Gerard Houllier the former Liverpool, PSG and Lyon Manager said, “The important moment in the game today is when the ball is won or lost.” Gegenpressing means to pressure the ball the instant possession is lost, with the intent of launching a quick counter-attack when possession is regained. It is different than ordinary pressing where play is always directed into predetermined pressing areas of the field. Gegenpressing is literally a swarm of intense high-energy players immediately trying to win the ball back after possession is lost, in most cases, this is carried out high up the field. The idea behind this type of counter pressing is to force the opposition into hurried decisions and inaccurate passes, coupled with a heavy psychological pressure on the player in possession.
Jurgen Klopp is known for exposing the world to what he calls Gegenpressing but in reality, this type of counter pressing has been around since the 1970’s. Ajax FC and the Dutch National team used counter pressing to immense success in the 1970’s. If you haven’t seen those teams play in that era, I would encourage you to find the games on youtube and watch a few. It will show you what counter pressing looked like in its initial stages. The main difference in today’s modern counter pressing is the player’s incredibly high fitness levels, world-class athletic ability, mental toughness and their ability to stay focused and committed for 90 minutes. If you are thinking of playing a counter pressing style, you must recognize that it is not an easy way to play; it requires huge mental and physical commitments from your players. If counter pressing or what Klopp calls Gegenpressing is done right, it can completely destroy the opposition, if done wrong it can destroy the team using it!
Important Concepts in Successful
- The team must recognize if they have sufficient players around the ball to press (3-5 players recommended). Recent research from Prozone Sports suggests that in order for counter pressing to be effective, the first defender must pressure within 2.4 seconds of losing possession, while the second defender must pressure within 5.5 seconds of losing possession. The first defender or nearest player to the ball must be very aggressive and not hesitate in the pressing action. It is also vital that players do not dive-in or become reckless and undisciplined in their individual defending. If the initial press is broken because of poor defending technique and lack of discipline, Gegenpressing tactics will fail, as the team will be extremely vulnerable to the counter attack. If the first and second defenders pressure with discipline within 2.4 and 5.5 seconds, the chance of forcing the opponent to give away possession will be high. Counter pressing is most effective if the pressing is carried out with 3-5 players that can swarm the opponent in possession.
- The players who are not involved in the counter pressing will serve two purposes. First, the deep players in the backline must make sure no long balls can beat them over the top on the counter attack. Second, you may elect to leave an attacking player high, not involved in the counter pressing. The idea would be to win the ball and immediately look for that attacking player positioned high, who could start the counter attack and possibly score. The striker or strikers (depending on the formation) play a crucial part in the success of Gegenpressing. The strikers are required to work tirelessly, pressing and getting themselves into good counter attacking positions. Strikers who want to walk back after losing the ball or making a run will never be able to play in a counter pressing team. In fact, there is little room in the modern game for what we call luxury players anymore. These are players who only really want to work when the ball is at their feet.
- The players swarming the ball in Gegenpressing can come from multiple directions for compounded pressure. However, the pressing ultimately must be organized and balanced, even though the idea is to swarm the ball with the initial 3-5 players. Intense counter pressing will force the opponent in possession into hurried poor decisions. There is also a mental aspect to counter pressing, the opposition will feel psychological pressure as a result of the relentless intense pressure being applied. It will eventually wear on them mentally as the game progresses.
- If the opponents break the initial counter press, the team must re-organize immediately behind the ball, getting into a team shape where they can apply pressure again.
- Win the ball back in 6 seconds or less! The goal of counter pressing is to win the ball back quickly high up the field and then immediately launch a counter attack; the result of counter pressing pressure is the opponents will have no time to transition into an organized defensive shape. Klopp would often speak about counter attacking with minimal passes from Gegenpressing. If the quick counter attack were not available, the team would keep possession with the intent to create openings.
- When do you stop counter pressing? This is not an easy question with a clear textbook well-defined answer, but it is a very important question. Ideally a team will win the ball back within 6 seconds, but what if they don’t win it back in 6 seconds? Should they drop off because the 6-second rule has expired? For me the answer is simple, no. What I tell my players is, press until the other team relieves (breaks) pressure. A team that relieves pressure usually does so by switching the field, dribbling out of pressure or passing out of pressure, at that point the player on the ball will have plenty of time to lift his head and execute an unopposed soccer action. For me the 6-second rule is more of a general guideline; if your team is pressing and has the opposing team locked down under real pressure but 8 seconds has elapsed, would you just drop off because its more than 6 seconds? Of course not. If the opposition breaks the press, the team will drop back quickly behind the ball, regaining a good defensive shape.
- In order to penetrate quickly when possession is gained, it is important that player’s have a high technical ability. Technical and intelligent players who can play 1 & 2 touch in small-congested areas are essential in order to exploit the opponent’s disorganization during transition from offense to defense. Gegenpressing tactics cause the opposition to get caught out of defensive shape, in order to exploit the opponent’s poor defensive shape; players must be technical and smart.
- The overall positioning of the team shouldn’t be too spread out if Gegenpressing is going to be successful. Example, if your team has just counter attacked with 2-4 players and the rest the team is slower moving up the field, the team shape will be stretched. If possession is lost during the counter attack, it may not be the best time to press if there are not enough players close enough to the ball to be effective. The cues will be the distance and number of players available to press in the area of the ball.
- Effective Gegenpressing demands players have the mental and physical ability to last an entire 90 minutes. Gegenpressing can be highly effective or it can be broken down in an instant if players are not focused and fit for the full 90. Fitness levels and concentration are directly related. Klopp expected his team to run 120km collectively every single game; he believed if they ran the 120 kilometers, their chance of losing would be much less. When he arrived at Dortmund, Klopp offered the players a day off the first time they were able to reach the 120km mark in a single game! At Liverpool FC the players went through a number of hamstring injuries getting in good enough physical condition to reach the point to where they could cover the 120 Kilometers in a game!
- Players must be able to play at a high tempo in possession and on defense. This “high octane” type of soccer will take some getting used to from a physical, mental and overall speed of play aspect. Gegenpressing relies on carry out this high tempo play.
- Your players, the opponent & the moment. When Klopp talks about the ingredients that make up the Gegenpressing game plan, those are the three things that it boils down to. Emotional soccer can be electric in the “moment” and that electric feeling is where Klopp wants his teams to live. The fans, the players, the game, the history and many other factors all combine to create the moment; that moment should fuel the emotions for all 90 minutes, making Gegenpressing so effective.
Be sure to check out my ebook available on amazon.com “Gegenpressing/Counter Pressing Made Simple”