There are hundreds of soccer leagues spread across the face of the globe, and each country has its own understanding of and terminology for the beautiful game. With so many factors at play, there are always big questions to answer. However, it’s the smaller ones that tend to slip through the cracks. These are the types of conundrums we at Paste seek to answer in our weekly Soccer Primer.
If you watched Liverpool’s recent conquest of Manchester City, then you probably noticed that the red-clad team seemed to be doing an awful lot of running. Welcome to the “gegenpress”! The term, which roughly translates to “counter press”, is a tactical approach developed by current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp that combines classic features of high-pressure defense with a modern twist. The German manager has been utilizing the tactic, in various forms, since his time with a newly-promoted Mainz side in 2004. However, before we get into the nitty-gritty of what make’s Klopp’s approach unique, it’s first necessary to review the system’s “lineage”.
It’s difficult to determine exactly when a systematic approach to pressing first originated, but it’s safe to say that the Dutch national team (helmed by Rinus Michels) definitely utilized a rough approximation of the technique during the 1974 World Cup. Take a look at this footage of the team taking on an overmatched Argentina squad during the second stage of the group phase:
The fundamental features of a high-pressing system are all there: swarming defenders, hard tackles, and a frustrated opponent resorting to long balls or forced into poor passes. The match finished 4-0 in favor of the Dutch, who were able to relax into a more staid defensive approach after jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first 25 minutes.
Legendary manager Arrigo Sacchi (he of famous equestrian quotes) further adapted this method with his legendary Milan teams of the 80s and 90s. 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.
This more calculated attitude toward pressing also allowed Sacchi to vary his approach: “We had several types of pressing, that we would vary throughout the game,” says Sacchi in Jonathan Wilson’s seminal work “Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics. “There was partial pressing, where it was more about jockeying; there was total pressing which was more about the ball; there was fake pressing, when we pretended to press, but, in fact, used the time to recuperate.” Sacchi’s successes with both AC Milan and the Italy national team paved the way for a new generation of innovative managerial minds seeking to incorporate pressing into their respective game plans.
As such, the modern usage of pressing is not by any means solely the domain of Klopp. For example, Pep Guardiola has consistently utilized counter-pressing tactics with both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The Spaniard is a devout follower of the Gospel of Possession, believing that keeping the ball is the safest form of defense. Guardiola therefore places a premium on ball retention in order to preserve attacking shape. When a player has the audacity to cede possession, Pep’s men utilize both collective positioning further up the pitch and high pressure in order to regain the ball as quickly as possible. This, in turn, keeps an opponent from getting into any sort of passing rhythm and limits the likelihood of a successful counter attack.
As history has shown, most coaches have utilized high-pressure defending as a means to an end: regaining possession. This follows the standard dogma that more possession logically leads to more opportunities and thus, more goals. Klopp, however, saw the beauty in eliminating the middleman and instead opted to use counter-pressing as an actual part of the attack.
Klopp commonly opts for a narrow 4-2-3-1 with width provided by marauding fullbacks. When defending, a high back line effectively crowds the midfield, allows for players to hunt in packs, and makes passing through the center an unsavory proposition for opponents. This is all done in an effort to win back the ball as high up the pitch as possible.
As Klopp himself has explained, “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
The gegenpress operates on the basic assumption that a team that has just lost possession (especially while attempting to counter) is in its most vulnerable state. The more rapidly you exploit that vulnerability, the more likely you are to score. Thus, unlike Guardiola’s men, Klopp’s charges spurn sustained possession in favor of rapid attacks.
For the system to function effectively, however, the dual pillars of fitness and intelligence are paramount. Players must be capable of rapidly closing down space and hassling an opponent in an intentional manner without committing the sin of fouling or the sin of diving in and leaving your teammates exposed.
The downside to a rapid pressing system is that, if one man doesn’t do his job, the entire structure can collapse. It doesn’t do any good to apply high pressure to nine outfield players if the tenth is wide open for an easy outlet pass. In order for Klopp’s tactics to work, each player must be capable of reading the game, understanding his specific role in any given situation, and adapting quickly in order to keep an opponent firmly under pressure. In so doing, “gegenpress” teams effectively nullify the threat of counter attacks that could wreak havoc against teams that rely on a more traditional defensive approach.
Klopp’s tactics require incredible discipline and considerable training in order to be pulled off successfully. However, when it does happen, it’s a thing of beauty that can’t be easily contained. If you need more proof of that, just ask any Manchester City fan. It’s not likely he or she will have shaken the visions of Liverpool absolutely shredding City’s defense and comprehensively stifling any and all attempts at possession en route to a 4-1 drubbing.