AZ managed an excellent result in winning 2-0 at home against Czech side Jablonec. And they did so in an offensive and entertaining style, but sometimes got ahead of themselves in the process. Manager Verbeek pulled off his dynamic three man defensive system to unlock his defensive opponent and was rewarded with an excellent prospect of reaching the play-off for the Europa League group stages.
AZ’s fluid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formation
Much like they did during the opening phase of last season, AZ played a dynamic formation in the sense that they kept a back four while defending, but consequently advanced one of their defenders, mainly left wing back Poulsen, to match their opponent in midfield. As a consequence, AZ played the majority of the game with a three man defense, keeping Jablonec’s single striker under control.
Verbeek abandoned this optimistic approach early last season, after a series of disappointing results saw his team pick up only three points from last season’s first five matches. It’s a sign of courage and offensive intend that he used this approach again, even more so as it proved instrumental in breaking down their opponent’s compact 4-1-4-1 formation.
Esteban replaced Argentine international goal keeper Sergio Romero, who is rumored to be on his way out of the club, but no concrete further information has been provided yet.
Jablonec’s initial 4-1-4-1 formation
The visitors made no secret of their intentions during the first half of the game and merely sat out AZ’s offensive storm. Meanwhile, their sparse offensive opportunities arose from quick breaks through their single striker and Czech top scorer Lafata. Theoretically their compact five man midfield would always allow them to dominate most of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3-esque formations around, but AZ’s offensive approach negated this potential advantage.
The first half
AZ took matters into their own hands right from the start of the game. Their offensive three featured new acquisition Ruud Boymans in the striker role. Benschop, mainly known as a central striker, played a rather wide right wing role, while last season’s right wing player Holman was shifted to the left side, mainly playing an inside winger role here.
The space created by Holman on the left wing was filled excellently by wing back Poulsen, who covered most of the left flank during the first half. His absence in defense was filled in by Moisander who shifted over to the left side of what was then a three man defense.
This dynamic 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system worked very well in the sense that Jablonec was not allowed to dominate bodies in the central area of the pitch. Benschop on the right and Poulsen on the left provided sufficient width to prevent traffic jams in the central area. In this area, intricate playmaker Maarten Martens, left season’s left wing man, showed off nice passing skills and vision and most of AZ’s offensive threat was created through his flair.
No goals yet
Despite their dominance, AZ did not score a goal during their excellent first half. They did created several excellent goal scoring opportunities though, but excellent work by Jablonec goal keeper Spit ensured a blank score at half time.
At times, Jablonec was able to create some danger itself, mainly taking advantage from sloppy midfield passing on AZ’s behalf. On more than one occasion defense and midfield did not connect and Jablonec was provided a clear turnover opportunity with most of AZ’s players in front of the ball, positioning themselves for another attack. Perhaps the best opportunity Jablonec has to open the score was Jarolim’s delicious little chip that went over goal keeper Esteban’s head, but just over the bar too.
The second half
A tactical change made at half time, as was also clear from Verbeek’s statements after the match, was to keep both full backs in a more alternating offensive role and also allow one of the centre backs, mostly Viergever, more freedom to advance into midfield. Unfortunately, this change reduced the amount of width offered by AZ and seemed to backfire on them.
Still dominating possession, more and more passes had to be directed backwards and their offensive sparkles of the first half remained absent during the first fifteen minutes of the second half. AZ’s change of approach allowed Jablonec a slightly more narrow defense, making life easier for them.
A game changing goal
As if to illustrate AZ’s reduced dominance in the open play area of the match, they opened the score from a corner. Pontus Wernbloom crowned his hard work in midfield with the opening goal from a Rasmus Elm corner.
Immediately hereafter AZ returned to the winning ways of the first half. Verbeek introduced winger Gudmundsson for Benschop, thereby once again stretching the game more than before. The effect of this tactical change was immediately to be seen. The Icelandic U-21 international had a lively substitute appearance and chances from open play started appearing again.
It was not until the final minutes though that AZ extended their lead to 2-0, a significant improvement over a 1-0 result in a European tie first leg. Gudmundsson saw a shot from distance deflected, rendering Jablonec’s excellent goal keeper Spit chanceless. Knowing that 63% of teams advance from a 1-0 first leg compared to 89% from a 2-0 result, this might have been an important late reward for AZ’s re-established tactical dominance.
In the end
In this entertaining and very interesting match, at least from a tactical perspective, Verbeek initially got things right, and managed to fix his formation after the opening goal. It’s a sign of courage to pick up the dynamic three man defense system again, but if applied against the right (defensive) opponents, this system might be very valuable to AZ this season.