Chalk Talk: Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich uses counter-pressing against its creator
By Liviu Bird
Bayern Munich’s 3-0 win at Borussia Dortmund on Saturday came as a shock perhaps not in its result, but in its scale of dominance. In the victory, Pep Guardiola’s side used its high-pressure defensive system to great effect, suffocating the home team’s ability to play.
The newfangled term for Bayern’s defensive style is gegenpressing, German for “counter-pressing.” It was Guardiola’s opposite number on Saturday, Jürgen Klopp, who brought it into the spotlight last year, pushing Bayern to the limit in the Champions League final and winning the Bundesliga the previous year.
Guardiola also used high-pressure defense to great effect at FC Barcelona, but it looked a little different. Barcelona’s defensive system emphasizes winning the ball quickly, but it is more about the nearest player putting immediate pressure, while Bayern and Dortmund’s systems emphasize specific player roles.
On the other side of the ball, Barça builds attacks more methodically, helped by Lionel Messi’s talent at the point of the formation. By contrast, Bayern gets the ball forward quickly, converging on opponents in their own half after losing it.
Barcelona defends in part by keeping the ball — if Barça has it, the opponent does not. However, Guardiola’s Bayern team has more of a willingness to risk losing the ball because it knows it will get it back soon.
On defense, Bayern looks like a 4-1-4-1, breaking into more of a 3-4-3 in attack. The outside backs press high and early, and defensive midfielder Philipp Lahm drops between the center backs (Guardiola converted him from a fullback into a central midfielder).
High-pressure defense is not a matter of circumstance. To be executed properly, it has to be engrained in the coach’s philosophy and the attitude of the team. Bayern is set up to press, from back to front and from the first minute of the game.
On the kickoff against Borussia, Lahm takes the initial pass, and the three highest players sprint up the field. He plays the ball to Dante and drops between him and the other center back, Jérôme Boateng. This position allows Bayern to always maintain three in the back, while David Alaba and Rafinha step into the midfield block or higher, creating the 3-4-3.
Dante wants to get the ball as high up the field as quickly as possible, so he targets center forward Mario Mandžukić with a long pass. Bayern does not win possession cleanly, but the ball is deep in Dortmund’s half to start the game, putting the home side on the back foot right away.
Bayern’s center backs generally look for the longer pass — not a blind, hopeful ball, but a targeted pass — first, but they can also play short out of the back.
Boateng and Dante are often on the ball in wide areas near the center circle. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is great with the ball at his feet (35 out of 39 on Saturday), and his teammates have the confidence to stay higher and wider when he has the ball.
Lahm never strays too far, which means the outside backs can press freely, and the wingers can tuck inside to support Mandžukić when the moment is right. (Arjen Robben likes to play narrower on the left than Thomas Müller on the right.)
That gives the center backs more responsibility on the ball, with which they do well. They completed 82 percent of their passes on Saturday, the same as Dortmund’s back pair but in twice as many attempts. Safe to say, Boateng and Dante don’t play like the “safe” center backs most American youth coaches try to cultivate.
Gegenpressing is perfect for counteracting tiki-taka. Instead of sitting in, Bayern doesn’t allow teams to build. The key to stopping teams good in possession is refusing to give them the space to keep it.
As Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller plays a short goal kick to start the attack, Bayern players position themselves to either win the ball close to goal or force a long ball.
Mandžukić cuts the field in half, preventing an easy ball to the opposite center back that would allow Borussia to break pressure. Javi Martínez takes away the deep central midfielder, and Müller does the same for the near-side outside back. Robben can step in to win any ball lofted over or passed on the ground through the first line of pressure.
Dortmund’s only option is to play a long ball. Most teams would end up hoofing it and hoping to win the resulting knockdown, or at least be happy that Bayern’s possession is farther away from their goal. However, Robert Lewandowski is a good target to have, as he prevents a second ball by knocking it down to a triangle of supporting Dortmund players.
Still, the result on Saturday was more often in Bayern’s favor. Guardiola’s men attempted half of their tackles in the match in the top half, a result of their high-pressure defensive system, compared to just one Dortmund tackle attempted in Bayern’s defensive half.
The danger of gegenpressing is the potential to be numbers-down when an opponent breaks pressure, but as long as the first defensive line does not drop and players maintain their proper shape, that risk is reduced. If some players press high while others sit, it stretches the shape and opens spaces in the middle to play through.
High-pressure defense works when a team is taught the proper choreography, and everybody is on the same page. The key is not in the running — a high level of fitness is necessary, but it’s not an all-out sprint for 90 minutes — but in perfect starting positions, reading of visual cues, and baiting opponents into playing certain passes, all planned on the training ground.
Bayern can still build, but it is deadly with its quick, vertical passes and on the counter-attack. The team’s attack is built on getting the ball forward as quickly as possible. The idea is looking for early vertical passes to break lines (for example, skipping the attacking midfielder to find the target striker). Unlike most long-ball teams, hitting longer passes is a conscious tactical choice and part of the team’s planning.
Robben’s goal, the second of the game, is a prime example of this. Mario Götze’s ball to Thiago Alcântara is the only square pass, while all the others go forward. It catches Dortmund unprepared because the home team is pressing for an equalizer (which also helps Bayern’s ability to counter).
Pressure controls games. Not allowing opponents to become comfortable on the ball in the back and winning the ball as high up the field as possible usually mean a shorter distance to goal and a longer distance from conceding on the occasions pressure is broken.
Instituting any version of gegenpressing takes time. Youth players won’t take to it overnight, but it doesn’t take a team of athletic machines to implement a high-pressure system. It’s about the choreography and coaching in practice situations and having the patience to cultivate players with a higher soccer IQ to understand the visual cues and each defender’s role in a situation.
This is the latest craze in soccer tactics, which Klopp described as “the best playmaker in the world.” After watching Bayern dictate the game to Klopp’s own team on Saturday using his tactics, it’s hard to argue.