In the Bundesliga, the gegenpress is king. This style, popularized by Borussia Dortmund's Jürgen Klopp, focuses on the moments a new opposition possession begins. The press springs into action in an instant, and if it works you should next be watching a vertical attack moving quickly on goal. Kevin Kampl's first goal for Dortmund, in a friendly against Utrecht, begins with Marco Reus' tackle as Utrecht attempt to establish possession in midfield.
It's pretty cool. It'd be fun to see it in action every week in the Premier League, too, right?
The problem is that no one is quite doing it. The two teams that come closest, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, are missing essential ingredients. It seems Manchester United are uninterested in springing dynamic vertical attacks from a successful press, while Tottenham are pressing but leaving themselves exposed when the press is broken.
United and Spurs clearly lead the Premier League in a statistic I built called gegenpressing percentage. This statistic simply measures how often a team effectively counter-presses their opponents. Here's how it works. It begins by identifying every new open-play midfield possession, that is, every time a team takes possession of the ball in the middle 50 yards of the pitch, excluding possessions that begin with a free kick or a throw-in. A successful counter-press will break up these new possessions quickly, so the statistics measures whether within the next seven seconds that possession has been broken up. I count as "breaking up" a possession either a defensive action like a tackle or an interception, or an incomplete pass attempt or a ball lost for a throw-in.
It should be noted here that these percentages run well behind the gegenpress stats of the top German sides. Bayer Leverkusen break up about 60 percent of new opposition midfield possessions, and Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg all show up about 55 percent. Tottenham's gegenpress of a little over 49 percent would put them ninth in the Bundesliga. So we're not seeing the kind of hyperactive press that German sides deploy.
Still, Spurs and United are pressing higher and faster than their opponents. This might be somewhat surprising as an analysis of Manchester United. Louis van Gaal's club has been criticized for a plodding style and a failure to build attacks with up-tempo passing. The thing is, that's not exactly wrong. The way van Gaal sets his side up tactically, their five-man midfield fights to win possession in midfield and generally does so quite effectively. But once possession has been won, the midfield tends to recycle the ball rather than spring forward at pace.
United are second in possession in the EPL, but have produced extremely few attacks at speed. Only West Brom has produced fewer shots off fast attacks than Manchester United's 22. One of the most striking aspects of Bayer Leverkusen's attacking style is their tendency to create shots within just a few seconds of winning back possession. This is simply not something United do.
Snap shots are shot attempts immediately upon winning possession of the ball (rebounds excluded), while quick shots are attempts within seven seconds of the start of the possession. In both case, shots off set pieces are excluded. United presses to win back possession, but they do not seem driven to spring quick attacks after stopping an opposition attack.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with not being Bayer Leverkusen (he said, grudgingly). The counter-press need not be an attacking strategy. It can stop opposition attacks before they begin and enable a slower possession-based game. That is precisely how van Gaal's press works. It is debatable whether this is the best way to use a press and whether Manchester United's attack is working at full capacity. But the numbers and my observation both suggest the reason United are not replicating the exciting gegenpressing style is because they just don't want to.
By contrast, Tottenham Hotspur look like a club that is trying but failing. Under Mauricio Pochettino, a manager who learned these tactics playing for Marcelo Bielsa in Argentina, Spurs have created a good number of attacks at speed (32) and stand third in the league with 89 shots attempted early in possession. These are not world-beating numbers, but they reflect a club trying to speed up the tempo of the match with their press.
The problem for Spurs is what happens when the press doesn't work. The gegenpressing statistic measures how often Spurs break up opposition possession. With a rate of about 50 percent, Spurs are the second most successful club in the EPL at counter-pressing. But what happens the other 50 percent of the time, when the press doesn't work and Spurs' opponents retain possession?
Chances and goals are what happen. When the opposition can break through Spurs' first pressing line, they find the field open in front of them and appealing lanes for either passing or running. Tottenham have conceded 10 goals following from new opposition midfield possessions, most in the EPL. This is not just a function of good opposition finishing or poor goalkeeping. To assess the quality of the chances Spurs concede in these situations, we can use the statistic "expected goals" (xG), which estimates the likelihood of a chance being converted based on the location of the shooter, the type of pass that assists the shot, the speed of the attacking move leading to the shot, and several other factors (the full method can be read about here). The expected goals value of shots attempted from these possessions is roughly 10.1 xG, meaning on average a team that creates these chances will score about 10 goals. The problem, then, is not goalkeeping or opposition finishing, but it is the quality of chances being conceded.
Because of Spurs' higher-tempo game, they have allowed more new opposition midfield possessions than most teams. But even accounting for that, Tottenham's defense still leads the pack. This graph shows opposition expected goals per new midfield possession.
Spurs lead here is particularly notable because the clubs behind them don't press. Sunderland have the lowest gegenpress in the EPL at about 38 percent, and none of QPR, Burnley or Hull press particularly much. So these clubs, which are hardly among the league's defensive elite, have had more success than Spurs at preventing goals from these situations simply by a strategy of conceding midfield to the opposition. Spurs fight for midfield, but consistently lose out and allow fast attacks the other way. Indeed, Pochettino's club have conceded the most opposition shots from fast attacks this year in the Premier League (37).
For Manchester United, at least their press seems to be working as intended. They allow a perfectly solid 0.006 xG per new opposition midfield possession, so they are not exposed when the first pressing line doesn't do its job. In Tottenham, we see a broken press, a club whose midfield seems all the more exposed the more they try to press and control the match. It's not clear whether Pochettino needs to relax his press, to find new midfield personnel or perhaps just add another pressing CM into his formation. But for Spurs, the press is a problem that needs immediate fixing.
At United, the press could be the answer. They need to add tempo to the attack, and they're already doing a fine job winning possession in midfield. If van Gaal could tweak his tactics and get his club using those new possession more aggressively, they might be able to spring the quick, vertical attacks that have been missing up until now.