The much-heralded arrival of Jurgen Klopp to Liverpool, after the exciting but ultimately fruitless tenure of Brendan Rodgers, brought a sense of excitement to the Anfield faithful that any new, high-profile manager arrival brings. What was potentially exciting, though, was the prospect of Klopp bringing his famous “Gegenpressing” philosophy to Liverpool – a tactical idea that he all but perfected at Borussia Dortmund, and that brought him much success during his time there. For a relatively trophy-starved support (at least in recent years), the potential gains of Gegenpressing was enough to reawaken the enthusiasm of even the most jaded Liverpool supporter.
What is Gegenpressing?
At its heart, Gegenpressing is the idea that winning the ball back as early as possible in transition can yield a high quantity of opportunities to score, thus making the opposition possibly play in a way that is uncomfortable for them (possession teams having to play long clearances, for example; or less-skillful defenders constantly having their technical abilities tested by quick and hungry attackers snapping at their heels).
Although there are a number of nuances to the strategy, Gegenpressing is, at its most basic, the idea that the nearest two or three defending players to the ball, in any position, will swarm the opposition attacker, while the next nearest three or four defending players will cut off the passing options nearby, and the remaining defending players will compress towards the ball:
Klopp himself, has said that he believes that “Gegenpressing is the best playmaker”, and by this he means that winning the ball early and high up the field will allow quick attackers to create numerous scoring chances just through good positioning and hard work. In order to take advantage of these transitions, though, pressing teams need to be compact, mobile, alert, and aggressive. When it works, it works spectacularly well.
Liverpool and Pressing in Recent Times
“Pressing” itself is not something that the players Klopp inherited were alien to. Rodgers, before him, was also a great exponent on putting the opposition under pressure and testing their technical abilities with the ball. It is an approach that helped deliver Liverpool's best league season in a long time, and so very nearly won them the league.
Compared to his eminent predecessor, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers was almost a complete 180 degree turn in terms of how far forward Liverpool were willing to travel to regain the ball, and how aggressively they were going to engage in defensive 1v1s. In the 2011-12 season (Dalglish's only full season after his return), Liverpool were 10th in tackles per game, with an average of 19.1 tackles:
In 2012-13, under Rodgers, Liverpool had jumped to 3rd in tackles per game, at 20.9 tackles per game. Not a huge leap in absolute numbers, but a clear indication of an increased aggression to win the ball and less reliance on shape and interceptions as seen under Dalglish:
In the fateful 2013-14 season, though, Liverpool took on all-comers, and had the most average tackles per game of any team that season:
The loss of Suarez (through transfer), Sturridge (through injury), and the decreased physical capacity of an aging Gerrard, saw a drop in aggression the following year – a year of relative underperformance that promised so much in the pre-season:
The following season only saw Rodgers manage eight league games before the arrival of Klopp, but he immediately put Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino to good effect, and Liverpool once again led the line in tackling numbers:
In 2016-17, Liverpool finished second for tackles, with a slightly diminished performance in the league, but still around the numbers established by Rodgers in the years previously. This, in all probability, helped the Liverpool players to quickly adapt to Klopp's demanding system, with nuanced changes most likely the only things needed to be made, tactically.
The Good, the Bad (and the Ugly)
With this being Liverpool's third season under Klopp, the players – along with the recruitments such as Wijnaldum, Mane and Salah – will have had more than ample time to adapt to, and adopt, Klopp's methods. But so far, in the current season (2017-18), the best and the worst of Gegenpressing has been exemplified. Looking at the Arsenal game, which Liverpool won 4-0 at Anfield, the very best of the system was on display, as the hard-working front six of Liverpool prevented the Arsenal players from having a moment's peace on the ball. Their industry, aggression and speed of transition from any part of the field, can be seen by the locations of all tackles attempted by the Liverpool players:
The defensive and attacking half of the field shows the distribution of Liverpool's aggression being heavily weighted along the right side of the field, and being particularly aggressive towards Arsenal's left central defender and left back in particular (who were Kocielny, Monreal, and Xhaka moving from midfield to help out). These “pressing traps” - where opposition players are allowed and guided to pass the ball into certain areas of the field in order for the pressing team to “trap” them and regain the ball – allowed Liverpool to be a constant pain every time the ball was turned over in the Arsenal half. The effort of the whole Liverpool team to create and exploit these pressing traps was so effective that Arsenal failed to register a single shot on target in the entire game – something that is a rare thing to say about an Arsene Wenger team.
On the other hand, though, the most recent game – against Manchester City, and the other famous “pressing” coach in Pep Guardiola – showed how brutally ineffective it can be when even one part of the machine is not functioning (or, in the case of Mane's red card – absent).
Both teams looked open and ripe for exploiting, but City seemed to set their pressing traps better than Liverpool, who seemed to concentrate on the left side of City's back three, matching Salah up against Otamendi. City vacated the middle of the field, almost, allowing the ball to be built down the wings (a risk, given that any transition on Liverpool's part would be played into the pace of Mane or Salah on either side), before shifting it back to the empty center of the field before moving it through the ever-increasing central defensive gaps of the Liverpool back four, or moving it back to the wings again as Liverpool adjusted to the central gap.
Couple this with the clear targeting of the nervous and inexperienced Alexander-Arnold at right-back for Liverpool, and almost all of the frailties of the “Pressing” game were exposed in a 5-0 thrashing of the Reds. With opponents who had a well-worked gameplan, and their own understanding of pressing, Liverpool were reduced to defending in their half more effectively than they were defending in the opposition's half, and in effect were playing the opposition's game – a situation that no team ever wants to be in:
Even before the sending-off of Mane, City brutally exposed the gaps in Liverpool's compactness (created, most likely, by the lack of speed in Klavan) for Aguero's goal, assisted by a sumptious pass from De Bruyne. After that, and the red card, Liverpool were chasing a game against a super-accurate passing team, who destroyed the almost-hopeless pressing efforts of a team playing with a man short, almost like a car trying to drive without a timing belt. In a matter of weeks, the best and the most problematic sides of “Gegenpressing” were shown, almost in juxtaposition.
Back to the Drawing Board?
Of course, losing one game – no matter how big the margin of defeat – doesn't mean that Klopp should get rid of the plan he knows so well, and has had success with. A tweaking here and there, some more transfers in, and a kinder fixture list, and Klopp could and should make Gegenpressing a success for Liverpool. But that success might be confined to Europe and the cups, rather than the league. The league in England is an unforgiving program, and not every team wants to “play ball” - possession-style teams being the most susceptible to the effects of being pressed.
Lower-table teams who prefer to play direct and defensive might have some joy against Liverpool's forward-directed defending (as they have done in the past), while quick-passing teams such as those that Guardiola has coached, or Spurs, even, will sometimes find a way around the in-you-face defending that Liverpool prefer.
In the end, though, the success of the Klopp method might come down to the quality and depth of the squad he has at his disposal, because while coaches with a single vision are regularly successful, there are times when going against your better nature is the way to victory, and so far, Klopp has some question marks over this part of his tactical philosophy.