August 5, 2022


Total football -- from catenaccio to gegenpressing it's about openness to ideas: Footballing philosophies are central to the national mythologies of the cultures that produce them. (Josh Mcloughlin, 8/03/22,  Engelsberg Ideas)

The successor to the German tradition of footballing efficiency is gegenpress ('counter-press'), a highly drilled, systematised method developed by the German football manager Ralf Rangnick (who took the idea from Lobanovskyi) and raised to a standard of excellence by other coaches. At club level, manager Jürgen Klopp used gegenpressing to win back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 against an utterly dominant Bayern Munich. He led Liverpool to the Champions League (2019), Premier League (2020), FA Cup and League Cup (2022) with a fraction of the budget enjoyed by Abu Dhabi's sportswashing vehicle Manchester City, who are yet to win the Champions League despite spending more than £1bn. Meanwhile, former player-turned-coach Joachim Löw guided Germany to their fourth World Cup in 2014 with a merciless, high-pressing style.

Before his death in 2015, Galeano lamented such ruthless efficiency in which, he thought, individual expression was sacrificed to the demands of the system. 'The history of football,' he said, 'is a sad voyage from beauty to duty.' Galeano may have died grumbling about the latest tactical trend, but football remains, as he put it, a 'primordial symbol of collective identity.'

One potent recent example is the England women's team's triumph at Euro 2022. The Lionesses have united a squabbling nation and achieved what the men's team failed to do since 1966. After a disappointing spell under Phil Neville, the FA appointed Sarina Wiegman as the first ever permanent foreign coach of the women's team. She dropped captain Steph Houghton, selected nine players with no previous tournament experience, and implemented a technical, pressing style in the tradition of her native Netherlands. When the England men's team lost to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, manager Gareth Southgate lacked the nerve to make risky substitutions in pursuit of victory. Wiegman, on the other hand, has been widely praised for her fearless and decisive tactical changes throughout the tournament. Once again, England's success on the international stage came when conservatism was abandoned in favour of a bolder, more open-minded approach.    

Football can't tell us everything about the world. But as the historian David Goldblatt points out, 'football is first. First among sports themselves, first among the world's popular cultural forms' and 'the most global and most popular of popular cultural phenomena.' If the way we play expresses our 'way of being,' one lesson football tactics can teach us is that insularity ends up, more often than not, on the losing side.

On the one hand, the current USMNT is the most technically gifted team we've ever produced and so young that in the 2026 World Cup, which will be played in North America, we will be favored to advance pretty far. But, on the other, we have lost our distinctively American style in the process, which was based on superior physicality, speed, spirit and goalkeeping. These elements were never more evident than in the archetypal winning goal against Algeria in 2010. This squad is, at least, leavened with some brawn--Westen McKennie in central midfield and Walker Zimmerman in central defense, but it would really help if forward Daryl Dike took a step forward this year, playing in England. 

Posted by at August 5, 2022 6:09 AM