Tactical Theory: what is counterpressing?

One of the major developments in football tactics in recent years has been the rise of counterpressing.

Sometimes referred to as gegenpressing – the German equivalent – it is the act of pressing and closing down the opposition immediately after the ball is turned over. The aim is to prevent the opposition from counter-attacking, and to win the ball back as quickly as possible. It relies on the team in possession reacting as quickly as possible to the moment of transition when possession is lost.

The opposite of counterpressing, then, is retreating, and focuses on getting organised behind the ball rather than actively trying to win the ball back as quickly as possible.

While the tactic of counterpressing has existed in football for some time, it has recently become popular due in large part to the success of teams like Barcelona (under Pep Guardiola), Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich (under Jupp Heynckes and now Guardiola). Closer to home, the Socceroos under Ange Postecoglou are very much a counterpressing side, while the greatest exponents in the A-League were probably, unsurprisingly, Brisbane Roar under Postecoglou.

A common theme to many of those teams is their shared interest in dominating possession. This approach and counterpressing often go hand in hand, simply because a team that wants to control as much of the ball as possible will naturally want to win it back as quickly as possible when they lose it. One, in essence, cannot exist without the other.

(The exception to this is a team like Borussia Dortmund, who focus on attacking as quickly and directly as possible when they win the ball. Their cavalier approach means that they don’t hold onto the ball for very long, but counterpressing enables them to win it back quickly to continue attacking).

The link between possession and counterpressing extends further. If a team dominates possession, then they naturally retain the ball and construct attacks with short passes. Short passes means that teammates are positioned close together; if they are positioned close together, it means there are more numbers close to the ball when possession is turned over. The more numbers there are close to the ball, the more likely the counterpressing is going to be effective.

On the flipside, however, if they are positioned too close together, it is going to be more difficult to retain possession. There needs to be a balance between teammates being spread out enough to pass the ball, but being compact enough to press when the ball is turned over.

Johann Cruyff summed it up nicely when discussing the tactics of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. “Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than ten metres.”

While a counterpress can occur in any part of the pitch, it often occurs in the opposition’s final third. This is because a team that dominates possession is often able to retain the ball inside their own back and middle third – it is when the ball enters near the goal the opposition is looking to protect that space becomes at a premium and it is more difficult to retain the ball reliably, so they are more likely to turn it over in this area of the pitch. On the example of Dortmund, because they attack as soon as they win the ball, they naturally tend to lose it in an attacking position.

The benefit to counterpressing high up the pitch, of course, is that if the ball is won then there is a shorter distance to cover towards the opposition goal. Counterpressing, then becomes a ‘playmaker’, as Jurgen Klopp once put it.

Conversely, if the ball is lost in the back or middle third, there is more risk that the opposition will be able to break past the counterpress and head towards goal.

That ties into another important element of counterpressing: when to stop? A counterpress, inevitably, relies on the defending players moving towards the ball to close down the forward passing options for the player in possession. There are two risks with this. A talented opponent might be able to play around this pressure, which leads to the second risk – if a team commits themselves forward when defending, then they must leave space in behind: space that can be very dangerous for the opposition if they manage to play past the counterpress.

Therefore, counterpressing teams often have a time limit, after which they stop pressing and retreat back into their defensive shape. Simon Kuper, writing on Barcelona for The Blizzard, says “If Barcelona haven’t won the ball back within five seconds of losing it, they then retreat and build a compact 10-man wall. The distance between the front man in the wall (typically Messi) and their last defender (Javier Mascherano, say) is only 25 to 30 metres.” This ends the moment of transition, and thus the moment of counterpressing – pressing, therefore, becomes the focus.

The crucial distinction here is that counterpressing is immediately after the ball is lost; pressing is when the opposition has established control of possession. 

With so many variables and theoretical components, it’s easy to see why teams struggle to counterpress, and why the term is often misunderstood. An excellent example of a team counterpressing successfully, however, is the Asian Cup winning Socceroos. They meet many of the criteria above: they play possession-based football, with players positioned close together when the team is attacking: as Riccardo Marchioli stated, “the consequence of this is that when the Socceroos lose the ball, they are already close together and can press more easily after losing it. This becomes very difficult to counter against.”

What’s noticeable about the clips in the video above is how quick the reaction of the Socceroos players are to immediately switch into counterpressing after losing the ball. Jurgen Klopp says that “you can’t tell the players: ‘you stand here & if this happens, you run there’. Instead you have to train the impulse…It has to be an impulse to move into a ball-winning position immediately after losing the ball.”

That, more than anything, is the heart of counterpressing – without an instantaneous change in the mentality of the player from an attacking mindset to a defensive mindset, the moment to counterpress is lost. Counterpressing in itself is not a particularly revolutionary tactic in the wider scheme of football history, but the recent rise of teams like the Socceroos being able to execute it effectively has made it one of the more fascinating developments in current football tactics.

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