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Gegenpress. Like a pop star turning up to a school disco, it took the Premier League by storm. No longer had the beautiful, eloquent idea of tiki-taka graced the world of football, than had it been swept aside by its violent, aggressive cousin.
Managers often come along, like salesmen of technique, with a shiny, new approach. Pep Guardiola is probably the first name that comes to mind in the modern era. Taking influence from Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team of the early 90’s, Guardiola’s Barcelona was an outfit that was meticulously drilled and nurtured to always trust your team-mates to both give you the ball and keep possession. He wants his team to always stay in position. A rule of the genius Barcelona team that dominated Spain under Guardiola was that he has a formation, a shape and a set of players that could help define his style. Barcelona’s pressing style was not dissimilar in shape to their attacking style, formed around lines of players, all moving together around the pitch, as opposed to the traditional idea of ‘falling’ back into banks of four when defending. This approach allowed them to become the near perfect football team. Catalan excellence.
Gegenpress, however, is slightly different, Born from the same family of principles as ‘the Barcelona style’, it concentrates on a more frantic press, with less of a base structure, but has the same hard-working heartbeat demanded by Pep Guardiola.
Gegenpress, translated from German means ‘pressing against’ (literal translation is ‘against pressing’ but this isn’t a clean German/English transfer) – the idea, only similar to tiki-taka in the defensive ideology, encourages players to win the ball back as quickly as possible once they lose it, but one difference being a ‘swarm’ of players engulf the opposition team, as opposed to one man pressing with another three closing down the spaces around . Although well drilled and improves over time, the gegenpress approach is often less structurally formalised than the way Guardiola’s Barcelona begin their defensive duties.
Jurgen Klopp and his gegenpress is not a new approach, new framework or a new idea to world football. As an idea in England, though, it is untried. Whereas we have seen teams start the game pressing the ball, quickly looking to regain possession once it’s been lost, the gegenpress approach demands this energy for 90 minutes. It does not allow for a team to be lazy. It will not always be an energy of pressing for the full game, but more pressing when the ball is lost, only to move back into a planned position once the ball has been conquered, or settled, by the opposition team.
The German manager, self-professed as ‘the Normal One’, but described by everyone else as anything but normal, has approached each team he has managed with similar principles.
His early days of management took place for Mainz, the club where he played as an average striker, and an average defender. You could say, he was pretty normal in ability. Friends and players alike, however, noted something slightly different.
It was Klopp’s desire to become a brilliant coach that landed him the Mainz job. Initially voted in by his fellow players after their then manager, Eckhard Krautzun, was relieved of his duties, it became quickly apparently that Klopp was ready for the job full-time. His desire and commitment meant that a small club they once were, but upon leaving, Jurgen Klopp had made a division one German side a Bundesliga top 8 club. Then the big guns came calling.
The impact Klopp had on Borussia Dortmund is massive, transforming their fortunes from a nearly ran club to leader of the pack. His effect is obvious. His effect is key.
For now I don’t want to focus too much on the past. The magic of Dortmund is there for all to see and much has been spoken and many column inches spilt on the evolution of Klopp’s team. What I want to look at is how he may transform Liverpool, through both transfers and tactics now that he has had 3 months to get his feet under the table.
Klopp’s first game as Liverpool manager came against another footballing mind in Mauricio Pochetinno and Tottenham Hotspur. The Spurs manager also buys into an idea of flowing movement of players and high intensity, something that is bearing real fruit currently, with Spurs being touted as a team to watch as the season evolves. During the game, there was a lot of focus on the Klopp effect. How the Liverpool players were working, closing down opponents and creating chances. Come the end of the game, the most telling stat for both managers was the amount each side ran. During the match, Liverpool outran the London side by 1.2km, the only side to do so at that point in the season. It was clear that something had forced the players into a frenzy at Spurs, but was it the manager?
Running stats are always a tough nut to crack. Here, it is not totally implausible to believe that Liverpool ran further than Spurs because they wanted to impress a new manager. Knowing that this will be an important attribute to a Jurgen Klopp Liverpool side, it is easy to see that the team will need a lot of willing runners. Of which the team has many. But of which type or runner?
The Merseyside club are crammed full of high octane players, take a look towards James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino, with even Phillipe Coutinho and lately Emre Can proving that they can press and harass with the best. But in that group of players there is a distinct, almost shocking, lack of pace. This is something I know needs to change.
Defending with players of average quickness tends to create only few problems, especially if you’re gegenpressing correctly. It is more the effort put in to pressure the opposition that matters, not the pace. Yet, when pressing stops and Liverpool win back the ball, the transition is slower the slower your players are. This is something we can see already during Liverpool’s season. When the ball is won back in midfield, the likes of Lallana and Firmino are slowing the play down even when attacking, and this nullifies and the threat of winning the ball back, be it upfront or further towards your own goal. Pace is needed.
It is easy to find a player with pace to be a player with a poor final ball or a poor crossing record. Someone like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang however, with his lightening quick pace and end product could be tempting to Jurgen Klopp, but he would still need a player of pace around him to be able to keep up. It could be interesting, however, to play him in a wide position, allowing for Daniel Sturridge to come back into the frame, making the team quicker again. He would also suit Klopp’s idea of forever working, as the striker has developed into a hard worker on the ball, and a roaring success on it.
Liverpool’s current goal-scoring exploits are well written and forever talked about, and for great reason too. Goals are coming at the rate of a tap dripping water trying to fill up a pint glass. It’s much too slow and something needs to change. Yes, solving the forward-line problem is always the biggest of asks, but Klopp will want to find another player of similar style to Jordan Henderson.
Not only is his energy mesmerising, but his late bursts into the box and vision from midfield means he will always pose a goal threat, be it scoring or assisting other players.
Henderson’s injury record this season is poor, but even if he had been fully fit, it is still too much of a risk to reply on him alone in central midfield to provide goals. Emre Can is young and cannot be blamed for the lack of goal threat his play brings. He has a class about him, and loves to make his way forward, but he often loses the ball before he makes his way into the box. This will be something the coaches of Liverpool try to improve upon, but until then it will cause Liverpool a problem when trying to attack.
Liverpool could look to someone in the mould of Miralem Pjanic of Roma. A technical player, Pjanic’s record this season with goals and assists would certainly have improved Liverpool’s results, as they have be relying too often on the goals of Christian Benteke, whilst the contribution of other players around him has been nothing short of awful.
Compared to Jordan Henderson and Emre Can, the Roma midfielder’s stats are a different story. Taking Jordan Henderson’s stats of last season (due to him being largely injured this), Pjanic stands up well. For the full season last year in all competitions, Henderson provided 8 goals and 14 assists, quite a return. This year already though, Pjanic’s return is 7 goals and 6 assists, a figure you would expect to increase past the 10/10 mark, something that would be dearly cherished for Liverpool. It is not about replicating or copying the current midfielders, but finding a similar balance. Emre Can’s stats don’t hold up at all, with him registering a lowly 1 goal and 0 assists in all games this season, a figure that should barely warrant a starting berth going off stats alone.
The final position I think needs earmarking for change is an obvious one. Goalkeeper. Liverpool’s goalkeeping options are poor, with neither ‘keeper Adam Bogdan or Simon Mignolet offering any of the attributes needed for a high intensity, pressing side.
Arrigo Sacchi, the tactical pioneer for AC Milan, who won consecutive European Cup titles (and was the last manager to defend a European Cup) was a big advocate of high pressing and fluidity of play, something associated to an extent, in Jurgen Klopp’s management (although Sacchi was a believer in Total Football, something not associated with Klopp.) Sacchi, amongst other things, is famous for preaching how there should be no more than 25 meters between attack and defence, therefore meaning that your goalkeeper needs to be quick off his line, with the natural foil against a team playing a high defensive line is to, for better use of a word, hoof the ball down the pitch.
This is not an attribute associated with either Mignolet or Bogdan. Both players, whilst being fair shot stoppers, to not possess the natural confidence or ability to foresee the long ball driving forward and deal with it correctly.
Liverpool’s first team goalkeeper, Mignolet, is often criticised for his inability to come from his line from both open play and set pieces. Where this will come in handy for Klopp’s Liverpool is when their goalkeeper retained the ball from a corner or dangerous free-kick and starts a quick counter-attack with great distribution, something else not in the Belgian’s armour.
A player that would be perfect for this type of play would be Bayern Munich’s Pepe Reina. A former Liverpool goalkeeper, his style of play is both brave and adventurous, but he also has the foresight, anticipation and natural ability to play as a sweeper ‘keeper. When playing for Liverpool previously, his command of his area was a huge trait, with his personality being an important factor both on and off the pitch.
To start off attacks and give Liverpool an advantage from opposition play, they need a goalkeeper who has the confidence to try something that may not come off; to try something that may lead to losing the ball once or twice, but that has the potential to become a key attacking weapon. Liverpool are lacking this player and it is hampering their ability to press as a unit and attack as a team.
There are always areas of football teams that are weaker than others, with there arguably being other positions, such as centre-half and left-back that Liverpool are currently lacking in options. Here though, I have tried to analyse positions that can often define the approach of a gegenpressing team. Jurgen Klopp will no doubt have assessed his current crop throughout the season so far, but the positions above are ones I have identified as areas that will be of huge importance to the club and to his vision for Liverpool. As a squad, the Reds of Liverpool are not far off having what is needed to be successful, but as a starting 11 they are lacking in key areas. Until these areas are resolved, Klopp’s Kop may have to wait to be King’s once more.