Utrecht finally managed a win after six consecutive Eredivisie draws and Groningen extended their losing streak to four games, making a Europa League play-off spot more likely than direct qualification. In not the best of games, Groningen set back and absorbed Utrecht’s pressure in the first half and paid the price for their abysmal build-up play early in the second half.
Two 4-2-3-1 formations
Both teams have consequently played 4-2-3-1 formations throughout the season, although Utrecht did shape up as 4-2-2-2 earlier when both Asare and Mulenga were still fit to play. Both teams operate from a quite fixed defense and midfield selection, while most variety arises from the attacking selection.
At Groningen Maikel Kieftenbelt and Danny Holla return to the squad after being left out against Heracles. Daryl Lachman lost his right-back spot after his unconvincing performance and Tom Hiariej was advanced into an unusual attacking midfielder role. This highlighted Groningen’s poor squad depth when it comes to offensive players. With Koen van der Laak out for the season with a knee ligament injury and offensive midfielder Andersson and strikers Pedersen and Matavz injured too, the squad is out of depth. Youngster Leandro Bacuna started in the lone striker position, even after he fell out of favor after his weak display against Roda last November.
Utrecht has had their striker issues too, although they are slowly climbing out of the deepest of worries. Despite still missing Asare and Mulenga, Utrecht saw some players return from injury during the past months. Top scorer Van Wolfswinkel, with an impressive goal scoring tally of one goal every 131 minutes, returned in the past month and strong striker Demouge, often used as a substitute, was fit enough to start from the bench again. Curiously, Van Wolfswinkel started behind young striker De Kogel, who saw his late equalizer against Roda rewarded with another start.
Messy first half
After having conceded 13 goals in the past three matches, Groningen primarily focused on their defensive issues. They conceded quite some goals from simple balls over the top, with the offside trap failing to do its job and the central defender’s speed not able to make up for it. As was neatly pointed out during Kenneth Perez’ half time analysis on Eredivisie Live, Groningen took a deep an compact stance. Even to the point where Bacuna, supposed to play the striker role, but used to playing in midfield, positioned himself rather deep inside his own half.
As a result, Groningen’s spells of possession were extremely short. They had all sorts of problems building from the back. On one hand, Bacuna’s deep stance deprived them of a decent outlet for longer passes. On the other hand, midfielders Sparv and Holla were well covered by Utrecht’s midfield and failed to work their way around this. Credit goes to Kevin Strootman who did an excellent just, pushing forward just enough to keep Holla and Sparv out of the game. The build-up was therefore a repeat pattern of long balls over and over again, either by Groningen’s central defenders, who are not the best passers around or their goalkeeper.
Manager Huistra could have improved things here by having either Holla or Sparv, who are renowned passers with an eye for the game, drop deeper, in between the central defenders. This would either drag Utrecht’s midfielders out, creating more space in the central midfield, or it would leave them some time on the ball to work out better passing options.
All the while, Utrecht did not succeed in turning their possession advantage into goal scoring chances. Their passing in the final third was often astray and the skilled dribbling of Dries Mertens on the left flank was their prime source of danger. Should Groningen have fixed their build-up issues, they could have taken more advantage of their strong left flank too, with Dusan Tadic’ dribbling and crossing and Frederik Stenman’s overlapping runs.
The second half
At the start of the second half Groningen seemed to have fixed their deep stance, but not their distribution issues. This ensured for more of an end-to-end game, but with Groningen low pass completion ratio, most chances fell to Utrecht. On one of these occasions Du Chatinier’s team capitalized through substitute striker Frank Demouge, who scored with a free header from a Mertens corner just two minutes after entering the pitch.
Groningen, as mentioned above, have a squad short on strikers. So, as expected, they had a difficult time turning this game around. Pieter Huistra did what he could, which, in this situation means he brought two youth players to the pitch. First, young and promising striker Norair Mamedov replaced Danny Holla. As Huistra stays consequent on the 4-2-3-1, this meant Bacuna and Hiariej both moved a line deeper. Only 19 year old, the youngster who currently leads the top scoring charts in the Dutch youth competition, could hardly be expected to fix the game while to more serious passing issues were still at hand. Later on, midfielder Danny Post was allowed to make his first senior appearance in the final minutes.
In the end
Groningen seemed to have fixed their defensive issue which led to them conceding thirteen goals in the three matches before this one, but still extended their losing streak to four now. Serious pass completion problems, caused by having their two passing midfielders shielded and their central defense resorting to long clearances, disturbed their game here. On top of that, injuries to Matavz, Pedersen and Andersson meant they ran out of option upfront. And with Matavz leaving for Napoli this summer, there’s a job to be done it that department for sure.
Utrecht, meanwhile, managed to win this game off the bench, with Demouge scoring an important header. With their strike force returning just in time for the Eredivisie finale, expect Utrecht to qualify for the Europa League play-offs again.