“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,”- Jürgen Klopp
What is Gegenpressing?
Gegenpressing literally means ‘High Pressing or Pressing Against’. It is a style of football in which the team that loses the possession of the ball attempts to win back the ball immediately rather than falling back or regrouping to negate the opponent.
The team moves up the field to press and regain possession. The motive is to give as less a time as possible for the opposition to settle down with the ball and their formation.
The team has to be compact. If there are spaces when the team presses high, it becomes easier for the opponent to pass through the gaps and it should be both vertically and laterally.
The two most important attributes in players for Gegenpressing are stamina and technical ability. Stamina and fitness are needed to last the entire game with such high pressing and the players need to be technically sound because the entire style of play depends on how well you tackle and win the ball back.
The idea is to minimize the time an opponent has on the ball and force him to play the ball early, make him commit mistakes and then start a counter-attack. The teams need to be fit, run incessantly, cover maximum ground and play beautiful counter-attacking football.
No room for luxury players
The team must defend with high lines, maintain a perfect defensive shape and push the ball wide when the opponent is in possession. This style of play is only successful when all the players work in unison, and not by a single player or department.
The opposition is left with no option but to play long balls forward or pass backward, away from the goal.
You also have to understand when to stop pressing for the ball. There is a window to it. You can’t keep running to hunt the ball down, not only because of stamina but also because of the window.
Once the moment is passed, the team can hit the ball long into space behind the high defence and hence the role of sweeper-keeper is crucial.
Also important to this style of play is the ability to pass the ball immediately and accurately once you have won the ball back. If you are not a good passer or are left stranded with the ball in the middle of the park, you may invite a counter-attack yourself.
Klopp at Dortmund
The biggest proponent for the gegenpressing game is the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp who mastered it back when he was in Borussia Dortmund and has kept it close to his heart since his days at Mainz. He calls Gegenpressing ‘the best playmaker there is’.
Before Dortmund’s match against Arsenal in 2013 in the Champions League, Klopp had commented on the difference in style of play of Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, and his team. He said, “I think he likes having the ball, playing good football, it’s like an orchestra. But it’s a silent song. I prefer heavy metal”.
Jupp Heynckes had to use it against Dortmund to defeat them 2-1 in the UCL finals after humiliating Barcelona 7-0 in the semis, over the two legs.
In Klopp’s Dortmund, once the opposition had gained complete control of the ball, the wide-men would drop, almost forming two lines of four.
Klopp at Liverpool
At Liverpool, Klopp plays a 4-3-3. They try to play a possession based attacking game. The Defensive Midfielder drops back to create a virtual 3 at the back, with Coutinho drifting in and creating play. The number 6 sits back, the two other midfielders create, wide players drift in and out, and full backs push high.
Liverpool can attack when the possession is won back as the opponent is not defensively aligned and on the charge. Also, by forcing the opposition wide, space is created in the centre or half-space of the pitch.
The front three is rotational with wide players can drift into space, push high or cut inside, and the striker can drop deep.
With full backs pushing high, and the number 6 dropping deeper, it gives Liverpool a good central rigidity, which also pushes the opponents to attack with width. This system works for Liverpool because they have intelligent, technical players who make it work, Lallana, Mane, Firmino, Coutinho and now Salah.
Firmino, Coutinho and now Salah
Firmino has changed his shirt number to 9. He might be playing a false nine more than before. With Salah in the squad, Mane is likely to shift to the left with both playing as inverted wingers, looking inwards more frequently.
Coutinho will sit in the heart of the midfield, pulling the strings and run into the spaces created by the false nine or overload on wings as and when required.
One thing that stands out in Liverpool’s run-in last season was their match against West Ham which they won 4-0. It was 4-4-2 but with a midfield diamond with Coutinho in the middle and Sturridge and Origi up front. They have two different plans for their squad, if required.
Firmino, Salah and Mane won’t be in the race for the Golden Boot but will team up to rattle defences. As per Richard Jolly, “…there should be a three-way battle between more selfless competitors, in Firmino, Mane and Salah, to be Anfield’s leading marksman. None is really a striker, but each has the capacity to strike.”
They have pace, getting physically stronger and have adopted to Klopp’s style of play. They are not far from being a great side with some reinforcements at the back like Van Dijk. The vulnerability of the centre backs and the inconsistency of Mignolet has let them down way too many times now.
But the new question is, Can Liverpool retain its main men (Read Coutinho!)?