Intensity without the ball
“If we can set the level of intensity, we will see what we can do.”
So said Jurgen Klopp, the German manager of Liverpool, prior to the kickoff against English Premier League leaders Manchester City at Etihad Stadium on Sunday morning New Zealand time.
His comment seemed nothing more than a pre-match cliché at the time.
By the end of the game, won 4-1 by Liverpool, Klopp had aptly demonstrated what could be achieved when a team gives its opponent no time on the ball yet operates with lightening quick incisiveness when it has possession.
More than the result, the manner of the victory perhaps serves as a window into the immediate future of the sport, where intelligence and mental agility is the difference between winning and losing.
The first 32 minutes of the game were electric as Liverpool marched to a 3-0 lead courtesy of the tactical approach that Klopp has made his own – gegenpressing.
Essentially gegenpressing is defensive system designed to regain possession as quickly as possible when the ball is lost. The opposing team is forced to play an inaccurate ball out of defense when under pressure with players not yet transitioned into an attacking formation.
The system works because the opposing team has very little space or time to make a decision.
The team deploying gegenpressing switches quickly from attack to a high press when losing the ball. To be effective, it requires players that are tenacious and can regain the ball quickly. These players operate with 100% intensity when in and out of possession. They want the ball at all times and are constantly on alert.
Desire to Have the Ball
Roberto Firmino, the deep-lying Liverpool striker, is an example of just such a player.
We have discussed Firmino’s pathway to success earlier in the year (he was rejected in Brazil at age group level for being too small before becoming a stand-out player in the German Bundesliga).
Against City, Firmino showcased the hunger that has made him an excellent exponent of Klopp’s system. It is no surprise that he had one of the highest regain statistics of any player in the Bundesliga when he played in Germany.
For the system to succeed players have to do more running without the ball. Liverpool outfield players on average ran over a mile more than their Manchester City opponents (an extra 10%).
Hard work is essential for the system to succeed.
A Defensive System as an Attacking Weapon
The real beauty of the system is that, in the words of The Guardian’s Michael Cox, it becomes “a brilliant weapon in attack.” The ball is won back in advanced positions with the opponent off balance.
Liverpool’s opening goal came when attacking midfielder Phillipe Coutinho won the ball from the Manchester City full back Bacary Sagna on the touchline and launched a rapid counter-attack.
This was a feature of the game – the Manchester City fullbacks were constantly under pressure from Coutinho and his attacking midfield partner Adam Lallana. However, when Liverpool won the ball both of the red midfielders attacked the centre of the pitch.
The attacking Liverpool midfielders were well supported by their defensive partners Emre Can and James Milner who stayed central without the ball but occasionally broke wide to give options when Liverpool had the ball.
In a dominant first half (3-1) Liverpool had just 37% of the possession and were out-passed 340-211. However they won the tackle count 14-5 and constantly pressured their opponents before breaking at pace.
By the end of the match Liverpool had outshot City 14-11 with 9 strikes on target compared to the Blues 3.
How to Beat It
To beat gegenpressing a team needs to recognise that it will be under pressure for the full 90 minutes. In response, players need to make very quick decisions and work extremely hard to provide options to the man in possession.
That is why from a very young age players need to have the skill to read the game, assess what to do and then execute in a split second.
The game is not going to get any slower.
The players that can think fastest will become worth their weight in gold – speed of thought is critical. When matched with intensity and desire an individual or team becomes very tough to beat.
Michael Cox (www.footballunimited.co.uk)
Tim Lees (www.thesefootballtimes.co)
The Daily Mail (www.dailymail.co.uk/sport)
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