Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and the importance of ‘gegenpressing’
The German manager will step out for his first taste of Premier League action at Tottenham on Saturday but how will Borussia Dortmund’s high-pressing approach translate to Liverpool?
Who is the best playmaker in the world? While others squabble over individual players, Jürgen Klopp has no doubt. Nothing, he believes, creates more chances than gegenpressing.
It is his faith in that style and his ability to instil its principles in his players that allowed Borussia Dortmund to compete with far wealthier clubs. The system was able to negate the fact Bayern Munich were able to afford better individuals. The hope at Liverpool is he can have a similar impact in the Premier League.
There is a section in Uefa’s technical report on last season’s Champions League headed “Counters are key”. In it, the former Werder Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf makes the very reasonable point that quick counterattacks are something Barcelona added last season, that their game became about more than wearing the opposition down through possession.
But the report also delivers a highly-telling statistic: that 20.6% of all goals scored from open play in the Champions League last season were from counters. The figure is presented as though it is a lot, but it is down from 23% in 2013-14 and 27% the season before that.
In 2005-06 a report put together by the technical director of Uefa, Andy Roxburgh, suggested as many as 40% of all goals from open play came from counterattacks. In other words, the proportion of goals scored from counters has almost halved over the last decade.
What that suggests is that the top clubs, at least, are getting better at countering the counter, that the transition from attack to defence has become as significant as the transition from defence to attack, and part of the reason for that is gegenpressing. No one, perhaps, has done more to popularise the style than Klopp.
“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.”
In itself, perhaps that is not a particularly revelatory insight; where Klopp – and Pep Guardiola, who was also a pioneer of gegenpressing – were innovative was in how they took advantage of that realisation, pushing high up the pitch and co-ordinating how the hunt for the ball was conducted.
Most importantly, the team have to be compact. If there are spaces when a team presses, then it’s relatively easy for the opponent to thread passes through the gaps. That applies both vertically and laterally – Arrigo Sacchi, who pioneered pressing at Milan in the 1980s, spoke of an ideal of 25m from the most advanced player to the back four, while there is also a requirement for, say, the right-winger to move centrally when the ball is on the left. At Bayern, Guardiola has one of the training pitches divided into zones to help players work on their spacing. At Barça he operated a principle of “one and three”: when the ball is lost, one man goes straight to the ball and three race to the scene to try to cut out passing angles.
A team also have to understand when to stop pressing: the ball cannot be hunted relentlessly, partly because to do so is exhausting and partly because once that initial moment, when the opponent has gained possession has passed, it is not that difficult to hit a long ball into space behind the pressing defence (which is one of the reasons goalkeepers such as Víctor Valdés and Manuel Neuer, who can sweep behind their defence, are so valuable).
Once the opposing team were set with possession, the wide men in Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 would drop back so they would defend with two very traditional banks of four. That means the wide players have to be exceptionally fit. That is probably bad news for Adam Lallana, who has finished only 11 of the 24 games he has started for club and country this year, and may mean James Milner being used in a wide role, at least once Jordan Henderson is fit.
There are a number of variants of gegenpressing. Sometimes, especially if the man with the ball is not a great passer, he himself may simply be left alone and his passing options restricted. The press can focus on marking possible recipients of a pass, on the ball itself or on the passing lanes – that is, getting between the ball and possible recipients of a pass. At Dortmund, Klopp’s focus tended to be the ball carrier, surrounding him even if it meant some loss of structure.
But it would be wrong to assume Klopp will simply look to transplant the Dortmund model to Liverpool. All good coaches evolve: Between 2010-11, when Dortmund first won the Bundesliga under Klopp, and 2012-13 when they reached the Champions League final, for instance, Dortmund’s pass completion rate climbed from 75.1% to 80.9%. They became less direct and more possession-focused, partly because of the emergence of players such as Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan, and partly because Klopp realised that the relentlessness of Dortmund’s pressing was leaving them exhausted, particularly as they battled on two fronts.
Similarly, aerial duels won per game climbed from 7.9 per game to 17.2 per game, largely because Lewandowski took over from Lucas Barrios at centre-forward: it became worth playing high balls into the box. It is true Klopp has not worked with a Christian Benteke-style striker before, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try playing crosses and longer balls into him.
Klopp spoke last week of “full-throttle” football, but it may be that running faster and further than the opposition, something on which he prided himself at Dortmund, isn’t as possible in what Louis van Gaal termed “the rat race” of the Premier League. Besides, gegenpressing, its central tenets now absorbed across Europe, cannot have the shock value it did when Klopp first implemented it at Dortmund.
And then there is the issue of how long it takes players to learn Klopp’s mode of pressing (and how different that is to Brendan Rodgers’s method). It’s likely to be several weeks before he can affect any systemic tactical change.
If there is a lift at Tottenham on Saturday, it is more likely to be to do with his personality than with the underlying structures he seeks to change.