What is gegenpressing and how will Daniel Stendel implement it at Hearts?

Much has been made of the German head coach's footballing philosophy - but what does it entail?

Friday, 13th December 2019, 4:45 pm
Updated Friday, 13th December 2019, 4:49 pm
Daniel Stendel takes training ahead of his debut as Hearts boss

The concept of gegenpressing has been around for some time, and although it's unclear when it was first implemented, the Dutch national team under the tutelage of Rinus Michels used a version of the counter-pressing system much beloved by Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and legendary former AC Milan and Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi among others.

What is gegenpressing?

Michael Cox, author of Zonal Marking: The Making of Modern European Footballdescribes gegenpressing thus: "Traditionally, football was thought of in a cycle of four phases. Attack > transition to defence > defence > transitions to attack. And repeat.

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Jurgen Klopp issues intructions to his players during his time as Borussia Dortmund head coach

"Gegenpressing basically short-circuits it - rather than transitioning to defence, the team attempts to regain possession immediately, so it stays in the attacking phase.

"Essentially, [gegenpressing] is about winning the ball back quickly, but it's a little more theoretical than that implies."

During his tenure at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp effectively rewrote the tactics book for German teams as he led the club to consecutive league titles and inspired several other Bundesliga teams to adopt a similar approach.

Years before the pair locked horns at Liverpool and Manchester City respectively, Klopp was a big fan of Guardiola's Barcelona team - not the tiki taka passing that enthralled others, but the Catalans' commitment to winning the ball.

Cox writes in Zonal Marking: "Klopp spoke about a specific term: 'gegenpressing', which translates as counter-pressing. It's sometimes misunderstood, however. Counter-pressing isn't to pressing what counter-attacking is to attacking. It's not necessarily countering a press, but pressing a counter."

While Guardiola's Barca side pressed quickly to win the ball back to, as Cox writes, "retain possession for long periods, organising themselves in their positional structure", Dortmund pressed quickly because Klopp had identified it as a useful attacking tactic - putting his team "one pass away from a really good opportunity".

Different types of gegenpressing

This is where it gets a little complex. In short, teams can shut down different things - individual opponents, passing lanes into opponents, or the area around the ball.

Pressing individual opponents is the most straightforward approach, but has its shortcomings. Shutting down passing lanes - as Guardiola's Barcelona side executed - takes time to perfect.

Man-oriented gegenpressing: As practiced by Bayern Munich under Jupp Heynckes, players look for an opponent to cover immediately after their team has lost the ball. A player runs to the opponent, cuts him off and forces him into a follow-up action. All passing options should be put under pressure in a similar fashion so the opponent in possession of the ball is effectively cut off.

Leeway-oriented counterpressing: As utilised by Klopp's Dortmund, this method virtually ignores the inidivudal players and instead focuses on the ball carrier, ball and surrounding area. The entire outfield team presses in the direction of the ball, seeking to put as much pressure as possible on the opposition - almost intimidating them into losing the ball. The amount of pressure forces errors and often leads to the opposition giving up the ball or being forced to play it long.

Lane-oriented countpressing: Barcelona's meat and drink under Guardiola. Similarly with man-oriented gegenpressing, the opposing player is allowed to make the first pass, but the team attempting to win the ball back attacks the pass, rather than the player. The idea is to recover the ball once it has been passed through trapping the ball or having two players put pressure on the receipient of the pass.

Ball-oriented gegenpressing: In simplistic terms, the defending team converges on the ball with a complete disregard for structure. While the main advantage of this method is that teams can often win the ball back through maximum pace and aggression, it carries a fairly hefty downside - teams employing this version are often left vulnerable as a result. Austrian side SV Grodig adopted this system under current Eintracht Frankfurt boss Adi Hutter in 2013.

Why managers are using gegenpressing

There are three main advantages of the gegenpressing approach:

Defensive stability - A team is at its most disorganised once it has immediately lost possession. The attacking team drives the opponent backwards and thus reduces the chances of being countered

Staying organised - In gegenpressing, the ball is normally recovered high up the pitch and with the team in an offensive shape. Winning the ball back quickly and higher up the field will often cause the opposition to spread out, opening up space for the attacking team

More potent attack - After the ball is won back high up the field, teams tend to counter against the disorganised opponent - see Klopp referring to teams being "one pass away from a really good opportunity".

Asked why more and more teams are using some form of gegenpressing - including Stendel at Barnsley and, presumably in the future, Hearts - Cox says: "I think because it’s proving effective, because it’s something that players can buy into, even if it’s a lot of effort.

"More and more teams are employing it as their primary approach because increased fitness levels mean it’s more possible in this day and age."

Why does it work - and how will Stendel introduce it?

Although Stendel has played down comparisons with Klopp, the former Mainz and Dortmund coach sums up the beauty of gegenpressing.

"The best moment to win the ball is immediately after losing it. 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."

Ideally, the team employing the gegenpress is feasting on the opposition's vulnerability and taking advantage of it to great effect.

Although Stendel will have to impart his philosophy bit by bit, there's no reason why Hearts can't successfully implement the tactics - especially at home, where the narrow Tynecastle pitch will work to their advantage.

The German coach has the players, and by all accounts they subscribe to his approach and his tactical set-up. The fans, too, have welcomed the former Barnsley boss with open arms and having that implied leeway and time to make his approach work could be vital.