Jul 15, 2014
Man Time: The Once and Future Validation of Gegenpressing
When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, everyone talked about their tiki-taka style of play. It was an onomatopoetic term, suggesting quick, short passes that make a “tick” sound when they come off a player’s foot, as opposed to the “thump” associated with longer kicks. It was all the rage, and everyone sort of tried to copy it.
Everyone except the Germans, who chose not to go all-in on tiki-taka and opted for a less whimsical style known as gegenpressing. Between Spain crashing out before the close of group play and Germany winning it all, this year’s World Cup is a validation of the gegenpressing tactics embraced by German coach and Dr. Oz doppelgänger Joachim Löw.
Gegenpressing centers around the idea that that is my soccer ball, and you can’t have it. If your team loses the ball, gegenpressing dictates that you get the ball back RIGHT NOW while your teammates sprint to wherever there’s a hole in the defense. When the other team’s player dispossesses you, you take the ball back and start your counterattack before the other guy knows what hit him.
Say, you know who else believed that the best defense was an aggressive, counterattacking offense?
It’s the Wehrmacht. No, seriously — this is one of the very few instances in which the lazy (and offensive) comparisons between Die Mannschaft and the erstwhile German war machine is actually appropriate (sort of; the German national soccer team has never, y’know, actually murdered millions of people).
The German tactical doctrines of World War II had their origins in the lessons of World War I, especially the infiltration tactics of Oskar van Hutier and the rapid counterattacks of Fritz von Lossberg. Lossberg believed that any time the enemy attacked, you should get your guys out of the way, then rapidly deploy your reserves in a counterattack. His ideas became an important part of German army doctrine in World War I and were adopted by later strategists in World War II.
Since at least 2013, German soccer teams have similarly instituted rapid counterattacks as tactical doctrine. Bortusia Dortmund’s Jürgen Klopp is generally credited with proving the gegenpressing concept at the sport’s highest levels, and you can see what those quick counters look like in the videos below or read a more in-depth breakdown of Klopp’s system here.
Like what came to be known as blitzkrieg (pro-tip: the Germans never actually called it blitzkrieg, and Hitler actually thought the term was “silly”), gegenpressing depends on speed more than power. It’s all about making decisions faster than the other guy, “getting inside his decision loop,” in American military parlance. The best way to beat it is to follow Douglas Adams’ advice: DON’T PANIC. Don’t get flustered. Stick to the system, the system is sound, the system is rock-solid.
Brazil panicked. Like the French army in World War II, they expected the Germans to come out and play a proper game of soccer, like gentlemen. Toni Kroos’ second goal in that game was quintessential gegenpressing. Down 3-0, the Brazilian defense was taking a mental breather when Kroos pounced and stole the ball, which prompted Sami Khedira to sprint into open space in the box, drawing a defender to him and setting up an easy one-two pass for a wide-open look at the goal. The anguished Brazilian crowd shots were all but inevitable.
Argentina, to their credit, did not panic. They held their defensive shape brilliantly against a German team that never, ever stopped attacking La Albiceste (Argentinian for “The Team with Messi On It”) came into this game having never been down a goal in the tournament. For 113 minutes yesterday, that streak held. But the superiority of German tactics won out, and Lionel Messi will once again have to endure stupid questions about whether or not he is A True Champion.
Congratulations, Germany. You were the best team in this World Cup, and you deserved to win. Hopefully, someone can come up with a response for your gegenpressing tactics. But until then, the whole soccer world will be speaking German.
Follow Dan on Twitter. He is of German and Irish ancestry, so really, he’s just glad England went home early.