Very few football managers can claim to have introduced a new concept into English football, but Jurgen Klopp has a genuine case. The fact English journalists started using the German word for his favourite concept, gegenpressing – in the absence of an alternative in their native language – demonstrates the extent to which Klopp was something of a revolutionary.
To understand gegenpressing – or counter-pressing, the most obvious translation – it’s important to recognise the concept of the transition, the moment when one team loses possession and the other regains it. Klopp’s philosophy is essentially based entirely around transitions, rather than being defined by his side’s attacking approach with possession, or his side’s shape out of possession. It’s about the transitions.
The attacking transition, when a team regains the ball from the opposition, is something English football is well-accustomed to. It’s the opportunity to start a counter-attack, and throughout the history of the Premier League – from Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Manchester United title-winners, to Arsene Wenger’s early Arsenal, to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in his first spell, through to Claudio Ranieri’s brilliant Leicester City side of last season – various teams have been outstanding at attacking transitions, winning the ball and launching quick breaks.
No-one else, however, has concentrated so much upon the defensive transitions. Ask Mourinho what he demands when his sides lose possession, and he’ll talk about the importance of getting back into a solid shape efficiently. To him, as with most managers, the defensive transition is a moment to think about defence, now his team are no longer in possession, and the next attack will probably come from a deep position, launching a counter-attack.
Then there’s Klopp, a rare football manager who considers the defensive transition as an attacking opportunity. “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” Klopp has said. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
Klopp believes gegenpressing is the best playmaker around, and thinks it creates the most favourable scoring opportunities – when the opposition side are starting to transition into their attacking shape, Klopp’s team suddenly hits them with a quick counter-press, then strikes while they’re disorganised.
What’s the difference from pressing? Well, it’s essentially a more specific form of pressing. Pressing can happen at any stage – when the opposition are taking goal-kicks, for example, if a team push up the pitch and block any short passing options, that’s pressing. It’s entirely possible to press but have a specific emphasis upon counter-pressing. Equally, it’s entirely possible not to press in normal play, but then focus strongly upon counter-pressing. Klopp’s Dortmund were more about counter-pressing, whereas his Liverpool side combines both effectively. It’s an extremely exciting, high-tempo brand of football which could be categorised as belonging to Football Manager’s ‘overload’ setting – usually the approach deployed when going for broke in the final 20 minutes. Klopp’s sides, however, use that as their default approach.
Pressing and counter-pressing are both often assumed to be solely about energy and stamina: about running, sprinting and tackling to regain the ball as quickly as possible, but it’s also about organisation and intelligence. It’s not simply harrying opponents for the sake of it, but about pressing in a certain direction and encouraging the ball to be played in a certain manner. A good example can be found by looking at Roberto Firmino, the centre-forward Klopp is currently using at Liverpool. Football Manager’s attributes hint at why he is preferred over Daniel Sturridge, a more traditional striker: a work rate of 16 compared to Sturridge’s 12, his tackling is 10 compared to Sturridge’s 7, his natural fitness is 16 compared to Sturridge’s 10.
Without the ball, Firmino’s primary job is to split the pitch in half. That means that if the opposition play the ball to their left-sided centre-back, Firmino’s job is to press from the direction of their right-centre-back, which forces the man in possession to turn away, and look towards his side of the pitch. Firmino’s teammates can then concentrate upon pressing on that side of the pitch.
Coutinho, Liverpool’s left-winger, can ignore the opposition right-back because the man in possession has turned towards the left-back, and can concentrate, perhaps, on shutting down the opposition’s holding midfielder instead. It’s inevitably much easier to press when the opposition are playing the ball towards touchlines, and few passing options, rather than when they have the ball in the centre, where they can escape the trap by going either left or right.
To simplify it, it’s essentially like the Sunday League tactic of ‘boxing in’ the opposition when they have a throw near their own corner flag. But, rather than being dependent upon them having a throw, it applies throughout the game, in open play – which inevitably means there’s a requirement for both tremendous stamina and great organisation. Using young, energetic players is also particularly useful – it’s notable that Klopp is only rated 20 for one managerial attribute, working with youngsters.
Klopp’s counter-pressing and pressing is also targeted. He will scout the opposition, work out which of their defenders is weakest in possession, and then instruct his players to gradually press in a way which encourages the ball to be played in his direction, before springing the press more intensely to exploit his weakness.
Replicating this counter-pressing in Football Manager is one of the greatest challenges in the game. There are no simple ‘counter-pressing’ instructions – instead, it’s about fine-tuning things to encourage your side to counter-press. Some of the obvious options include changing the ‘tempo’ setting to ‘much higher’, while the ‘closing down’ setting should be ‘much more’ and both ‘prevent short goalkeeper distribution’ and ‘use tighter marking' should be on.
In midfield, instructing all three midfielders – assuming you’re using a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system, as Klopp generally favours – to act as ball-winning midfielders is a bold, unusual strategy, but as long as the side remains compact and holds a high defensive line, it’s not, in itself, problematic. Of course, you do need naturally good ball-winners: it’s notable that Klopp’s most defensive midfielder during his time at Dortmund, Sven Bender, is rated 18 for tackling by Football Manager. You wouldn’t call him a pure holding midfielder as he’s so mobile, but he was a superb ball-winner.
Perhaps the real key to counter-pressing, however, is the use of opposition instructions. You can set your three attacking players to man-mark three of the opposition’s defenders, subtly using the Klopp method of forcing them to pass to their weakest defender in possession. Showing opponents onto a particular foot is also a useful approach. Even if a right-sided centre-back is two-footed, for example, it’s helpful to show him onto his right side, therefore allowing the directional pressing towards the touchline to start earlier.
All this, of course, is physically and mentally tiring for players – especially for attackers, whose natural inclination is to rest when possession is lost. A change in tactics when you’re leading comfortably is often advisable to prevent burnout. Is such intense pressing and counter-pressing sustainable over the course of the season? Klopp, and Liverpool, are about to find out.