Home » Deep-dive: Erik ten Hag has made Manchester United counter-pressing experts

Deep-dive: Erik ten Hag has made Manchester United counter-pressing experts

by Seth Dooley


Counter-pressing has recently become a popularised term in modern football, widely used for tactical discussion.

The act of regaining possession in the opposition half within a short period of time – which Ralf Rangnick claims scientifically speaking should be within eight seconds – is a managerial tool most prominently associated with German coaches and the Bundesliga. Perhaps over recent years, Jürgen Klopp has become the most synonymous with this ‘heavy metal’ style of play.

According to recent data analysis, however, Erik ten Hag has dragged Manchester United up to becoming the best team in the League at counter-pressing (or ‘gegenpressing’ in German).

Markstats has published a graph analysing counter-pressing in the League this season, measuring the rate of successful acts against successful acts leading to a short or deep completion (a pass within the 18-yard-box).

What exactly has Ten Hag implemented at Old Trafford; why has he done it; and how has he gone about doing it?

WHAT?

As explained, United are the best Premier League side at counter-pressing this season, according to Markstats’ graph.

Ten Hag was quick to display to his new squad the importance of running more than your opponent, as illustrated by him making everyone jog 13.8km the day after losing 4-0 to Brentford. This harsh punishment was rather a matter of symbolism – 13.8km was the total distance that Brentford outran United.

United hold an approximate 29% success rate when engaging in counter-pressing. Of this 29% when the team successfully regains possession in the opposition half within 8 seconds, 30% of the occurrences lead to a shot or a pass within the 18-yard-box – a deep completion.

The team is, therefore, much superior at playing on the transition and coping with tactical nous compared to last season. Ten Hag has been clear in his instructions to the players about the importance of regaining possession quickly. The higher up the pitch, the better. And the Dutchman has only had six months in charge to iterate his ultra counter-pressing desires.

Markstats also published data which visualises every club’s progression in counter-pressing compared to last season.

United have improved by almost 6% in their success rate. Ironically, one season after Ralf Rangnick – the pioneer of gegenpressing – was at the helm. With a 30% success rate this season, United are noticeably ahead of their rivals in this aspect of the game currently. Newcastle United, who have been lauded for their pressing style under Eddie Howe, have a 22% success rate; Manchester City and Arsenal, the two teams above United in the League table, are currently holding a 26% success rate.

Moreover, the team has improved in their ability to deal with opposition counter-pressing, with United’s opponents’ success rate dropping by almost 2%.

WHY?

Counter-pressing is essential for Ten Hag’s philosophy to be fully implemented.

Ten Hag wants to bring Total Football to Old Trafford, and is already underway in his quest to do so. As part of the Dutch phenomenon, teams must defend in unison and with cunning – two key aspects of counter-pressing.

Johan Cruyff said that the style of play relies mostly on “a question of distance and positioning.” With such, players must press and “push back the opposition” with full knowledge of how their teammates will follow suit.

For Total Football to be realised, players must be completely comfortable in transitional phases of play as the team seeks to gain possession and subsequent control and attacking drive in the opposition half.

Cruyff also explains how this aim is fundamental to Total Football. Describing the philosophy, the three-time Ballon d’Or winner wrote: “Defenders could attack and attackers could defend. The aim was that every player should be capable of taking on the ball in the opposition half.”

With attackers winning the ball back in the opposition half and defenders pushing up to help gain control, there are clear parallels between the counter-pressing style of play with the Total Football philosophy.

And as United are currently the best in England at not only winning the ball back but also at creating chances in the opposition’s penalty area and clear opportunities on goal through counter-pressing, it is evident why this form of defending is so crucial to Ten Hag in his objective to instil attacking Total Football.

HOW?

Coaching. But personnel helps, too.

Ten Hag has noted his not-so-secret training session tool a few times this season, and it is clearly paying dividends.

Automatisms being regularly practised throughout the season help to engrave transition patterns into the players’ brains. An analogy of the tool would be watching a professional musician on stage: they barely look at their instrument, but know exactly where it is, what to do, and in what order to do it. Muscle memory. And that is the level of preparation for which Ten Hag is striving.

By using automatisms – the training exercise of rehearsing and repeating real in-game scenarios – Ten Hag wants his player to have the knowledge of exactly how to act when losing possession in the opponent’s half.

As seen through this rise up the counter-pressing charts, the players are much better equipped – mentally and physically – in how to deal with transitional defence and attack.

With automatism exercises being repeated over the course of the season, there is the natural hope that the longer United train under Ten Hag, the better they become at counter-pressing in his Total Football style.

As aforementioned, having the appropriate personnel is key to counter-pressing being enacted profitably, Wout Weghorst being the most applicable example of this. The Dutch striker, during his loan spell at Burnley last season, completed more pressures during 90 minutes than any other Premier League player (57) … and who are United on the verge of signing?

Demanding United sign Antony, a winger who played under the tutelage of Ten Hag at Ajax, highlights how important attackers who are educated in his system are to the disciplinarian manager. Ten Hag has to have players who are willing to be active in all aspects of play: whether that be, as Cruyff puts it, regaining possession in the opposition half or by maintaining control and attacking with impotence thereafter.

With five months left of the season to go, will Ten Hag raise United’s counter-pressing figures even more? Or will his players instead tire out? One thing is for sure: the Dutchman will not stand for bystanders in his team.
 




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