Updated: July 23, 2020 12:48:25 pm
After a nerve-wracking 5-3 win over Chelsea on Wednesday (July 22), Liverpool lifted the Premier League trophy. Late evening in front of empty stands at their home ground, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp joined his players at the sanitised silverware presenting ceremony.
Around the world, millions of football fans hailed Klopp’s unwavering ambition to produce aggressively beautiful football. Even among the neutrals there was excitement in the triumph of Liverpool’s eye-catching style that embodies the German coach’s attacking football philosophy based on “gegenpressing”.
For some time now, in football fan chat rooms “gegenpressing” has replaced “tiki taka” as the favourite word to flaunt one’s deep understanding of the game.
What exactly is gegenpressing? Who discovered it?
Literally, it means counter-pressing in German. But counter-pressing is not to pressing what counterattacking is to attacking. It’s not countering a press — on the contrary, it’s pressing a counter.
The fundamental principle is to start pressing as soon as you lose the ball, so that you could regain possession. Usually, when teams concede possession, especially in the opposition half, they retreat to reorganise their shape, bolstering the defence for the offensive onslaught. But Klopp’s men, be it Liverpool or Dortmund, begin to swarm the person with the ball, cutting his ball-distributing channels, crowding him out and intimidating him, so that he falters and surrenders the ball to them.
To use Klopp’s words, “gegenpress them to death.” Once his men reclaim possession, they buzz away like sparkling red wasps.
The tactic, ironically, has English roots.
A cruder version was prevalent in the 1960s in England, but it was systematically seen first in the Dutch league, where Ernst Happel’s Feyenoord and Rinus Michels’ Ajax Amsterdam deployed it occasionally. The Total Footballers under Rinus Michels borrowed certain principles of it in the 1974 World Cup. But it was not the defining theme of these teams, but one of their facets.
Later, Italian strategist Arrigo Sacchi wove the tactics of gegenpressing into his highly successful Milan teams of the late 1980s and 1990s to counter the ultra-defensive approach of Serie A rivals at that time. So defensively structured were the Italian teams that he realised that regaining possession higher up the pitch was the only way they could create more goal-scoring opportunities.
But it was Klopp who refined the idea and morphed the pressing game into an ideology, as a way of playing football rather than as a means-achieving method, during his early coaching days with Mainz. The pressing game always existed, but gegenpressing began with Klopp. In Germany, it’s often lauded as the first German tactical innovation after Franz Beckenbauer redefined the role of sweeper in the 1970s.
How does Liverpool employ it, and how is its gegenpressing different from that of Dortmund’s?
Liverpool’s gegenpress manual is different from the Dortmund blueprint.
Klopp, a pragmatist rather than a fundamentalist, was quick to realise he had to tinker with his tactics, depending on the football culture of the country and the men at his disposal. In Dortmund, he had an exemplary hold-up striker in Robert Lewandowski; so he shaped his side into a narrow 4-2-3-1, with his men pressing uncomfortably close to their opponents. The fullbacks would often track back rapidly to regain the defensive shape.
But at Liverpool he doesn’t have a conventional striker of Lewandowski’s pedigree, so he usually forms a 4-3-3, deploying Roberto Firmino as a false nine, flanked by pacy forwards Mohammad Salah and Sadio Mane, who like to run deep and receive the ball in space. So Firmino drops into the hole between the opposition defence and midfield, acting like a link-man of sorts, distracting the defenders and providing space for the wing-men.
Moreover, Klopp found the English league more defensive-minded—defenders were happy passing the ball among themselves rather than panicking when pressed. They were so efficient at hoofing the long balls that Liverpool was more vulnerable to counterattacks. So he decongested the press and moved it more towards the centre of the field (the Dortmund heat-map was always on the wings and extremely clustered). But at the same time, his hyper-adventurous fullbacks wouldn’t drop back as deep as the Dortmund counterparts.
The core though remains the same—robust central midfielders and fast defenders, adept at quick offensive and defensive transitioning. In effect, Liverpool’s is a more intelligent and versatile version of gegenpressing than Dortmund’s.
What is gegenpressing similar to tiki taka?
Pressing is fundamental to both. For Liverpool, it’s their lifeblood; for Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, it was their life-support.
Both press to regain possession, but while Liverpool charges forth with snappy counters, ratcheting up the tempo, Barcelona used to decelerate and resume their passing game and keep possession for long periods, restructuring themselves. In the words of Guardiola: “Without the ball, we are a disastrous team, a horrible team, so we need the ball.”
While Guardiola’s style of play was defensive, Klopp saw it as an attacking outlet.
“Gegenpressing lets you win back the ball nearer to the goal. It’s only one pass away from a really good opportunity. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good gegenpressing situation, and that’s why it’s so important.”
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They pressed differently too.
Guardiola’s men would press conservatively, with one man (usually Lionel Messi) pressuring the opponent on the ball, and others cutting off passing angles. Aware of Barcelona’s porous backline, he was cautious about not committing too many men on the ball. His teams were so structured that he disliked the chaos of a gegenpress situation.
But Klopp was a radical—his men would converge onto the ball-carrying opposition player. It’s the reason his midfielders predominantly operate centrally to compress space, and not through wide channels. Horizontal compactness is so central to his style.
At the same time, Klopp has of late in the big games, embraced the passing game, inclined to keep more possession than he usually does. It’s not quite passing in triangles like tiki taka, but more of a wearying-out-the-opponent plan. So there’s so much common and so much distinct between the two styles.
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And what’s the antidote for gegenpressing?
No tactic is invincible or invulnerable. The sparkling novelty of tiki taka gradually wore off, and pragmatic managers like Jose Mourinho chalked up strategies to neuter it, playing the patience game with deep defensive lines, briefly bringing counterattacking back in vogue. Tactical history works in cycles of thesis and antithesis.
Some reckon Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone could be Klopp’s nemesis. Simeone forensically dismantled Liverpool in the Champions League round of 16 with a defensive style of play dubbed ‘Cholismo’, an improvisation of Simeone’s nickname “Cholo”, which means stubborn in Spanish.
Not that his teams are forthrightly cynical, but Simeone habitually built teams from the back—since his reign, Atletico, the only team to have challenged the Madrid-Barcelona duopoly, has emphasised on employing some of the finest defenders in the world. Like all good defensive sides, they have clinical than flashy attackers and no-nonsense, direct forwards. The ethos is drawn from the Argentinian ‘anti-futbol’ tradition— sit deep, play the offside smartly, scrap and scrape, and look to absorb pressure before working the ball forward quickly.
On that Anfield night, he frustrated Klopp so much so that the Liverpool manager called his brand of football anti-football. “It doesn’t feel right,” Klopp lamented after the match. “I don’t understand, with the quality they have, that they play this kind of football. World-class players defend with two rows of four, and two strikers in front of them.” It’s the age-old prose-versus-verse debate.
Simeone’s methods might not get the romantic traction of tiki taka or gegenpressing—though defensive discipline is as hard to achieve as attacking harmony. But as Liverpool look to expand their domination and idealism, ‘Cholimso’ could be the biggest hindrance. Structured pressing versus choreographed defence could be the next definitive narrative in football.
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