We’ve seen a lot of European Football action this week. No less than six Dutch teams may reach the group stages of either the Champions League or the Europa League this year. Things, however, don’t look too good for Utrecht, having lost 2-0 away at Celtic and also PSV have some repair work to do after a clumsy 1-0 defeat at far far Siberia.
Better results were obtained by Feyenoord, in their 1-0 home win against KAA Gent and Ajax, drawing 1-1 in Kiev, as reviewed earlier on 11tegen11. Former national champions AZ seemed rather fortunate in the draw for the Europa League play-off round, having to battle it out with Kazakh champions Aktobe. And easy it was, at least in the first half, AZ eased to a comfortable 2-0 half time scoreline. Things, however, turned out to be rather different in the second half. And after a scoreless second half, AZ will have to do with 2-0 at home, still a result that sees 89% of teams qualify for the next round of European Football.
AZ’s hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3
AZ started out in their familiar formation, as previously described in their match-up with NAC. Their backline of four only really exists when under pressure, as they play a form of hybrid three-at-the-back with always one of their full backs venturing forward down the flank, depending on which side of the pitch their attacking play is concentrated. The remaining three then spread out to a three-at-the-back, with the central defender playing a little deeper than both wide defenders. So in formational terms it is a 4-3-3 in defense, shifting to a 3-4-3 in offense.
During an attacking move on the left side of the pitch this means that Klavan occupies a left sided midfielder role, with a back three consisting of Moreno – Moisander – Marcellis. The midfield diamond of the 3-4-3 would then consist of Schaars at the base, Klavan and Wernbloom on the left and right and Martens moving to the central attacking midfielder role.
During a move on the right side Marcellis occupies a right sided midfield role, with a back three consisting of Klavan – Moreno – Moisander. The midfield diamond then consists of Schaars at the base, Martens and Marcellis left and right and Wernbloom moving to the central attacking midfielder role. So, both defense and midfield shift according to which side of the pitch is most involved in the attack.
Of further note was the return of Stijn Schaars, who was rested after his World Cup trip to South Africa. The AZ captain is an important asset to his team, connecting their defense and midfield in a central deep midfield role, generally seeing a lot of the ball and offering a physical presence too.
Aktobe, meanwhile, was forced into major changes compared to their usual line-up. No less than seven first team regular were unavailable due to either injuries of suspensions. In the third qualifying round of the Champions League Aktobe was eliminated by Hapoel Tel Aviv, losing 3-1 away and ending up just one goal short in a 1-0 home win. Quite a narrow escape for en established team such as Hapoel is.
Aktobe lined up in what was essentially a 5-4-1 formation with both wide midfielders aiming to support lone striker Essomba. Although Aktobe was clearly aiming for defensive control by installing an extra central defender, the result was exactly the opposite. AZ’s wide attackers often drifted central, creating acres of space on the wings for full backs Klavan and Marcellis to run into. And this resulted in three central Aktobe defenders versus three rather central AZ attackers, with AZ’s full backs having a go at their Aktobe counterparts.
Meanwhile, Aktobe’s defensive line was rather deep, making it difficult, if not impossible, for their central midfielders to put any form of pressure on AZ’s influential defensive midfielder Schaars, who excelled in the first half, seeing himself involved in virtually every play that AZ created. The 3v2 effect in the central midfield gave AZ total control over the game and it was by no means surprising to see them taking a comfortable 2-0 half time lead.
Half time changes
Things, however, were quite different upon the second half. Aktobe put up much more of a resistance due to a simple, but very effective formation change. The Kazakhs must have realized that this 3v2 situation on the central part of the pitch was not the way to go forward and switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation that has become so common these days. This 4-2-3-1 offered Aktobe the clear advantage of matching up AZ’s midfield. Another advantage for them was the defensive role that the attacking midfielder played, frustrating Schaars’ play that was so uncomplicated during the first half.
The midfield space that AZ used so efficiently in the first half was gone and Aktobe succeeded in limiting AZ to just a few chances created by individual efforts. Especially left winger Gudmondson, only 19 years old, succeeded in skinning his man more than one, thereby creating a few chances.
In the end
The playground of the first half was gone and AZ did not succeed in scoring a third goal and must still be on their guard during the return match, next week. Aktobe will regret starting out with their 5-4-1 but will be back with a 4-2-3-1 next week, seeing the return of over half of their regular first team players. After all, remember that Aktobe succeeded in beating Hapoel 1-0…