Football Features

Can Cristiano Ronaldo ‘Gegenpress’ for Man Utd? We asked a sports scientist

By Dr Rajpal Brar

Published: 12:40, 16 December 2021 | Updated: 16:10, 15 September 2022

Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick — who also has a two year “consultancy position” with the club following this season — was lured from Lokomotiv Moscow to help turn the record English champions around after an extended poor run of form under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Rangnick brings with him a specific style of play that is renowned for high and constant intensity, particularly in immediate pressing when losing the ball to regain possession and control of the match. Rangnick has compared his style to that of Jurgen Klopp’s and a fast, intense waltz. This type of counter-pressing has been termed “gegenpressing” by some.

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As a quick aside – Klopp’s pressing style is often attributed to Rangnick’s influence but that’s actually incorrect. The Liverpool manager attributes his main influences of the pressing system to his mentor at Mainz, coach Wolfgang Frank, who was in turn influenced by Italy and AC Milan’s legendary manager Arrigo Sacchi – turning the Rossoneri into a pressing machine in the late 80’s and early 90’s with multiple trophies to show for it, including two European Cups (now known as the Champions League) and a Serie A title.

Rangnick’s endeavor to implement the gegenpress comes as no surprise but there’s a clear Portuguese elephant in the room – Cristiano Ronaldo. Through November, the five-time Ballon d’Or recipient had put in the least pressures per game of any forward. For reference, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane had over 4x the pressures of Ronaldo, Mohammed Salah nearly 6x the amount of pressures, and Ronaldo’s Portugal teammate Diogo Jota nearly an astonishing 10x the amount of pressures (and this is from a Liverpool side that has actually decreased it’s pressing consistency!).

The question becomes if Rangnick’s philosophy of a high intensity, pressing team — particularly his counter-pressing style that requires very quick work from the forwards — completely at odds with an aging Ronaldo who may be trying to conserve his energy for high impact goal-scoring and finishing?

Firstly, we have to understand a bit more about gegenpressing and the rationale behind it. It’s not simply “all out press, all the time”. Rather, the focus is on attacking the weak links of the opposition and calculating risk/reward when it comes to the pressing structure. There’s room for players to fall back and conserve energy as needed, particularly when the entire team is synced so each player can fluctuate their pressing intensity throughout the match.

Secondly, although the press increases defensive effort required, it can decrease offensive effort required particularly in build-up play as the overall point is to regain possession higher up the pitch in high risk positions against a less structured defense. That is going to create easier opportunities straight away rather than having to find them through the build-up. Accordingly, it’s uniquely suited for players who can capitalize on those situations by playing that next decisive pass or finishing decisively.

Each of these profiles does fit Ronaldo to a certain extent. One of his greatest strengths is tactical awareness and understanding of positioning. If you watch him in and around the box, you’ll immediately notice how smart and calculated his runs and timing are. That skill set fits very well when it comes to the gegenpress risk/reward calculations and attacking weaknesses. Further, as Ronaldo’s career has evolved, he has gone from a high dribble, on the ball player to a lower dribble, willing passer who can still finish quite well. That certainly fits what you want after winning the ball back in an aggressive counter-pressing system.

Additionally — and Rangnick has said this as well — a key part of gegenpressing is a competitive and confident mentality. Ronaldo has never lacked for either and if you tell him that there’s a way for him to potentially score even more goals, it will only reinforce that mentality. To further that point, Rangnick has brought in a trusted sports psychologist as well.

All that being said, Ronaldo isn’t a pure fit for the pressing system but that’s a reality that Rangnick has acknowledged for much of the Red Devils team, stating that implement this system isn’t an overnight thing but rather takes weeks to months for players to learn and then build up the requisite physical capacity. To the latter point, Rangnick’s team includes trusted sports scientists who are familiar with his playing style and how to build those levels of fitness in the players.

Although Ronaldo is 37, his training and commitment up to this point makes it likely that he can adapt very well to Rangnick’s physical demands, especially with a training team that understands the specific requirements. However, whether Ronaldo can fully adapt to the full tactical side of gegenpressing remains to be seen but there are positive indicators in terms of his attributes.

The early returns have been good. Sky Sports’ Jaime Carragher has praised Ronaldo for his pressing intensity and tactical awareness since Rangnick took over, especially in the club’s win over Crystal Palace. With matches set to start coming thick and fast due to the festive schedule, it will be interesting to see how Ronaldo and the rest of United respond to Rangnick’s demands. At the very least, this season will give us more insight into whether Ronaldo’s drop in defensive activity over the years has been due to the environment or due to himself.

Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT, (@3cbperformance) is a physiotherapist, movement expert, fitness trainer, sports scientist and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA and online based physiotherapy and athletic performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more).