Gegenpressing – A Fine Art of Modern Football

Jurgen Klopp is regarded as a figurehead of the Gegenpressing style

Every few years, a new tactical philosophy comes and takes the world by storm.

Teams do not know how to deal with it and it sweeps all those coming in front of it.

From the Total Football of Michels to the pragmatic Italian game, every system has had its ebbs and flows.

In the modern game, one of the most effective systems has to be Gegenpressing.

No matter if you have a pragmatic footballing setup or an attacking one, the Gegenpress could be perfect for your tactical structure working like magic.

Let us see what Gegenpressing is, how it pans out in the real world and finally how can teams combat it. Keep reading!

What is Gegenpressing?

Gegenpressing is the German term for “counter-pressing” in football. The Gegenpress allows a team to press the opposition from their box. However, they do it with a specific kind of strategy that disables the opponent to play out from the back. Many football pundits consider the style as effective in recycling the ball quicker and hitting the opposition on the counter. The idea is to stifle the opponent into making mistakes on the ball and denying them any control over the game.

What are the tactics of the Gegenpress?

Before highlighting the tactics, a player must meet two prerequisites before considering himself for the Gegenpress system.

He must have brilliant stamina that can withstand 90 minutes of consistent running. Furthermore, he must know the dimensions in which the ball gets located before he can press.

Secondly, if a player cannot tackle well, he will never be able to make the system successful. The success of the system lies in winning the 50-50s.

The Gegenpressing model starts from the team’s front three.

It is useless to play this way with two strikers up top as they get outnumbered. Therefore, it is essential to deploy three offensive players in which all of them are quick and aggressive.

They must be enthusiastic and hunt down every ball in the opposition half. Think of Luis Suarez in his heyday making life tough for goalkeepers.

A good Gegenpressing model ensures that you have the most possession won in the opposition half.

In 2019/20, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had the most ball recoveries in the Premier League’s opposition half (194).

Jordan Henderson Stats 2019-2020
Jordan Henderson was integral to Liverpool’s Midfield dominance during their title winning campaign

Apart from the strikers, it is crucial to follow the same approach in midfield. Regardless of you playing a diamond or a 3-man midfield, you must be aware of the opposition midfield player and the options he has for passing through your press.

The strikers and midfielders’ defensive responsibility allows your full-backs or wing-backs to play as wide creative outlets.

Once the team recovers the ball, they pass it into the pass or give it to their full-backs to put in good crosses for their attacking players to meet.

Gegenpressing allows numerous options for the counter-attack. Therefore, you can put the opposition players out of position and get in behind them.

Once you have recovered the ball, it is all about quick decisions. If you cannot find the space, you can pass it sideways to your full-back, who is now playing as a wide creative outlet.

He can come near the box and whip in crosses for the attacking players to meet. Both of the full-backs must be very good crossers as all the attacking is dependent on them.

If the manager plays three midfielders, he must allow two of their midfielders to become inverted full-backs as their original full-backs have become wingers and influence the attack.

Therefore, it is about knowing how to attack well and how to defend correctly. You cannot go all out when you are attacking as all your wide areas are exposed.

So, you need to be tactically aware of all the happenings within your system.

In their Champions League-winning campaign, Liverpool did not have a midfielder who could create chances. Therefore, they allowed freedom for their full-backs to do the attacking work.

How to nullify Gegenpressing?

The best way of playing against this tactic is to play in a deep-block. The Gegenpressing team allows its wingers to dictate the attacks constantly. Therefore, you must close their full-backs down consistently as they won’t have anything coming from the middle.

Secondly, you must know the kind of midfielders you have deployed in your team. If they are great passers, you must trust them to evade the high-press consistently.

Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid consistently broke Liverpool’s high-press in the 2018 Champions League because of Toni Kroos’ incredible passing range.

Real Madrid managed to beat the Gegenpress on their way to a Champions League Final win vs Liverpool in 2018

However, if you do not have great passers in your team, it would help if you had a target-man up top for your goalkeepers to launch the ball. The target-man can hold the ball and spread it to his wingers, which will exclude almost all of the Gegenpressing game.

Once the target-man spreads the ball, the opposition full-backs (who were supposed to create) must come back and defend.

In 2018, Jose Mourinho deployed this tactic against Liverpool by telling David De Gea to launch balls onto Romelu Lukaku so he can evade the press. That tactic created both of the goals as United won 2-1.

Marcus Rashford was able to take advantage of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive flaws as he scored both of the goals by coming to the left-wing.

After United opened up a 2-goal lead, they closed down both of Liverpool’s full-backs. This tactic cut off the supply for their strikers as Liverpool’s only goal came from United’s own goal.

In the second-half, Liverpool had all of the possession. However, they couldn’t do anything special with it as they didn’t have creative midfielders, and United had closed down both of the wide areas.

Teams that use Gegenpressing

Liverpool winning the Champions League with the Gegenpress

By now you must have noticed that the representative team using Gegenpressing is Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

However, Gegenpressing was started way before the German manager.

Arrigo Sachi was the first manager to instruct his team to do high-pressing in the opposition box. AC Milan got referred to as “the pressing monsters” in the 1990s due to their intense physical gameplay.

According to Sacchi, high-press is not just about running consistently, and it also refers to controlling the space to know when to go after the ball.

He stated that if they allow the opponent to play the way they want to, they will eventually grow in confidence.

Therefore, the high-press will enable them to cut the supply from defense to midfield, allowing many counter-attacking options.

Jurgen Klopp celebrates with Dortmund in 2011
Jurgen Klopp celebrates with Dortmund in 2011

Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp are perfect examples of this style. At Mainz, Klopp’s assistant was Arrigo Sachi’s student, which enabled Klopp to use this tactic in his model.

Dortmund used to press from the front with Lewandowski, Gotze, and Reus. After that, the midfield of Gundogan, Kehl, and Kuba used to intercept and tackle the opposition midfielders.

This setup gave Schmelzer and Piszczek all the freedom to cross dynamically for their forwards. It is no coincidence that Marco Reus’ best years came in this module.

Just like Dortmund, Liverpool presses with their attacking three of Salah, Mane, and Firmino. Firmino notably drops back to do the defensive attributes, allowing both Salah and Mane to attack the spaces.

In midfield, Liverpool has Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and Henderson’s engine room, which allows them to recycle the ball regularly and pass it forward.

Therefore, all of the freedom goes to Liverpool’s fullbacks. Both of these players have a combined 50 assists since the commencement of the 2019/2020 season. This freedom shows the kind of influence they have in their attack.

Ralph Hassenhutl – Southampton

Ralph Hasenhuttl
Ralph Hasenhuttl

This season, we have seen Ralph Hasenhuttl deploy the same system he had initially learned from RB Leipzig. Therefore, we see the best of Kyle Walker-Peters since his move from Tottenham.

Hasenhuttl also deploys three midfielders to do the defensive work. Even though Danny Ings is not the best defensively, Southampton wingers cover up for him, allowing him to become the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation.

The Southampton manager feels that he wanted to adapt to the Premier League, which almost cost him his job. However, this new system has gotten him out of trouble.

Marcelo Bielsa – Leeds United

Marcelo Bielsa
Marcelo Bielsa

Apart from Southampton, Marcelo Bielsa is known for his intense game at Leeds United. They started this season well, as their high-press brought numerous goal-scoring opportunities for their strikers.

However, Leeds United suffered from the “Bielsa burnout” in recent weeks as the intense gameplay has taken its toll on the players.

Jose Mourinho – FC Porto

Jose Mourinho

Historically, Jose Mourinho’s Porto are great examples of Gegenpressing. Mourinho called his Porto team “mad dogs” as they were able to recover the ball quickly.

This module caused him to bring Paulo Ferreira to Chelsea in 2004, where he once again deployed the same tactic in certain games.

This tactic was one reason why Mourinho has the record of the least goals conceded in a Premier League season.

Pep Guardiola – FC Barcelona

Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola

As a side note, Guardiola’s Barcelona is always remembered as a possession-based footballing side.

However, the people don’t know about Barcelona’s midfield interceptions.

Guardiola used to deploy a midfield of Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta. He had athletic forwards in Pedro, Villa, and Messi who could run for days.

This tactic allowed Dani Alves to become a significant influence within their team. He used to bombard up and down the flanks and contribute to many vital goals for the team.

Final Verdict

After Jurgen Klopp, there have been many Premier League and Bundesliga teams that are influenced by Gegenpressing in their football module.

They feel that playing in a possession-based setup can only be successful if they know how to intercept properly.

Therefore, we have even seen many Bundesliga teams this season carrying on the tradition of Gegenpressing.

We can safely say that this tactic is here to stay, and football managers must know its strengths and weaknesses.

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