Is it too early for Manchester City vs. To call Liverpool the best rivalry in the world?
It may not have the quality of Real vs Barca in 2010, nor the energy of AC Milan vs. Inter. It doesn’t have the sheer violence and gore of Red Star and Partizan.
Yet it has arguably the two smartest managers in the world: Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.
Guardiola against Klopp
Guardiola, who has managed Barcelona, Bayern and City, has regularly had headbutts with Klopp, manager of Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool.
“There are some managers, including Jürgen, who challenge you to take a step forward,” Guardiola confided before a game at Anfield a year ago. The two have shaped what we think of football today with their innovative strategies.
One of their greatest successes is the resurgence of gegenpressing in modern football. Both employed the tactic, with considerable success. The gegenpress ideals have been used far and wide, from local rec leagues to the World Cup.
Lots and lots of running
The gegenpress can be reduced to running. Lots and lots of running. The name gegenpress, or counterpress in German, takes its name from the ideologies of strategy; pressurize. It primarily attempts to do this by sending one or more players to maintain possession after winning the ball.
While you can certainly link gegenpressing to Klopp and Guardiola, the basics of the idea originated in the 1960s with the Netherlands and Italy.
The “Total Football” teams of the 1960s popularized pressing when the opponent was vulnerable to incoming attacks. Italian sides like Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, who struggled to score on a conservative, slow attack, would put non-stop pressure on the side, especially when the fouls were close to goal.
Those two old styles of football, combined with the tiki-taka style of play at Barca and in Spain, led Klopp to pioneer the gegenpress while at Mainz.
It led to almost instant success, with Mainz being promoted to the Bundesliga and qualifying for the UEFA Cup.
Klopp’s acceptance of the gegenpress not only led directly to a golden era of football for Mainz, but it also landed him jobs at Dortmund and Liverpool.
With different managers come different variants of gegenpressing. Where Klopp likes to throw as many players as possible after losing the ball, Guardiola likes to block other players close to the person with the ball and slowly approach the player.
Klopp likes to counterattack immediately after winning back the ball, putting even more pressure on an already weak defence. But Guardiola likes to force a big swipe and play from the back thanks to his tiki-taka experience.
The beauty of the gegenpress is that it overwhelms people, physically and mentally. By swarming a player who has only just got the ball, you leave them disoriented and overwhelmed, resulting not only in losing the ball, but also in counter-attacking from a good spot.
A good example of the benefits of the high press was City’s second goal in their 3-1 win over Leeds. After two City attackers put pressure on Pascal Struijk, Struijk has to play it back on Liam Cooper. Erling Haaland puts pressure on Cooper and blocks the only overtaking lane available, causing Cooper to make a mistake.
A successful gegenpress not only results in a good chance high up the field, but also smothers the opponent’s attack. Swarming the defense would require the press to cut the backline off the midfield, meaning the defense has nowhere else to send the ball.
It’s why City and Liverpool are first and second respectively in total possession and average possession.
With the gegenpress you are also less dependent on a central game maker.
While it’s nice to have a De Bruyne or a Saka in your squad to create goals, you don’t have to let them create chances if you already have the ball in a great position.
Gene pressing let you win the ball back closer to the target. It’s just one pass away from a really good chance. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good situation to press, which is why it’s so important.
Jurgen Klopp talks about the benefits of gegenpressing.
Some European parties do not like the gegenpress, despite its obvious advantages; and for good reason. The gegenpress takes a physical toll on players. Any player; not only the attackers have to be fit.
When you press that aggressively, it leaves gaps in an otherwise solid formation that need to be plugged. So there are a lot of moving pieces that have to fit together for the gegenpress to work.
Not only that, but the players have to be coordinated and tactically intelligent to make it work. Players need to recognize when are the best times to press; a bad touch, a shaky back pass, a player forced onto his weak foot. If everything is not synchronized, the rearguard can beat the press, with disastrous results.
A prime example of the failed high press was the counterattack launched by Brentford against Spurs in their 2-2 Boxing Day draw.
After Ben Mee finds the space to send a long ball to Ivan Toney while fighting Tottenham’s high front line, Toney is able to find Bryan Mbeumo on an overlapping run. The 4v5 counterattacks result in Mbeumo finding Mathias Jensen at the back post.
Fraser Forster saves Jensen’s shot, but Vitaly Janelt converts the rebound to give Brentford the opening goal.
How the gegenpress will help teams in 2023
In most Top 5 leagues, there are a handful of teams looking to use the gegenpress to take on a title challenge. In Ligue 1, perennial champions PSG are the only contending team to consistently use the gegenpress, although Lyon (8th), Lille (6th) and Toulouse (13th) also use the tactic.
Bayern are the premier press team in the Bundesliga, clearly inspired by previous press-heavy managers Pep Guardiola and Hansi Flick. Frankfurt (4th), Werder Bremen (9th), Bochum (17th) are also press-heavy teams, who have used the high line with varying degrees of success.
Serie A have seen league leaders Napoli apply the gegenpressing tactic, along with teams like Fiorentina (10th), Cremonese (17th) and Bologna (11th) who are also pressuring people high up on the pitch.
LaLiga’s more conservative approach to gegenpress has led teams like Athletic Club (5th), Espanyol (16th) and league leaders Barcelona to become more aggressive.
In the Premier League, where you can find elements of the gegenpress on every side, you will find the gegenpress with teams like City, Liverpool, Spurs, Southampton and Leeds, still inspired by club legend Marcelo Bielsa.
The league positions of various gegenpressing sides show that the gegenpress is not an automatic cheat code. It is testament to the tactical ingenuity of the likes of Pep, Klopp and Ralf Rangnick that they have been able to take their teams to the next level.
Photo credit: IMAGO/Colorsport
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