With exactly half of the 2011/12 season behind us, this may be the optimal moment to reflect on the tactical developments that the current season has provided us with. Let’s see what tactical observations and some decent stats, provided by Infostrada Sports, show us on the season in progress and what expectations we may hold for the remaining half of the Eredivisie.
1. Even more goals than usual
Already known to be a high scoring league, the current Eredivisie season saw even more goals per match than it did in the past. The present number of goals per match for the 2011/12 season stands at an amazing 3.29 per match, the highest goal scoring rate in 28 years. Compare this rate to the other leagues in the UEFA coefficient top-10, where none of them even comes close to three goals per match and see for yourself that the Eredivisie is truly an unusual competition in terms of the amount of goals scored.
Teams took more shots in this year’s Eredivisie than they did a year before. The number of shots per game per team went up from 12.9 to 13.8, nearly a shot per team more. Note that Infostrada does not count blocked attempts among shots, making comparison with other data sources precarious. The increase in the number of shots, however, did not increase the number of shots on target, which remained constant at 7.3 per team. Obviously, this indicated a decrease in accuracy, which dropped from 56.7% to 53.1%.
The conversion rate increased slightly, which, given the unchanged amount of shots on target, was responsible for the slight increase in the number of goals scored. Where away teams’ conversion remained constant at 20.6%, home teams increased their conversion slightly, from 22.7% to 23.8%. In other words, to score a goal, home teams needed an average of 4.2, rather than 4.4 shots on target. Away teams needed 4.8 shots on target to score one goal.
2. The decline of the double holding midfielder system
In tactical terms, one development stands out in this year’s Eredivisie, and it may well be responsible for the slight increase in the number of shots and goals. Teams seem to abandon the double holding midfielder system that dominated the 2010/11 season. Ajax may be the most hotly debated among teams abandoning such a system, as Frank de Boer’s ‘holy 4-3-3 system’ meant the abdication of the double holding midfielder as soon as he took up the Ajax’ manager role.
But it also applies to Fred Rutten at PSV, as indicated in this year’s season preview. Rutten consequently went with a screen of two holding midfielders in his first two seasons in Eindhoven, but converted to a more offensive minded midfield trio of Strootman, Wijnaldum and Toivonen. Comparing the stats from the past and present season underlines this offensive move, as the number of shots created per game went up from 17.7 to 20.0, with a comparable accuracy of 57.5% in 2010/11 and 56.8% in 2011/12. The quality of PSV offensive play is also reflected in their conversion, which went up from 22.8% to 24.9%. PSV’s defensive performance ,along the same parameters, is roughly comparable, if not a notch improved too.
Last year’s runner-up, Twente, also abandoned the double holding midfielder system, as perhaps the most offensive thinking manager of the Eredivisie, Co Adriaanse, proclaimed early in his days in Enschede. While under Preud’homme, Twente generally fielded Wout Brama and Theo Janssen in controlling midfield positions, Adriaanse prefers two of Landzaat, Fer and Willem Janssen to provide offensive input, with Brama holding the midfield by himself. Also, his tendency to convert creative winger Nacer Chadli to a more central role fits this picture.
Other examples along this trend contain Feyenoord, who let go of pure holding midfielder Marcel Meeuwis. New manager Ronald Koeman prefers talented distributor Jordy Clasie to hold the midfield, with El Ahmadi and Bakkal in more offensive tasks.
3. The rise of the central playmaker
Always a mythical term, the number 10 position, seems on the decline from a worldwide perspective. With most sides cropping the center of the pitch when playing superior oppositions, the general trend seems to be for the playmakers to move out wide. Not so much in the Eredivisie though, where the double holding midfielders are on the decline and the central playmaker firmly holds ground. Players like Ajax’ Christian Eriksen, AZ’s Adam Maher, Heerenveen’s Fillip Djuricic and Heracles’ Marko Vejinovic prove that the, preferably young, technically gifted and ambidextrous, central playmaker is a vital ingredient for many of the Dutch clubs.
Of these four players, only Vejinovic (21) is aged over 20, which goes to show that the Eredivisie is still and excellent learning school for talented creative midfielders. The rise of the 4-3-3 system sees them playing from a slightly deeper position than the 4-2-3-1 would do and it allow them to receive passes and dictate the game, more than having to come at the end of offensive moves. Furthermore, the presence of a second (offensive) central midfielder relieves these young players of the responsibility to solely dictate the offense of their team. In such, the traditional number 10 may not be all that traditional and Holland may not be that far of the trend in football worldwide.
4. An outstanding early run catches the spotlight
Last season it was Groningen, this year it’s AZ. The team that overachieves itself to obtain a place among the three best teams in the league: PSV, Twente and Ajax (in no particular order). This may sound like a bold statement, and predicting football results is a highly dangerous ground, but with 18 teams competing, there will always be under- and overachievers at the halfway point of the season. AZ’s net shots on target created is only 2.8. In other words, on average AZ has 2.8 more shots on target than they allow their opposition to have. This ranks them fifth in a very important performance parameter, behind PSV (6.2), Ajax (5.3), Feyenoord (4.5) and Twente (3.4). AZ’s excellent result in the first fourteen games seemed highly dependent on their conversion (28.6%, 1st), compared with an decent rate of only 18.3% (3rd) goals conceded per shot on target. On the long run, it seems unlikely that they will maintain the top position, and their run of 4 points from the past 4 matches indicated a return to average already.
When mentioning an overachiever, it may also be interesting to find an underachieving team. Based on the net number of shots on target, N.E.C. would be your team to expect more of in the second half of the season. Ranking 7th with 0.6 shots on target more than their opponents, their abysmal conversion has let them down severely. N.E.C. even ranks 3rd in terms of shot accuracy (56.2%), but only 13.8% of these accurate shots hits the back of the net, leaving only bottom team Excelsior behind them and needing a staggering 7.2 accurate shots to score a goal, or 2.7 more than the average Eredivisie team does.