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Twente 3 – 2 Ajax: Overtime winner secures the Cup for Twente

In a match that superseded all expectations, Twente claimed the victory with a dramatic overtime winning header by Janko to win the Dutch Cup for the third time in the club’s history. In contrast to what might have been derived from both team’s managers pre-match, when they stressed the importance of next week’s fixture deciding the Eredivisie title, both teams did not hold back and a true football fest was the result.


The line-ups

The starting line-ups

The only exception to the expected line-ups, as detailed in the match preview, was the start of Twente’s Dwight Tiendalli at right-back over Roberto Rosales, due to fitness issues. In tactical terms however, both full-back can play in a quite comparable role. Veteran goal keeper Sander Boschker’s starting role in Cup matches was maintained, which meant both teams started with their nominal second choice goal keeper.


Twente’s game plan in defense

An interesting choice by both managers was to have their midfield players exerting intense pressure high up the pitch. On Ajax’ side this meant an advanced pressing role for De Zeeuw, who played beside Eriksen when defending Twente’s possession of the ball. And on Twente’s side this meant a very advanced role for Landzaat, who regularly showed up at the level of Luuk de Jong and kept intense pressure on Vurnon Anita, Ajax’ midfield holding player who is preferred over Enoh in recent matches because of his superior distribution.

Add to that the strict man-marking role that Wout Brama carried out on Ajax’ main offensive and creative midfield threat Christian Eriksen and Ajax’ difficult start to the game becomes understandable. The Ajax defense had a torrid time playing the ball into the midfield during the first twenty minutes and, intstructed to avoid long balls at all times, they bravely played short own half passes until often no other option was left than to have Vermeer hoist the ball forward, where they subsequently lost out against Twente’s superior aerial qualities. The main fact keeping balance in the game at this early stage was the amount of early fouls conceded by Twente’s midfield.



Ajax’ game plan in possession

Practically unable to pass the ball around Twente’s marking, and having the creative movement of Eriksen cancelled out well by Brama, Ajax frequently had left winger Lorenzo Ebecilio dropping into the midfield beside Anita to increase their passing options here. In turn, this allowed left-back Boilesen a lot of space to exploit his strongpoint of making forward runs from deep, both with and without the ball at feet. Ruiz, who said in an interview a few days before the match “Who? I don’t know him” when asked to comment on the young Dane, regularly failed to track his runs and ultimately Twente paid the price in Ajax’ opening goal in the 19th minute.

Boilesen made an excellent run from deep, outplayed Tiendalli, and played the ball in for Siem de Jong. Boilesen’s run had dragged Wisgerhof wide to cover there and De Jong had dropped from the central striker area, unsettling Twente’s other central defender, Douglas. The resulting space in central defense was exploited by De Zeeuw, who scored after a nice feint that allowed him past Theo Janssen.

Boilesen (in possession) went passed Tiendalli and drew Wisgerhof (red) wide. Ruiz (yellow) fails to track the run properly, while Siem de Jong has vacated the striker position, dragging Douglas (red) out of position. De Zeeuw will finish the move after nutmegging Janssen (orange).


Twente’s game plan in possession

Describing Twente’s offensive plans Is quite simple. They were clearly aware of the potential of Luuk de Jong to win headers and flick-ons over central defenders Alderweireld and Vertonghen and their forward did not disappoint them. Luuk de Jong, brother of Ajax striker Siem is still only 20-years old, but has already made his debut  for the Dutch national team in the recent friendly against Austria.

While the game plan of overloading Ajax’ central defense with optimistic crosses and long balls forward may not sound too sophisticated, it proved highly effective. Despite Ajax dominating possession 61-39% over the whole of the game, Twente managed to create no less than 27 goal scoring chances, of which a relatively high amount of 14 were on target. To complete this statistic, Ajax managed 21 attempts, of which 8 were on target.


Two more first half goals

In a move that was started through another Boilesen run from deep along the left touchline, Ajax got a tad lucky to see an Ebecilio long range shot deflected in. But despite a comforting 2-0 lead close to half time, Ajax allowed things to turn against them almost immediately. Of all people, Douglas pressing as high as Anita won possession for Twente, upon which Ajax displayed a lesson of ‘how not to apply compact defending’. Note in the screen below that all ten Ajax outfield players are positioned very compact, yet none of them either tackled the simple one-two pass between Brama and De Jong, or tracked Brama’s run before he received the ball to finish off the move.

Admittedly, Twente’s fluidity has shook Ajax’ formation a bit here, with offensive midfielder Eriksen defending Twente’s nominal left winger Chadli at the wide right of Twente’s attack, but still, to allow a one-two combination through these compact lines of defense is worrisome.

Note Ajax' compact shape with defenders (red), midfielders (orange), wingers (yellow) and the striker (blue) all in close proximity of each other. Part of what's happening here is that Van der Wiel marks the zone outside of his opponent, keeping Alderweireld from closing the gap that will arise in the centre of defense after Vertonghen was forced to step out.


The second half

With no substitutions, or changes to their game plans, both teams started the second half and consequently, the same pattern of play developed. In the most influential substitution of the game, De Boer brought Enoh instead of De Zeeuw in an attempt to regain the initiative in midfield, but he did so after the damage of losing the initiative was done.

Ajax right-back Van der Wiel lost track of Luuk de Jong, who generally moved into wide positions cleverly, and De Jong picked out a well-placed low cross for ‘man of the season’ Theo Janssen to score the equalizer.

Winning the midfield initiative was provoked by Preud’homme, who instructed Janssen more and more forward, thereby successfully overloading Anita, Ajax’ single holding midfielder. This more or less restored the balance in the game that had been lost after Twente’s offensive move, which initiated very much of an end-to-end spell in the game with Twente gaining the upper hand here.

As a result of these changes, Ajax operated from a deeper stance and, with only moderate success, aimed for counter-attacking play through their pacy wingers Sulejmani and Ebecilio. Twente, meanwhile, saw themselves able to improve the quality of their optimistic long forward balls and crosses, as their more advanced position allowed them to play them in from a closer distance. Ajax’ weakness at defending high balls entering their box, be it in open play or from set pieces, almost cost them the Cup near the end of regular playing time as first Ruiz and then De Jong headed only inches wide.



Two fatigued players were subbed of at the start of overtime. Bajrami replaced Chadli and Ajax’ third choice centre forward Cvitanich replaced Van der Wiel, with Anita shifting out to right-back and Siem de Jong dropping a line back, into midfield.

Playing with two offensive midfielders again, as Ajax did before the De Zeeuw-Enoh substitution, created a long spell of possession dominance for Ajax. Seemingly, Twente paid the price for their intensive pressing game earlier in the match and their lines got stretched. Ajax, however, failed to capitalize on this opportunity, despite coming close with two excellent long shots by Siem de Jong and hitting the bar through a header by Daley Blind, who had replaced Boilesen earlier on.

Another fatigue related substitution followed, with Bengtsson replacing Wisgerhof who had problems facing the energetic performance of Cvitanich. And Twente provided themselves with a fresh striker too. Mark Janko replaced Luuk de Jong up front.

And the Austrian striker won’t soon forget this substitution appearance, as he headed the ball past Vermeer with only minutes to play. Another addition to the string of high crossed set pieces that have proved fatal to Ajax this season.


In the end

In what was beforehand regarded as the less important confrontation of the two best Dutch teams, who will also battle for the Eredivisie title next week, both Ajax and Twente went all out. An atmospheric football evening followed, in which Twente came away with the win and their third Dutch Cup victory. Overall it was a fairly balanced game between two very evenly matched sides, which can only add to the build-up of tension for next week’s clash.

Twente – Ajax: A tactical preview of the Cup final

In their third and fourth match up of this season, Twente and Ajax will meet in both the final of the Dutch Cup next Sunday and in what may be called the final of the Eredivisie on Sunday May 15. Both managers have already expressed themselves in clichés such as “the Cup is a very important prize” and “our next match is always the most important one”, but the general feeling is that this weekend’s Cup final is overshadowed by the importance of the Eredivisie title decider next week. And it’s not just the title that is decided, but both teams may even end up losing their Champions League ticket in the case of a loss next week, with PSV aiming to regain second place.

Despite that, with both important matches played a full week apart, both managers have expressed their intention to start with a full strength line-up in the Cup final.

Captains Wisgerhof and Vertonghen (outside left and right) grabbing a hold of the Cup with managers Preud'homme and De Boer


Twente’s formation over the season

Over the course of the season, Michel Preud’homme has made a gradual change of formation. Initially, he went with the 4-3-3 formation that he had inherited from his successful predecessor Steve McLaren, but, as was described earlier, he switched from a single holding midfielder to a double pivot, allowing both full-backs more offensive freedom. With Brama and Janssen generally playing the more conservative midfield roles, Preud’homme regularly featured Luuk de Jong in an advanced midfield role behind newly acquired striker Mark Janko in what could best be termed a 4-2-3-1 formation.

But injuries to both Janko and Ruiz during the early months of the year forced a change of approach. Veteran midfielder Landzaat was introduced to the midfield, allowing De Jong to advance to the striker position. And with that, a crossover between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations was born. De Jong plays more of a ground ball target man, compared to Janko, and frequently drops back from the striker position, opening up space for Chadli and Ruiz to run into.

At the same time Landzaat is more of a natural central midfielder than De Jong, so the previous system of Brama and Janssen as consequent holding midfielders and De Jong more advanced has been replaced by a more fluid midfield three. Brama still covers in front of defense, but Janssen and Landzaat tend to take turns going forward, their counterpart offering support to Brama in the meantime.

This must have been the midfield fluidity that Preud’homme had been looking for, as over the past ten matches, Janko and De Jong have only started together twice.


Expected line-up against Ajax

The expected starting line-ups. Note the potential for Twente to overload Ajax' midfield with Ruiz drifting in and De Jong dropping.

With Bryan Ruiz back from knee injury problems just in time for the decisive matches of the season, Twente starts returning to its full strength line-up again. Ruiz will play his beloved drifting role, starting from the right wing and Chadli will aim for a more straightforward left wing role. Based on recent matches Luuk de Jong is expected to start in the striker role, with Mark Janko perhaps coming off the bench if things don’t work out.

The fluid midfield trio of Brama, Janssen and Landzaat will plays as outlined above and in central defense Douglas returned from his six match suspension a few matches ago to retake his left-sided central defense position beside captain Wisgerhof. The return of Dwight Tiendalli has provided Preud’homme with a choice of two out  of three likely full-backs to start. Either Rosales or Tiendalli will play as offensive right back, with Buysse or Tiendalli playing on the left side of defense. Preud’homme varies his full backs a lot, perhaps because the offensive wide role demands a lot of stamina and three candidates for two spots might be a good way to keep them fresh. It’ll be interesting to see which pair he’ll prefer this time.


A season of two halves for Ajax

No teams has been debated as much a Ajax in terms of tactical transitions over the course of this season. The departure of manager Martin Jol, who preferred a rather conservative 4-2-3-1 system and the appointment of Frank de Boer, who goes with a ‘classic Ajax style’ wide 4-3-3 have been key determinants of the tactical developments over the season. And results have pickup up in quite dramatic fashion in the second half of the season, as Jol managed a 9-5-3 (36-17) record over the first 17 matches of the season and De Boer so far holds a 12-2-2 (33-12) record over his 16 matches in charge. This improvement saw Ajax close the five point gap with Twente to one point and overtake PSV whose 9-4-3 (39-16) record during the second half of the season almost equals Ajax’ first half.


Major changes

Comparing to Ajax’ previous encounter with Twente, the 2-2 away draw last September, only three players are expected to start in the same position this time. Admittedly, Vermeer replacing Stekelenburg in goal is forced through injury, but otherwise an impressive amount of changes have been made.

Ajax’ defense has by and large kept its form as Van der Wiel, Alderweireld and Vertonghen are still sure starters, with 19 year old Nicolai Boilesen starting at left back ahead of Daley Blind and Vurnon Anita. The latter is drafted back into defensive midfield, a role he used to play in before Jol turned him into a left back.

Last September, Ajax’ midfield consisted of Siem de Jong, Enoh and Lindgren with a front three of Emanuelson, El Hamdaoui and Suarez. Indicative of the changes brought about by Frank de Boer only one of these six players will feature in Ajax’ starting eleven next weekend. Siem de Jong is widely expected to start ahead of Mounir El Hamdaoui in the lone striker role, as the Moroccan international hasn’t found his form in the field, isn’t getting along with his manager off it, and on top of that isn’t fully fit at the moment.

Right winger Miralem Sulejmani is perhaps the best example of a player flourishing under a new manager. Since the appointment of De Boer, the Serbian hasn’t missed a single Eredivisie start and with six goals and five assists he’s made significant contribution to Ajax’ improved second half of the season.

A devoted servant during the second half of the season: Miralem Sulejmani


Key areas

With both midfield trio’s rather well balanced and all four wingers generally showing excellent defensive awareness, a potential decisive match up might be Bryan Ruiz playing the inexperienced left-back Boilesen. The young Dane made a hugely impressive debut replacing the injured Daley Blind against Heracles at home in early April, but had a difficult time playing skilled dribbler Luciano Narsingh in Ajax’ recent narrow victory over Heerenveen. Ruiz’ tendency to drift inside will see him picked up by Anita, which will put extra pressure on Demi de Zeeuw to track any offensive midfield impulses Landzaat or Janssen might employ.

On the other hand, the offensive runs of Eriksen combined with De Jong’s excellent false nine role will limit Landzaat’s offensive abilities as he’ll need to be wary of his opponent’s well timed runs from deep as was illustrated in the same Heerenveen – Ajax match, with De Jong – Eriksen combinations forming the base of both Ajax goals.

Twente 1 – 0 Utrecht: Early red card decides the game

Twente managed a narrow win over an Utrecht side that got reduced to ten men after just twenty minutes of play. They saw the correct, but late, decision making of Preud’homme rewarded with the goal their numerical advantage on the pitch deserved.

Twente just came off a temperamental defeat to AZ this past weekend, where Preud’homme and fellow Twente staff members had a tough time keeping their cool in response to what they considered to be dubious decisions by referee Bossen. But tonight illustrated that these decision will eventually balance out as the slightly harsh and very early second yellow card for experienced Utrecht full-back Cornelisse provided the path for their qualification for the Dutch Cup final.


Without Ruiz and Douglas

The starting line-ups, which were in effect only until the early red card.

Twente obviously missed their wide playmaker Bryan Ruiz after his recurrent knee injury forced him to come off against AZ last weekend. Today formation contrasted with the rule of thumb that Twente goes 4-2-3-1 when both Janko and De Jong is included in the starting eleven and 4-3-3 when either of them is replaced by Landzaat. Versatile Luuk de Jong replaced Bryan Ruiz on the right wing, keeping the 4-2-3-1 intact. At left-back there was another start for Bart Buysse ahead of young Thilo Leugers.

At centre-back Twente missed Douglas, who sits out a six match suspension after his violent behavior against AZ. He was replaced by Rasmus Bengtsson, keeping Onyemu on the bench after his disappointing game against AZ.


Ongoing injury problems at Utrecht

While Twente may had had to slot in a few unusual starters for this game, Utrecht manager Du Chatinier has done so for most of the season so far. Mainly his attacking line-up has hardly been at full strength with Jacob Mulenga out since early November after tearing his cruciate ligaments. Furthermore, Nana Asare misses another four to six weeks with a meniscus injury, after already missing several months earlier this seaon.

Should he have a full strength squad for once, manager Ton de Chatinier prefers a 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-2-2 formation with Asare playing behind Van Wolfswinkel, who is regularly joined upfront by Mulenga, playing from the right wing. Dries Mertens tends to play a wide playmaker role from the left, looking to bring others into play with his pace and dribbling skills.

So with two of his presumed attacking four out, De Chatinier fielded a more defensive midfielder on the right wing. He obviously preferred to keep Mertens on his beloved left wing, looking to take advantage of Rosales’ defending, Twente’s weak link in defense.



An early red card

With the game still settling in and Utrecht proving quite match for Twente, the away side saw themselves reduced to ten men just twenty minutes into the game. Veteran right-back Cornelisse received to quick yellow cards, seeing his hopes to finish his career with a Cup final fall to pieces. Utrecht immediately switched things around in order to prevent themselves from getting overrun.

A 4-4-1 formation was the result, with Lenksy operating as a temporary right-back and Van Wolfswinkel in a lone striker role. Both lines of four were kept were tight with Silberbauer and Strootman playing close to an otherwise already deep back line. This successfully denied space for Twente’s creative players Chadli and De Jong to work in. As expected, Twente did dominate possession from that moment on, but the passing was often off the pace and hardly ever was there more than one passing option available.

At half time, Utrecht surprisingly replaced striker Van Wolfswinkel with right-back Van der Maarel. This meant another series of switches, although the compact 4-4-1 system that worked so well during the second part of the first half remained intact. Dries Mertens fulfilled the lone striker role with Lenksy now playing on the left side of midfield and Duplan on the right.


Twente’s problem

Although Utrecht’s deep stance made it easy for Twente to dominate the game possession-wise, they had hard time turning their possession into goal scoring chances. Their game plan was quite simple: crossing high balls into the box from deep positions, hoping that either Janko or De Jong would connect. In order to play this game, Luuk de Jong frequently joined Janko upfront, vacating the right wing. Denny Landzaat was the most likely candidate to fill in here, shifting Brama, whose holding midfield role was completely redundant, into a central midfield role beside Theo Janssen. But Landzaat is hardly the player you’d want to occupy a right wing role. And although wing-back Rosales provided support here, Twente failed to stretch Utrecht’s back line.

The formations at the time of Twente's late opening goal. Note Utrecht's compact 4-4-1 and the big gap to lone striker Mertens. And not the difference on Twente's right wing.


Twente’s solution

This problem was solved by Preud’homme, but only as late as in the 64th minute. Young winger Ola John, younger brother of Collins John, who enjoyed a five-year spell at Fulham after playing for Twente himself, entered the pitch to replace Landzaat. His wide right sided role immediately made a difference.

Utrecht’s back four, which by then consisted of  Van der Maarel-Silberbauer-Wuytens-Nesu as Alje Schut also had to leave the field injured, got strechted. As a result, space opened up for the creative game play of both Luuk de Jong and Nacer Chadli. And after Twente first hit the bar and the post, it was a matter of time before they scored the opening goal. As if to illustrate the solution of their problems, it was a right wing cross that set-up Mark Janko for a neat first post tap-in.


In the end

An early red card like this is almost always decisive, but in order to break down the compact 4-4-1 formation that Utrecht switched to, Twente needed to adapt. In the end they did, but it took half a match to figure that out and by then hope of survival had really settled in among Utrecht’s players. This unnecessarily toughened up Twente’s battle in an already tough fixture list at present.

Perhaps it’s these small managerial differences making a difference come the end of the nine game run to the finish of the Eredivisie and to the final stage of the Europa League.

Ajax 1 – 0 AZ: it’s all smiles at the ArenA again!

After defeating Milan 2-0 away in the Champions League and winning 1-0 over Vitesse in the Gelredome, new Ajax manager Frank de Boer made his home debut for Ajax in theit Dutch Cup quarter final against former champions AZ. And the wide 4-3-3 system worked wonders again…


Ajax’ not so new system

The formation and playing style that Frank de Boer imposed on Ajax are by no means new. The wide wingers stretching the opponents defense, the roaming nr. 10 in the hole behind the  lone striker and the high amount of pressing to go with that have been around for years and years. Without turning this match review into a football tactics history class, it’s safe to say that the foundations of Ajax’ Total Football concept of the seventies and Louis van Gaal’s famously numbered 4-3-3 system of the nineties play an important role in Ajax’ currently applied 4-3-3 system.

The starting line-ups

Most notable changes in terms of the starting eleven are made upfront where Luis Suarez sits out his seven match ban and Mounir El Hamdaoui is left out of the starting eleven for the third consecutive match. De Boer prefers Siem de Jong upfront, who offers more of a target role and in that way seems more self-supportive compared to his Moroccan counterpart. On the right wing Sulejmani thrives in the wide role he’s been given since de Boer made his appearance and on the left 19-year old Lorenzo Ebecilio sees his excellent performance against Vitesse rewarded with another start.


AZ’s 4-2-3-1

AZ manager Gertjan Verbeek got things going at AZ ever since he made the early season switch from his hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system to the more realistic and fashionable 4-2-3-1. Their style is fairly direct in the sense that they don’t fear a long pass forward towards the physically strong Graziano Pellè. On the offense they look to involve their full-backs on the flanks and move their forwards as well as their man-in-the-hole close to the striker, looking for flick-ons. Having started the season with both strikers (Pellè and Jonathas) out, the return of Pellè has been a vital element in their game.

Against Ajax AZ misses a vital element on their midfield as captain Stijn Schaars suffers from a knee injury. As a replacement Erik Falkenburg is lined up behind Pellè with Wernbloom, AZ’s regular central attacking midfielder, moved back to a more controlling role.


Contrasts with Jol’s Ajax

As expected, Ajax dominated possession immediately from the kick-off. They succeeded in forcing AZ back, mainly by advancing the full-backs at an early stage. To keep a correct balance in their teams this meant that the defensive midfielders had to play a very disciplined role. Either Enoh or de Zeeuw made sure to cover in front of Ajax’ central defense at all times, so that the formation turned into a three-men defense in possession, allowing both full-backs freedom to venture forward.

As mentioned previously, the wingers stretched play well, keeping close to the byline and only drifting inside after assuring that their corresponding full-back was present to take over the wide position. This pattern of play is one of the many contrasts with the way Ajax played under the reign of Martin Jol, when there was less discipline in the defensive midfield tasks, so the full-backs had less opportunity to bomb forward and ultimately, when the wingers turned inside they narrowed the game and were quite easy to deal with.

Another contrast was formed by Ajax’ consequent preference for short passes. This game may serve as an extreme example of the abolishment of any long balls by de Boer. Even most of Ajax’ first half corners and free-kicks were taken shortly, preferring possession over a ball into the box where they knew that AZ would have the better of them.


AZ’s game plan

So how did AZ try to counter this Ajax team? Well, in fact they were faced with the dilemma that most teams playing the current Barcelona side in their Camp Nou stadium have. It’s not that this Ajax approaches the supreme quality that Barcelona’s players have over most of their opponents, but the playing style of the current Ajax and Barcelona side share quite some similarities.

Playing a high pressing team that constantly overlaps on the wings and tries to hang onto possession on the verge of the opponents half demands the question whether to do it the Mourinho way or to adapt something like the recent Espanyol approach.

Will you, like Mourinho did with Inter during last year’s Champions Leaugue semi-final sit very deep , absorb the pressure and look to break through a direct counter play? Another example of this tactic being successfully applied would be Hercules’ amazing 2-0 win in the Camp Nou earlier this season.

Or will you apply a reasonably high defensive line, throw in some tackling and try to press your dominating opponent right back? Don’t let the final score mislead you here, but the recent Espanyol – Barcelona game shows that you can cause some problems with this approach too.

AZ manager Verbeek clearly chose for the first option and had his team sit deep and the 4-2-3-1 turned into a 4-5-1 for most of the game. Long balls towards striker Pellè was something they’d been familiar with from earlier games, as shown by their recent approach to the Groningen game. The difference in this match was the fact that AZ’s withdrawn position meant that Pellè was too isolated to bring his team mates into play and AZ kept on losing possession quickly.


The goal

Miralem Sulejmani crowned Ajax’ dominance with the only goal of the goal of the game by chipping the ball from 25 yards out. AZ had, by that time, close to the half time whistle, just about started to develop some ambitions of their own and had started to connect their midfield more to their lone striker. Exactly that space between midfield and defense was then exploited by Ajax as Pellè mispassed one of his lay-offs in midfield.

The second half developed much along the lines of the first half, although AZ tried to find their way back into the game early in the second half by playing their attacking midfielder, Wernbloom, as  by that time Falkenburg had been removed, closer to Pellè, but Ajax still succeeded in controlling the ball and thereby the game. Frustration grew among the AZ players, culminating in Wernbloom’s red card for a vicious tackle on Ebecilio. Illustrative of the lack of firepower upfront for AZ was the fact that it took until the 87th minute for them to force a first save from Stekelenburg.

Current Ajax manager Frank de Boer, transfering from Ajax to Barcelona in 1999

In the end

Another game end in all smiles for Frank de Boer. After beating Milan away on his debut and winning 1-0 at Vitesse this was third consecutive clean sheet win for the former national team defender. But even more assuring than those results must have been Ajax’ playing style, returning to the wide 4-3-3 system that is so familiar to many of their fans. On top of that, the beautiful goal of Sulejmani and the excellent display of youngster Ebecilio highlight the important role of Ajax’ wing players within this concept.

AZ, meanwhile, simply saw their game plan undone by being unable to connect to the lone striker. Perhaps fielding more pace in their midfield could have meant an improvement here as players like their Icelandic duo Sigthorsson and Gudmondsson may fit the deep counter attacking plan better.

Heerenveen 0 –2 NAC: Jans still puzzled, while NAC successfully reverted to their 4-3-3

Ron Jans still hasn’t found the right formation for Heerenveen, while NAC looked happy to revert back to their 4-3-3 formation. Heerenveen’s shuffled attacking line-up looked out of sorts, building up more frustration for striker Bas Dost who continuously lacks the support he needs from the wings. Two early second half goals decided the match which it very clear to Jans how not to field his team…

The fourth round of the KNVB Beker, the Dutch FA Cup, saw most Eredivisie clubs paired to a lower league or even amateur opponent, but Heerenveen and NAC were two of the Eredivisie clubs paired together. Both teams are ranked midtable so far, but tend to look upwards , aiming to compete for the play-off places come the end of the season.

Jans still searching

The starting line-ups

Heerenveen manager Ron Jans is still searching, in his first season at the club, how to put all the pieces together. Despite Jans playing the same 4-2-3-1 formation as he did at his previous club, Groningen, Heerenveen has looked all but settled so far and is ranked at a slightly disappointing 10th position so far. Main concerns have been the lack of adequate supply for striker Bas Dost and the balance on the midfield, with the advanced midfielder position being filled in by different players almost every match.

In this match, Bas Dost was flanked by split wingers Beerens on the left and Narsingh on the right. Especially the choice to play the right-footed Beerens on the left flank will have raised more than one Frisian eyebrow with Dost desperate for high crosses into the box. Ousmane Assaidi, one of the usual players to fill the left flank was positioned on the attacking midfielder spot. Jans is clearly still looking for the best configuration here.

NAC reverted back to 4-3-3

NAC stepped away from their 4-2-3-1 experiment of the Groningen match, in which they were heavily dominated by their opponents. Playmaker-for-a-day Ali Boussabon, who did not convince at all that day might still have not fully recoved from his abdominal muscle injury. Reverting to their more familiar 4-3-3 formation meant that Gorter was moved back from the left flank into his usual midfield position. More importantly, instead of  filling the space behind striker Amoah with a fixed man-in-the-hole, like in a 4-2-3-1, the space was now open for Gorter to advance into from midfield and for Leonardo to drift inside from the right flank. In turn, space was create for right-back Milano Koenders to advance frequently on the flank.

The first half

The return to their familiar 4-3-3 system was clear from NAC’s fresh start to the match. Putting pressure early on and looking to involve both full-backs, Koenders more than Janse, in their attacks gave them the upper hand early on. A series of chances was the result, in most of which one of the full-backs played an important role. Heerenveen, meanwhile, seemed unable to pass around the pressing NAC midfield, and supposed-to-be-playmaker Assaidi hardly touched the ball in the first fifteen minutes of the match.

NAC played left-footed dribbler Leonardo on the right wing in a very inside-minded role. He looked to drift inside a lot, thereby providing the extra man on the midfield, which allowed NAC a crucial dominance in that department. On the other hand, Heerenveen’s attacking midfielder Assaidi played thus far advanced that he could hardly be counted among Heerenveen’s midfield. NAC’s controlling midfielder Gillissen looked happy enough to sit deep and man-mark him out of the match in a discrete but excellent performance.

The first half was easily summarized as a series of NAC chances that were not converted, only now and then interrupted by an incidental moment of Heerenveen danger. It was hardly coincidental that is was a Dost header from a rare high cross that formed Heerenveen’s most dangerous first half moment.

An image to symbolize that NAC outnumbered Heerenveen's midfield

The second half

Subbing Haglund on for the invisible Svec in defensive midfield did not mean a tactical change for Heerenveen. Their play was constructed the same as before, as were their problems. The NAC players must surely have been told to be on the right path as it took only a few minutes for them to open the score. Fittingly, it was from a Jens Janse cross that Amoah scored to put the visitors in front. And even before Heerenveen could reply, NAC doubled their lead through Robbert Schilder who underlined his excellent midfield performance with a goal.

From that moment on, NAC looked happy to sit back in more of a 4-5-1 formation, keeping only pace Leonardo upfront for most of the time and tucking Amoah into a wide right-sided midfield role. The introduction of Gudelj, a defensive midfielder, for winger Kolkka confirmed this observation.

Heerenveen, meanwhile, gradually introduced more elements of attack into their formation. A step in the right direction was to switch Assaidi, who disappointed in the central playmaking role, to the left wing, moving Beerens to the right and introducing Djuricic in the central role. From that moment on, Dost was provided an aerial cross now and then, although it was too little too late already. Even the desperate move to remove right-back Koning for attacking midfielder Elm did not change the fate of the game, what’s more, Heerenveen’s formation looked top-heavy and the best chances fell to NAC instead.

In the end

Overall, the familiarity of NAC with the 4-3-3 triumphed over the unfamiliarity of Heerenveen with the 4-2-3-1 as they played it today. Especially Bas Dost must have the feeling that his move to Heerenveen has failed to live up to expectations so far. He wasn’t helped today by his manager playing Assaidi in a central and Beerens in an inverted role. Playing Beerens on the right and Assaidi on the left seems the most logical set-up here.

But Heerenveen’s midfield continues to look out of sorts. The question here would be who to play in-the-hole with the main candidates being Geert-Arend Roorda, Filip Djuricic and Viktor Elm, all of whom have not convinced so far. Time is ticking if Jans still aims to qualify for the play-off places…

NAC reverted back to the 4-3-3, a formation that suits their squad very well. Especially striker Amoah looks better when allowed the space to drop deeper in a false-nine like role, and also Donny Gorter performed much better in his usual midfield role, compared to the recent left wing experiments. Tactically, this will remain their way to go, but the inherent difference in squad quality combined with the current injury plague will hurt their ambitions to leap into the play-off places at the moment.