Groningen beat Heerenveen for the second time this season. Not only does this mean a second victory over their main rivals after previously beating them 1-0 at home, it also means a second victory of Pieter Huistra over his predecessor Ron Jans. Three important points for Groningen as they maintain their current fourth spot in the Eredivisie which would guarantee Europa League football next season.
Heerenveen’s striker issues
Ron Jans left striker Bas Dost out of his starting 4-3-3 for the eighth consecutive match. While in Heracles’ wide winger 4-3-3 variant the tall and talented youngster flourished in the 2009/10 season, Heerenveen’s start to the season illustrated the mismatch between Dost and his current team mates. Dribbling inside wingers Assaidi and Beerens contribute their fair share of finishing moves, rather than aiming for the floating crosses Dost so much desires. The youngster might be on his way to a move to Ajax at the time of writing, as they see an ideal combined aerial and ground target man in their current outside wingers 4-3-3 game.
Originally an attacking midfielder, but fielded as Heerenveen’s central striker now, Viktor Elm succeeded in catalyzing his team mates’ moves, as illustrated by the fact that Heerenveen’s goals per matches have increased from 1.54 before his inclusion to 3.0 in Heerenveen’s last seven Eredivisie matches. Behind him a trio of Vayrynen, Grindheim and Svec provided enough stability to the central midfield that was lacking in Heerenveen’s 4-2-3-1 formation that characterized their start to the season.
Stability at Groningen
Groningen’s impressive first half of the season did not go unnoticed and as happens so often to high-flying teams, their star players get difficult to hang onto. So far though, Groningen managed to hold onto Matavz until the end of the season (7m euro summer move to Napoli) and captain Granqvist (rejected Fenerbahce offer).
Young manager Pieter Huistra went with his preferred starting 4-2-3-1 with passing midfielder Tim Sparv returning from injury beside his holding midfield partner Danny Holla and Danish international Thomas Enevoldsen replacing vice captain Koen van de Laak who is out for the season with a severe knee injury. The only unsettled position in Groningen’s line-up remains the attacking midfielder spot. First choice Petter Andersson is working his way back up after long lasting injury problems while Garcia Garcia and Pedersen compete for the position now with the latter preferred today.
The first half
With both formations being mirror images during the first part of the game, player quality rather than tactical choices determined the face of the game early on. The only tactical exception of note was Groningen’s intense pressure on Heerenveen captain Breuer who responded with a lot of misplaced passes for Groningen to take advantage of.
Groningen applied the principle of defending narrow and spreading wide in possession to perfection, allowing them to convert their 42% possession into a fair amount of chances while Heerenveen had all sorts of trouble converting their share of possession into opponent half passes. Particularly Heerenveen’s high defensive line was tested by Matavz acceleration and timing and the home team was lucky to come away with some dubious first half offside calls.
Matavz’ excellent lone striker role
Groningen’s narrow and compact way of defending meant that they had some trouble playing balls into their midfield, but this was simply solved by playing long balls towards Matavz who excelled in his lone striker role, even converting some of these situations into shooting chances. And it was exactly one of these Matavz solo moves that forced Heerenveen goalkeeper Stuhr Ellegaard to concede a corner from which centre-back Ivens scored with a powerful header.
Heerenveen’s main threat came from Assaidi’s inside dribbling runs, but other than in his ‘one man show’ against Twente, he frequently ran into Groningen’s defenders as Ivens provided an excellent doubling in defense to help out Kieftenbelt here.
Poor Heerenveen passing
Illustrative of Heerenveen’s weak passing from the back was the build-up to Groningen’s second goal. Left-back Jong-a-Pin cheaply gave the ball away for Groningen to take advantage once more of Heerenveen’s poorly executed offside trap as centre-backs Breuer and Kruiswijk failed to communicate. Matavz applied the finish in a one-on-one situation for his eighth goal in as many matches.
A tell tale of Heerenveen’s misery was the fact that Jans felt forced to apply a 30th minute substitution, removing holding midfielder Svec to introduce out-of-favour striker Bas Dost. Elm moved back into the attacking midfielder role in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Despite in theory providing more passing outlet to the centre-backs, Heerenveen kept on struggling to pass the ball into their midfield and the face of the game was hardly changed.
Half time changes
In a desperate attempt to get more grip on the game, Jans decided to move Breuer into a libero-like role, positioning him in front of his back-line. If the goal of this change had been to have the Heerenveen captain even more involved in Heerenveen’s build-up, it certainly worked, but given Breuer’s poor first half passing Heerenveen kept on losing a lot of possession early on. Ten minutes into the second half Breuer was removed to introduce another attacking midfielder, Djuricic. Heerenveen effectively switched to a 3-5-2, hoping to force their way back into the match.
Within one minute the reverse happened as Tadic scored with one of those dangerous long range free kicks, curling into the far post, untouched by the mass of players in the box. Despite Djuricic scoring a beautiful long range effort, Heerenveen never found their way back into the match and resorted to a series of cynical challenges, eventually losing their second starting centre-back too. He fouled Matavz who was on a free run towards the goal and saw a direct red card. Groningen took advantage of Heerenveen’s depleted back line as Tadic crowned his excellent game with a late second goal to settle the game at a 1-4 score line.
In the end
Groningen dominated Heerenveen from start to finish and smartly took advantage of Breuer’s weak passing by applying particular pressure during Heerenveen’s build-up. And as if to illustrate one of the main determinants of the outcome of this game none of Heerenveen’s two centre-backs lasted until the end of the game, while on Groningen’s side it was centre-back Ivens who opened the score. Furthermore, Matavz positioning, acceleration and clinical finishing proved too much for Breuer and Kruiswijk to deal with.