into details of what make’s Klopp’s approach unique, it’s first necessary to review the system’s “lineage”.
A Brief History of Pressing
It’s difficult to determine exactly when a more systematic approach to pressing began to be used, but it’s safe to say that the Dutch national team (under Rinus Michels) definitely utilized a rough approximation of the technique during the 1974 World Cup. Take a look at this footage of the team against Argentina squad during the second stage of the group phase:
Legendary manager Arrigo Sacchi further adapted this method with his legendary Milan teams of the 80s and 90s. Back then most teams immediately dropped back after losing the ball; often attackers stayed passive and upfront and all the others tried to dropped back in a to create a strong defensive low block (this was the trend of the period).
Arrigo Sacchi, in response to the ultra-defensive approach favored by most Italian teams of that era, Sacchi implored his players to regain possession higher up the pitch, which would naturally lead to greater goal-scoring opportunities. To do so, the Italian mastermind utilized deliberate spacing and a high defensive line (the hallmarks of the modern gegenpress) frustrate opposition possession. Most notably, when defending, Milan’s attackers were rarely more than 25 yards from the back line.
Tactical aspects to consider
There are a few aspects which should be implemented for an accurate Gegenpressing.
- Blocking the center of the field is important for a successful implementation. In the middle of the field, the opponent has more options when it comes to rotation, field of vision, and passing. Ideally, the opponent who recovers the ball will be forced in the direction of the touchline or back towards his own goal and away from the center of the field. There, he will have no opportunity to rotate and his choices will be limited, which will also rob him of the most effective and quickest path towards goal, as any counterattack will take longer.
- The opponent should be surrounded from the center out, forcing him to play backwards or square passes and thus isolating him from his teammates. This naturally raises the question of who ultimately won the ball. Some teams only try to cut off the opponent on the ball and attack him passively. Which is good, as one will not be outplayed and the nearest presser has a chance to recover the ball. But, at the same time, the opponents can move freely, slow the game down, and generate more options for themselves.
- Run directly at the ball carrier; the opponent is simply pressed aggressively as possible, one does not slow down first or establish the ominous “basketball distance” when challenging for the ball.
- Deliberately run past the opponent. The opponent will not be slowed down, but the first counterpressing player has no intention of winning the ball. He should merely hand off the opponent and retain his own original position in the cover shadow. As a result, the tempo here is extremely quick and the opponent will be forced into a specific action to which the pressing team can more easily react. The next player attacks and can then win the ball easier. An interesting side note: after the ball is recovered, you can immediately play a clear pass to the player who has run past the opponent. “Clear” here means that the distance is suitable, space is gained, and the teammate knows from the previous situation that he is in front of an opponent.
- Defensive stability
- Avoiding lost space and lack of organisation
- Improved offense
We can identify 4 variations of gegenpressing depending on the way a coach choose to press and cover possible passing options.
For ball-oriented Gegenpressing a team simply goes towards the ball without regard for a loss of structure. This is the simplest form of gegenpressing. This means that, on the one hand, a team can achieve maximum pace and aggression, but, on the other hand, will be vulnerable and simplistic. In the 70s, Ajax and the Netherlands national team practiced this style, as did SV Grödig under Adi Hütter last season.
In man-oriented Gegenpressing, one looks for an opponent to cover immediately after his team loses the ball. A player runs up, cuts off the opponent and forces him into a follow-up action. Usually a pass comes to a player and only after the pass does the ball recovery occur. All nearby passing options should be put under immediate pressure, so that the opponent cannot get free and escape the pressure. FC Bayern practiced this style under Jupp Heynckes.
Another option is leeway-oriented counterpressing. Here, there is relatively little consideration for the opponent. Instead, one focuses on the ball carrier, the ball itself, and the surrounding area. The entire team presses in the direction of the ball and seeks to generate the greatest possible pressure. This pressure should force errors, enable the team to cover and support the first pressing player, and simultaneously absorb the nearby passing options in their cover shadow. This intense pressure often causes the opponent to immediately lose the ball or kick it long. Jurgen Klopp used this style during his period in BVB and now he has transferred this to Liverpool. He has even developed since he now has players of a better quality.
Passing lane-oriented gegenpressing
In passing lane-oriented counterpressing the opponent will also be placed under pressure by a player, but here, as in the man-oriented version, the opponent is allowed to make the first pass. In contrast to the man-oriented counterpressing, however, the pass receiver is not attacked, but the pass itself. The aim is to set up between some opponents and then, after the ball is passed, to flexibly recover the ball, trap the pass, or – if things go wrong – have two people press the pass receiver. The specific counterpressing approached is mostly used by Pep Guardiola.
A coach, based on his philosophy and game model, may choose any type of gegenpressing approach. On all approaches, one of the most important fundamental for the gegenpressing to be successful is the positioning of players during possession and the moment before losing the ball. That is why the possession phase cannot be considered a a separate stage. A team in possession must also think of the defensive stage and a team in defensive phase should have in mind how to attack.
Even though gegenpressing requires huge amount of energy and only a very well trained (on a physical condition aspect) can fully implement it, it’s probably the best way to avoid being exposed to counter attacks. Also the specific defending method allow for a ball recovery very high up the pitch outside the opponent’s box. However, you need a functioning team to carry out this tactic as you can’t carry any passengers. Each game is individually prepared for and you can refine the pressing triggers. A trigger is something that starts the press. It can be a player going into a zone or a certain player picking up the ball, you as a team want to isolate the weakest players and allow them the ball whilst ensuring the danger players don’t get it.