Tag Archives: 4-2-3-1

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.

Real Madrid 2 – 0 Ajax : Big Real makes Ajax look very small

Ajax’much awaited return to the Champions League turned out to be a big deception in their first Group Stage match against the stars of Real Madrid. Although the final 2-0 score-line made it look like a football match, it was in fact a very one-sided affair. Real dominated all areas of the pitch, creating an impressive number of 33 goal-scoring chances and if it was not for Maarten Stekelenburg’s excellent goalkeeping, Ajax would never have come away with only two goals conceded.

Real came to this match of the back of a mediocre performance, earning them a 1-0 home victory against mid-table team Osasuna last weekend, where their narrow attack often played into the hands of their opponents stubborn defensive 4-2-3-1 formation. In the game against Ajax, Karim Benzema was dropped to the bench in favour of winger Angel di Maria, their most expensive summer acquirement who was transferred from Benfica for a mere 25 million. The only other change was a forced one as right-back Sergio Ramos was injured and replaced by Alvaro Arbeloa.

Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 going to a 4-4-2 diamond, opening up Real”s playground

Ajax missed two influential players due to suspensions after their hard-fought battles with PAOK and Dynamo Kiev. Captain and top-scorer Suarez and vice-captain Jan Vertonghen were replaced by Miralem Sulejmani and experienced centre-back André Ooijer. Their system was anticipated to be their regular 4-2-3-1 albeit with a more defensive lookout. However, during the match Enoh appeared to be the only genuine holding midfielder with his supposed-to-be-partner de Zeeuw often postioned higher up the pitch, in a failed attempt to disrupt the passing game of Real’s holding midfielders Khedira and Xabi Alonso.

The wandering postion of Miralem Sulejmani brought a lot of imbalance to Ajax’ formation too. He was expected to figure as a right winger, but was seen to be roaming around quite freely, even ending up on the left side of the pitch quite frequently. Ajax’ theoretical 4-2-3-1 was made to look like a 4-4-2 diamond with Sulejmani wandering around striker El Hamdaoui and de Zeeuw’s advanced position made him look like a right sided midfielder. The lack of right wing pressure liberated Real’s left-back Marcelo from all defensive constraints and allowed him to freely join Real’s attacking play. As a consequence, Ajax’ right-back van der Wiel was constantly overrun by the pair of Christiano Ronaldo and Marcelo. Where in Ajax’ regular Eredivisie matched the inside right winger role creates a lot of space for Van der Wiel to exert his attacking qualities, against superior quality opposition this idea backfired on Ajax and as a consequence 43% of Real’s attacks came through their left wing, compared to 27% through the right.

Let’s look at the positional diagram of Ajax provided by the excellent ESPN gamechart function (if only they’d correct their left-right switch for once!). On first look one would think that Ajax’ attack must have been extreme narrow, however, bear in mind that manager Jol decided to switch Urby Emanuelson to the right wing and Sulejmani to the left wing at half time, making their average position look very central. The main concern illustrated by this diagram is Ajax’ lack of either a second holding midfielder, or a compact triangle of midfielders, like for example in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 system.

Ajax’ average positions showing Enoh’s (nr. 6) isolated position and De Zeeuw’s (nr. 20) rather advanced central position (ESPN Gamecast reverses left and right!)

With Ajax lacking numbers in central defensive midfield, Real was offered a playground to display their excellent off-the-ball movement and superior technical ability. Compare Ajax’ single pivot in defensive midfield with Osasuna’s double pivot and suddenly you understand why Osasuna succeeded in frustrating Real’s play with 27 (!) fouls, compared to Ajax’ 7 fouls. It may seem strange to use the number of fouls as a means of illustrating successful play, but the lack of defensive fouls by Ajax indicated that they were never close to disrupting their opponent’s game. In the end, Osasuna succeeded in giving away ‘only’ seven shots on target compared to Ajax’ 14. It may not have brought beauty to the game, but a dedicated second holding midfielder is by now considered of so much value to the game that it’s hard to understand why, especially in an away match against superior opposition Ajax decided not to play one.

If Ajax’ plan would have been to disrupt Real’s passing higher up the pitch than a simple look at the passing statistics, provided by the UEFA website, proves the failure of this plan. Apart from Real’s dedicated attackers (Ronaldo – Özil – de Maria ; Higuain), all of their players (including goalkeeper Casillas) achieved a higher pass completion than Ajax’best passer Ooijer (84%). A better illustration of the complete lack of Ajax pressure does not exist.

In conclusion, Ajax failed to choose between two formations that would have provided them with more defensive stability in an away match against technical superior opposition and paid the price for it. A genuine 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot in defensive midfield playing quite close to a defensive line of four would have allowed Ajax to limit space in central midfield and prevent Real from creating a numerical superiority with inside wingers in this essential area of the pitch. The second option would have been to deploy a defensive 4-1-4-1, which has previously been advocated as the small teams’ answer to the big team’s 4-2-3-1. In a 4-1-4-1 the midfield triangle, composed of two central midfielders close in front of one holding midfielder, would aim to control the essential space in front of the defense.

By giving up their second holding midfielder and playing with a vacated right wing, Ajax played into the hands of Real Madrid. This produced an extremely one-sided  affair that must have leave Ajax’ fans quite disappointed. However, let’s not forget that these tactical shortcomings played a big role in offering Real Madrid an excellent playground to make Ajax look very small.

Groningen – Utrecht 1-0… Patient Groningen overcomes a lacklustre Utrecht side

In the Euroborg, a fine example of a modern stadium that offers an excellent footballing atmosphere, home side FC Groningen took on ‘Celtic-beaters’ FC Utrecht in a match that could be seen as an early six pointer in the battle for the European Football qualification spots. The home side saw their patient and controlled attacks rewarded with a late winner to defeat a rather tame and defensive-looking Utrecht team.

 

Groningen’s new manager

Groningen, nicknamed ‘The Pride of the North’ by their fans, waved their long-standing coach Ron Jans goodbye last summer, after the latter decided to leave the club for rivals Heerenveen. While Jans’ struggle to impose his 4-2-3-1 philosophy has been detailed before, his successor’s successful start to the season has remained unnamed on 11tegen11 so far. Time to change that!

Pieter Huistra was brought to Groningen to make his debut as manager. The 43-year old made his debut as a player in 1984 for this same club, and has played for Veendam, Twente, Glasgow Rangers, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Lierse SK since. Upon ending his playing career in 2001 he was contracted as a youth coach, again by Groningen. After spells as an assistant manager at Vitesse and Ajax he was appointed to manage Ajax’ youth team, obtaining a second place during the 2009/10 season.

Groningen manager Pieter Huistra

So after making his debuts as a player and as a coach at Groningen, he has now made his debut as manager. And a successful debut it is so far. With a 3-2-0 start to the season, Groningen currently occupies the fourth place in the Eredivisie, behind PSV, Ajax and Twente.

 

The line-ups

Groningen’s recognizable 4-2-3-1 and Utrecht’s defensive 4-3-3, nearing a 4-1-4-1 formation

Working with a very recognizable 4-2-3-1 system, Huistra has his team playing with inside, though not inverted wingers, leaving a lot of space for the full-backs to run into. New signing Jonas Ivens forms a stable centre-back duo with top asset Granqvist, providing an aerial dominance meanwhile, with both defenders measuring 1.88 and 192m respectively.

The midfield area provides a little less to the team so far though. With important players like holding midfielder Danny Holla and playmaker Petter Andersson still looking to recover from long-term injuries, Huistra is forced to improvise in this area during this phase of the season.

Their opponents Utrecht have seen a lot of the spotlight already this season. Their 4-0 home victory over Celtic was celebrated like a trophy in itself and striker Van Wolfswinkel provided an excellent return of 11 goals from 11 Utrecht matches, earing his first cap in the meantime. And now that a transfer rumour of the 21-year old going to the Premier League to play for newly promoted Newcastle United has not proved reality, Utrecht can count on him for at least another half season.

Against Groningen, however, Utrecht already felt the endurance of a season that started with their first competitive match on July 15 against KF Tirana. After a extension to the past season, contesting the play-offs for the Europa League qualification spot, with this same Groningen by the way, their summer break has been virtually inexistent. Today Utrecht misses left-flank striker Mulenga and attacking midfielder Asare due to hamstring injuries and playmaking dribbler Dries Mertens due to suspension.

So, with their attacking options severely limited Utrecht fielded a quite defensive formation that on paper might have looked like a 4-3-3, but the very deep position of captain Silberbauer made it look more like a 4-1-4-1  with flank players pushed on a bit.

 

The first half

This defensive Utrecht set-up paved the way for Groningen to exert their controlled attacking. Dominating possession from the kick-off, holding midfielder Sparv saw quite something of the ball, often playing into striker Pedersen who aimed to control the ball, looking to lay it off to attacking midfielder Bacuna or inside wingers Tadic and Enevoldsen. Tom Hiariej, generally playing as a right-back, proved his positional flexibility by taking up a box-to-box role beside Sparv.

Utrecht meanwhile, did not succeed in keeping the ball in possession, suffering quite some Groningen pressure early in their own half and missing their preferred outlet on the left wing in the absence of Dries Mertens. Although they may not have started very successful possession-wise, the first big chance of the match fell to their side, after an individual error by Jonas Ivens, who failed to control a simple ball, leaving Van Wolfswinkel one-on-one with keeper Luciano, only for the Utrecht striker to see his shot blocked.

Groningen, by all means scared that such an opportunity would ruin the plan of a controlled attack, took their foot off the gas a bit. Utrecht kept to their defensive stances and the match never really got underway before half-time again. The only thing worth mentioning would be Groningen’s continuous aerial threat from set-pieces. Although not successful in this match, regular Eredivise followers will remember their dramatic late equalizer against Ajax, following a headed corner.

 

The second half

The second half started where the first had ended with Groningen carefully building their attacks, although never really connecting near the box, and Utrecht looking for individual mistakes in the Groningen defense. It was quite telling that the loudest cheers so far at that point in the match came upon Slovenian international striker Tim Matavz starting his warm-up. He replaced youngster Leandro Bacuna in the 66th minute to play the advanced striker role with Nicklas Pedersen roaming around him.

Andreas Granqvist converting the late penalty

And it was exactly this combination of players that earned Groningen the penalty. Pedersen smartly moved into space to receive that ball at feet, had lots of time to look for the pass, played Matavz in, who was clumsily fouled by Utrecht captain Silberbauer during his dribble in the box. Andreas Granqvist converted the penalty and Groningen comfortably saw out the remainder of the match.

 

In conclusion

In the end the defensive side did not get what they wanted, and Groningen won one over a direct Eredivisie rival. Most people might feel that justice is done when the attacking side gets one of the defensive side, especially with the winning goal being scored near the end of the match. However, Utrecht’s defensive outlook seems quite justified given that they missed several influential players and a draw away to Groningen would have suited them well. Let’s hope that this is not a prelude to the long and hard campaign, combining national and European football, taking its toll already.

Groningen fans should hope to see more of the Matavz-Pedersen tandem at work. With Pedersen claiming not to have had his full physical strength during the past season and Matavz still recovering from his World Cup efforts with Slovenia, the best of this duo seems yet to come and if it is, Groningen will definitely fight for European Football this season.

A rationally explainable, but emotionally dissatisfying 2-1 win of Holland over Finland

Another slightly delayed post on our recent national team’s performance. And yet again, for future reference and for the message conveyed in this particular match, it still is important to review Holland’s performance against a stubborn and, apart from the first 20 minutes, well organized Finland side.

Finland’s extremely deep 4-2-3-1 making Holland’s formation look like a 2-4-3-1

Oranje, as always, lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with man-in-the-hole Sneijder given a high degree of positional freedom, looking to see a lot of the ball and being involved in a very high proportion of the attacking plays.

But, while the central axis stands firm, the players that Van Marwijk uses on the wings bring variety to the line-up, and hence to the playing style. Part of this variety is forced, due to first choice wingers Robben and Kuyt being injured at the moment, but the wings are also the playground for switches in playing style, as we’ve seen in this match after the introduction of pacy wingers Elia and Lens.

In this game, van Marwijk uses new Tottenham signing Rafael van der Vaart on the left wing and PSV-star Afellay on the right. Both of these players are played slightly out of position, preferring a central role to dictate play behind one or two strikers. So we might anticipate a natural tendency to drift inside, potentially limiting space for Sneijder, like in the World Cup 2010 game against Denmark.

Another change to the line-up concerns the left-back position, which is up for grabs after Van Bronckhorst’s resignment. High-profiled candidates for this role at the moment are PSV’s Erik Pieters and Ajax’ Vurnon Anita, while also Royston Drenthe’s performances at Hercules will be eyed closely. Against Finland, Anita was preferred over Pieters, who playing an unconvincing game against San Marino.

The Finish self-fulfilling prophecy

Finland fielded a 4-5-1 variant with very deep positions for the side midfielders, probably anticipating fierce Dutch wing play. They chose to pack the midfield in numbers, in an attempt to break down the Dutch passing game and to limit spaces for Sneijder to drift into. However, their starting formation proved somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the lack of a direct opponent allowed the full-backs Anita and Van der Wiel to make frequent appearances on the wings. This doubling up on the wings proved particularly efficient on the right wing, where Afellay’s technical qualities contributed to a series of early right crosses.

Note the extremely deep 4-2-3-1 that Finland deployed in the opening phase of the game

The early opening goal was a direct result from the smart Sneijder-Van der Vaart connection. These players know each other extremely well, having grown up at the Ajax youth academy together and having played together at Ajax and Real Madrid. A quick trademark Van der Vaart pass found the run of Sneijder into the box, where Heikkinen initially cleared the ball for a corner. Immediately, the exact same players smartly combined for a short corner, allowing Sneijder to cross freely and find Huntelaar, another past Real Madrid man, for the header.

With the Finland team defending this deep, lacking all sorts of pressure, Holland was happy to circulate the ball, controlling possession and thus, given the early lead, controlling the game. Their technical superiority was always going to generate chances and a one-sided game was on the hands, even so that those in favor of describing the 4-2-3-1 as a 2-4-3-1, or even a 2-4-1-3 at times (Q8 in this Michael Cox interview), are encouraged to use the first twenty minutes of this game to convince people of their point.

A curious fifteenth minute foul, where Heikkinen slapped a running van Bommel in the box allowed Huntelaar to score from the penalty spot, his fifth goal in two matches. While everyone involved in this match might have been expecting a thumping of the Fins, it took only a few minutes for them to find a way back in to the match. Mikael Forsell got ahead of de Jong to head home from a corner.

The Finish ‘plan B’

Perhaps inspired by their quick response to going 2-0 down, Finland started to take the game to their opponents. They operated from a less withdrawn stance, looking to disrupt their opponents’ play a lot earlier. As illustrated by comparing the next screen with the previous one, before their goal they simple barred their box, cropping this area with players. Now, they positioned their first pressing line, consisting of the striker and the three players next in line (two wingers and the man-in-the-hole), between the Dutch back four and their midfield. This often led to positions like in the second screen, where Holland could no longer circulate the ball, patiently looking for an opening in the Finish defense. In big contrast to the first twenty minutes, lots of long balls and cross passes left the feet of central defenders Mathijsen and Heitinga. Furthermore, Finland confronted their opponents with a lot of early physical challenges, and, the modern tackle: interceptions.

The path to the encircled Van Bommel and De Jong now blocked by a more advanced Finish midfield

Despite previously being hailed for making successful in-match adaptations, this time Van Marwijk did not respond quickly enough and Finland succeeded in creating a handful of goal-scoring opportunities. If not for the shot stopping qualities of Maarten Stekelenburg, Oranje would have had to start all over again at this stage of the match.

Half time changes

The second half started with a deeper playing Dutch side, bringing more control to their game through longer spells of possession, albeit mainly around the halfway line. This deeper defensive outline forced Finland to either stretch their lines further apart, or give up their very deep defensive line. And while such a tactical plan may not warm the hearts of the demanding Oranje crowd, from a rational standpoint it seems justified. After all, Finland would have to score in order to gain anything from this match.

With both teams now sitting rather deep and refraining from early pressure, the game developed into a rather tame affair. A few sparks of Sneijder’s technical brilliance aside, Oranje did not succeed in breaking down the nine-men Finnish defense and Van Marwijk’s plan of sitting deeper did not lure the Fins away from their own half.

With about half an hour to go, Van Marwijk executed step two  if his plan to profit from the Fins having to give up the deep defensive line. He brought pace to the team, introducing Elia for Van der Vaart and Lens for Afellay. As the Finish team did indeed move a bit up the pitch in order to search for the equalizer, Holland tried to use this space for balls in behind their opponents’ defensive line, but often with too poor an execution to create real danger from it.

The final fifteen minutes of the game were mainly enjoyable for the frantic scansion of Ruud, Ruud, Ruud, with the crowd forcing Van Marwijk to bring his 34-year old cult hero on the pitch. While it could be received as somewhat of a disrespectful way to treat Huntelaar, he could always take comfort in his return of five goals in two Euro 2012 qualifications matches. Van Nistelrooy proved his excellent attitude by working hard during his ten minute spell on the pitch, but to no effect as the match panned out to a 2-1 score-line.

In conclusion, Finland will regret their all too defensive initial game plan and their English manager Stuart Baxter will be left wandering what would have been if he had started out the way Finland played after their goal. Van Marwijk did respond to the Finish change, although it took him until half time to do so. By sitting deeper against a Finish side that did not give in to chasing the equalizer, Oranje played the game out rather well from a rational point of view. The supporters in the half filled ‘De Kuip’ stadium however, took little comfort from this, having seen a rather dull second half in the first home match of the vice World Champion heroes.

Holland in fine display against small San Marino

This analysis of the Holland – San Marino game might come as a somewhat dated publication, which, in fact, it is… Although it’s been delayed due to busy times on several fronts, I’ve still decided to publish it, mainly for future reference.

Last week saw the opening fixtures of the Euro 2012 qualification rounds with Holland kicking off against San Marino in the big-named, but small-sized Stadio Olimpico de Serravalle. The other teams in group E are Sweden, Finland, Moldova and Hungary and it looks like a two-horse race between Holland and Sweden for the qualification place with vice-World Champion Oranje being the big favorite of course.

There have not been too many changes to the Dutch national team after their successful World Cup campaign leading to our nations third ever lost World Cup final, the first in over 30 years. Manager Bert van Marwijk and his coaching staff remain at the helm of a squad that has not seen too many changes overall.

Captain and left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst retired from football at the age of 35. Veteran quarter final hero André Ooijer retired from international football and focuses on an interesting role in Ajax’ coming season. The ‘short-term’ unavailable list features the injured Robben and Van Persie.

Van Marwijk has recently stated that he sees the left back position being competed between Erik Pieters (PSV) and Vurnon Anita (Ajax), with the first preferred against San Marino for his presumed attacking qualitities and the latter, a former midfielder, against Finland.

Oranje’s starting 4-2-3-1 vs San Marino’s 5-4-1

Van Marwijk plays the trendy 4-2-3-1 ever since his installment at Oranje and during the World Cup he opted for inverted wingers with Robben on the right flank and Kuyt on the left. Robben’s injury left him with several options. Playing Van der Vaart on the right wing would be the only option to maintain the inverted winger principle. Other options would be the right-footers Elia, Afellay or Lens. Or, as van Marwijk chose against San Marino, to move Kuyt to the right wing and play the right-footed Elia on the left wing.

Other changes were made as Hedwiges Maduro was introduced to replace Heitinga in central defense, who was suspended after his extra-time red card in the past World Cup final. The Valencia defender, who is equally adept in a defensive midfield role, was preferred over Feyenoord captain Ron Vlaar, mainly because of his superior passing qualities in a match where Holland would not be in need of much defensive qualities.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar might well be in for the season of his life. The substitute Oranje striker experienced a rather frustrating World Cup, seeing Van Marwijk stick to playing Van Persie in the striker role despite him having scored only once in seven matches. He proved professional enough to restrict his words to a mere “I have the feeling that I could been of value during the World Cup final”. For now, at least during Van Persies injury, Huntelaar is Holland’s main striker.

San Marino played a fairly straight 5-4-1. They defended deep and kept their midfield bank of four close to the defensive line, attempting to eliminate playing space. Lone striker Andy Selva, the only player to have scored more than one international goal, was never expected to see much of the game, although his 28th minute optimistic long range effort deserved more than sailing just over the bar.

Holland, meanwhile, featured in their well-known 4-2-3-1 system with Sneijder swerving around looking for the little space available. In fact, this often meant dropping deep to receive the ball at feet, directing play towards his fellow midfielders. Of these, de Jong played rather deep, both in an effort not to hinder Sneijder dropping deep and to secure the defense for Maduro to exert his passing skills in an assisting midfielder role from central defense.

On the wings, Elia strechted play well on the left, again making space for Sneijder to use his off the ball skills. Kuyt, on the right wing tended to come inside, filling up the space vacated by striker Huntelaar in search of space, hereby introducing an element of unpredictability to Holland’s attacks.

The first half

The fifteenth minute penalty, after a foul on Huntelaar, was cleanly converted by Kuyt and given the David vs Goliath nature of this game, all tension, if any, was gone by then. Holland were mainly adding to their 23-0 scoring history of the previous four enocounters with San Marino.

It took another twenty minutes for Oranje to score the 2-0, from a simple Huntelaar tap-in after a quick free kick leaving San Marino’s defence more than exposed. The match was never very interesting after that. Perhaps the most intriguing thing of the first half was guessing what the Dutch TV director would have meant with showing the statistic that “most threat came through the right wing: 55%”, never informing the audience if the statistic measured passes, dribbles, possession or anything else, and not providing whether this meant 45% left, or 45% left and central.

The second half

The second half, starting with the comfortable 2-0 score line, meant time for Van Marwijk to try some variations to his team. New Tottenham boy Van der Vaart replaced Nigel de Jong, taking up the passing role in midfield with captain Van Bommel now playing deeper.

San Marino was quickly exposed, allowing Huntelaar to score his second goal, this time after being left free in space within the heart of the San Marino defence. Text-book off the ball running allowed Huntelaar to tap in his third goal of the evening, strengthening his ambition to become the goal-scoring striker that Holland missed during the World Cup. Cult-hero Ruud van Nistelrooy came on as a 68th minute substitute for Dirk Kuyt and, much to the crowd’s enjoyment, scored a late goal, settling the 5-0 score.

The conclusion

In conclusion, Holland achieved a routine result from a routine display against a very weak side. Not much else to be drawn up here as these matches never really offer the opportunity to excel beyond pre-match expectations. The interplay between Huntelaar and Sneijder was certainly a positive note, both players being quite familiar with each other after their Ajax and Real Madrid spells. Furthermore, three goals and an assist by Huntelaar in the striker role will worry the injured Van Persie.

Ambitious Heerenveen struggling to keep their 4-2-3-1 balanced

Ron Jans certainly made some enemies in the north of the Netherlands with his late 2009 announcement to leave FC Groningen for their rivals Heerenveen. Having been at the helm of FC Groningen for eight straight seasons, being the longest sitting manager in the Eredivisie at that time, he was clearly up for a new challenge.

There is not too big a difference between Groningen and Heerenveen in terms of their recent Eredivisie results with both teams fighting for European Qualification during most of their recent seasons. Jans’ move to the Frisian club is certainly a shot at something more than this. Heerenveen has experienced a troublesome 2009/10 season, finishing twelfth in the Eredivisie, their lowest classification for over fifteen years and the club is desperate to regain their status of ‘best of the rest’, in other words best of the non-title contenders. So, expectations are high at Heerenveen.

They’ve lost a highly influential player in Gerald Sibon. The 36 year old striker may have been one of the oldest players of the Eredivisie, but still managed to score 11 goals in the 2009/10 season. Furthermore centre-back Bak Nielsen and left-back Goran Popov left the club.

Without a doubt their biggest reinforcement is 20 year old Dutch talent Bas Dost from Heracles. Despite his young age he’s firmly established his name as an Eredivisie striker with a return of 14 goals last season. Another new face at the club is strong central defender Milan Kopic, who spent last season on loan at Slavia Prague, but is now expected to replace Bak Nielsen in the Frisian defense.

Ron Jans’ is a 4-2-3-1 man. Over the course of the past few seasons his Groningen side embraced this formation, consequently employing a double defensive midfield cover in front of a four-on-line defense. And he saw both the benefits as well as the downside of this system. Only 15 home goals conceded, of which six in the first three matches versus Ajax, NAC and PSV, indicated a well organized defensive block. On the other side, their offense often proved powerless. Particularly lone striker Matavz often missed offensive support.

In order to avoid having this problem at Heerenveen, Jans will have to shift the balance in his 4-2-3-1. But finding the right balance between defense and attack can be a delicate issue in a such a formation. The key being that the 4-2 block can throw up a concrete wall defense, but in order to lend some attacking support, the passer of the two defensive midfielders will have to allow some holes in this wall.

And Heerenveen’s season opening loss to PSV showed how Jans overplayed his hand in this regard.

Let’s focus our view on Heerenveen’s two defensive midfielders Mika Vayrynen and Christian Grindheim.  Since both teams lined up in an essentially comparable 4-2-3-1 formation, the pair of defensive midfielders played an essential role in the crucial developments of this tight match. This is best illustrated in PSV’s first and second goal, showing how too much desire to attack may open the holes in the 4-2-3-1 wall.

Here’s the situation just a few seconds prior to PSV’s counter attack leading to Toivonen’s quality header opening the score. As there’s no quality overview shot of the positioning we’ll have to do with a little explaining. Heerenveen is in possession, has seen a cross by right-back Janmaat (red) been cleared to a throw in, which has quickly been taken by right-winger Beerens (yellow).  Creator Geert Arend Roorda (yellow) recycled the ball with a short side pass to destroyer Grindheim and that is where we are right now.

The problem here is that Grindheim is under quite some pressure from Toivonen and lacks all kind of support. Ask yourself this simple question: where would you want your second defensive midfielder to be at this moment? Indeed, right beside, or at least close to Grindheim.

And this is where Vayrynen is. Despite playing no role in the previous attack, he had strolled around in PSV’s box all this time. This positional error, combined with Grindheim losing possession and PSV’s technical qualities in executing a beautiful killing counter attack lead to a 0-1 score.

Despite this disappointment, Heerenveen showed their mental strength by equalizing within ten minutes. New central defender Kopic headed the ball home from a Beerens corner and despite PSV fan’s singing Toivonen’s praise after this game, it was actually his marking error that granted Kopic a free heading chance.

The point raised earlier in this article was that Jans might have overplayed his hand in this fixture. Well, he did it on a 0-0 scoreline and he did it again at 1-1. Look at this screen, taken just prior to PSV’s second goal. Toivonen controls a goal kick on the chest in acres of space after a textbook move between the lines.

Controlling midfielder Grindheim (orange) is already beaten having allowed Toivonen the space to control the ball behind the midfield defensive line. And his partner defensive midfielder, Vayrynen, isn’t even on this picture, again strolling around in a wasteful attacking role.

Well, this is only the opening match, but Ron Jans may have wanted a bit too much on this one. Twice in a row a good result, which a home 0-0 or 1-1 against PSV would certainly have been for Heerenveen, was squandered due to malpositioning of the central defensive midfield. There’s 33 more matches to re-establish the 4-2-3-1 balance and correct the positional indiscipline.

A tactical analysis of Ajax’ second half spell that puts them past PAOK Saloniki, securing a CL play-off place…

The cream of European football clubs play their make-it-or-break-it matches during the beautiful month of may, competing in the final stages of the Champions League. On the contrary, for Ajax, despite having won that competition a mere 15 years ago, the most important matches nowadays take place in the month of August. Check out this excellent in-depth analysis of Ajax’ financial problems and it’s easy to realize that missing out on European Football would mean a catastrophe for the club. Well, in order to avoid this financial downfall Ajax needed at least a high scoring draw in their return match against Panthessalonikeios Athlitikos Omilos Konstantinoupoliton, or POAK Saloniki.

And this was exactly what they produced, with an excellent display upon returning after half time, converting a 1-0 PAOK lead into a comfortable 1-3, practically securing the desired Champions League play-off qualification. At that point in time PAOK needed three more goals and despite Ajax’ messy performance leading to a 3-3 draw, it was just enough to qualify.

The line-ups

Ajax started out with their familiar 4-2-3-1 line-up, with yet another lay-out upfront compared to the previous matches against PAOK at home and against Twente for the Johan Cruijff Schaal. Top scorer Luis Suarez was the leading striker this time, with Miralem Sulejmani on the right wing. The latter is by now at West Ham United, just a medical test away from a year long loan to the Premier League club. Urby Emanuelson again, was preferred on the left wing and Lindgren regained his fitness just in time to start beside Demi de Zeeuw in a controlling midfield role.

PAOK’s 4-1-4-1

PAOK was essentially unchanged from their line-up in Amsterdam last week, keeping star player Zlatan Muslimovic out of the first eleven. Whether he deemed not fit enough to start or deemed a too attacking choice in combination with striker Salpingidis and playmaker Ivic remains of doubt. PAOK certainly set-out for some hard-core defending, transforming into a 4-1-4-1 line-up under Ajax’ pressure in the first few minutes.

Their shape is illustrated here. The two bands of four are easy to spot, with Vitolo in a destroyer midfield role, successfully marking Siem de Jong out of the game. This 4-1-4-1 line-up is reminiscent of Japans tactical plan during the last world cup, ensuring a defensive formation that proved very difficult to break down for Van Marwijks Netherlands team obtaining only a narrow 1-0 victory.

Sulejmani’s positioning

Ajax exerted heavy pressure on the Greeks, pushing both wing backs high up the pitch, resulting in long ball played into space to lone striker Salpingidis who often found himself isolated against two central defenders.  Sulejmani practically featured in a free role, starting from the right wing, but all too often drifting inside. While, on the positive side, this opened up a lot of space for right back Gregory van der Wiel to express his attacking qualities on the right wing, it also impeded Ajax’ central attack where Sulejmani often played too close to striker Suarez and creator de Jong, limiting their positional options.

Van der Wiel’s unusual weak display

Perhaps the physical stress that this system put on Gregory van der Wiel contributed to his unusual blunders who were painfully obvious in the first half. His strange half-high back-pass in the 14th minute will probably never be explained and his shortcomings in defending PAOK’s set pieces were particularly obvious during their free kicks in the 13th and 16th minute, leading to Vieirinha’s opening goal from a header. PAOK, understandably, withdrew even further, squeezing their bands of four close together, effectively limiting Ajax’ options for the remainder of the first half. With their Greek opponents defending a 1-0 home lead, Ajax’ were forced to make some changes in order to disrupt the effective defense machine that a tight 4-1-4-1 in effect is. And so they did!

Half time changes

Take a look at this screen, displaying Ajax’ positional set-up  in the first minute after half time. Note the wide stretch of play offered by wingers Emanuelson and Sulejmani (yellow), in contrast especially to Sulejmani’s drifting in during the first half of the game.

This immediately opened up spaces for Siem de Jong (yellow) to deploy his off-the-ball skills. Furthermore, as you can also see in this screen, passing midfielders de Zeeuw and Lindgren (orange) started taking turns in penetrating PAOK’s defensive line. Their forward runs turned them more or less into box-to-box midfielders, with one covering for the other when needed.

The equalizer

This is another example of how wide Ajax’ attack is set-up immediately after half time. The wide position of wingers Emanuelson and Sulejmani force the Greek defenders to choose between marking their winger or closing in on their central defense to aid them in defending striker Suarez and creator de Jong. This screen below is taken during the cross pass of Alderweireld, providing the assist for Suarez’ 48th minute equalizer.

Ajax’ spell of glory

It took Ajax ten minutes to convert PAOK’s 1-0 lead into a comfortable 1-3 after this obvious tactical change. The remainder of the game saw the Greek come back to 2-3 after another display of weak Ajax defending of a set piece cross. This is definitely something that Martin Jol and his side will have to work on in the near future. Nearing the end of the match Ivic equalized the score, but it was too late to change the result of the two match confrontation.

The second half display of Ajax might ensure that they have an attacking line-up capable of producing in Europe and should their defensive weakness from set pieces improve on a short-term then we might see a good Ajax season. Remember, the season has only just started!

What does Twente have that Ajax doesn’t? Besides the title and now the Johan Cruijff Schaal that is…

Saturday evening marked the kick-off of the domestic football season in the Netherlands with the, by now, traditional match for the Johan Cruijff Schaal (JCS). What started out as a low profile pre-season affair has by now grown into the nation’s third ranked trophy. This is in no small part due to the variety of teams contesting this affair in recent years. While the first ten editions of the JCS were almost uniformly contested between PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord, recent years have seen the appearance of Utrecht, Heerenveen, former-champions AZ and of course reigning champions Twente. Despite these positive notes on the JCS, winning it seemed of inferior importance to Ajax this year, with saturday’s match scheduled tightly in between the double meeting with PAOK Saloniki, contesting the financially lucrative Champions League qualification.

The line-ups

 

Line ups after the 3rd minute sub of Enoh for Lindgren

We’ve recently discussed Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 line-up a few times, reviewing their friendly against Chelsea’s reserves and of course recently in commenting on their midfield line-up in the disappointing 1-1 home draw against PAOK. Ajax’ line-up for the JCS saw two changes compared to the match against PAOK. Martin Jol was forced to replace central defender Jan Vertonghen, since the Belgian suffers a two match suspension after calling Feyenoord fans cockroaches during the celebration of Ajax’ Cup win last season. And up front Martin Jol preferred Korean youngster Hyun-Jun Suk over out-of-favor attacker Miralem Sulejmani, who is rumoured to join Premier League outfit West Ham United in a few days. Suk generally offers more of a physical presence compared to the Serbian, meaning a slight switch towards more of a target man attack, compared to the role Sulejmani offered against PAOK. In that match Ajax’ front quartet was characterized by frequent positional switches, especially between Sulejmani and attacking midfielder Siem de Jong.

FC Twente has not been mentioned on 11tegen11 so far, and since they’re the reigning champions of the Dutch Eredivisie, this might well be an omission on my side. They’ve smartly avoided the spotlights during their pre-season campaign but showed to be well prepared during this match. Last summer, after they were crowned champions of the Eredivisie for the first time, manager Steve McLaren departed for VfL Wolfsburg in Germany and the coming season will see Twente face the challenge to stay at the top. Steve McLaren consequently played a 4-3-3 with Twente, taking control of the midfield with a narrow backward facing triangle of midfielders. New manager Michel Preud’homme chose a comparable strategy, at least on the kick-off of this particular match.

The immediate change to the midfield

First thing to notice was the injury to Ajax’ destroyer midfielder Eyong Enoh in the 3rd minute, forcing him to come off. Rasmus Lindgren, who plays more of a passing role replaced him, thereby changing Ajax’ desired destroyer-creator-passer trio into a passer-creator-passer combination. This early change proved fundamental in the remainder of the match, which was a battle predominantly fought out on the midfield. The essence of the match was in fact the battle of the midfield trio’s de Zeeuw-de Jong-Lindgren versus Jansen-Brama-Tioté, where Twente’s midfield, with their backward triangle, was like a mirror image of the two holding midfielders and one creative attacker that Ajax tends to prefer.

An early goal changing the game

 

This game saw an early goal which put Twente in front. Maarten Stekelenburg and Gregory van der Wiel, despite having played together in ‘Oranje’ during the recent World Cup, didn’t communicate well and Luuk de Jong, brother of Ajax player Siem, pinched the ball from the defender for a free run on the Ajax goalie. After this opening goal Twente’s shape was even more recognizable as a 4-5-1 out of possession and a clear 4-3-3 in possession.

Positions during Ajax’ possession

Let’s take a look at the midfield positions and how they’re slightly different depending on which teams controls the ball. First, this is how they were set out when Ajax controlled the ball at the back. Twente employed a man marking system, consequently choosing to tight-mark Ajax’ midfield out of the game.

Note how close each Twente player is to his respective opponent. This resulted in long spells of Ajax’ central defenders dwelling on the ball, slowing down the build-up of play. Here, central defender Alderweireld is forced into a risky pass towards the well marked Suarez because both Lindgren (orange) and de Zeeuw (orange) as well as de Jong (yellow) are well marked.

Furthermore, as one of the few provided stats showed during the match, at one point in the match Twente succeeded in making 40 interceptions, versus only 18 by Ajax. And, since intercepting is the new tackling, as pointed out in this article by Zonal Marking, this was symptomatic for the problems that Ajax had in constructing their attacks.

Lack of dynamics upfront

This was further aggravated by their static front four. Suk replacing Sulejmani meant that Ajax’ stepped away from their dynamic attack of the PAOK match, characterized by frequent positional switches, not only between striker-for-a-day Sulejmani and attacking midfielder de Jong, but also involving both wide attacking players. Instead, with Suk as their central attacking player, Ajax’ attack became static, predictable and easy to defend for Twente’s central duo Wisgerhof and Douglas.

Positions during Twente’s possession

 

Now, let’s turn our attention to the screen showing the midfield positions during Twente’s possession of the ball. This screen shows their attacking intentions. As usual, defenders are red, controlling midfielders orange, attacking midfielders yellow and attackers blue.

Tioté (orange, in possession) is a bit under pressure, Brama (orange) offers a way out, while Jansen (orange, advanced) made a run forward, pressing de Zeeuw all the way back to his defensive line. Meanwhile, also right back Tiendalli has advanced, even past Lindgren, thereby effectively creating a 5v5 at Ajax’ half of the pitch. Should Brama be able to find a quick way out, danger is to be expected.

Ajax’ loose zonal marking system failed to deal with the smart positional play, particularly by central midfielders Jansen (left) and Tioté (right). By alternating between playing very tight together most of the time and wll-timed making deep runs on occasion, they posed a huge challenge to de Zeeuw and Lindgren. Each of them must have wished an Enoh in a destroyer role by their side at that time.

The end of the match after 37 minutes

 

Some matches don’t last the full ninety minutes. This was particularly true in this edition of the JCS. Suarez’ red card after a reckless tackle on Cheik Tioté showed glimpses of frustration, not only attributable to this match, the miscommunication between Stekelenburg and Van der Wiel, but there was a bit of Ivic’ late equalizer reducing Ajax’ Champions League aspirations too. After the elimination of Ajax’ most dangerous man the JCS was unfortunately never seriously contested anymore.

Let’s hope that Ajax will be able to turn things around for the return match at PAOK tomorrow. Another new midfield is to be expected with Enoh and possibly also Lindgren (late match injury) out for this game.

What does Ajax’ central midfield do? An analysis of Ajax 1-1 PAOK… (first English contribution on 11tegen11)

First of all, as you will have noticed by now, this post is written in English. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about making the switch from a Dutch blog on Dutch football stuff to an English blog about Dutch football. The choice to come out with this English piece is in part meant to assess the feasibility of writing my analysis in English and in part meant to find out whether there is an audience to be served by writing in English instead of Dutch. So, please do speak up, let your opinion be heard in the comments section on this topic.

The three midfielder roles

That being said, let’s focus on the topic at hand here. Yesterday saw the release of this article at Zonal Marking. Another landmark piece indeed, focusing on the role of the passing midfielder in present days. Slowly consuming the concepts outlined by what is in my opinion the leading site on tactical football analysis available, I’ve decided to combine the focus of this article with my analysis of Ajax’ most recent game, their disappointing 1-1 draw at home in the Champions League Qualification match against PAOK Saloniki last wednesday.

Let me first summarize several points raised in this Zonal Marking article. The article focuses on the different types of midfield roles seen in modern 4-5-1 like formations. These formations comprise the recently exploded 4-2-3-1, it’s supposed to be rival 4-3-3 and well as more traditional 4-5-1 formations. These formations share the fact that, in order to create midfield dominance, one of the strikers is withdrawn to a central midfield role, thereby offering a 3 vs 2 advantage in the central part of the pitch. Previously, the central pairing of midfield players generally used to consist of some sort of a destroyer- creator combination with one of the players looking to regain possession by tackling opposition players or making well-timed interceptions. The other part of this pairing would look to get the strikers into dangerous plays through forward passes, combining technical skills and intelligence. This third midfielder, added to the destroyer- creator duo by switching from two-striker formations to 4-5-1 variants, what does he do exactly? This third midfielder is generally not too ‘visible’ during the game, however, he’s generally regarded as vital to the team’s success by his teammates. Think of the Makelele, Carrick, Busquets type of player. In order to dominate possession, this third midfielder is supposed to take up a passing role, doing everything needed to control possession. Generally his play is dominated by short, low-risk passes, rarely controlling the ball with more than a few touches. He adds to the destroyer-creator duo making it a destroyer-creator-passer trio. Again, courtesy to Zonal Marking for pointing all of this out.

The line-ups

Starting line-ups

With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to Ajax’ recent display against Greek outfit PAOK Saloniki. Ajax has been playing a regular 4-2-3-1 line-up for at least the duration of the reign of Martin Jol as manager. Their midfield trio fields an easily recognizable destroyer, a role generally taken up by Cameroen international Eyong Enoh. Their creator is never too hard to pick either, in this game young talent Siem de Jong, who broke into the regular line-up during last-years campaign, took up this role, frequently alternating positons with striker-for-a-day Miralem Sulejmani. The attacking flank roles were taken up by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez on the right and home-grown Urby Emanuelson on the left. This leaves one central midfield player unmentioned: Rasmus Lindgren in a role that is generally filled in by Demi de Zeeuw. The latter, however, still suffers from conditional problems after missing part of the pre-season training due to the facial injury induced by a rough challenge during the WC semi-final against Uruguay.

So, we’ve learned by now that the Ajax midfield should be described as Enoh-de Jong-Lindgren in a destroyer-creator-passer trio. Let’s focus on these players in describing the key moments of this match. It’s a pity that individual, nor overall, passing statistics are not available for this match.

The start of the game

The first fifteen minutes saw a dominant Ajax, with PAOK defending very deep, effectively only putting any sort of pressure when the ball was on their own half. Ball circulation was easy for Ajax, although PAOK succeeded in preventing supposed-to-be passer Lindgren from seeing a lot of the ball, man-marking him out and leaving Enoh unmarked. However, the lack of any sort of pressure meant that this was no problem during this phase of the match. Ajax scored 1-0 in the 13th minute through a Suarez bicycle kick giving them an easy start of the game. PAOK leaving their extremely deep line after this early opening goal effectively meant more space to play for Ajax’ creative quartet upfront. This resulted in a fairly one-sided affair, and Ajax only had itself to blame for not leading by more than 1-0 at half time. This game of Ajax dominating possession was in fact continued immediately after half time with the three midfield players nicely tending to their respective roles.

In this screen you can see that passer Lindgren (orange) takes up a free position, offering wing back Anita an easy passing option. Creator Sulejmani (yellow), for the moment switching positions with Siem de Jong, makes a run to create the necessary depth in play and destroyer Enoh (red) is well positioned, should PAOK win the ball unexpectedly.

Things started to take a turn after about an hour into the match. It looked like manager Martin Jol was not assured to enter the second leg having to defend a narrow 1-0 lead. Demi de Zeeuw, a regular first team player, was brought on to replace Rasmus Lindgren. And he started to take up more advanced positions, looking to bring the attacking quartet into play instead of preferring possession over forward directed passes, like Lindgren evidently did in the first hour of the game.

And this immediately led to the problems depicted in the second screen. Here we see central defender Jan Vertonghen in possession, dribbling into the space vacated by de Zeeuw (orange) taking up a more advanced position. Destroyer Enoh meanwhile controls the potential danger posed by Ivic and de Jong (yellow), takes up a creator position, demanding the ball in a central attacking position.

I suppose we all know by now that de Zeeuw easily squanders possession here, which is the very last thing a passer should do. This kicks off PAOK’s killing counter attack, leading to the equalizer.

In conclusion

So, in general, we’ve seen the ‘classic’ trio of destroyer-creator-passer at work here, which led to an Ajax dominated game, until they took too many risks after subbing on Demi de Zeeuw. In fact Ajax switched to a destroyer-creator-creator type of midfield, unfortunately paying the price. And this could be quite some price indeed…

Utrecht 1 – 0 Luzern: is één momentje van Zwitserse gatenkaas voldoende voor Utrecht?

Na eerst de zevende plaats in de competitie, en de aansluitende play-off overwinningen op Groningen en Roda wist Utrecht zich verzekerd van Europees Voetbal. Met twee hoofdletters, een begrip in de voetballerij, want met Europees Voetbal ben je iets. Utrecht versloeg eenvoudig FK Tirana in de tweede voorronde van de Europa League en nog twee hordes scheiden de ploeg van de lucratieve groepsfase. Vanavond wachtte FC Luzern, de nummer vier uit de tien clubs tellende competitie in Zwitserland.

De opstellingen

We hebben FC Utrecht voorafgaande aan het dubbele treffen met Dinamo Tirana al eens voorbij zien komen op 11tegen11 en zijn tot de conclusie gekomen dat ook Ton de Chatinier niet meer om het succes van de 4-2-3-1 heen denkt te kunnen. Zijn FC Utrecht speelde ook vanavond in een vrij klassieke 4-2-3-1 formatie, waarbij veel draaide om spelmaker Mertens op de linkerflank.

FC Luzern stelde daar op papier een formatie met slechts drie verdedigers tegenover, iets dat we in de Nederlandse Eredivisie toch niet elke week tegenkomen. In de praktijk bleek het eerste kwart van de wedstrijd er toch wat anders uit te zien. De Zwitsers waren er overduidelijk op uit om de eerste fase in de Domstad ongeschonden door te komen. Zoals hieronder duidelijk te zien stond er in de praktijk een formatie met vijf verdedigers, twee controleurs ervoor en een aanval bestaande uit leider en aanvoerder Yakin in de punt, geflankeerd door Gygax op links en Ianu op rechts, meer 5-2-3 dus.

Het aftastende eerste half uur

In dit eerste kwart van de wedstrijd maakte Utrecht aanvallend een weinig krachtige indruk. Met name Asare, toch centraal achter de spitsen spelend, kwam weinig tot niet in het spel voor. Wel gevaarlijk waren de met name naar binnen snijdende creatieve dribbels van Dries Mertens. Zolang FC Luzern echter de vleugelverdedigers voldoende terughield slaagden de Zwitsers goed in de missie om zonder tegendoelpunt het begin van de wedstrijd door te komen.

Van 5-2-3 naar 3-4-3…

De zaken werden echter anders in het laatste kwartier voor rust. Vleugelverdedigers Lustenberger en Ferreira bestrijken vanaf dat moment een veel groter gebied, waardoor de Zwitserse formatie in deze fase het best als een soort 3-4-3 in balbezit en 5-2-3 bij balverlies te karateriseren is. In eerste instantie is het gevolg hiervan dat Utrecht het spel wat meer aan de Zwitsers moet laten, zonder dat deze overigens spits Yakin in stelling weten te brengen. De keerzijde van deze verandering is echter de ruimte die Luzern vanaf dit moment achterin weggeeft. Cruciaal tegen een team met vleugelaanvallers is natuurlijk om geen ruimte achter de eigen vleugelverdedigers weg te geven. Ieder balverlies kan op die manier namelijk snel dodelijk zijn.

Zwitserse gatenkaas

Doordat de drie verdedigers deze vrijgekomen ruimte achter de opkomende Lustenberger en Ferreira moeten opvullen ontstaan veel te grote gaten tussen deze drie centrale verdedigers in. Weinig verrassend is het precies Dries Mertens, met afstand de beste man op het veld, die dit gat snel weet te vinden en de 1-0 laat aantekenen. Zo wordt Luzern wel erg snel gestraft voor de aanvallende keuze en is het dilemma in de Zwitserse kleedkamer in de rust voelbaar. Door op deze weg in de hoop op een belangrijk uitdoelpunt of terugkeren op de schreden en eerst deze stand noodgedwongen maar accepteren?

Hinken op twee gedachten…

Risico nemen om kans te maken op dat zo belangrijke uitdoelpunt of juist risico mijden om in eigen huis nog een speelbare kaart te hebben? De keuze van trainer Fringer wordt zo’n tien minuten na de rust een gedwongen keuze wanneer rechter vleugelspeler Ferreira met een spierblessure naar de kant moet. Zijn positie wordt ingenomen door de veel verdedigender ingestelde Zverotic. Beide ploegen lijken in deze fase met name bevreesd voor een tegendoelpunt en Luzern ziet kennelijk beide wel brood in het uitspelen van de 1-0 achterstand, nog verder tot deze keuze gewongen door het uitvallen van nog een verdediger, Lukmon. Luzern is qua formatie weer terug is bij af, de vleugelverdedigers hebben geven hun verdedigende taken weer prioriteit boven het ondersteunen van de aanval, waardoor de centrale verdedigers de linie weer gesloten kunnen houden. Wel mengen de controlerende middenvelders Kukeli en Renggli zich meer in de spel, in een poging om de geïsoleerde positie van spits Yakin te verbeteren, maar door de keuze voor drie man centraal achterin blijft er een soort ‘man achter de spits’ ontbreken.

Het laatste kwart van de wedstrijd onderstonden er wel meer ruimtes op het veld, maar gevaar zagen we slechts bij dode spelmomenten, zonder overigens dat één van beide teams serieus aanspraak op een doelpunt mocht maken.

De conclusie

 

Het streven van trainer Fringer om ook in een Europese uitwedstrijd aanvallend te willen spelen is prachtig, maar ook wel naïef, zoals is gebleken. Juist op het moment dat Luzern dacht het initiatief meer en meer te kunnen afdwingen door van 5-2-3 op een 3-4-3 variant over te schakelen vielen achterin gaten die je een handige aanvaller als Dries Mertens maar éénmaal hoeft te bieden. Direct hierna keerden de Zwitserse op hun schreden terug en speelden de wedstrijd met een formele vijfmansverdediging uit. Over een week zullen we zien of de variant met de aanvallende vleugelverdedigers weer op de mat komt…