The Ten Commandments of Gegenpressing
Space is critical in football, give your opponent too much of it, and you get punished; make the best of little space or try to profit from little space, and you might get rewarded with a goal. This creates a problem for every manager, irrespective of the philosophical divide: how do I limit and control my opponent’s use of space with and without the ball? To this end, Gegenpressing is a tantalizing option;
Gegenpressing (counter-pressing) is simply winning the ball immediately after losing possession. The opposition’s intention after getting the ball is to start a counter; hence their defensive organisation is broken, leaving them vulnerable because their players are quite apart in the quest to score a goal.
In such scenarios, hunting in packs can help you regain the ball. It seems imperative, at this point, to differentiate between pressing and counter-pressing; pressing is carried out to disrupt build-up play, e.g., in the FA Cup semi-final last season between Manchester City and Liverpool, as it was their custom, City set out to build from the back with both center-backs split on either side of the goalkeeper.
However, Liverpool caused disruption by having the front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Diogo Jota press man-to-man, whilst Mané occasionally pressed Fernandinho. Gegenpressing (counterpressing), on the other hand, is done to prevent a counterattack from even being born.
Gegenpressing raises a couple of questions, such as: where do I lead my opponent? How do I press with a lot of players who are stable in an organised space? Certain principles need to be in place to sufficiently answer these questions, and this piece examines ten rules/commandments for effective gengen pressing.
- Thou Shall Defend From The Front: Johan Cryuff once said, “I always drill into my players; attackers are the first defenders.” The aim of having forwards put pressure on the opposition defense is to reduce the distance to the goal when the ball is recovered and increase the chances of scoring a goal, e.g., in the UEFA Champions League round 16 fixture between Real Madrid and PSG last season, Karim Benzema’s pressing of Gianluigi Donnarumma led to Madrid winning the ball and Vinicius Junior returning the pass to Benzema to score; a goal that began the remarkable resurrection of Madrid and the eventual elimination of PSG’s Gegenpressing can also prevent the opponents from progressing with the ball and disrupt their organization as shown in Manchester City vs. Liverpool example used earlier in this piece.
Note: if the forwards don’t press properly, pressing can break down, e.g., in the Community Shield involving Manchester City and Liverpool, Erling Haaland carried out a half-hearted press which allowed Virgil van Dijk to make passes across the box.
- Always Look For Triggers: Gengenpressing doesn’t just start on the basis of whims and caprices. Certain conditions make the opposition ready to be pressed; these factors include a lousy pass, terrible first touch, poor positioning, and football weaknesses of certain players of the opposition, to mention but a few. A great example of this is the premier league fixture between Brentford and Man. United this season, Brentford, armed with the knowledge that Manchester United goalkeeper, David De Gea was terrible with the ball at his feet, pressed his split center-backs and Christian Eriksen — the pivot. The solution would have been for De Gea to play a long pass to either of his advanced full-backs or go a bit longer upfield. However, De Gea couldn’t find such an option due to his poor passing range. Hence, he opted for the supposedly safe pass in Eriksen, who Brentford robbed of the ball and consequently scored the second goal.
- Never Forget To Set The Trap: To effectively gegenpress, you have to be able to lure your opposition into positions that limits options and creates uncomfortable situations. This process of luring opposition to be susceptible to pressing is known as pressing traps. Anyone conversant with football knows that attacks are carried out via wings and the central areas; with wings offering fewer attacking options than the central areas-via the centre, a team can go left or right, better utilize half spaces and zone 14, unlike the wings which offer just one direction. Therefore teams strive to deny their opposition the use of centre to make it easier to defend against.
Without the ball, Pep Guardiola’s City would force the opposition wide and initiate the press to recover the ball. However, pressing traps can also be set in central areas. Ralf Ragnick’s RB Leipzig and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s earlier days at Southampton saw them invite teams into central areas before collapsing on the ball. Both teams utilised a 4-2-2-2 formation, with the full-backs providing the width.
It is important to point out the connection between pressing traps and triggers. Pressing traps can facilitate the conditions for pressing triggers to be activated. Let’s recall one of our previous examples — Brentford against Manchester United-Brentford set up pressure on the split centre backs to force De Gea into the trap of passing to Christian Eriksen who could then be pressed and robbed of the ball.
- Timing Is Everything: Picture the Dutch national team and Ajax under Rinus Michels running after the ball with quite a number of players following it each time it went in any direction; in football today, such a press would be beaten easily because there would be large gaps to exploit. This would happen due to the players not being stable in an organised space.
Timing is crucial in Gegenpressing, the general rule is to press for six seconds-the maximum time vary from manager to manager- In the event that the ball has not been won after the allotted time, the team should return to its defensive shape.
- Rest Defense: This Gegenpressing feature refers to the setup adopted by players farthest away from their teammates in possession.The aim to limit the opposition’s counterattacks by having advantageous control of space in central areas and halfspaces. A properly structured rest defense has two lines, the first line consists of 2-3 players. Regardless of the number of players in each line of rest defense, observation is the biggest tool for players to possess; it helps them determine the best course of action on the pitch- for the purpose of this discuss, two types of rest defence- zonal and man-to-man rest defence would be examined;
Man-oriented Rest defence: In man-oriented rest defence, the approach is to match the number of players in the opposition’s attack. This makes Gegenpressing quite efficient. Despite its beauties, the man-oriented rest defence can be undone by third-man runs
Zonal Rest Defence
- Counterpressing with the 1-2-1 shape: The benefit of counterpressing with a 1-2-1 rest defense shape is the number of players in the final third; because this type of rest defence is created with just four players, a team has more bodies in advanced areas who can create a better shape for directly putting pressure on the ball.
- The 3-2 shape: The 3-2 shape is quite the defensive version of the 2-3 shape.It takes away a player from the second line and places an additional player in the last line. This shape is quite the feature of teams who play with three central defenders and two wingbacks.
- In such situations, the 3-2 is quite a natural rest defense structure with the three centre backs in the last line, and two central midfielders just in front. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea is a perfect example of a 3-2 shape, with N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho/Mateo Kovačić playing as the central midfielders.
- The wing-back positions were taken by Reece James, Ben Chilwell and Marcos Alonso. The three central defenders in the 3-2 shape of rest defence allows the team stretch to cover the wings and take care of the problems that can be generated from both regions; Pep Guardiola painted a great picture in reference to Tuchel’s Chelsea “They are very narrow, at the same time, they are very wide; they push you here, push you there”.
- Never Take your Foot Off The Throttle—Speed and Intensity Till You Drop Dead! Intensity is a word that is thrown around in football circles, to measure in words that have meaning to everyone, intensity covers speed and aggression off and on the ball; every throw-in, pass and kick should be done quickly. Speed is integral to Gegenpressing — it does not allow the opposition time to catch their breath and force them into errors.
- Choose Your Pressing System: When the Gegenpressing has been chosen as a football philosophy by a manager, the next phase is to determine the type of pressing system to nullify the opposition. The type of pressing used is predicated on what a team prioritizes — the ball, ball carrier and space, and the problems they try to solve. As a result, there are four types of pressing:
Man–oriented press: The man-oriented press is built to recover the ball by applying pressure to players in possession of ball. In this system, each player is assigned a specific player to mark and they try to cover the closest passing choices with their cover shadow.
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton use the man-oriented press. The downside to the man-oriented press is the fact that it can be pulled apart by switching positions, creating a problem for man markers; do they follow their assigned opponents or do they just deal with the new” players that they are now confronting?
Passing lane-oriented press: Here the ball carrier is not of uttermost importance, the pass instead gets all the focus. To achieve this goal, players press the space the pass would play into, however, for this to work, the ball carrier has to put under pressure to force the pass into the space being marked to activate the press and in situations where this does not work, the receivers are pressed.
Leeway-oriented press: The leeway-oriented press is all-encompassing- the premium is placed on the ball, ball carrier and space. It forces the opposition to do things they would not normally do, thereby leading to errors that can be pounced on; This is cover shadows are used to block the passing lane while pressured on applied to suffocate the opponent on every side.
Ball-oriented Press: Here, the ball is all that is hunted and it is hunted as a pack to force the ball carrier to make errors and win possession immediately.
- Players Are Everything: Generally, the demands of Gegenpressing on the human body create a bias towards young, quick and energetic players. However, players who are advanced in years in the footballing sense of the word can still be quite important in the Gegenpressing system e.g Karim Benzema, Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski who are well into their 30s. The most important job for the manager is to communicate why the team needs to press, the individual roles in Gegenpressing , and how it enhances individual and collective strength and reduces individual and collective weaknesses. The language must be quite clear to ensure that the manager and players have the same mental picture on what intensity is . There must a willingness to allow learn players from their mistakes with the central theme being continuous improvement or development for the players and manager.
9. Rest Attack: For most parts, the discussion in this piece has been centred on applying Gegenpressing against a team. However, what happens when we are given a taste of our own medicine? How does a team prepare for counter-attacks under pressure? Rest attack provides an answer. One of the pillars of the Rest attack is the decision of players around the ball carrier — immediately after the ball is won, they need to be moving away from the ball which affords the ball carrier more options in terms of space to drive into, passing options. The movement of his teammates helps stretch the opposition, disrupting the rest defence of the opposition.
10. Whatever You do, Pressing triangles Should not be Ignored: it is common to associate triangles with positional play. Yet, triangles also have their place in Gegenpressing. Triangles help with defensive control amongst other things. In Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool last season, Sadio Mane, Thiago and Andrew Robertson would form the triangle on the left whilst Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mohamed Salah and Jordan Henderson would form the triangle on the right. When salah moved inside and Trent occupied the wings , Henderson would cover space, providing defensive support and attacking options via combination play; the same happens on the other side of the pitch.
Gegenpressing, like every other style of play can not in itself, guarantee victory, there needs to be an insatiable hunger to victory more than opponent and realization that sometimes the opposition is going to match us or want it more; even carry out their strategies to perfection and nullify us. Nevertheless, We must pick ourselves and adapt to each challenge as it comes; only then can we get closer and closer to becoming the best version of ourselves.
By Tobi Peter / @keepIT_tactical
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / @GabFoligno / Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA / Getty Images