WHEN Jonathan Wilson wrote his footballing modern classic ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ in 2008, Wilson’s main aim was to pull apart the finer details of the world’s game, tracing the global history of soccer tactics, from modern pioneers right back to the beginning.
When the 10th-anniversary edition was published in 2018, it was updated to include the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola and the increasing alternatives to possession-based football. One of the main themes in that updated edition though, focused on the development of gegenpressing, and its subsequent influence on the world game.
Gegenpressing is often attributed to Jurgen Klopp, who certainly applied his own particular spin to a longstanding tradition of pressing football. The concept of pressing is a basic component of the game and, while Klopp has become synonymous with gegenpressing, he is the latest in a long line of coaches who have prioritised the skill of pressing opponents within their philosophies.
Klopp’s mentor at Mainz, Wolfgang Frank, had been heavily influenced by legendary AC Milan and Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi. Under Sacchi, the brilliant Milan team of the late 1980s and early 1990s were exemplars of the pressing game.
Sacchi once explained that pressing is not merely about running after the opponent, but about “controlling space” and, ultimately, controlling the game in the rival team’s mind. “Our pressing was psychological as much as physical,” Sacchi told Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’.
In modern sport, coaches are always trying to learn from the best, and from the past, but they’re also always trying to shape the future of their particular game through adapting tactics from different sports. And most modern football coaches have studied ‘gegenpressing’ by trying to force turnovers deep inside opposition territory.
The kick-out rule has altered the terms of how teams are pressing higher up the field now. The flipside to that tactic is that it creates more space in behind when the press is beaten. If a goalkeeper can get off their kick-outs over the press, or that team can run the ball quickly up the middle, the opposition can be left short of numbers at the back.
Dublin have been at the forefront of the evolution, not just in how they smashed blanket defending against them, but in how teams grasped the need to be more attack-minded, and to trust more mobile defenders in one-on-one battles, in trying to beat them.
That attacking strategy is always a risk against the top teams but forwards who have been used to facing blanket defences are ripping more open defences to shreds.
Forwards individual movement has improved because it had to, but forwards have also been playing in more conventional positions. There has been a greater structure to attacking play through a move away from more counter-attacking football and teams having more interchanging forwards.
It is still early days in the championship but the trends and results to date so far, both in the league and championship, underline how the game has become more attack-minded.
When Donegal scored 2-25 in their opening championship game against Down, the Irish News journalist Cahair O’Kane wrote how their 27 scores in an Ulster championship game was a new record. On the same weekend, Kerry and Mayo also breached that 30-point barrier.
Kerry and Dublin routinely surpass that mark, but the trends have been revealing in Ulster. In May, the brilliant Twitter handle ‘GAA Stats’ revealed how the 34 white flags scored in the Donegal-Tyrone game was the most ever scored in an all-Ulster National league game. A week later, the Donegal-Monaghan match was the joint-second highest scoring draw in the history of the league.
After the opening two league rounds, the total points per game was 34.6, which hammered the previous record by 1.8 points per game set in 2014.
Yet that 2014 season was the first time the black card was introduced, whereas the latest evidence suggests that the increased scoring rates have nothing to do with the new rules.
It hasn’t just been the big teams that have been shooting the lights out. On that opening championship weekend, Longford scored 0-25, while Limerick notched 4-18 and Offaly registered 3-19 (albeit after extra-time).
It isn’t all down to gegenpressing either so what else has changed? More advanced statistical data and data analytics shows where, and how, teams can hurt the opposition the most. With less time to prepare than normal, not every team is still up to speed, which can be unforgiving in the championship when a strong team plays a weaker side.
Will the scoring trends continue during the summer?
A few weeks back, Jim McGuinness said that Dublin were the exception to the current scoring trends.
“It’s crazy the way the game has gone, it’s just one-way traffic now,” said McGuinness. “It’s the old Newcastle (United) strategy where we just outscore everybody. To be fair, the only team in the country to my mind that’s not fully buying into that is Dublin.
Dublin were probably the most defensive team in the country last year. They had 15 men inside their own 65 almost every time the opposition had the ball. The difference is that when Dublin get the ball they’re absolutely brilliant at keeping the ball.”
Football has largely become a counter-attacking game and Dublin are certainly the best at it. ‘Gegenpressing’ Dublin up high and looking to force turnovers will be a key tactic of teams looking to take them down. But not every side will be looking that far ahead.
Many won’t even have Dublin in mind because they won’t get that far. Teams will be realistic, especially in a knockout format, but the more every team goes for it, the more enjoyable, expansive and high-scoring this championship will be.