What makes Liverpool's gegenpressing so good?
Gegenpressing is the strategy of winning the ball back as soon as it has been lost, based on the insight that the player who has just won the ball is vulnerable, as he may be still getting the ball under control.
He may not have the time to fully scan the distribution of his mates and opponents. It relies a great deal on speed and organisation, looking to pressure the man with the ball. The idea is to regain possession quickly as high up the pitch as possible, thus countering the counter-attack. Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur, Pep Guardiola's Manchester City and Bayern Munich's Jupp Heynckes all employ variations of the same tactic. Essentially, it is the style of the decade.
The tactic needs 10 Energiser Bunny-like players who are relentless in their pursuit of the ball when they are dispossessed.The strategy is not down to a single player, but every single one on the team - midfielders, wingers, strikers, defenders. Jürgen Klopp has instilled these principles in his players. He has seen the Liverpool players respond immaculately to his gegenpressing techniques, especially the now-departed Philippe Coutinho, Senegalese powerhouse Sadio Mané, versatile Brazilian Roberto Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and of course, African Footballer of the Year Mo Salah.
Gegenpressing also feeds on the rambunctious support of the crowd. With the famed yellow wall of the Dortmund and the Anfield crowd, Klopp has been really lucky to have such a vociferous twelfth man who can egg on the home side with a continuous stream of chants and boisterous songs. They cheer loudly when the side is leading and even louder while trailing, never letting the tempo cool off. In both cases, the noise, the colour and sheer size make for an intimidating sight.
Jürgen Klopp's modern version of the style is dubbed heavy metal because of his affinity for metal music. It is as pulsating to the ears as his team is to the eyes. It goes well with the cliché that rock stars are born in Liverpool. With its high defensive lines and blistering counter attacks, the style is deliciously delirious. In the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, though in a different context - 'Football, bloody hell!' Tactically, it is also a measure of Guardiola's tinkering of the tiki-taka. Klopp has the best record against the best coach of this decade. The record was further boosted by yesterday's shellacking of Manchester City by Liverpool in their Champions League quarter-final first leg tie.
Earlier in January, it took Liverpool's high pressing to hand Manchester City their first defeat in the league. A good analysis of the 4-3 victory at Anfield can be seen here:
For the system to function, players have to be fit and intelligent, capable of rapidly closing down spaces without fouling the opponent. Klopp's full throttle version can be exhausting. A team also needs to understand when to stop pressing: the ball cannot be hunted relentlessly. All the running, haring, hounding, intercepting, sprinting, tracking, tackling, jostling, makes the team reliant on younger players by default and Klopp is a firm believer in youth. The system also requires players of high technical ability and work rate and he's been able to raise the level of the squad to achieve that.
The best-laid plans can fail due to an error in judgement or a lapse in concentration. Gegenpressing has a tendency to fizzle out, during the final quarter of a match, when the player battery is draining rapidly. It can be also undone when the other team has a sweeper keeper 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. Be that as it may, that is true of every footballing tactic. An antidote always exists. Right now though, Klopp's version is working like a charm.
Liverpool, under Klopp, guarantee an entertaining, D-to-D, thrill-a-minute ride. If both teams play open football, then it becomes a rollercoaster; and don't we all love a ride atop that?