Gegenpressing, or intense counterpressing, is as synonymous with German football as maple syrup is with Canadian culture. The tactic became part and parcel of German football in the late 1960’s, when clubs like Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin, and Schalke 04 emerged as power clubs in the Bundesliga and later solidified their status as regular Champions League contenders. With the transformation of the Bundesliga into one of the world’s best leagues, this tactic gained fame and became the reason German clubs were feared.
As the years progressed, coaches all over Germany developed refined variants of gegenpressing, enjoying varying levels of success. Ottmar Hitzfeld (champions league titles with Bayern in 2001 and Dortmund in 1997), Jupp Heynckes (UCL title with Real Madrid in 1998) and Felix Magath (league titles with both Bayern and Wolfsburg) are names from the 1990s to the early 2000s that spring to mind.
The tactic gained popularity in other leagues too and seemed to be the most modern way of thinking about football systems. Enter possession football.
Also known as “tiki-taka,” this tactic became widely popular in the mid to late 2000s with the emergence of coaches like Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, and Antonio Conte. This approach saw the team maintain possession for huge spells of the game, passing the ball around in the hope that an avenue might open up to progress the ball forward and towards the goal. This approach was successful in tiring opposing teams and finding small gaps in the opposition defense — and if all else failed one could simply flood the box with numerous crosses. But then again, this method exhibited a vulnerability: spaces were often left behind the high defensive lines needed to circulate the ball, and there were lapses in the midfield.
Coaches like Diego Simeone, Massimiliano Allegri, and Claudio Ranieri made a livelihood by capitalizing on the mistakes of such teams. Hence, the following decade saw (and is still witnessing) a huge rise in counter-attacking football. The approach is clear: absorb pressure, clear the ball, prevent the opposition from advancing further, frustrate and tire them out, and punish them at even the slightest opportunity. Quick, pacey attackers like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Saul Niguez, Antoine Griezmann and others benefited immensely from this strategy.
Simeone has made Atletico Madrid a perennial UCL contender, La Liga title hopeful and a menacing opponent by transforming the team into a physical, counter-attacking threat. Similarly, Allegri and Ranieri have enjoyed historic success with their respective clubs. Of course, another variant of this tactic is the “park the bus” approach, whereby a team ideally scores a goal or two, then falls back into a counter-attacking formation to absorb pressure and put the game to bed. Coaches famous for this game-plan are Mourinho, Sam Allardyce, and Unai Emery (Sevilla).
It seemed, all of a sudden, that gegenpressing had been forgotten outside Germany. Then, as if to refresh everyone’s memory, there came the man who himself is now a legacy: Jürgen Klopp. Revolutionizing a Dortmund side that had lost its lustre, Klopp gave the BVB teeth to bite. In just two seasons, his Dortmund started showing signs of wonderful improvement, going toe to toe with Bayern at every opportunity. Winning back-to-back league titles and then going on to reach the Champions league final is no mean feat. Klopp showed the world yet again what German football was all about. Jupp Heynckes used the same tactic to win the Champions League with Bayern in 2013, completing the famous treble that will be remembered in German lore for years to come.
And that wasn’t the end. Germany head coach Joachim Löw, the mastermind of Germany’s 2014 world cup campaign used the same strategy the very next summer to take the national team to the summit of world football: the FIFA World cup title. Thank you, gegenpress!
Klopp subsequently moved to Liverpool, where he took on a new project project, rebuilding a wounded, Europa League hopeful into a Champions League contender. Initially starting slow, Klopp gave his team time and conditioned them for the high-intensity demanded by the pressing game. Once they were ready, though, very few teams could dream of stopping them. Spearheaded by Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino and anchored by Vergil van Dijk, Liverpool re-emerged as a Premier League contender and reached back to back Champions League finals, winning the competition last season (2018-19).
Thomas Tuchel, PSG’s current coach, has also taken this tactic to France, and his PSG look terrifying in Europe, beating Real Madrid 3-0 at home this season. Sides like RB Leipzig, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Schalke are also performing incredibly well so far, thanks to their intense counter-pressing, and both RB Leipzig and Dortmund can make a deep run in the UCL if they maintain their current form.
The team that has been using gegenpressing to the fullest this season, though, is (you guessed it) none other than Bayern Munich. Interim coach Hansi Flick has implemented his version of heavy gegenpressing (“Flicki-flaka”) and, boy, has it worked wonders. Bayern’s mid-season slump has been rectified, the team is conceding fewer goals, and the attack has never looked better, enjoying the best Champions League group stage in history. Sure, sporadic losses have shown how demanding the game plan can be. But as the players are slowly becoming conditioned to deal with the requirements, and the winter break gives the squad time to focus on weaknesses, we could be witnessing a resurgence at the club.
Gegenpressing demands a lot of stamina, focus, and work, but once integrated, the benefits are really worth it. Sure, you can keep the ball in possession all you want, or sit back and strike with unexpected attacks, but with the gegenpress, you get the best of both worlds. And that is exactly what the world is witnessing right now: the reemergence of the gegenpress.