-Pgs and Ishan.
“No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation” – Jurgen Klopp.
What is a counter press? As the name quite literally suggests, a “counter-press” is pressing the counter itself. Unlike common belief, a counter-press is not pressing a side that presses, but rather, pressing against a possible counter-attack. Gegenpressing is simply a version of a counter-press, and it developed in Germany in the late 2000’s, and the prime proponent of the development of the Gegenpress in modern football was Jurgen Klopp. However, one thing to note is that Klopp was not the inventor, or so to say, of the Gegenpress, but rather an advocate of it who developed it to a different level. Pep Guardiola, in his treble winning Barcelona side, had already started using a form of counter-pressing. The main difference between the sides managed by the aforementioned two was the intent of the counter-press. For Guardiola, the main purpose of the counter-press was to maintain his control over the game. For his sides, a counter-press was done simply to win the ball back and begin their cycle of possession all over again. For Klopp, the purpose of his counter-press was to start attacks. For him, the counter-press was his biggest tool to create opportunities to score, and unlike Guardiola, wasn’t to regain the ball and hold on to it, but rather to hit the opponent as fast as possible.
For most teams, when a player loses a ball, his reaction is to close down the opponent he lost out to, on his own, as his teammates fallback, or fallback with his teammates and create a defensive line.
A Gegenpress, in essence, is to press the opponent immediately after losing the ball, regardless of how high the play is. In a Gegenpress, after losing the ball, the player who lost the ball presses the player he lost out to immediately, while his closest teammates react accordingly and close down the best passing lanes, usually the three easiest ones. The key factor in making this system has always been awareness. The player who lost out and his closest teammates need to be aware of where they need to be once possession is lost, and must react in a split-second, and this reaction can create a pressing trap (a concept that will be explained later), and force their opposition into a certain area or action.
The benefits of a Gegenpress are numerous. The main benefit, which turns the Gegenpress into a “playmaker”, as Jurgen Klopp so eloquently put it, is that it gives the pressing team an opportunity to win the ball back very high up the pitch. This makes it so that the distance between the pressing team and the opposition goal decreases, and leaves the opposition little to no time to fall back into a defensive block. Another benefit, and a reason that Klopp started to use this method, is that it does not require players of incredible skill to implement, and can be done with any crop of players, such as Klopp’s Mainz squad, or his early Dortmund team.
The place where Klopp properly implemented the Gegenpress, and took it to new heights, was his Dortmund side. However, it must be noted that he has since made numerous alterations on his Gegenpress, and his current style at Liverpool is far different than what it was at Dortmund. Regardless, the purest form of Gegenpress was at his two title-winning seasons at Dortmund.
At Dortmund, Klopp’s go-to formation was the 4-2-3-1, with a back four of Schmelzer, Hummels, Subotic, Pizscek, a midfield two of Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin in his first title win, and Kehl and Gundogan during his second. The 3 behind the striker were any three of Kevin Großkreutz Goetze, Kagawa and Jakub Błaszczykowski. Contrary to popular belief, Marco Reus was not a part of the title winning teams. The lone striker in first season was Milan Barios, who was quite poor in terms of goalscoring, but epitomised the perfect “Klopp striker”. In his second season he upgraded to a certain pole known as Robert Lewandowski.
With two physically dominant center backs, who, despite being slow, had excellent reading of the game, Klopp could afford to play a high line, an absolute need for his Gegenpress. Klopp’s fullbacks would move high, but not in the way of today’s fullbacks. The reasoning for his high fullbacks were to press, and not to overlap as current fullbacks do. Moreover, Dortmund had two adept wide players who didn’t perform invertedly, and thus the fullbacks were not required to maintain width. Klopp also used a proper no.10, with some positional restrictions, and more often than not, his no.10 was Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa was excellent in this system, in part due to his ability to release the ball quickly and his quick feet, and this was perfect for this system as he operated in high intensity situations which afforded little time to linger on the ball. In front, Lewandowski was highly crucial to this system as he could occupy opposition defenders and give his wingers space to operate in. Of the double pivot, Sahin was the one responsible to step up from midfield to either spread passes or help the press, and Bender screened the CB’s. In his second season, the same roles were carried out by Kehl and Gundogan, with Gundogan operating in the Sahin role, and Kehl taking over from Bender. Gundogan was an upgrade on Sahin, as he was a better passer. However, we cannot undermine Sahin, who was the 10/11 Kicker Bundesliga player of the season.
The case of Kehl is one to note, as it clearly showed Klopp’s preferences in players. Kehl had already crossed 30 when he became a starter for the team. The reason for Klopp trusting such an aged player was because of Kehl’s characteristics; a strong work ethic. Even Klopp’s usage of Kevin Großkreutz and Jakub Błaszczykowski, two wingers who weren’t typical skilful wingers showed what he wants from his players. For comparison, the wingers of Dortmund’s biggest rivals were the incredible duo of Robben and Ribery, two of the finest wingers to ever play in Germany.
As mentioned before, this Dortmund side were the side that used the Gegenpress in its purest, rawest form. They pressed very high up, with very high intensity, were super fast and used counters to full effect. They attacked with a 4-2-4, and with their press they forced the opposition to the touchline, and forced the ball out, forced the opposition to go long, or won the ball. Kagawa was super crucial to this style of play as he helped create numerical superiority while pressing, and to act as an outlet who redistributed play once the ball was won back.
The only player who could be classified as a “genius”, or someone who could make something out of nothing was Mario Goetze. Although Lewandowski was the perfect striker, who could score with anything, his influence was in and around the box only. Goetze on the other hand, was once described as “more dangerous than Messi”, which is false, but goes to show how good he was.
Klopp’s side won two titles, and followed the wins with a UCL final appearance. However, the cracks in his system started to show. His side failed to break down sides that refused to hold on to possession and let Klopp’s team act of the front foot, rather than reactively as before. Opposition teams almost let Dortmund have the ball and challenge them to do something with it, and sat deep and soaked up pressure. Another weakness, that has formed in every single side that has pressed like this in history, was burnout. His team failed to maintain the same levels of intensity as players slowly succumbed to the physical demands of the system. In addition to this, Bayern started to steal players such as Goetze, and became far stronger with the emergence of Kroos, Boateng and Alaba. The Dortmund players also began to decline, and without their physical prowess, their lack of individual ability became more and more apparent.
Klopp eventually left after two disappointing campaigns, and what he did later changed the face of European football, from a tactical standpoint at least, forever.
Klopp joined a weak Liverpool, a side destroyed mentally by their title slip-up in 13/14, and a humiliating 14/15 campaign. This was despite interest in Klopp from Bayern. His first Liverpool side were a mixture of bad transfer decisions and mediocrity. How he transformed this into one of the best footballing sides in Europe is story in itself. The current Liverpool side are on a 38-match unbeaten run (at the time of writing) in the Premier league and is more or less the best team in Europe right now.
So how did this happen? Klopp simply learned from his mistakes in Dortmund. However, this did not happen immediately, but rather after multiple set-backs, such as two European final losses.
The early Klopp Liverpool sides resembled his Dortmund sides quite a bit. Coutinho took up the mantle as the primary creator, even from the wings, and the fullbacks were mostly used to press, rather than to create. His sides were meant to outscore the opponent, mainly because of the fact that they couldn’t defend, and for a while it looked as though Klopp would not find success with his methods in England.
The team began a metamorphosis with the addition of signings such as Mane and Salah, two players who operated invertedly, and had individual talent, and were insanely fast. Even though he didn’t sign him, Klopp turned Firmino into the most crucial cog of his attack, and the deployment of Firmino as a false-9 became the symbol of the new Gegenpress. Firmino became the second most successful False-9, and would have been the best had the role not been operated in by Messi in Pep’s famous Barcelona sides.
Klopp’s Liverpool went through two distinct phases in regard to their pressing. The changing of the phases or so came after the 17/18 UCL final loss to Real Madrid, a game in which Trent Alexander-Arnold described Real Madrid as “toying with us, and never lost the ball”. Before this final, Liverpool focused on the original components of Gegenpressing; winning the ball very high, pressing with intensity and maintaining a very high line. This led to them being open at the back, and teams with highly press resistant players exploited this easily. They also lacked midfield personnel to dictate the tempo of games, and could not maintain a defensive high line due to the likes of Lovren being poor positionally and not being very good on the ball as well.
The turning point came from both tactics and personnel. Liverpool, in the 17/18 winter window, signed Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton for a record breaking 75 million pounds. They went on to sell Coutinho for 142 million pounds, much to the sadness of Liverpool fans, and used this to buy Allison for 67 million and Fabinho for around 40 million pounds. This had a huge impact on this squad both from a tactical point of view and psychologically.
The primary impact of the signing was that the Liverpool center backs had someone to look up to and they had to up their game to make sure they are selected in the XI regularly. They also had Allison behind them, someone who could command the box much better than the player he was replacing. Both of them had an immediate psychological impact on a team already capable of reaching a Champions league final.
The tactical changes came with it. The first thing Klopp had to learn was to break down teams that sat deep while also making his side play against teams that pressed them. This led to him playing a 4-3-3 in most of his games and a 4-2-3-1 against teams that sat deep. This side had Allison in goal, who could distribute play to highly dangerous areas, which helped Liverpool’s counter attacks, and also helped bypass their midfield, an area that was bereft of creativity. The backline had one of the best CB’s in the game currently, and he could make sure Liverpool could maintain a highline because of his superb recovery speed and physical dominance.
The biggest change between Klopp’s two sides were his usage of fullbacks. As mentioned before, BVB’s fullbacks were largely defensive, and were used to press, while his fullbacks at Liverpool are his main source of creativity, especially TAA. Klopp mainly uses his new fullbacks in two ways; firstly, to cross, and as a result create via wide areas, and secondly to beat pressing teams by progressing the ball via the wings, and to switch play quickly from one side to another, which exposes pressing teams on the side that their players are not clustered in.
Another change came in the usage of Fabinho as number 6. Normally no.6’s are the deepest of the midfield 3, but Fabinho did not operate in this way. Fabinho stepped out to press the opposition and mostly played as a roaming destroyer rather than a traditional DM. The other 2, usually Wijnaldum and Henderson, are another reason TAA and Robertson could move forward. During attacks, they played as “false full-backs” who mostly covered the flanks while the 2 fullbacks pushed forward. As a result, the midfield looks like a midfield with 3 work-horses rather than 3 players with different skillsets.
So how does Klopp compensate for this lack of creativity in midfield? For this he has to thank the man he replaced for signing Roberto Firmino. Klopp didn’t have to look any further to find the man he could play as a number 9. Firmino wasn’t the archetypical no.9, but was a “false-9”, who dropped deep to press and to act as an outlet. What Firmino allowed Klopp to do was to combine the roles of a striker and AM in one player, allowing him to field an extra midfielder. Firmino has the output of a decent no.9, while doing the work of a no.10. Moreover, he is excellent technically and pretty good aerially, making him the complete forward.
The use of Firmino also allowed space to be opened up for arguably the best wing duo in the world; Salah and Mane. This duo is in stark contrast to his Dortmund duo, as they have high levels of individual ability. Both can go 1v1 and beat their man, while also having massive output. This is clearly highlighted by their joint golden boot in 18/19, and Salah having the best goal scoring season in PL history with 32 in 17/18. The compatibility of the front three allowed Klopp to field a midfield entirely composed of workhorses, and thus did not need midfield creators.
This team pressed only when needed, or against certain opposition, and did not press as rampantly as the Dortmund side. This made them less exposed defensively, and prevented them from burning out in the latter stages of the season. This is highlighted by their wins mostly coming during the last minutes of games, something that comes with incredible amounts of focus and stamina. Klopp also trained his sides to win where the odds weren’t in their favor by building training routines where 5 attacking players would play against an entire XI in training. Klopp also made the players comprising the 5 man team start the game 3 goals down, in an effort to fortify their mental resilience and make sure they don’t falter when they concede and lose intensity.
Another unique aspect of this side was that in a era where most of the football is focused on building centrally, Klopp took his buildup out wide and exploited the space left by teams getting narrower and narrower into the middle of the pitch.
Klopp again used his incredible man management skills to turn players like Robertson, TAA and Wijnaldum into world class players. He created a team spirit which was second to none and instilled a never say die attitude, which has given them incredible mental fortitude. This is one thing that does not come from tactics or personnel and rather from the ability of Klopp’s coaching.
The evolution of Klopp as a manager is reflected in his use of the Gegenpress. Overtime, the tactic has been perfected with a tweak here or there, and now is in it’s most refined, most effective phase, a phase which just might end up making this Liverpool side the best in PL history, and Klopp the coach who led such a side.