It was the emergence of Jose Mourinho at Porto that first helped to revolutionise the notion of counter-attacking football in the modern age.
More specifically, he transformed this into an aggressive tactic in which his teams created overloads and sought to control space, while deploying a counter-press with the aim of regaining possession during the transition from the attacking to the defensive phase.
While this became a dominant tactic that subsequently underpinned the relative success of Leicester City and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, the nature of the game has subsequently changed markedly.
Now, the best teams tend to deploy a high and aggressive press and aim to retain possession high up the pitch. But is this tactic really more effective than counter attacking in modern football? Let’s find out!
The High-Press – What are its Benefits?
The high press is defined by a collective and organised attempt to win the ball high up the pitch, with this referred to in some quarters as ‘gegenpressing’.
This is different from the notion of individual players simply sprinting towards the ball, however, as it involves the entire team in an attempt to force the opposition to play longer balls or riskier passes into areas where there are overloads.
Similarly, an organised press may look to target players who are weak in possession, forcing players to pass them the ball and quickly closing down the space and applying disciplined pressure.
Even when executed well, this is a relatively high-risk strategy that requires the participation of the entire team, who must press in sync with one another and adopt a high defensive line at all times.
The best exponents of the art include Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, who coined the term ‘gegenpressing’ and adopts a particularly high press in the attacking third. Regularly, Liverpool complete between 160 and 180 presses per game collectively, which regularly ranks among the highest in the EPL.
Defending Premier League champions also adopt a collective (albeit slightly less intense) high press, with manager Pep Guardiola adopting an approach similar to the ‘three-second rule’ he deployed at Barcelona.
This requires the side to counter-press for three seconds immediately after losing possession, in order to win the ball back when their opponents have lost their shape and have players out of position.
City often adopt a man-to-man strategy when pressing high too, with even the fullbacks pushing against their counterparts in the final third.
But what’s the counter-attacking alternative? Well, this is a much lower-risk and less intensive approach, which sees sides sit in a low or medium block that’s compact and minimises space centrally and in behind.
With this tactic, you’ll allow the opposition to have the ball and wait for players to move out of position, before applying a press, winning the ball and launching an attack into space. This often involves longer passing and direct running, particularly when looking to attack the space behind a high defensive line.
The key here is maintaining a relatively deep defensive line and structured shape when out of possession, while looking to transition quickly after winning the ball and exploiting space at a time when the opposition is stretched.
Which Tactic is More Effective?
Despite the success of counter-attacking sides since the turn of the century, the modern trend is undoubtedly for creating an effective high press that relies on intensity, organisation and the high workrate of players.
In addition to Liverpool and Manchester City, for example, sides such as Chelsea, Southampton, Leeds and Arsenal also adopt a noticeably high pressing style, while continental giants like Bayern Munich, Ajax and Real Madrid continue to adopt a similar approach.
But why is this the case? Certainly in the Premier League, the quality of all competing sides has increased markedly in line with prize money and wealth. This means that most EPL sides boast highly-skilled playing squads and a tactically astute manager, while they’re also incredibly fit and capable of pressing athletically for 90 minutes.
Because of this, the tactic of sitting deep and allowing the opposition to have the ball while waiting to counter has become increasingly passive and ineffective, as is reflected by the relative decline of Jose Mourinho.
Of course, Mourinho himself has also become more conservative and passive in his approach as his career has progressed, but there’s no doubt that ceding possession and ground when looking to counter plays into the hands of high-pressing sides who want to operate exclusively in the opposition’s defensive third.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t counter high pressing teams, especially if you adopt a relatively aggressive medium block that looks to counter-press and tenaciously attack the opposition’s defensive line.
However, this is an increasingly high-risk tactic against fit, well-organised and possession-oriented sides, who will look to force counter-attacking sides deeper and limit their ability to construct any kind of attack.
Overall, there’s no doubt that the high press is more effective in 2022, with Europe’s best and most successful teams adopting this approach. However, aggressive and quick counterattacking can still prove successful against a high press, even if it’s harder to win the biggest prizes with this type of strategy.