Heerenveen managed to extend their excellent opening of the 2011/12 season by defeating league leaders AZ 5-1 at home, breaking a club record in the process by going 12 Eredivisie matches unbeaten. Freshness, a high work rate, and outstanding individual performances proved key in defeating AZ, who clearly lost the battle early on in midfield, and paid for trying to come back into the game in the second half.
Manager Ron Jans had been searching for the right balance in his midfield for most of the past season, but he has definitely got his team going at present. Going twelve matches unbeaten, Heerenveen possesses the best offense in the league by some standards. Still the only team to have scored in every Eredivisie match of this season, going into this match Heerenveen ranked third in the league in terms of conversion, scoring with 27.7% of their shots on target.
Jans has his team operate from a 4-3-3 formation, with Sven Kums conservatively holding the midfield in front of centre backs Gouweleeuw and Zomer. Former captain and centre back Breuer has been shifted out to left-back. In front of Kums, Viktor Elm, who plays his brother Rasmus today, plays a box-to-box role, while Filip Djuricic shines in his role of advanced playmaker. Up front, Oussama Assaidi, easily Heerenveen’s most prolific attacker, misses out today. Rajiv van la Parra, who returned from Caen this summer, after initially leaving Feyenoord’s youth academy for the French club, fills in the left wing position.
AZ’s 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3
AZ’s formation contains a lot of hybrids, crossovers and variety, making it hard to catch them in simple and plain formational notation. They operate with a four-at-the-back defense, but like to advance either a full-back or a centre back into midfield in possession. Their midfield three generally consist of two more holding players with Maher in a central playmaking role in front of them, and this was how they intended to start the game too. But they tend to advance one of the holding midfielders regularly, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, like they did when going an early goal down today.
A crucial absence seemed the suspension of midfielder Pontus Wernbloom, who started all but one of this season’s Eredivisie matches for AZ. Today, Erik Falkenburg, more of an offensive midfielder, started beside Rasmus Elm in the holding role, and later on took on more of his usual offensive game. Centre back Nick Viergever missed out, with Ragnar Klavan partnering Niklas Moisander in defense.
The opening phase
Heerenveen started the game much better than AZ did. The home side took all of the initiative and a series of excellent shots was the result. After the first five attempts were cleared out, either by goal keeper Esteban, the inside of the post, or goal line clearances, Heerenveen striker Bas Dost found the back of the net with a close range attempt coming from a corner.
Up until that moment, AZ was merely overrun in midfield, where they failed to win their share of tackles. The absence of Wernbloom seemed hard felt, although Heerenveen’s dominance was that clear that it is doubtful whether the presence of a single player would have altered the picture here. Now facing a goal down, AZ manager Verbeek advanced Erik Falkenburg slightly, with a 4-3-3 being more applicable than the 4-2-3-1 that AZ started the game with.
Despite Heerenveen still having the best of play, AZ found the equalizer rather quickly, when Jozy Altidore crowned an excellent ground combination through the heart of the Heerenveen defense. This led to a short period where Heerenveen sat back more than they did earlier and paying the price in losing the initiative for a short while. Another goal going against the run of play was then scored when Heerenveen executed a pitch-perfect counter from a weakly executed AZ corner. Rajiv van la Parra found the back of the net.
The ensuing part of the first half
In the remaining fifteen minutes of the first half, Heerenveen did not make the same mistake again. This time they kept the pressure on AZ, winning an excellent rate of tackles in midfield. Man-of-the-match Jeffrey Gouweleeuw missed an excellent opportunity to extend his team’s lead when he was allowed to fire in a shot at the end of a clean break that he initially lead out of defense himself.
AZ manager Verbeek, generally known for voicing his opinions, be it verbally or by substitutions, acted even before half time by removing young Adam Maher, who played a rather invisible game and was also held responsible for the break that led to Heerenveen’s second goal. Gudmundsson was introduced to play at the left wing, with Brett Holman moving inside, offering more work rate and tackling for the struggling AZ midfield.
The second half
Only three minutes were played in the second half before the match was over. Understandably, AZ manager Verbeek had his team increase their stance in order to find a way back into the match. But the advanced defensive line was not paired with any sorts of pressure on the ball when Gouweleeuw was presented all sorts of time to pick out a delicious long pass. He found Djuricic in behind AZ’s d-line and the 19-year old Serbian playmaker provided a cool finish.
Only two minutes after conceding this goal, AZ, who had conceded only 8 goals in 13 matches prior to this match, conceded a fourth. Ramon Zomer finished from close range, the assist again coming from Jeffrey Gouweleeuw in a left wing cross in an attack that started from a corner.
Further into the second half, Luciano Narsingh made things even worse for the leaders as he finished another ball in behind AZ’s defensive line to make it 5-1
In the end
Heerenveen fully deserved this victory based on their freshness and eagerness to win the midfield battles. AZ’s midfield, where offensive midfielder by nature Erik Falkenburg filled in for the suspended Pontus Wernbloom, never seemed up to the task. Come the second half, Heerenveen clinically punished AZ for failing to pressure the ball when they tried a higher defensive line to fight their way back into the match.