Precision beats power, timing beats speed: How Conor McGregor explains football’s counter-press
Just 13 seconds and one punch. That’s all it took for Conor McGregor to end the reign of Jose Aldo over the UFC Featherweight division and bring his run of going more than 10 years undefeated to a shuddering halt in Las Vegas.
In less than a quarter of a minute, the Brazilian went from being a champion regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game to a competitor on the wrong end of a record-breaking knock-out, thanks to the perfectly-planted left fist of his Irish opponent.
“Precision beats power and timing beats speed,” McGregor told the crowds in his post-fight interview, as reported by ABC News – a quote for the ages applicable to many other disciplines well beyond the realms of martial arts and combat sports, not least football.
Technical terminology and tactical jargon gets a bad press at the best of times. When discussions break out over the finer points of a team’s approach to a match, critics will dismiss talk of false nines and low blocks as elitist, or an attempt to over-complicate a very simple game with needlessly pretentious concepts.
When Jurgen Klopp swapped the Bundesliga for the Premier League in October, bringing one of modern football’s most in-vogue buzzwords – Gegenpressing – straight into the heart of one the English game’s most historic clubs, some fretted over the implications.
To think: hipsters and bloggers besmirching the proud traditions of Liverpool Football Club with their word crimes – is nothing sacred any more?!
Yet for those still unsure of these unusual terms, McGregor’s knock-out blow offered an easy, highly visual analogy to help clarify what counter-pressing means on the football pitch, and it all starts with losing the ball.
The old school, meat and potatoes counter-attack is simple enough. You draw your opponent on to you, get players behind the ball and then – snatching up the opportunity as your opponent makes an error to lose the ball – you strike to surge up-field, hitting their back-peddling defenders on the break and out-of-position.
It’s a classic tactic that relies upon catching the opposition off-balance in the transitional phase between having and losing possession, turning their attacking thrust against them.
Counter-pressing flips the idea. The theory goes that a team are at their most vulnerable and off-balance immediately after winning the ball when their players have just exerted energy and broken their shape to close down their opposite number, or move into space to intercept a pass.
It’s as the name suggests: turning an aggressor’s press against them, rather than an attack.
Instead of sitting back and encouraging the other side to come at you in the hope that they reveal a gap in their lines, a team set up to counter-press can do so high up the field in order to win possession and “counter” closer to the opposition’s goal, cutting down the time and distance required to create something dangerous.
McGregor used similar tactics to take down Aldo in just 13 seconds.
He stepped into his opponent, allowed the Brazilian to think that he was the fighter with the opportunity, over extend himself and then ultimately open his chin up for the knock-out blow. The victor didn’t step back, flee and look to catch the champ from range, but get up close and personal with the opposition, right at the moment they believed they were in control of the contest (or the ball).
Klopp himself has said that counter-pressing is the greatest playmaker his teams have ever had in a past interview with FourFourTwo. He told the magazine: “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball.”
It’s a similar approach to the one taken by Barcelona, especially under Pep Guardiola, who constantly looked to play on the front-foot, high up the field, sometimes penning the other side into their own six-yard box to try and stay compact and secure.
Whenever the Catalans did lose the ball, their team – from front-to-back – would quickly close down the ball-winner in pods, causing them more disarray by shutting down their passing options as well as moving in to snatch back possession. Individually, their players weren’t the fastest nor the most powerful, but that was largely inconsequential – their precision beat power while their timing beat speed.
Those who would be Guardiola’s spiritual successors and wannabe imitators attempted to follow his lead by swamping teams through endless possession, but the real trick to his Barcelona team was their pressing.
However the true heartland of the counter-press lay in Germany rather than Spain, where the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Leverkusen reign as the masters of the art, though La Liga has its own high-end executors of the theory in Diego Simone’s Atletico Madrid.
As McGregor eyes up his next big fight night, Liverpool fans are dreaming of securing their first league title in over 25 years through the high-tempo intensity of Gegenpressing, as the Anfield Kop indulges in the visceral brilliance of his football along the way – in fact, in Germany the Reds are already becoming known as “Klopp Club”.
Whether the German and his players will be able to deliver the knock-out their supporters crave, in record time or any realistic time-frame, remains to be seen, but with Mauricio Pochettino implementing similar ideas at Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League may be the latest ring to be conquered by the counter-press.