Tag Archives: 3-4-3

AZ – Aktobe 2-0, the second half struggle explained

We’ve seen a lot of European Football action this week. No less than six Dutch teams may reach the group stages of either the Champions League or the Europa League this year. Things, however, don’t look too good for Utrecht, having lost 2-0 away at Celtic and also PSV have some repair work to do after a clumsy 1-0 defeat at far far Siberia.

Better results were obtained by Feyenoord, in their 1-0 home win against KAA Gent and Ajax, drawing 1-1 in Kiev, as reviewed earlier on 11tegen11. Former national champions AZ seemed rather fortunate in the draw for the Europa League play-off round, having to battle it out with Kazakh champions Aktobe. And easy it was, at least in the first half, AZ eased to a comfortable 2-0 half time scoreline. Things, however, turned out to be rather different in the second half. And after a scoreless second half, AZ will have to do with 2-0 at home, still a result that sees 89% of teams qualify for the next round of European Football.

AZ’s hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3

AZ started out in their familiar formation, as previously described in their match-up with NAC. Their backline of four only really exists when under pressure, as they play a form of hybrid three-at-the-back with always one of their full backs venturing forward down the flank, depending on which side of the pitch their attacking play is concentrated. The remaining three then spread out to a three-at-the-back, with the central defender playing a little deeper than both wide defenders. So in formational terms it is a 4-3-3 in defense, shifting to a 3-4-3 in offense.

During an attacking move on the left side of the pitch this means that Klavan occupies a left sided midfielder role, with a back three consisting of Moreno – Moisander – Marcellis. The midfield diamond of the 3-4-3 would then consist of Schaars at the base, Klavan and Wernbloom on the left and right and Martens moving to the central attacking midfielder role.

During a move on the right side Marcellis occupies a right sided midfield role, with a back three consisting of Klavan – Moreno – Moisander. The midfield diamond then consists of Schaars at the base, Martens and Marcellis left and right and Wernbloom moving to the central attacking midfielder role. So, both defense and midfield shift according to which side of the pitch is most involved in the attack.

Of further note was the return of Stijn Schaars, who was rested after his World Cup trip to South Africa. The AZ captain is an important asset to his team, connecting their defense and midfield in a central deep midfield role, generally seeing a lot of the ball and offering a physical presence too.

Kazakh defending

Aktobe, meanwhile, was forced into major changes compared to their usual line-up. No less than seven first team regular were unavailable due to either injuries of suspensions. In the third qualifying round of the Champions League Aktobe was eliminated by Hapoel Tel Aviv, losing 3-1 away and ending up just one goal short in a 1-0 home win. Quite a narrow escape for en established team such as Hapoel is.

Aktobe lined up in what was essentially a 5-4-1 formation with both wide midfielders aiming to support lone striker Essomba. Although Aktobe was clearly aiming for defensive control by installing an extra central defender, the result was exactly the opposite. AZ’s wide attackers often drifted central, creating acres of space on the wings for full backs Klavan and Marcellis to run into. And this resulted in three central Aktobe defenders versus three rather central AZ attackers, with AZ’s full backs having a go at their Aktobe counterparts.

Aktobe’s first half 5-4-1 formation

Meanwhile, Aktobe’s defensive line was rather deep, making it difficult, if not impossible, for their central midfielders to put any form of pressure on AZ’s influential defensive midfielder Schaars, who excelled in the first half, seeing himself involved in virtually every play that AZ created. The 3v2 effect in the central midfield gave AZ total control over the game and it was by no means surprising to see them taking a comfortable 2-0 half time lead.

Half time changes

Things, however, were quite different upon the second half. Aktobe put up much more of a resistance due to a simple, but very effective formation change. The Kazakhs must have realized that this 3v2 situation on the central part of the pitch was not the way to go forward and switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation that has become so common these days. This 4-2-3-1 offered Aktobe the clear advantage of matching up AZ’s midfield. Another advantage for them was the defensive role that the attacking midfielder played, frustrating Schaars’ play that was so uncomplicated during the first half.

Aktobe’s second half 4-2-3-1 formation

The midfield space that AZ used so efficiently in the first half was gone and Aktobe succeeded in limiting AZ to just a few chances created by individual efforts. Especially left winger Gudmondson, only 19 years old, succeeded in skinning his man more than one, thereby creating a few chances.

In the end

The playground of the first half was gone and AZ did not succeed in scoring a third goal and must still be on their guard during the return match, next week. Aktobe will regret starting out with their 5-4-1 but will be back with a 4-2-3-1 next week, seeing the return of over half of their regular first team players. After all, remember that Aktobe succeeded in beating Hapoel 1-0…

Verbeek’s AZ showing off with a dynamic three man defense…

AZ manager Gertjan Verbeek is a Heerenveen-man. Despite being born in Deventer, he spent all but one season of his 10 year long career as a professional football player at the Frisian club. And at this very same club he started his career as a manager. He spent seven years developing his skills under the experienced wings of club icon Foppe de Haan before accepting a job as manager of Heracles Almelo, as club he helped bring from the 15th to the 4th place in the Dutch Eerste Divisie (which, ironically, is the second division of professional football in the Netherlands). When Foppe de Haan retired in 2004, there was only man to be considered for the job of manager of Heerenveen.

Verbeek continued the stability that de Haan’s Heerenveen was known for and led his club to European Football qualification in three out of the four next seasons. However, halfway through the 2007/08 season, Heerenveen director Yme Kuiper decided to replace Verbeek, mysteriously saying: “It was never an easy decision and were very satisfied with the performance of [Verbeek], but it’s the best thing in the long-term interest of our club.”

Verbeek, being his stable self, replyed with this Cruyffian sentence: “I can see the club’s decision, but I don’t understand it. ” And okay, one more: “I don’t have a family or a wife. If I have to go, I’ll only leave my two cats behind.”

Well, his cats didn’t have to miss him for that long, because the high expectations he brought to Feyenoord’s injury-plagued squad of 2008 did not match with the team’s twelfth position during the winter break and a clash with a group of influential first-team players meant the end of Verbeek’s six months reign at the club.

Verbeek’s reputation might have suffered a scratch or two, but that did not stop his old club Heracles, an ambitional Eredivisie team by then, to contract their former success-manager. His appointment proved an instant succes, leading to a record-high sixth place in the 2009/10 season, only just missing out on European Football qualification. A unique achievement for a relatively small team like Heracles.

This earned him a contract at his present club AZ Alkmaar. Despite AZ’s financial troubles forcing the club to reduce their budget from 40 to 25 million, for Verbeek this still meant a huge leap forward from Heracles’ 9 million euro’s.  Having learnt from his previous and comparable experience at Feyenoord, expectations have been more realistic this time. Verbeek is asked to rebuild the squad now that several of their top player are leaving due to the financial trouble induced by the fall of AZ’s owner and chairman Dirk Scheringa and his DSB Bank.

And what would you do in a situation like that? Prefer tactical stability, deploying a mainstream 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation?

So not Verbeek! The opening fixture of his AZ season saw them facing last year’s number ten, NAC Breda, in a potentially tricky away match. And Verbeek just sent his men out in a revolutionary 3-4-3 formation, pushing men forward and overloading NAC midfield.

It’s shape is depicted in this opening minute screen. Moisander forms the base of a three man defensive line, keeping in constant communication with his fellow defenders. In this case Moreno is in possession of the ball at a left defensive position.

It’s particularly interesting to focus on the role of Poulsen on the left and Marcellis on the right. Both of them play a hybrid role, consequently occupying a defensive role when the attack is built up on the other side of the pitch and rushing forward in a wide midfielder role when the attack is built up on their side of the pitch. In the opening minute screen, depicted above, the attack is started down the left. Poulsen (out of image) rushes forward down the left flank and Marcellis stays put on the right side of defense.

The reverse is true in this 6th minute screen. NAC had just cleared the ball after an unsuccessful right flank AZ attack, involving Marcellis. The defensive line consequently consists of three men with Poulsen holding back to occupy the left defensive spot, Moreno moving to the central position and Moisander defending the right side.

These hybrid defender-midfielder roles of both Marcellis and Poulsen were responsible for an AZ dominated first half. Unfortunately, in part due to the financial downfall outlined before, AZ lacks attacking power at the moment, even being forced to play midfielder Erik Falkenburg in the central striker position. They were unable to capitalize on the chances that their extra man in midfield gave them.

The point of this article is not that AZ finally managed to open the score in the 58th minute, even though it was left flank man Poulsen, intercepting the ball in an offensive position, who started this attack.

The point is also not that AZ saw their opponents equalize in the 79th minute through a combination of aerial weakness and sloppy man-marking on a long cross into the box.

The point is that we’re in for quite a season here. The opening weekend has seen much more than the previewed 4-2-3-1’s battling it out in boring midfield matches. We’ve discussed Twente’s problems getting their midfield triangle into play against Roda’s smart 4-4-2 diamond and now we’ve experience a highly dynamic three man defense by Verbeek’s AZ.

We’re in for quite a season, stay tuned!