This is how Liverpool have optomised gegenpressing

Liverpool have firmly managed to grasp an identity for themselves since Klopp has been at the helm.

His branded ‘heavy metal football’ has lit up the Premier League. Fans around the world have now heard of the gegenpressing style that we’ve witnessed.

The casual supporter, though, may not know what makes it tick or what makes it such a success.

Yes, we all know what gegenpressing is by now! It’s been part of the team for about 7 years! What is extraordinary though is that when you get a full grasp of what it is it feels like the best tactic ever. Like the sport has been hacked in a way!

Here is an in-depth breakdown of it. Starting with the history of the much talked about tactic.

Tactical Analysis: Jurgen Klopp's gegenpress at Liverpool

The history of gegenpressing

The German Bundesliga popularised it in the modern football era. Its impact promoted Mainz 05 from the second division in 2005. It has since turned them into a decent top-tier side since.

Jurgen Klopp drove their success as a coach. He had spent his entire playing career there.

His reluctance to take on the manager’s role is astounding since the club benefitted so greatly from him.

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He would go on to manage Borussia Dortmund. The tactic managed to knock Bayern Munich off their perch. He won them two consecutive titles in 2011 after their fans waited nine years since their last triumph.

The top teams in 1960’s England evidently adopted a counter-press.

Graeme Souness has stated on Sky Sports that Liverpool would press high up the pitch during his playing time with them a decade or two later and all the best teams did the same. It hasn’t been exclusively modern.

Dutch sides in the Eredivisie have taken well to it too. Both Feyenoord and Ajax, coached by Ernst Happel and Rinus Michels respectively, occasionally deployed a counter-press. Michels opted to incorporate it into his brand of ‘Total Football.’ Together with positional awareness, it became a dangerous tactic. The Dutch national side even had a good go at it in the 1974 World Cup.

A key pioneer of gegenpressing, Arrigo Sacchi has managed some big teams in the Italian league. This includes the likes of AC Milan and Parma. He also coached the Italian national team between 1991-1996. He took them to the World Cup final in 1994 where they lost to Brazil on penalties.

Klopp’s variation of the tactic has many similarities of ‘Sacchi-ball.’ The key elements being a high defensive line, applying an offside trap, and a front line engaging high up the pitch. Klopp never worked alongside Sacchi but may have studied his style. Other coaches influenced by Sacchi are Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Rafael Benitez and Jupp Heynckes.

Wolfgang Frank was Klopp’s predecessor at Mainz 05. Frank had chosen for Mainz to play that way. Jurgen, who played under him as a player took a liking to his team’s new style and continued it as manager.

The importance of space

Archaically, football did not take advantage of space. The Netflix drama tv series ‘The English Game’ set in the 1870s gives a true account of this. Fergus Suter, the protagonist, urged his team Darwen FC to play an innovative passing game that was never seen before in the sport. As he said, ‘football is a game of space.’ Suter has been recognised as the first professional footballer.

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The typical style that dominated football was physically rougher. Off-the-ball players would stick with the teammate that dribbled the ball. To keep the ball effectively, players would prefer to tackle their way to goal rather than to pass.

There was a lack of formation on and off-the-ball. Movement off it wasn’t a thing.

Losing possession usually meant huge space could be exploited. It wasn’t until Suter realised the importance of space that teams followed suit. Darwen evolved the game!

It was less aesthetically pleasing to spray the ball around in open spaces. Deviants of the transition would prefer the development of rugby.

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Series creator Julian Fellowes explained just how important Suter was: “He really did change the English game, Fergus Suter. He brought the passing game down into England, but before, football was much nearer to rugby. And they played quite violently.”

What carries such weight today of course is that teams will usually dominate possession when they have players that are in the right spaces. It’s not all about technical prowess over technical prowess.

There is no set time period when we can recognise the birth of Gegenpressing, it was likely in the 1960s. It was a revolutionary style that set out to impede on the opposition’s space when passive defending had been so dominant.

Pep Guardiola for example, sees the pitch in 20 zones. His aim is to outnumber the opposition in each section of the field so that every player gets as much space as possible. It is more difficult to counter-press a team with this philosophy.

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What Klopp does so well is to find a weakness in the opposition’s set-up and to exploit that. In the 2018-19 Champions League semi-final 2nd leg against Barcelona, Liverpool came back to win 4-0. They lost 3-0 in the first leg away.

Klopp spoke about the game afterwards, saying he wanted to hit them in the spaces they didn’t like to defend. Knowing their weakness on the left side, he did everything he could to exploit it. Jordi Alba, their left back, had a nightmare of a game. It worked.

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In comparison to the very popular but outdated 4-4-2 formation, our formation uses inside forwards, so the full backs are the only players that have to find space. In a traditional set up of two full backs and two wingers, these four players would occupy space, but the players in the middle had to be compact to avoid being taken on one-on-one.

Klopp’s use of a 4-3-3, with a compact midfield, works as well as it does because if the front line can not win the ball back, the midfield can remain in their position and press in numbers.

With a defensive midfielder, most often taken up by Fabinho, provides extra insurance.

The key features

When Fabinho holds his position and is his duty to win the ball, the opposition have probably started a dangerous attack. This means players further forward have probably been dragged out of position. Fabinho is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and Liverpool’s implementation of gegenpressing would not be as nearly effective without him.

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Gegenpressing means ‘extreme pressing’. It differs from a generic classification of counter pressing, from teams like Guardiola’s Barcelona for instance, who played with a slow tika-tika style, pressing was present and quite arduously done to give them credit.

The tempo of their game however was incredibly slow.

Optimising the variations of a pressing tactic, a high tempo and a little bit of directness is key. Having a high defensive line is also pretty important. Klopp loves for his defence to set-up an offside trap.

For attacking players that play against this current Liverpool side, it is paramount to have an abnormal amount of anticipation.

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Forwards need to be able to know when to start a run, know how to read the run of play and know where to move if they get the ball.  Knowing where to dribble and knowing what to do should they not get any support from their teammates to make a pass to is key to create chances. Speed is also very useful since there will be no way the defence can be penetrated without it, and since Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Ibrahima Konate are all very pacey defenders it would be extremely difficult to do so without it.

There are two ways to approach a high back line. The most effective way is to play with a quick tempo and direct passing game to expose our players who are out of position by pressing. To do this would require midfielders or ball-playing defenders to have great vision, passing and quick decision making.

An alternative method is to patiently move the ball up the pitch until the defence retreat enough. If a team advances to the final third they’ll be more likely to create chances. This requires less skill overall but does require an awful lot of composure on the ball.

To attack high pressing intensity, it is important for players to have a good first touch so they can control the ball when they are being charged.

When Virgil van Dijk was injured for the majority of the 2020-21 season, Liverpool didn’t defend their league title with much dignity. Finishing 3rd and losing 9 games.

Fabinho as mentioned is an important player in this tactic. Van Dijk however has an even bigger role to play. This is because he is an excellent passer and possesses great anticipation to read the game so that strikers don’t exploit the large space behind the back line.

Sweeper keeper Becker also provides extra cover high up, sweeping up through balls, creating less space for the forwards. Liverpool can not play as high as they typically do in Van Dijk’s absence because our other defenders do not have the required positional awareness that the world class Van Dijk has.

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When van Dijk launches long balls forward it’s very useful in this tactic because the goal cannot be threatened even when risk is applied because players press in numbers and the insurance is there should the ball be given away. The Gegenpress, especially Klopp’s variation of it is all about high risk, high reward.

Liverpool do not play a possession-based game. Jordan Henderson and Thiago, who are natural playmakers can take risks with the ball. If possession is lost, the team will press again, if a player manages to get through the first line of engagement they have to pull off another great escape. They can not simply walk the ball into dangerous areas.

Defenders need to have positional awareness and to read the game well or else it wouldn’t work. If a team has forwards with low stamina, aggression or work rate, it wouldn’t work.

If a team’s midfield has little passing ability or vision, it wouldn’t work.

Liverpool’s players tick all the boxes. There is far more to Liverpool’s style than the panache of Mane and Salah.

Like all tactics, the gegenpress does have its weaknesses. One of the major ones being its high intensity. Players will tire easily. Intensity has to go down as the game goes on. The higher the line of engagement, the more intensity required. This is because defending from the front covers more ground. Also, with a quick tempo, more movement is to be made.

Another weakness is that space becomes available for the opposition to exploit, this is why you don’t always find Bobby Firmino on your TV screen who is one of the greatest ever pressing forwards of the game running around aimlessly closing down players whenever he feels like it. One may think ‘why isn’t he pressing here?’ There is a strategy to it.

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Players have to close down at the right times. Usually when it is safe enough that the ball can not be easily passed to a player that is in space and is in vision of the player on the ball. The more conservative approach would be to cut passing lanes and is sometimes the safer option.

However, an excess of this can be far too passive and teams will not be fearful enough to advance forward.

When a player makes a wrong decision to press, the opposition can advance and create chances more easily.

The reason why Klopp brands it ‘heavy metal football’ is to do with the high tempo on the ball and endurance off it.

It’s been an incredible chapter in Liverpool’s history and a great transition from our counter attacking days that saw us defend deep and defend passively off the ball. This was our identity for much of the banter era so long may gegenpressing continue.

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