Category Archives: Europa League

AZ 2 – 0 Jablonec: Offensive football rewarded with excellent first leg result

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.

The starting line-ups

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.

ADO 2 – 0 Tauras: Half time improvement sees ADO through to the next EL qualifying round

Judging by the score line of 2-0 ADO did a good job beating Lithuanian side FK Tauras, admittedly of a lower standard, to reach the third qualifying round of the Europa League. But the performance to go along with it was rather flat, with ADO only taking full advantage of their superior playing qualities in the second half, when the pressure on their opponents was significantly increased.

 

ADO’s 4-3-3

Manager Maurice Steijn made two changes compared to last week’s line-up. The first one was a forced change, as newly acquired left-back Luksik was suspended after his direct red card. Steijn shifted Christian Kum to the left-back spot, moving Ramon Leeuwin back into central defense, much like he did during the previous match to compensate for Luksik’s dismissal. In midfield Tjaronn Chery, a substitute in the previous match, played beside Jens Toornstra.

The starting line-ups

The second change wasn’t forced by last week’s game, but it was definitely related to it. Tauras played a compact formation that effectively doubled up on ADO’s wingers and succeeded in frustrating ADO’s desired wide winger game with it. Partly as a result of this, Charlton Vicento played a disappointing game and didn’t start this game. Another new acquisition did, as winger Marc Höcher, more technically skilled than Vicento, but less athletic, started on the left wing.

 

Tauras’ optimistic 4-2-3-1

The obvious disadvantage of formational notations is that they hardly cover the subtle difference that might exist between them and in fact, Tauras’ formation wasn’t all that different compared to last week’s 4-4-1-1 that they played for the best part of the game. With both wingers pushed up just a bit more in possession a 4-2-3-1 seemed the most accurate description of their formation.

 

The first half

Apart from an early minutes chance for striker Lex Immers, the match gradually turned into a disappointing affair for ADO. Fans had come to the stadium with high hopes to see their team walk over an underestimated opponent and a few early whistles were to be heard.

Tactically spoken, ADO left quite some space between their back four and the front three. Their narrow midfield three, with Aleksandr Radosavljevic in his usual conservative role in close proximity to the central defenders, had a tough time covering this much space. Tauras, on the other hand, crowded this space with their midfield three and added the defensive efforts of their wingers too. As a result, ADO frequently lost possession even before reaching either of their wingers.

 

ADO’s ineffective crosses

The mainstay of ADO’s game in their successful previous season had been their wide winger crossing game. Both Verhoek and Kubik (now departed to Russian side Kuban) connected very well with target man Bulykin, resulting in the Russian striker’s second place in the top scoring charts.

With Immers playing the striker role now that Bulykin’s loan contract could not be renegotiated, ADO will have to fine tune that aspect of their game. Immers does not possess the physical qualities that Bulykin displayed over the past season and needs more support upon incoming crosses.

In that regard Ado fell a bit short during the first half. Immers regularly was the only ADO player in the box when Höcher and mainly Verhoek delivered their crosses. During the second half ADO fixed this issue and significantly increased the effectiveness of their crosses. Overall, the rate of 4 shots on target out of 15 attempts illustrated the lack of quality in ADO’s finishing game.

 

The opening goal

Often regarded as  an ideal timing to score a goal, ADO opened the score on the brink of half time. Assisted by Tauras’ goal keeper Borysenko, who dropped an out-swinging Verhoek cross and provide Jens Toornstra with the easiest of opportunities.

 

 

The second half

During the half-time break Steijn seemed to have addressed the first half issues. ADO’s defensive line played at least twenty yards further up the pitch, thereby reducing the amount of space in front of them and providing the required support for central midfielders Toornstra and Chery. The two of them, in return, were again able to support Immers in dealing with the incoming crosses and ADO’s game was a world of difference compared to the first half.

In truth, with Tauras needing at least three goal to qualify for the next round, the outcome of the tie had pretty much settled with Toornstra’s opening goal. Tauras seemed reluctant to chase an equalizer, knowing that ADO would take advantage of any space in behind their defensive line. Their sparse moment of counter attacks now began from a much deeper position and their counter play was significantly reduced as a result.

 

In the end

With the best effort of the game, Tjeronn Chery introduced himself to the home crowd in Den Haag with a delicious long range effort to chip the ball over Borysenko. The 2-0 final score line pretty much justified the face of the game with ADO having made a huge improvement during the half time break.

FK Tauras – ADO 2 – 3 : An eventful return to European football with a happy end

Only 46 days after their miraculous escape in the Europa League qualification play-off final against Groningen, it was already time for ADO to get their 2011/12 campaign underway. They did so with an away match in the second qualification round of the Europa League against Lithuanian side FK Tauras, who came in fourth last season and are currently ranked ninth halfway through the present season in Lithuania’s twelve team league.

Given the over achievement of the past season, when presumed bottom-half team ADO managed an impressive seventh place, ADO fans feared the departure of most of their eye-catching players. Well, the most significant departure was a rather unexpected one. Successful manager John van den Brom, who played an impressive 324 games for Vitesse, was lured to Arnhem with last season’s assistant manager Maurice Steijn, who played 98 games for ADO himself during the nineties, appointed as his successor.

 

Summer transfers

ADO lost two important offensive players, as their top scorer Dmitri Bulykin’s loan contract from Anderlecht could not be renegotiated and Slovakian left inside winger Frantisek Kubik left ADO for Russian side Kuban after just one year in Den Haag. On a positive note, right winger Wesley Verhoek stayed true to ADO, at least so far, with all sorts of rumors about his future going on. As a replacement for Kubik, winger Marc Höcher was attracted on a free transfer from Helmond Sport, after scoring 15 and assisting 14 goals in the Jupiler League last season. This would assume that Charlton Vicento fills in the striker role. Another option would be to advance Lex Immers from central midfield to that position.

Both central defender Timothy Derijck and upcoming midfield talent Jens Toornstra, like Verhoek, have received offers from Utrecht, but stayed at ADO so far. ADO made a straight swap at their left-back position, where Mitchell Piqué left and 26-year old Slovakian Filip Luksik was brought in. Finally, Pascal Bosschaart and Danny Buijs, regular substitute players during the past season left the club on free transfers.

 

ADO’s formation

The starting line-ups

ADO enjoyed a fantastic 2010/11 season with their optimistic wide winger 4-3-3 formation. Aleksandr Radosavljevic consequently covered in close proximity of the back four, while both central midfielders Toornstra and Immers made well timed connecting runs forward. However, with no direct replacement found for Bulykin as of yet, Immers played as central striker today with Leeuwin drafted in from central defense to the right-sided central midfield place.

This swap, Leeuwin for Immers in midfield, meant less offensive input from that area for ADO, while part of their success of the past season was the confusion they brought about with two central midfielders looking to overload formations playing with a single holding midfielder.

 

Tauras’ 4-1-4-1 / 4-4-1-1

Despite starting out with a clear 4-1-4-1 formation, Tauras swapped for a 4-4-1-1 early on. ADO’s midfield shape, with Leeuwin playing practically beside Radosavljevic, forced Tauras’ central midfield triangle to a better fit. A few chances were conceded in the process though, mainly from moves starting at the feet of Radosavljevic, who escaped Tauras’ pressure in deep positions during their early 4-1-4-1 line-up.

Other than that, ADO had quite a tough time breaking their opponent open. Due to the crowded centre of the pitch and ADO preference for wide wingers, most offensive moves were played out on the sides of the pitch. Right winger Verhoek fired in some of his trademark crosses from deep, but left winger Vicento struggled to make an impact.

His problem was most of ADO’s problem too. Tauras kept their two bands of four close together, as was to be expected, which led to their full-backs receiving constant cover from the wide midfielders. With ADO mainly used to wide wingers and central midfielders arriving in the box with late runs forwards, their full backs are not all too adept at playing an offensive role. And that was exactly was caused the problematic second part of the first half. Tauras simply outnumbered ADO’s wingers and kept their opponent at an adequate distance from the goal.

 

Second half changes

ADO manager Maurice Steijn seemed to realize the lack of bodies in the wide areas of the pitch as full backs Luksik and particularly Ammi increased their offensive input, making those much needed overlapping runs.

ADO’s game plan, however, was undone early in the second half as Tauras deserved a penalty on practically their first possession in the opponent’s box. Left back Luksik was sent off on his debut for the club and striker Jerkovic slotted the penalty home to put the home side 1-0 up.

 

ADO's unusual shape after left back Luksik was sent off

No shortage of events

Put to the test like that, Steijn made some drastic changes. Ramon Leeuwin dropped a line to fill in at centre back, to allow Christian Kum an unusual left wing back role, where he covered most of the left side of the pitch. Immers was initially withdrawn to a central offensive midfield role, with Verhoek and Vicento operating as a pair of central strikers. Later on, with the introduction of newly acquired Tjarron Chery, Immers moved back to the striker role with the substitute operating in the hole. In formational notations a 3-3-1-2 would seem to cover best what ADO lined up like.

Whether it was due to their change of shape or not, space opened up for left sided attacks and a quick move by Kum allowed Verhoek to fire in his first left sided cross, which Immers finished off. But ADO’s comeback was short lived as Tauras only Dutch (!) player, Regilio Seedorf, a second cousin to Milan’s Clarence, put the home side 2-1 up with an out of the blue screamer from distance, only their second attempt at goal.

ADO’s abrupt change from a wide winger game to a narrow pair of front strikers operating with a man-in-the-hole kept providing them with opportunities though. And it was club icon Lex Immers who leveled the score from the penalty spot after Chery was clumsily fouled on the edge of the box. In the final second of extra time things took a turn for the worse for Tauras as centre back Sirevicius found the back of the net of his own goal to give ADO the win.

 

In the end

Not many would have expected such an eventful game from a second qualifying round of the Europa League tournament. A red card, two penalties, five goals and a drastic change of approach of tactics by ADO made for a highly enjoyable match. Of course it is very early in the season, but at least we’ve seen ADO’s new manager at work, put to a test with his team being a goal and a man down in their much awaited first European match in 24 years. His drastic change of approach changed the face of the game and overcame an opponent that managed two goals from two attempts.

Spartak Moscow – Ajax 3 – 0: A broken formation

Ajax went into this game, knowing that they needed to turn up the efficiency after their profligacy of the first leg, leading to a 0-1 loss with a goal scoring chances ratio of 17 to 3. But at the half hour mark they saw themselves two goals down and the game was virtually over. Spartak’s initial pressing dislodged Ajax formation and the home team took excellent advantage.

 

The line-ups

The starting line-ups

As indicated in the preview to this game, Ajax played their familiar 4-3-3 line-up with just one change compared to the first leg. High-flying goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg fractured his thumb in training, has been operated this week and might not make it back into Ajax’ first team before the end of the season. And with a presumed transfer this summer, he might just have played his last match for the club. On other news, striker Mounir El Hamdaoui still isn’t part of Ajax’ first team squad, after falling out big time with manager de Boer on disciplinary issues.

Spartak started the first leg without pace striker Welliton, Russia’s top scorer of the past season, but he has returned from full fitness and featured in the starting eleven for this game. This means that Artem Dzjuba started from the bench. Another first team regular that returned to the starting eleven was defender Aleksandr Sheshukov, who filled in for Marek Suchy, as the young Czech was suspended after his yellow card in Amsterdam.

 

Opening phase pressing

In the opening fifteen minutes Spartak pressed heavily and this seemed to take Ajax by surprise. Almost being pressed over their own back line, Ajax’ ball retention was awful and Spartak completely dominated the game. A tell tale of Spartak’s heavy pressing was the frequent involvement of both full-backs during this phase of the game. As if to illustrate this, it was left-back Makeev who was presented with the best early goal scoring opportunity during this phase, but his shot was well blocked by third choice goalkeeper Jeroen Verhoeven.

As is generally the case, this intense level of pressing started to fade around the ten to fifteen minute mark. But this time Spartak did not just fade away in terms of pressing, they seemed to deliberately switch off the pressing and trade it for a deeper stance. The huge contrast between the first and second fifteen minutes and the sudden transition in pressure around the fifteen minute mark could be indicators of a deliberate choice to stop pressing at this intense level. And should this have been a deliberate move by Karpin, it was a game-winning one.

 

Ajax’ broken formation

In a sense, Ajax never recovered from this early Spartak pressing episode. Their defensive line was pressed to a deep stance early on, but never recovered when the face of the game changed. When Spartak took a more patient approach, Ajax naturally started dominating possession for a while. During this second fifteen minutes of the game Spartak absorbed and neutralized Ajax’ game perfectly, playing a well organized and compact zonal unit, consisting of the back four and the two holding midfielders, Ibson and Carioca. This ensured that in this vital area of the pitch they were always sure to outnumber Ajax’ attackers.

And the key problem for Ajax in this phase was that their defensive line did not adjust accordingly. They maintained a relatively deep position, perhaps in the wake of Welliton’s pace on the counter attack, allowing Spartak way too much space in front of Ajax’ own defense. Vurnon Anita had his hands full man-marking Alex, and any drifting by the Spartak playmaker opened up acres of space for any midfielder to run into.

 

A matter of time

With Ajax’ formation laid out in broken fashion, it was only a matter of time before they would start conceding. And in quick succession they did. Around the half hour mark Ajax had conceded two goals and, miracles beside, the game was over. The remaining part of the first half consisted of Spartak sitting comfortably on their lead and the young Ajax team dazing to the half time whistle.

 

Second half changes

Ajax started the second half with two substitutions. Enoh and Özbiliz replaced Blind and Sulejmani, moving Anita to the left-back position. But these individual changes  could never cure the bigger problem of the broken formation that lead to the 2-0 half time score line.

In addition to the two substitutions, Blind also moved both central midfielders, Eriksen and De Zeeuw, into a more advanced position, effectively changing the 4-3-3 to an offensive 4-1-4-1 variant. And this immediately brought more balance to the game, although the fact that Spartak took their foot off the gas given their comfortable lead, must be taken into account in no small part too.

The support lent by De Zeeuw to Eriksen in the offensive midfield role allowed Ajax more passing options amid the compact block formed by Spartak’s defensive unit: the back-line and the two holding midfielders. Furthermore, by creating what was in effect a line of four right behind striker De Jong, the 4-1-4-1 formation reduced the changes of Spartak playing around Ajax’ high pressing midfielders, a situation that led to a lot of problems in the first half. On top of these changes, Ajax played a higher line, partly forced by the fact that they had to score no less than three goals in order to advance.

Despite the more balanced game, Spartak finished the game off at the hour mark with a nice long range direct free kick. Playmaker Alex curled the ball into the far post, beyond the reaching arms of Verhoeven.

 

In the end

While the first leg loss may be interpreted as an unlikely outcome of a match that Ajax dominated, this second leg affair was a very different story. Spartak’s early intense pressing seemed to catch Ajax by surprise, and particularly the sudden switch to a more patient game led to a broken Ajax formation. The acres of space conceded in front of the defensive line were far too much for single holding midfielder Anita to cover by himself, as he also had a strict man-marking job on playmaker Alex to do.

By the time De Boer had come to address these issues, Ajax were already a decisive two goals down and in the end the 3-0 score line reflected the fact that Spartak outwitted and outplayed Ajax today.

Ajax 0 – 1 Spartak: Pressing and chances, but a loss nonetheless

Outplaying your opponent for ninety percent of the match, yet still ending up on the wrond end of the score. It’s not the first time such a turn of events happened to Ajax. They managed to impress with their possession-based high pressing game and creating a fair share of chances along the way, but despite the 20 – 3 advantage in terms of goal scoring chances, Ajax failed to find a way past Spartak goalkeeper Dikan.

 

The line-ups

Ajax lined up, as expected in the preview of this game, with the same starting eleven that comfortably beat AZ in the weekend before. Well aware of Spartak’s counter attacking threat, manager Frank de Boer was quoted saying: “we start to pressure to get the ball back as quick as possible. Pressing left, right, above and below. Always and everywhere. That’s what I say to my players”.

The starting line-ups.

Spartak’s formation was different to the one presented in the preview on two occasions. Up front Welliton was not deemed fit enough to start, after recent injury and was replaced, just like in the Basel matches, by Dzjuba. Furthermore, holding midfielder Sheshukov started from the bench, allowing Brazilian midfielder Ibson to feature beside his compatriot Carioca in defensive midfield.

 

The first half

As expected, Ajax dominated possession right from the kick-off. With a quick ball circulation and stretching their attack wide, they succeeded in creating a few early chances too. Spartak was limited to defending in their own one-third of the pitch and any potential breaks were broken up early on, with a particularly good performance by Vurnon Anita as Ajax’ holding midfielder.

Despite that, Ajax struggled to put Dikan to the test, as most shots were either from outside of the box, or just off target. In the end, the Spartak goalkeeper did a good job clearing a lot of balls from his goal mouth. The pattern of play repeated itself over and over as Ajax had Spartak pressed thus far in their won half that they had an easy job regaining possession.

While this may sound like Spartak did not stand a chance during the first half, in reality both teams were playing in their comfort zone. Admittedly, this applied somewhat more to Ajax as there were more goal scoring chances than Spartak manager Karpin would have liked, but conceding only a limited number fouls, Spartak kept their tight defensive shape quite well. On top of that, their deep defensive line limited Ajax’ option of playing one of their preferred passes, the Vertonghen cross pass to Sulejmani in behind the opponents’ defense.

 

The second half

In contrast with the first half, Spartak took a more advanced stance in the beginning of the first half. Pressing Ajax around the midline now, they seemed to catch their Dutch opponents by surprise. Ajax suddenly had a tough time passing the ball into their midfield with all of a sudden too many men in front of the ball. Spartak easily dominated possession during an (afterward) crucial spell of the game, the first ten minutes of the second half.

While in the first half, the frequent runs from deep by both Eriksen and de Zeeuw contributed to the variety in Ajax’ pattern of attacks, during this spell, with Spartak exerting pressure on the central defenders and Anita, it proved counterproductive. Ajax suffered from a vacated central midfield and lost possession early on in some build-up moves.

On one of these occasions, Ajax suffered a goal in a short moment where Anita, who had an otherwise excellent game, lost sight of Spartak’s playmaker Alex.  In possession on the edge of the box, the Brazilian did an excellent job firing the ball past Stekelenburg into goal at the far post. Manager Karpin already had his substitution lined up and proceeded with it. Welliton entered the pitch with Ison leaving. This moved striker Dzjuba to the advanced midfielder / second striker role and match winner Alex to the second holding midfielder position.

 

Chances, though no goals

Despite having acquired their desired away goal, Spartak did not retreat like they did in the first half. They maintained the level of pressing they had had success with during the first spell of the second half and Ajax kept on having a tough time breaking their opponents down. It took until the final ten minutes for goalkeeper Dikan to definitely claim his man-of-the-mach award as he consistently kept on clearing all Ajax attempts.

 

In the end

Despite dominating for most of the match, Ajax was left empty handed at the final whistle. Manager de Boer sounded happy enough with most of the performance by his team, and, based on the first half display, rightly so. But not finishing any of the 20 chances created meant a painful 0-1 defeat results-wise. Particularly for a team that sold top scorer Suarez during the winter break and did not play his replacement, El Hamdaoui, after disciplinary issues.

After a dominant first half performance, Ajax seemed to be surprised by the different Spartak approach of the second half. In the end took them too long to adjust to this higher pressing, as Spartak took full advantage of this short dominant spell.

Tactical preview of Twente – Zenit

Twente’s season so far

Twente has had a very respectable season so far. Given the fact that their successful manager Steve McLaren and several influential first team members had left during the summer, a sort of ‘transition season’ might have been expected. But those expectations have been superseded as the club had a respectable Champions League campaign, with home draws against defending European Champions Inter, and against Tottenham and Werder, finishing third in their Champions League Group. In the first Europa League knock-out stage they defeated Russian side Rubin Kazan, with a solid 2-0 away win proving the base for that victory.

In the Eredivisie meanwhile, Twente did very well not to suffer from European hangovers and keeping the pace set by league leaders PSV to be only three points behind in second place now. With only one Eredivisie home defeat and an unbeaten home European record this season, Twente are definitely are tough team to beat at their own ‘Grolsch Veste’. But in order to progress beyond Zenit, they’ll probably have to do better than the previous four European games that all ended in draws.

 

Zenit’s season so far

Zenit played four matches so far in this season: two in the Europa League against Young Boys (1-2 and 3-1), one in the Russian Cup against the new club of Roberto Carlos, Anzhi (3-2 win), and most recently in the Russian Super Cup against CSKA (1-0 win). These were no one easy matches for manager Spalletti. In the first match, in Switzerland, Zenit’s 4-2-3-1 faced a 3-4-3, and they had a lot of problems, as 3-4-3 might be a smart formation to play against a 4-2-3-1. Keeping the formation narrow, the wing-backs were the key on the flanks, and the three strikers, who played in narrow style too simply outnumbered Zenit defense in quick breaking attacks.

In the home match against Young Boys, Zenit played with pair of wide forwards for the first time in the last two years, and it was a first step to the famous 4-6-0 formation. And indeed, Spalletti did play the 4-6-0 in the second half of the Russian Super cup. Danny and Lazovic, the former PSV man, moved to the wide areas to stretch the opponent’s defense line, and it proved the key to success.

At the moment Zenit has a lot of injured players. Bucharov, Kerzhakov (probably), Semak, Bystrov, Hubocan and Lombaerts are out because of injury, and that’s why Spalletti turns back to 4-6-0, the unconventional formation that he had so much success with in his Roma days of 2007.

 

Twente’s formation

The presumed starting line-ups, Zenit in this case with Lazovic (or Kerzhakov if fit) as the most advanced midfielder in the 4-6-0 system and Danny on the left wing.

Twente manager Preud’homme enjoyed a short taste of his predecessor’s narrow midfield 4-3-3 formation, but he quickly switched, after two goalless draws to open the season with, to a formal 4-2-3-1, which he now uses in the majority of games. This allows Twente to use the double pivot of two holding midfielders, while at the same time it allows them to field both tall striker Mark Janko and talented striker/midfielder Luuk de Jong. As an alternative, forced by suspensions of injuries, Preud’homme does switch to the 4-3-3 system at times, with Landzaat coming into the squad in central midfield.

Against Zenit a near full-strength 4-2-3-1 line-up is to be expected. But the one injured player happens to be superstar Bryan Ruiz, who still suffers from the consequences of a knee injury that also sidelined him earlier this season. Against AZ, when he was substituted at half time, first Landzaat and later Bajrami replaced him and in the next match against Utrecht, Luuk de Jong was drafted into an unfamiliar right wing role. Both changes did not go all that well, but the option to play Bajrami, a left-footed left winger, on the right wing seems most likely for the Zenit match. A more unlikely option would be to start young Ola John, who made an excellent impression as a substitute in Twente’s most recent game, the 2-0 home victory over NAC. His inexperience though, makes another substitute role more likely.

 

Zenit’s formation

As stated above, there’s a big chance we will see a formal 4-6-0 come back to European football, although Zenit has usually played 4-2-3-1 formations away from home so far. Without any fit strikers in squad, Spalletti will probably play with Danny and Ionov as wide players and Shirokov in the ‘Totti role’ of most advanced midfielder. Central midfielder Zyryanov will act as the central midfielder that will make runs from deep to the center forward position, and Denisov will act as the holding midfielder. Left winger Danny and Shirokov might also be switching positions, either in the starting line-up or during the game.

Another option for Spaletti: to strengthen the defense on the potential weak left side he can move Danny to a central position instead of Lazovic and field Husti on the left wing.

Another option would be that Shirokov will play beside Zyryanov in the centre of midfield, with the Portuguese star Danny playing as a trequartista and Husti as wide player on the left to offer more defensive cover on that flank. One of the strengths of the 4-6-0 formation is the amount of variety is offers in the midfield positions and this combines very well with the flexibility of the midfielders in Zenit’s squad.

But a constant among all the variety will be Zyryanov’s runs from deep. He is very good at this role and scores a lot of goals for the Russian national team and Zenit in this style. Think for example of his goal for Russia against Greece during Euro 2008.

To be fair, Zenit must be considered as the strongest Russian team at present, with the best manager. Luciano Spalletti is a very experienced man and he won the Super Cup match against CSKA using his huge tactical knowledge that he learned during his time in the Italian Serie A. He simply outplayed CSKA manager Leonid Slutsky in the tactic battle, and Michel Preud’homme should be well aware of Spaletti’s capacities to make excellent in-game adaptations.

The main weakness in Zenit’s squad is their left-back, A. Lukovic. He is not a regular first team player, and when a less defensive minded player like Danny or Shirokov plays on the left wing, there is the potential of a lot of 2v1 situations on that flank.

 

Twente players to look out for

Luuk de Jong

This 20-year old Dutch talent has missed only one Eredivisie game and no European match so far. He is equally capable of playing as a lone striker or as the man behind Austrian striker Mark Janko, which offers flexibility to his manager. With 17 goals and 11 assists already he will be a key man to watch for Zenit.

From left to right: Chadli, De Jong and Janssen

Theo Janssen

If you say Twente, you say Theo Janssen. The talented midfield is gifted with the best left foot of the Eredivisie and his free kick skills are renowned. He often acts as a deep-lying playmaker beside Twente’s ‘destructive’ midfielder Brama.

 

Nacer Chadli

A quick rising star in the Eredivisie, Chadli was bought from second tier side AGOVV during the summer and counts as one of the best summer deals made in Holland. He is a skilled dribbler, known for his pace and has scored most of his goals when drifting inside, looking to curl balls into the far post.

 

Zenit players to look out for

Danny

Simply the best attacking midfielder in Russia, who has magnificent dribbling skills, good pace and passing, and he is very good at finishing. His transfer to Zenit cost 30.000.000 euro, and today the Portuguese, who played his first match in Russia six years ago, is a key element of Zenit’s attack. Look at his movement and his technique, and enjoy.

Thirty million euro man Danny

Bruno Alves

Another player whose transfer fee has been exorbitant high. Zenit paid 22.000.000 euro for this central defender – but he prove his value during his fourteen matches in the Russian Premier League last season. With his compatriot Meira he is an essential part of Zenit’s success. But in the last match, against CSKA, both had similar problems with Dumbia’s pace, and this might offer an opportunity for Twente.

 

Alexandr Anyukov and Konstantin Zyryanov

Both are very experienced members of the first team. Anyukov is the captain of the team and the best full-back in the Russian Premier League. With his movement ability and his solid game in defense he is a British style full-back who plays an important role for Zenit, in defense as well as in attack.

Zyryanov, may not be as quick and resilient as he was three years ago at Euro 2008, but he holds up Zenit’ midfield in defense and still is very dangerous in attack. Like his injured teammate Sergey Semak he is also spiritual leader of the team.

 

This contribution to 11tegen11 was partly guest-written by Russian tactical blogger Eugeny Shevelev. You can find him on Twitter as @shevelevee or visit his blog here.

Tactical preview of Ajax – Spartak Moscow

Ajax’ season so far

Since the appointment of Frank de Boer as manager of Ajax on December 6, 2010, things have definitely changed at the Amsterdam ArenA. His predecessor Martin Jol often had Ajax playing in a pragmatic 4-2-3-1 formation, relying on two holding midfielders to cover for the wing-backs, who bombed forward to provide width to the narrow inside wingers formation. Ajax relied heavily on the creative input of Luis Suarez and often sat back, rather than playing the characteristic high pressing game.

Frank de Boer

De Boer’s arrival coincided with the departure of Luis Suarez, as the club could make an great deal, at least business-wise, by selling him to Liverpool for 26.5 million euro. And from a tactical perspective, things changed quite a bit too. De Boer, a home grown Ajax man, started with what is generally considered to be ‘the Ajax style’. Typical characteristics are the consequent 4-3-3 formation, wide wingers and a high pressing game.

With these principles, results immediately picked up for De Boer. After a 9-5-3 (win-draw-lose) first half of the Eredivisie season under Jol, Ajax continued to a 6-2-1 streak under De Boer, only drawing the difficult away games at Roda and PSV and losing in an odd off-day at Utrecht. On top of that, Ajax’ morale was strengthened by an unexpected 2-0 away victory against AC Milan in the final Champions League group stage match and the double victory over Anderlecht in the first Europa League knock-out round. Meanwhile, Ajax reached the Dutch Cup final, where they will play Twente.

 

Spartak’s season so far

As the Russian football season has only just begun, Spartak played only three matches so far, two Europa League matches, with unbelievable comebacks, against Basel and one in the Russian Cup against Sibir, a team well-known after their sensational 1-0 win on PSV. Only in the latest match against Sibir, Spartak had no problems in defense. This line is definitely the wekaest line in their team.

Without serious transfers during the winter, manager Valery Karpin still doesn’t have enough high-class players in defense.  The recent arrival of centre-back Marcos Rojo, who recently made his debut in the Argentine national team, is a good addition, but he will still have problems adapting to the squad.

In the match against Sibir the one and only hope for good defense was to pair two defensive midfielders, a move that in fact turned out quite well as they succeeded in winning every ball after long Sibir’ passes to their lone striker.

An important player for Spartak will be the Brazilian striker Welliton, who can be expected to return to the team just in time for the match, after coming back from injury. His presence is of prima importance for Spartak’s offensive approach.

 

Ajax’ formation

The expected starting line-ups. Note the mirror images that Ajax' 4-3-3 and Spartak's 4-2-3-1 produce.

Expect Ajax to line up in their characteristic 4-3-3 formation and expect them, particularly at home, to play a possession-dominant high pressing game. The choice of the starting eleven has been quite consistent throughout De Boer’s matches so far, but recently the holding midfielder role has been given to Vurnon Anita over Cameroon international Eyong Enoh. While Enoh offered huge commitment in the tackling department, Anita offers a superior passing game.

Up front, Mounir El Hamdaoui has fallen out of favor big time, after a half-time clash with De Boer during Ajax semi-final Cup win over second tier RKC. The Moroccan striker, Ajax’ biggest acquisition at the beginning of the season, ended up being substituted and was relegated to the youth squad until further notice. His place in the lone striker role will be filled in by Siem de Jong, who offers an important back-to-goal presence in the lone striker role and his excellent team work skills will help him bring others into play. Look out for the well-timed runs from deep from both Christian Eriksen and Demi de Zeeuw from the central midfield positions.

 

Spartak’s formation

Spartak’s formation is usually described as 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1.

In the centre of midfield feature either two defensive midfielders (Sheshukov and Ibson or Carioca) with attacking-minded Alex completing the midfield three, or Sheshukov can play as single defensive midfielder with Alex and Jano (or Ari, the former AZ player) as two more offensive central midfielders, like Spartak played in the home match against Basel. Spartak’s wingers deserve a mention too. Aiden McGeady, the best Spartak player so far, has excellent dribbling skills and a good vision of the game. McGeady often tends to drift inside during Spartak’s attacks, supporting the striker. Dmitry Kombarov, is a less versatile player, who often plays as a classic winger in 4-4-2.

Artem Dzyuba has featured as the lonely striker in all matches so far, and he has performed well. He often drops deeper, and plays a false nine role, creating free space to be exploited by his team mates, like for example Ari in the recent Cup match against Sibir. But Welliton’s return means that Dzyuba will be dropped to the bench, and Spartak’s approach in attack will be more straightforward, using Welliton’s pace and Alex’ passing ability. If Ajax should succeed to mark Alex and Welliton well, it will be hard games for Spartak.

As said, Spartak has most problems in their defensive line, and particularly with the full-backs. Makeev is a young and inexperienced player, and both full-backs had a lot of problems against Sibir and may be expected to have more problems with Ajax’ wingers.

 

Ajax players to look out for

Jan Vertonghen

The strong Belgian centre-back, a product of Ajax’ excellent youth academy, is an essential element in Ajax’ firm home defense. Since the appointment of De Boer as Ajax manager, the Vertonghen-led defense has kept a clean sheet in an impressive 10 out of 13 games.

Christian Eriksen

The young Dane is without a doubt the brightest talent in this young Ajax squad. Already having played 11 matches for the Danish national team and still just 19 years old, his star definitely started shining under De Boer’s management. While under Jol he was often used in a substitute role, playing from the left wing, for Frank de Boer Eriksen is a key players in his starting eleven. He is Ajax’ central midfield playmaker, and one to keep an interest in for the coming years.

Rising star Christian Eriksen

Miralem Sulejmani

‘The most expensive player in Dutch football history’. That tag proved almost fatal to Sulejmani’s game at Ajax. Purchased for no less than 16 million euro from Heerenveen in 2008, the Serbian wing player had a tough time finding his feet in the ArenA. But over the past months, his pace definitely picked up and he is in excellent form going into the Spartak game. His lightning pace and clinical finish are his biggest weapons.

 

Spartak players to look out for

Aiden McGeady

Irish international McGeady, who made the brave decision to join Spartak from Celtic in the summer of 2010, is full of determination to prove his name in European games. And what better stage for him to perform that in the Europa League with Spartak? He rejected Aston Villa offer, and choose Russia – and Red-White fans love him for that from the first day. He is not the archetypical British winger, but rather enjoys every moment with the ball and doesn’t prefer the cross. When he’s in possession, and his team mates know by now, he will do something special.

Welliton and McGeady

Welliton

Last season’s top scorer in the Russian competition is ready to return to action, you be he’s motivated to show himself to the world, as are Alex and McGeady. With his pace, he is a dangerous player, and on top of that his technique and finishing are great. He has been voted the best player of Spartak in 2010 by the fans and there are many rumors at the moment that Russia might adopt him to play for the national squad.

Andrey Dikan

He is the best goalkeeper Spartak has had in the last five years. Calm and solid, he will instill confidence in his inexperienced defenders. He is already 34 years old, but still is one of the most underrated players in Russia, and it is in matches like these that he can show that he is a really good goalkeeper.

This contribution to 11tegen11 was partly guest-written by Russian tactical blogger Eugeny Shevelev. You can find him on Twitter as @shevelevee or visit his blog here.

Sampdoria 1 – 2 PSV: A 4-4-2 diamond running out of steam

PSV went into this fifth Europa League match knowing that a draw would be enough to secure a place among the final 32 teams. Sampdoria, on the other hand, were in need of a win to keep their hopes of qualifying alive.

 

PSV’s 4-2-3-1

Most of PSV’s regulars featured in this match, with two exceptions. Midfielder Otman Bakkal and right winger Jeremain Lens missed out due to illness, causing Fred Rutten to move playmaker Afellay to the right wing, drafting Hutchinson into midfield and thereby creating space to allow Manolev a first start at right-back after a three months injury.

The starting line-ups (Volta replaced the injured Lucchini early in the first half). Note Sampdoria's packed centre versus PSV's dominance on the flanks

PSV’s system is well known as a 4-2-3-1, which has been described here before, for example in their home match against Twente A clear difference between their home and away games can be seen in the positioning of Toivonen. Featuring as a second striker, or a false number ten if you like, in PSV’s home matches, he tends to put in more of a true central midfield role in away games, as evidenced by PSV’s display against Ajax two weeks ago, and more recently in their 4-2 defeat at the hands of NAC.

 

Sampdoria’s 4-4-2

Past manager Luigi Delneri installed a flat 4-4-2 system, based on bombarding wing players with quite some success. His successor, Domenico di Carlo, was drafted in from high-flying Chievo Verona to continue this same line. And although he still plays with what is best described as a 4-4-2, he did make certain alterations to their line-up and playing style. Regularly facing four band  formations, he prefers a 4-4-2 diamond. In a way this compares to the only Eredivisie team to consequently play a two striker system, Roda JC.

Sampdoria’s hot headed big star, Antonio Cassano has fallen out of favour with the club president after refusing to attend an awards ceremony and the club is currently in the process of looking to terminate the player’s contract. So no ‘Gioiello di Bari Vecchia’ (Jewel of old Bari) tonight, but a striker combo of regular Italian international Giampaolo Pazzini and 21 year old Guido Marilungo.

 

The previous confrontation

Both teams played each other in the first Europa League match, where Sampdoria held PSV to a 1-1 draw. Aided by an early lead due to a glaring communication error in PSV’s defense, Sampdoria seemed happy to sit deep and often use the long ball towards Cassano, hoping for his creativity to shine. Today, playing at home and being in need of a win, something different is to be expected.

 

The first half

And different it was by Sampdoria. As if to illustrate that playing style is quite something different to playing formation, they lined-up in the same 4-4-2 diamond they played a high paced game from the off. Often pressing PSV in their own half, Sampdoria managed several dangerous early interceptions, one of which led to Marilungo’s shot that hit the post early in the game.

PSV’s choice to move playmaker and captain Afellay out to the right wing to replace Jeremain Lens had serious implications for their midfield game. PSV clearly missed the passing qualities of Afellay, who himself was replaced by Hutchinson in defensive midfield. Furthermore, Otman Bakkal, PSV’s regular partner for Afellay in defensive midfield, missed out through illness.

 

PSV’s problems

Facing a packed midfield in the form of Sampdoria’s narrow diamond, PSV often found itself outnumbered here while their full-backs were smartly occupied by the dynamism of Marilungo and Pazzini upfront. Since these two hard-working players managed to occupy PSV’s entire back four, Sampdoria was always sure to outnumber PSV on the rest of the pitch.

Another problem was both Afellay’s and Dszuszak’s tendency to play as an inside forward rather than as a wide winger. This limited PSV’s ability to play around their opponent’s packed midfield, which would have been the most sensible way to go. Although Afellay managed to get in behind his marker one, delivering a dangerous cross that was missed by Toivonen, this was far from enough to pose any real danger to Sampdoria’s defense and striker Reis was limited to a handful of touches.

Sampdoria was able to commit their full-backs forward more and more and it was a cross from their right-back Ziegler that found Pazzini at the first post. His sublime diving header found the far corner and, just like in the teams’ previous encounter, Sampdoria led 1-0 at half time, although this time by dominating the game rather than taking advantage from a defensive mistake.

 

Second half changes

PSV made one change to the second half and that was to switch Afellay and Dszudszak. With Afellay now no longer split between defending Ziegler’s forward runs and connecting PSV’s offensive passing, his role became more prominent. At the same time Dszudszak was enabled to make some threatening runs inside from the right, looking to shoot with his left foot.

One moment of slack defending from Sampdoria was enough for PSV to equalize. Afellay was not pressured at all in his cross to a completely unmarked Toivonen.

PSV manager Fred Rutten

Sampdoria meanwhile tried to commit more bodies forward, but saw their players run out of energy which saw their tactical plan crumble. Their strikers were no longer able to bind all of PSV’s back four and PSV’s full-backs became more and more involved. This meant that PSV became able to play around Sampdoria’s narrow midfield and the face of the game started to change. Sampdoria, in desperate need for a win, starting chasing PSV’s possession and PSV found space to control the ball.

In the closing minutes of the game Toivonen scored his second goal of the game in his otherwise unimpressive performance. Sampdoria had been reduced to ten men by then, after Marilungo saw a second yellow card for furiously discussing some fairly debatable offside decisions.

 

In the end

This has been a match with two faces. Before half time Sampdoria was more or less in control, dominating the central area of the pitch while occupying PSV’s wide players, especially the full-backs, with their hard-working striker pair. In the second half, and especially after PSV switched their wingers, PSV gained the upper hand by dominating the flanks, bypassing Sampdoria’s crowded centre. Their strikers and ‘carilleros’ running out of steam meant they virtually surrendered to PSV, a fact further illustrated by Marilungo’s frustrations in the end of the game.

FC Utrecht 0 – 0 Liverpool: A paradox of players committing themselves and managers holding their horses

FC Utrecht qualified for European Football by winning last year’s Eredivisie play-off and their Europa League qualification campaign, starting back in July, saw them defeating KF Tirana, FC Luzern and last but not least, former European Champions Celtic. Especially notable was the 4-0 home triumph over the higher rated Scottish side that featured in the Champions League group stages in three out of the past five seasons.

Utrecht’s season so far

Descibed as a young team with lots of potential, their campaign has certainly not gone unnoticed. Especially young striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel found himself in the spotlight of transfer speculation during the August transfer window, only to remain a Utrecht player for at least half a season more.

Utrecht has had quite a shaky start to their 2010/11 Eredivisie season so far. Losing all four of their away matches and in return, winning all three of their home matches (counting up until the Liverpool match that is). The first two matches of their mouth-watering Europa League group stage went quite a different way. After an excellent display in their first match away at Napoli they were perhaps a tad unlucky to come away with only a 0-0 draw. And now there’s the home 0-0 against a Liverpool side, that’s had a struggling start to their season, to throw in an understatement.

 

The starting line-ups

 

Utrecht’s preferred formation(s)

Utrecht manager Ton du Chatinier generally prefers to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. However, the recent injury problems to Utrecht’s forwards have forced some creativity from his side. Missing their influential wide player Dries Mertens, their formation tended more to a 4-2-2-2 and when Mulenga and Asare were injured too, they played a 4-1-4-1, only to find out that grinding out low scoring draws is not really their cup of tea.

Against Liverpool only Asare was still missing through injury, otherwise Utrecht’s full strength 4-2-3-1 was fielded. They play a split winger style with left-sided dribbler Dries Mertens providing a wide oulet and Jacob Mulenga playing more inside,  from the right, joining striker Van Wolfswinkel. Edouard Duplan replaced Asare in the central attacking midfield role.

Liverpool’s taste of 4-4-2

Liverpool fielded what could best be described as a 4-4-2 formation, although their midfield had quite a degree of positional freedom. On paper Meireles was the right sided midfielder, but he frequently drifted inside, looking for space. The same counted for Joe Cole, who started mostly from the left side. At moments throughout the game Liverpool played more of a 4-2-2-2 in this regard. Meanwhile, Kuijt roamed around Torres who occupied the most advanced role. Both Poulsen and Lucas played a very deep role, providing the stability for the before-mentioned positional liberties.

 

Liverpool's flat 4-4-2 in defense

 

In theory Utrecht’s three man midfield would provide with a 3 v 2 situation versus Liverpool’s Poulsen / Lucas combination. This did not work out, however, due to a number of reason. First, Duplan was often positioned too far upfront to be considered a force in midfield. Second, Liverpool’s Meireles played a very narrow midfield role, providing an extra hand in central midfield if necessary. Furthermore, this liberated Glen Johnson to display his prima quality, attacking down the right flank.

An even first half

This led to a rather even match without enough attacking support from either side to create any real goal scoring chances. Utrecht was a bit conservative in the sense that both full-backs played quite defensive role. Especially in a 4-2-3-1 versus 4-4-2 where Liverpool needed their midfield wide players to support the centre, an attacking role for the full-backs would be a good option.

Utrecht created a handful of chances in the first half, but these were mainly long range efforts, or blocked shots. The only real goal scoring opportunity came from a smart Mertens dribble after a corner was initially cleared, but his short found the hands of goalkeeper Reina.

The paradox of the second half

The second half initially saw more end-to-end play, even leading to both sided being only that bit away from opening the score. First an aerial bombardment with a corner series by Utrecht challenged Reina’s aerial capacities and upon clearance Kuyt crossed for Torres who only just missed the shot to finish a high-paced break.

As the match neared the final half hour a beautiful paradox became apperent. On one hand there were both sets of players throwing in an namirable amount of energy, especially notable with Utrecht’s physical labour in search of a win. On the other hand, both managers seemed content with keeping both defensive midfielders in their respective formations behind the ball at all times. With both teams effectively playing 4 v 8 in attack this contributed to the 0-0 final score line.

 

Why a 0-0 was always a likely result. Note Liverpool's eight-men defensive unit composed of four defenders (red), two holding midfielders (orange) and two wide midfielders (yellow). Utrecht throws only four men forward, hence the 4 v 8 situation.

 

In the end

The same holds true for this game as for the Napoli game. Utrecht will be proudly showing a 0-0 versus big name opponent in a few years from now. In reality, however, a bit more tactical endeavour might have brought a narrow 1-0 here. Too often Van Wolfswinkel found himself isolated and outnumbered upfront. But then again, with two points against Napoli and Liverpool, Utrecht still very much has everything to play for in this group.

PSV 1 – 1 Sampdoria: A misfitting 4-2-3-1 does not beat a defensive diamond

For the first time  in 18 years, PSV has to settle for Europa League (former UEFA Cup) football for two consecutive seasons. And despite 12 Champions League participations in these 18 years, they’ve only passed the group stage three times, with a Hiddink-managed side reaching the semi-finals of 2004/05 as their best result.

Today PSV kicks off their Europa League campaign against Sampdoria, that was only just knocked out of the Champions League qualifications by Werder Bremen. With Hungarian side Debreceni and Ukrainian Metalist Charkov completing their group, PSV and Sampdoria are expected to battle for the group victory, providing an extra edge to this opening match.

PSV’s 4-2-3-1

PSV, like their title rivals Ajax, consequently line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Their back line is fairly consistent with new signing Marcelo and Mexican international ‘Maza’ Rodriguez forming the centre-back couple. Howver, the latter is suspended for the Sampdoria game after receiving a red card in the EL qualification match at Novosibirsk and is replaced by veteran defender Wilfred Bouma who was contracted on a free after being released by Aston Villa.

PSV’s wing attackers play a fairly wide role compared to a lot of 4-2-3-1 teams featuring inside wingers. Balasz Dszudszak on the left and Jeremain Lens on the right are true wing players, both being capable of passing their defender for an out-swinging cross or turning inside for a shot on goal. Especially two-footed Dszudszak is renowned for his goal-scoring ability from the wing.

The starting line-ups

In turn, PSV’s full-backs are not provided with an empty wing to run into, looking for overlap, like we so often see in inverted wingers based 4-2-3-1  formations. In this match, first choice right-back Manolev is suffering from a groin injury and is replaced by Atiba Hutchinson who is capable of performing full-back as well as defensive midfield duties.

Last season saw Ola Toivonen being deployed in the striker position where he could pose an aerial threat to connect with the wing crosses. This year he’s deployed as the in-the-hole man behind striker Marcus Berg, contracted on a season-long from HSV. Toivonen seems to flourish in this new role, using his off-the-ball skills to maximum effect, scoring seven goals in six matches in the process.

A final mention goes to the defensive midfield players, where Orlando Engelaar teams up with the ambitious Ibrahim Afellay. The latter strongly expressed his desire to leave PSV (“… but only for a top team!”) and refrained from playing in the EL qualifiers for that reason. However, no suitable offers came in and Afellay joins PSV for another season. After initially being deployed behind striker Toivonen he is now regularly used as a box-to-box holding midfielder besides natural passer Engelaar.

Sampdoria’s 4-4-2

Opponents Sampdoria are renowned for being a 4-4-2 team, the more and more ‘endangered species’ of modern football formations. Last year, however, manager Luigi Delneri managed to finish fourth in the serie A with this 4-4-2 line-up, often showing bombarbing wing players who connected with strong striker Giampaolo Pazzini for him to score 19 serie A goals last season. This even led national manager Cesare Prandelli to select both Sampdoria forwards Cassano and Pazzini for Italy’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Estonia. Another 4-4-2 diamond success story has been Roda JC breaking down champions Twente for a 0-0 home draw early this season.

Delneri left for Juventus to continue his 4-4-2 philosophy there and Domenico di Carlo, who had enjoyed a successful two-year spell at Chievo Verona was brought to Sampdoria the continue the 4-4-2 success story. He made some adaptations to Delneri’s line-up though. The midfield was slightly altered and features a four-man diamond now, as illustrated in the screen below, providing better cover against four-band formations (like 4-2-3-1).

Sampdoria’s narrow 4-4-2 diamond. Don’t mistake the ref for a yellow dot though…

Pazzini did not play against PSV due to a back injury and was replaced by 21-year old Marilunga. This substitution had immediate consequences for Sampdoria’s style of play. Instead of deploying wide running midfielder, looking to swing crosses in for Pazzini, their midfield now consisted of a very narrow diamond, cropping space in front of their four-man defense.

A costly defending error

That being said, let’s turn our attention to how the match developed. Sampdoria’s line-up could virtually be broken down in two parts. There’s the defending line of the back four with the narrow midfield in front of them. And there’s Cassano roaming around and slightly to the left of fellow striker Marilunga. Sampdoria’s midfield successfully dedicated the majority of their efforts to frustrating PSV’s midfield play. Upon possession, the Italians quickly passed the ball to Cassano, hoping for some brilliance that he has already frequently brought this season. Given their deep defense Sampdoria was not ashamed to use the long ball forward.

PSV had a lot of trouble breaking Sampdoria’s deep defense down. Dszudszak consequently faced two or even three defenders in his beloved left wing dribbles and apart from a few long range shots did not succeed in creating danger. With Marcus Berg not offering the aerial presence of Toivonen in that same position last year, Dszudszak’s crosses seem less efficient. Even more dramatically, a communication error between striker Berg and defender Marcelo left Cacciatore unmarked after an half-cleared corner and the Sampdoria right-back scored rather easily.

This error proved costly to PSV as it allowed Sampdoria to withdraw even further, letting their formation break into a defending unit of eight with a separate pair of roaming strikers. PSV did not succeed to play around this defending unit. One of the man factors why PSV did not succeed may be the role of Marcus Berg.

Marcus Berg and PSV’s 4-2-3-1: not a happy couple

The Swedish striker was brought into the club based on his successes at FC Groningen, where he scored 41 goals in 64 matches. His move to HSV was not quite a success and PSV snapped him up for a year-long loan. Important to note is that Berg obtained these impressive figures by excelling in a 4-4-2 system at the time. His goals are predominantly  scored with ground strikes. His role in PSV’s 4-2-3-1 system is quite a different one. He’s mainly to receive aerial crosses from wingers Lens and Dszudszak and the match against Sampdoria was no exception. Last week’s match against NEC illustrated the same problem, where manager Rutten subbed Berg of during half-time for PSV to overcome a 0-1 half=time score by scoring three second half goals with the aerial presence of Koevermans in their side.

The second half

At half time PSV manager Rutten refrained from major changes. If anything, Afellay was positioned slightly higher up the pitch, where Sampdoria’s narrow diamond provided enough bodies to limit space here. PSV did fire quite a few long-range shots, but consequently found goalkeeper Curci on their path.

It took until the 75th minute for Rutten to make the desired change, subbing Koevermans on for Berg.  But by then Sampdoria had completely parked the bus to see out the remainder of the match, hoping to hold on to their 0-1 lead.

The final minutes

In the end Dszudszak scored a well-deserved equalizer from the standpoint of those appreciating PSV’s continuous hard labour in this difficult game. Or a sore late goal conceded by Sampdoria for those appreciating the art of defending and appreciating the well-organised eight-men Italian defense. A matter of taste…

PSV’s impressive pass completion rate of 87.7% illustrated both the deep defensive stance of Sampdoria, refraining from any sorts of early pressure, and it illustrated that PSV’s shortcomings are mainly to be sought in the final attacking pass, connecting well with the presumed misfit of Marcus Berg and PSV’s style of 4-2-3-1 wing play.