In Defence of Literal Translation – Counterpressing and Half Spaces

The progressive rise of interest in tactics has sparked much debate on social networks such as Twitter, with a considerable proportion of the debate centred around new terms such as ‘counterpressing’ and ‘half spaces’. Alongside the growth of interest in tactics is the self-labelled ‘modern’ Twitter coach – one that insists upon being forward thinking and open minded. However, despite the preachings of modern philosophies, there seems to be dissension over such new tactical terms.

It appears that some Twitter coaches, those not in favour of new terms, cannot actually grasp the concepts and thus believe that excellent writers like Rene Maric of Spielverlagerung are simply rebranding concepts that already exist. For example, there has been confusion over the differences between high pressing and counterpressing, and channels and half spaces. To put the record straight, each term represents a different concept: high pressing is not the same as counterpressing, nor are channels the same as half spaces.

Counterpressing – what’s all the fuss about?

Apparently, counterpressing is a new term to describe high pressing, which means it is no more than a rebrand of the same concept, perhaps made up to help coaches and writers sound fancy. Rumour has is that the word is used in Germany, which, you know, makes it a buzzword. That is, of course, if you believe the ignorance implied on Twitter.

The term counterpressing is actually a literal translation of the German word ‘gegenpressing’, which means pressing in the moment of defensive transition. That is, the moment the team in possession loses the ball, they press as opposed to getting into a deeper defensive shape. There are variations of counterpressing (leeway-oriented, access-oriented, passing lane-oriented and ball-oriented (once again, these are literal translations and not ‘fancy phrases’)), which can be read about in great detail here.

“But Jamie, this doesn’t sound like the same as high pressing, so why are so many people confused?”

The only explanation for the confusion I can think of is that due to counterpressing occurring in defensive transition, possession is often lost high up the pitch, meaning that defensive transitions start high up and therefore so does the pressing.

“So it’s basically high pressing then, right?”

Yes and no – context is key. If a team loses the ball high up the pitch and counterpresses then, yes, it is, in a way, high pressing. Alternatively, if a team loses possession in midfield or an even deeper area and still counterpresses, it is not high pressing but it is still counterpressing. ‘High pressing’ describes any type of pressing that occurs high up the pitch, whether that be in the defensive transition moment or defensive organisation moment, and that is probably where the confusion derives from.

The term’s popularity has come from its repeated use in media circles, tactics bloggers and – you bet – on the pitch. Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, RB Salzburg, Ajax and Bayer Leverkusen have all used counterpressing in recent seasons with varying degrees of success and the high intensity aspect of it unsurprisingly encapsulates onlookers, not least for its entertainment value but for the appreciation of football intelligence on show.

How can there be half of a space?

If you thought counterpressing and high pressing was easy to mix up, then you have a lot of reading to do when it comes to half spaces and channels. I will gladly admit that I previously comprehended the terms ‘half space’ and ‘channel’ wrongly in the past, in this analysis of Atletico Madrid (in this image – I thought that the space between the centre back and full back was a half space, how wrong I was). After reading, re-reading and asking on Twitter, this piece on half spaces finally provoked my brain to make sense of a concept that I initially overcomplicated.

My initial interpretation of half spaces, embarrassingly, was that they were channels. Thankfully, an epiphany moment saved the day and it finally clicked, to me at least, that half spaces are categorically not channels. The term half space translates literally, again, from a German term, ‘halbraum’. Much to the horror of fascist Twitter coaches, this unfortunately means that the term is not an ornate way of describing a channel, but rather a literal translation and nothing more. As Rene Maric pointed out, it is as good a term that is going to exist for the actual concept, as terms such as ‘half zone’ and ‘pre-wing space’ just don’t fit well.

Half spaces and channels have been muddled all too much. There are two half spaces on every football pitch on the planet, similar to how there are two wings and one centre on every football pitch on the planet – half spaces are merely fixed vertical strips in between the centre and the wings. By fixed, this means that the actual zone that the half space exists in does not move, regardless of team shape. That’s easy to understand, no? Why the confusion with channels? Well, channels are the gaps (or spaces) between players, and the most popular or well-known channel is the one between the centre back and full back. I can almost hear the shout of “work the channel” from that obscure Sunday League match right now. The commonly known centre back-full back channel often resides where the half space does, which has led to confusion and controversy amongst other things.

The half spaces are fixed vertical strips that move for nobody. Not Lionel Messi or Tony Hibbert. Nobody.
The half spaces are fixed vertical strips that move for nobody. Not Lionel Messi nor Tony Hibbert. Nobody.
Channels exist between players in central areas too, not just in half spaces or the wings. The space between the blue centre backs (above) is a channel, as is  the space between the red left centre back and left back, both of which are in the central area of the pitch and not the half spaces.  Hopefully that example has cleared up much of the confusion between channels and half spaces, which could lead to enhanced knowledge and potentially better coaching.

The term half space has been used by the German FA for years and more recently by top coaches in the form of Jurgen Klopp and Lucien Favre, not just by narcissistic tactics bloggers. If the world’s best coaching organisation and proven managers are talking about half spaces, why the hell shouldn’t you and I?

Usefulness in coaching

Understanding the concepts of counterpressing and half spaces can make you a better coach. Ever heard of the saying, “knowledge is power”? Rubbish – applied knowledge is power. Knowing the difference between counterpressing and high pressing, the variations of it and its benefits and drawbacks can be largely useful as a coach. Imagine knowing how to coach individuals and teams how to use one of the most powerful answers to possession-oriented football. Sessions could focus on training the rapid shift in mentality from attack to defence, or could revolve around the type of counterpressing to be used; and seeing players embrace a modern way of playing would be truly rewarding.

Knowing the strategical benefits of half spaces in offensive and defensive moments would improve a system if applied correctly during training. For example, a session focusing on the positioning of players could have emphasis on certain players occupying a half space in various different phases of offensive organisation, which could lead to improved stability and connectivity in possession, as well as improved balance in transition. Applying the importance of half spaces could work wonders in defensive moments by facilitating the use of pressing traps (e.g. Wingers being half-space oriented in early opposition build up to isolate the wings before overloading when shifting over), better team shape and – heck – counterpressing could be worked on simultaneously.

Twitter coaches’ biggest gripe seems to be that players would not know what such terms are, but as long as the coach ensures that players understand the actual concepts and the reasons for using them, it doesn’t matter how they are termed. There is no law stating that a coach has to call it counterpressing or a half space, but, for the sake of football, embrace concepts that are being delved into.

Overcomplicating football? No. Understanding football and being a better coach? That’s your choice.

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7 thoughts on “In Defence of Literal Translation – Counterpressing and Half Spaces

  1. Very informative man. Thanks for your work. I’ve actually book marked the link from RM about half-spaces for future reference. Keep it up!
    Also, this is isn’t related, but do you know of resources that I could find about the history and significance of the player’s kit numbers as per their role on the field? Thanks again.

    1. I’m very sorry that I have only just seen your comment, Mustafa. Rene’s pieces are fantastic – read as much as you can. I haven’t got any resources but traditionally I would go with:

      GK – 1
      RB – 2
      CBs – 4 & 5
      LB – 3
      DM – 6
      CM – 8
      AM – 10
      RM – 7
      LM – 11
      ST – 9

      6 refers to a deeper midfielder, 8 to a standard central midfielder (perhaps box-to-box) and 10 would refer to an advanced midfielder. This, generally, is what I have found over the years. Obviously for back threes/fives, this changes slightly.

  2. Great article.

    The South American numbers go as follows:

    1-GK
    4-2-6-3 (Back row from right to left)
    8-5-10 (MF from right to left)
    7-9-11 (FWD row from right to left)

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