AZ manager Gertjan Verbeek is a Heerenveen-man. Despite being born in Deventer, he spent all but one season of his 10 year long career as a professional football player at the Frisian club. And at this very same club he started his career as a manager. He spent seven years developing his skills under the experienced wings of club icon Foppe de Haan before accepting a job as manager of Heracles Almelo, as club he helped bring from the 15th to the 4th place in the Dutch Eerste Divisie (which, ironically, is the second division of professional football in the Netherlands). When Foppe de Haan retired in 2004, there was only man to be considered for the job of manager of Heerenveen.
Verbeek continued the stability that de Haan’s Heerenveen was known for and led his club to European Football qualification in three out of the four next seasons. However, halfway through the 2007/08 season, Heerenveen director Yme Kuiper decided to replace Verbeek, mysteriously saying: “It was never an easy decision and were very satisfied with the performance of [Verbeek], but it’s the best thing in the long-term interest of our club.”
Verbeek, being his stable self, replyed with this Cruyffian sentence: “I can see the club’s decision, but I don’t understand it. ” And okay, one more: “I don’t have a family or a wife. If I have to go, I’ll only leave my two cats behind.”
Well, his cats didn’t have to miss him for that long, because the high expectations he brought to Feyenoord’s injury-plagued squad of 2008 did not match with the team’s twelfth position during the winter break and a clash with a group of influential first-team players meant the end of Verbeek’s six months reign at the club.
Verbeek’s reputation might have suffered a scratch or two, but that did not stop his old club Heracles, an ambitional Eredivisie team by then, to contract their former success-manager. His appointment proved an instant succes, leading to a record-high sixth place in the 2009/10 season, only just missing out on European Football qualification. A unique achievement for a relatively small team like Heracles.
This earned him a contract at his present club AZ Alkmaar. Despite AZ’s financial troubles forcing the club to reduce their budget from 40 to 25 million, for Verbeek this still meant a huge leap forward from Heracles’ 9 million euro’s. Having learnt from his previous and comparable experience at Feyenoord, expectations have been more realistic this time. Verbeek is asked to rebuild the squad now that several of their top player are leaving due to the financial trouble induced by the fall of AZ’s owner and chairman Dirk Scheringa and his DSB Bank.
And what would you do in a situation like that? Prefer tactical stability, deploying a mainstream 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation?
So not Verbeek! The opening fixture of his AZ season saw them facing last year’s number ten, NAC Breda, in a potentially tricky away match. And Verbeek just sent his men out in a revolutionary 3-4-3 formation, pushing men forward and overloading NAC midfield.
It’s shape is depicted in this opening minute screen. Moisander forms the base of a three man defensive line, keeping in constant communication with his fellow defenders. In this case Moreno is in possession of the ball at a left defensive position.
It’s particularly interesting to focus on the role of Poulsen on the left and Marcellis on the right. Both of them play a hybrid role, consequently occupying a defensive role when the attack is built up on the other side of the pitch and rushing forward in a wide midfielder role when the attack is built up on their side of the pitch. In the opening minute screen, depicted above, the attack is started down the left. Poulsen (out of image) rushes forward down the left flank and Marcellis stays put on the right side of defense.
The reverse is true in this 6th minute screen. NAC had just cleared the ball after an unsuccessful right flank AZ attack, involving Marcellis. The defensive line consequently consists of three men with Poulsen holding back to occupy the left defensive spot, Moreno moving to the central position and Moisander defending the right side.
These hybrid defender-midfielder roles of both Marcellis and Poulsen were responsible for an AZ dominated first half. Unfortunately, in part due to the financial downfall outlined before, AZ lacks attacking power at the moment, even being forced to play midfielder Erik Falkenburg in the central striker position. They were unable to capitalize on the chances that their extra man in midfield gave them.
The point of this article is not that AZ finally managed to open the score in the 58th minute, even though it was left flank man Poulsen, intercepting the ball in an offensive position, who started this attack.
The point is also not that AZ saw their opponents equalize in the 79th minute through a combination of aerial weakness and sloppy man-marking on a long cross into the box.
The point is that we’re in for quite a season here. The opening weekend has seen much more than the previewed 4-2-3-1’s battling it out in boring midfield matches. We’ve discussed Twente’s problems getting their midfield triangle into play against Roda’s smart 4-4-2 diamond and now we’ve experience a highly dynamic three man defense by Verbeek’s AZ.
We’re in for quite a season, stay tuned!