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Ajax 2 – 2 AZ: Both teams unable to defend their leads

Defending champions Ajax shared the points with AZ. Both teams led during long spells of the game, Ajax during most of the first half and AZ during most of the second. Nevertheless, both teams couldn’t hold onto their leads and at a 2-2 final score, the points were shared.


Ajax’ 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

Ajax had to do without an impressive list of players. Christian Eriksen, Eyong Enoh, Nicolai Boilesen, Miralem Sulejmani all missed out, while Vertonghen, Bulykin, Lodeiro, Aissati and Özbiliz were among a longer list of players that left the club this summer.

What remained was Ajax’ possession based 4-3-3 system. Compared to the 4-2 loss against PSV in the Johan Cruijff Schaal, Frank de Boer applied changes in all three lines, with Daley Blind playing left-back, accommodating Ricardo van Rhijn in central defense and Gregory van der Wiel returned at right-back. In midfield, Thulani Serero was preferred, keeping  Theo Janssen on the bench. The front line consisted of Lasse Schöne in an inside forward role from the left wing, striker Sightorsson and pacy right winger Lukoki.


AZ’s 4-3-3

Both sides operated in very comparable formations, but AZ did so with a starting eleven that featured in this same line-up in most of their pre-season matches. The main summer departures are dead ball specialist Rasmus Elm, left-back Simon Poulsen and industrious left winger Brett Holman.

In today’s line-up, new signing and brother of Rasmus, Viktor Elm was the most defensive midfielder, with another new signing, Donny Gorter, who came from NAC, at left-back. Upfront, Maarten Martens was shifted to the wing, with Erik Falkenburg filling in in central midfield.


The early goal

The opening phase of the game saw Ajax exert their expected dominance of possession, with AZ limited to short bursts of play themselves. The most interesting zone in this regard was definitely the Daley Blind versus Roy Beerens area. The Ajax left-back featured in a very offensive role, looking to overlap on inside winger Schöne, who played a central offensive midfield role at his former club N.E.C. With Blind regularly being pushed up high in the left flank, the right wing zone was the area of choice for AZ to direct their long breaking balls early on.

However, before this contest could really come to fruition, Gregory van der Wiel found the top corner with a delicious long range effort to give Ajax the lead within ten minutes.


Possession as a defensive strategy

Sitting on an early lead, Ajax adopted their possession dominance as a pure defensive strategy. That is not to say they weren’t looking to extend the lead, but to say they used the long spells of possession in order to reduce the amount of chances created by AZ.

Stretching the length of possessions serves as legal time wasting. Keeping hold of the ball, rather than attempting more risky final third passes, obviously reduces the amount of playing time left, and thereby the number of possession the opposing team will get to reduce the lead.

Ajax looked easy in possession, kept the ball around the midfield line without significant AZ pressure, and thereby succeeded in lowering the number of possession spells that AZ was going to get. This also allowed the Ajax players to reduce the amount of energy spent in possession, in order to keep up with the desired high level of pressing when out of possession. On top of long possession spells, Ajax kept a very high defensive line and used a combination of early pressing and an active offside trap to limit AZ to short bursts of possession and hardly any combinations near Vermeer’s goal.

An important area where Ajax was particularly strong last season was in defending narrow leads. Ajax led their opponents by a single goal on 32 occasions and only allowed an equalizer in 8 of those situations. This ratio of 75% successful defended leads was the highest of all title favorites. For comparison, Feyenoord successfully defended 71% of single goal leads, PSV 64%, Twente 63%, AZ 62%, and Heerenveen 59%.


The Altidore minutes

Within five minutes of the second half, AZ had not only equalized the score, but a quick double fire by Jozy Altidore gave AZ the lead shortly after half time. The US international beat his marker Alderweireld on both occasions and showed an excellent conversion in front of goal.

AZ also took a different approach in possession in the second half. Their first half possessions were mainly played into space, looking the exploit the pace of Beerens and the space in behind Blind, but the second half saw AZ pass balls into the feet of Altidore. The US forward definitely has the physical abilities to act as a target man and he successfully extended AZ’s possessions. This was most notable of course in AZ’s double fire salvo to open the second half, but it extended throughout most of the second half, accumulating in a 45% overall possession rate, which compares favorably with most teams playing Ajax in the ArenA.


A late equalizer

The cliché ‘two different halves’ seems very applicable here. While Ajax led for over the major share of the first half, AZ did so for the major share of the second half. And also, unsuccessful in the end. At half time, Ajax introduced new signing Tobias Sana on the left wing for the injured Schöne and the young Swede put on an inspired show.

Sana provided Blind with an excellent back heel key pass and also hit the crossbar with a short range effort himself. His work rate, dribbling skills and pace provided much of the dynamism Ajax needed in order to find a way back into the match.

The most consistent provider of Ajax chances was Jody Lukoki. The young winger has an excellent acceleration and, compared to last year, his crosses into the box seemed to have gained in quality. It was one of his dribbles that delivered the ball to Sigthorsson, who found the back of the net with a half volley on the turn to make it 2-2.


In the end

Based on the first half, Ajax seemed to cruise to another home victory, but their stretch of 14 Eredivisie games won did come to an end. AZ changed their approach in possession and fought their way back into the match. Target man Jozy Altidore beat Toby Alderweireld twice in a few minutes to prove his worth to the team in finishing clinically. Near the end of the match, Ajax equalized through Sightorsson, which seemed deserved, if only based on the 16 to 7 shots ratio.

AZ 1 – 1 Ajax: A glass half-full at best, for both sides

The glass half-full from the title refers to AZ taking only a point, where they failed to take more distance during dominating spells in the first half. And it refers to Ajax, who managed to fix some issues from the recent Cup defeat against AZ, but left much to be improved in order to refresh hopes of defending their title.

AZ’s 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

AZ went into this match unchanged from the 3-2 Cup win at the Amsterdam ArenA. Maarten Martens, who missed much of the first half of the season through injury, started as the central playmaker behind Charlison Benschop, who saw his excellent performance earlier this week rewarded with another start. Pontus Wernbloom, sold over the winter window to CSKA Moscow, was replaced in central midfield by rising star Adam Maher, who partnered set-piece specialist Rasmus Elm.

Ajax’ 4-3-3

Frank de Boer undoubtedly had a lot of home work over the past few days, as his team slumped to a miserable performance and a rare home defeat against AZ just three days earlier. A lack of ball retention in building from the back and impotent wing attackers summed up just the most eye-catching problems in the Amsterdam side during that particular match.
For this outing he replaced Ismael Aissati, who had all sorts of trouble keeping the ball in his team’s possession during the previous encounter, with Lorenzo Ebecilio, bypassing Nicolas Lodeiro here. A second change saw Vurnon Anita shifted out to right back to replace youngster Ruben Ligeon, with Daley Blind facing up with tricky AZ winger Roy Beerens at Ajax’ left back position.


The first half

After AZ had dominated the first few minutes of the match, Ajax slowly got more of a grip on the game. AZ by that time had seen Beerens head over from a clear cut chance after an early error of judgement by Blind. As so often is the case with two formations that effectively cancel each other out, it were midfield choices that proved influential early on.

Rasmus Elm stuck close to Christian Eriksen and Adam Maher did likewise with Theo Janssen. This left Eyong Enoh with a lot of freedom during Ajax’ spells of possession. In return, when AZ had the ball, Janssen and Enoh did a decent job of marking Maher and Martens, so that Elm was AZ’s main focal point in midfield passing. The end result of this simple piece of math was AZ being more able to convert their possession into goal scoring chances, drawing on Elm’s distribution qualities. Furthermore, as expected, Roy Beerens kept having the better of Daley Blind, while, at least for the first half, the latter’s offensive input did not make up for the defensive frailties induced by his presence.

An interesting tactical difference with the match just three days earlier concerned a key concept of modern football tactics: pressing. While Ajax lack all sorts of pressing in the previous match, and paid for their high line as a consequence, they had a better grip on their opponents this time around. When possession was lost in AZ’s half, the AZ players were well pressured, often resulting in counter attacks being eliminated early on.
However, Ajax still display a strange attitude towards possession of the ball. All too often, possession of the ball is deemed a goal in itself, and a dangerous sort of round-about is initiated in their own half. By now, opponents know that Ajax values possession that highly that they are willing to voluntarily re-circulate the ball among their centre-backs and goal keeper, even under severe pressure. This led to repeated losses of possession on their own half, under AZ pressure, which should be credited too.

In short, more Ajax pressure allowed AZ less opportunities to take advantage of the space behind the defensive line and exploit Benschop’s pace, but Ajax’ own half give-aways under AZ’s pressure were all too frequent. And it was one of these simple own half give-aways that led to AZ’s first goal. Enoh failed to complete a pass inside Ajax’ own third of the pitch, leading to a dangerous turnover from which the free-kick occurred that Rasmus Elm fired home, scoring his fifth direct free-kick of the season.


The second half

While one might have expected AZ to take advantage of the situation, they seemed to lower their level of pressure in the second half. AZ defended closer to their own goal, making it harder for them to capitalize on turnovers, which Ajax still granted now and then.

At the hour mark, De Boer made some changes. Eyong Enoh, yellow carded already, was removed for Bulykin to enter as the new striker, with Siem de Jong taking a central midfield role. This saw Theo Janssen return to the deep-lying playmaker role that was thought out as Ajax’ plan A before the season had started.

It’s a pity that in-match data are still not available for the Eredivisie matches, as it would probably have been much easier to demonstrate Ajax’ second half performance with some chalkboards at hand. Christian Eriksen might be isolated as the driving figure of Ajax’ improved second half performance. Partnered by Siem de Jong and Theo Janssen, rather than Janssen and Enoh in the second half, he turned in a marvelous passing performance, resulting in longer spells of Ajax possession and a significant higher fraction of defensive possession being successfully transferred into final third attacks.

With Nicolas Lodeiro having replaced the ineffective Lorenzo Ebecilio, Ajax started to find their rhythm. In a left wing move, where Daley Blind should be credited for providing the offensive input that warranted his selection today, Lodeiro pressed Poulsen into conceding an own goal equalizer. At the same time, AZ had had some opportunities of themselves, as Ajax defended further away from their goal and the offensive minded midfield failed to consequently press AZ’s technically skilled midfield enough.

In the end

Overall, a draw would feel like a reasonable result to this game, where AZ clearly won and dominated the first half, and Ajax saw their risk-taking later on rewarded.

Heerenveen 5 – 1 AZ: Trashing for the Eredivisie leaders

Heerenveen managed to extend their excellent opening of the 2011/12 season by defeating league leaders AZ 5-1 at home, breaking a club record in the process by going 12 Eredivisie matches unbeaten. Freshness, a high work rate, and outstanding individual performances proved key in defeating AZ, who clearly lost the battle early on in midfield, and paid for trying to come back into the game in the second half.


Heerenveen’s 4-3-3

Manager Ron Jans had been searching for the right balance in his midfield for most of the past season, but he has definitely got his team going at present. Going twelve matches unbeaten, Heerenveen possesses the best offense in the league by some standards. Still the only team to have scored in every Eredivisie match of this season, going into this match Heerenveen ranked third in the league in terms of conversion, scoring with 27.7% of their shots on target.

The starting line-ups

Jans has his team operate from a 4-3-3 formation, with Sven Kums conservatively holding the midfield in front of centre backs Gouweleeuw and Zomer. Former captain and centre back Breuer has been shifted out to left-back. In front of Kums, Viktor Elm, who plays his brother Rasmus today, plays a box-to-box role, while Filip Djuricic shines in his role of advanced playmaker. Up front, Oussama Assaidi, easily Heerenveen’s most prolific attacker, misses out today. Rajiv van la Parra, who returned from Caen this summer, after initially leaving Feyenoord’s youth academy for the French club, fills in the left wing position.


AZ’s 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3

AZ’s formation contains a lot of hybrids, crossovers and variety, making it hard to catch them in simple and plain formational notation. They operate with a four-at-the-back defense, but like to advance either a full-back or a centre back into midfield in possession. Their midfield three generally consist of two more holding players with Maher in a central playmaking role in front of them, and this was how they intended to start the game too. But they tend to advance one of the holding midfielders regularly, shifting from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, like they did when going an early goal down today.

A crucial absence seemed the suspension of midfielder Pontus Wernbloom, who started all but one of this season’s Eredivisie matches for AZ. Today, Erik Falkenburg, more of an offensive midfielder, started beside Rasmus Elm in the holding role, and later on took on more of his usual offensive game. Centre back Nick Viergever missed out, with Ragnar Klavan partnering Niklas Moisander in defense.


The opening phase

Heerenveen started the game much better than AZ did. The home side took all of the initiative and a series of excellent shots was the result. After the first five attempts were cleared out, either by goal keeper Esteban, the inside of the post, or goal line clearances, Heerenveen striker Bas Dost found the back of the net with a close range attempt coming from a corner.

Up until that moment, AZ was merely overrun in midfield, where they failed to win their share of tackles. The absence of Wernbloom seemed hard felt, although Heerenveen’s dominance was that clear that it is doubtful whether the presence of a single player would have altered the picture here. Now facing a goal down, AZ manager Verbeek advanced Erik Falkenburg slightly, with a 4-3-3 being more applicable than the 4-2-3-1 that AZ started the game with.

Despite Heerenveen still having the best of play, AZ found the equalizer rather quickly, when Jozy Altidore crowned an excellent ground combination through the heart of the Heerenveen defense. This led to a short period where Heerenveen sat back more than they did earlier and paying the price in losing the initiative for a short while. Another goal going against the run of play was then scored when Heerenveen executed a pitch-perfect counter from a weakly executed AZ corner. Rajiv van la Parra found the back of the net.


The ensuing part of the first half

In the remaining fifteen minutes of the first half, Heerenveen did not make the same mistake again. This time they kept the pressure on AZ, winning an excellent rate of tackles in midfield. Man-of-the-match Jeffrey Gouweleeuw missed an excellent opportunity to extend his team’s lead when he was allowed to fire in a shot at the end of a clean break that he initially lead out of defense himself.

AZ manager Verbeek, generally known for voicing his opinions, be it verbally or by substitutions, acted even before half time by removing young Adam Maher, who played a rather invisible game and was also held responsible for the break that led to Heerenveen’s second goal. Gudmundsson was introduced to play at the left wing, with Brett Holman moving inside, offering more work rate and tackling for the struggling AZ midfield.


The second half

Only three minutes were played in the second half before the match was over. Understandably, AZ manager Verbeek had his team increase their stance in order to find a way back into the match. But the advanced defensive line was not paired with any sorts of pressure on the ball when Gouweleeuw was presented all sorts of time to pick out a delicious long pass. He found Djuricic in behind AZ’s d-line and the 19-year old Serbian playmaker provided a cool finish.

Only two minutes after conceding this goal, AZ, who had conceded only 8 goals in 13 matches prior to this match, conceded a fourth. Ramon Zomer finished from close range, the assist again coming from Jeffrey Gouweleeuw in a left wing cross in an attack that started from a corner.

Further into the second half, Luciano Narsingh made things even worse for the leaders as he finished another ball in behind AZ’s defensive line to make it 5-1


In the end

Heerenveen fully deserved this victory based on their freshness and eagerness to win the midfield battles. AZ’s midfield, where offensive midfielder by nature Erik Falkenburg filled in for the suspended Pontus Wernbloom, never seemed up to the task. Come the second half, Heerenveen clinically punished AZ for failing to pressure the ball when they tried a higher defensive line to fight their way back into the match.

Ajax 2 – 2 AZ: Both teams see their courage rewarded and pay for mistakes

League leaders AZ would, beforehand, have been quite satisfied with coming away with a draw in the Amsterdam Arena, but having been in front for the majority of the game to end up giving up a late equalizer to ten men Ajax made this result feel a bit different than it should. Ajax, on the other hand, may take heart from coming back to a late equalizer despite being a man down in that phase of the game, but should in fact consider this match two points lost, points that could have been secured had a proper organization been played right from the start of the match.


Ajax’ ongoing struggles

For the thirteenth time in a row, Ajax failed to keep a clean sheet in the Eredivisie, their worst record since the 1981/82 season, when they conceded in 16 consecutive matches. Their defensive, and more in particular, defensive midfield issues have been the topic of intense debate recently, with Theo Janssen the focus of a critical appraisal, both towards his offensive and his defensive work.

The starting line-ups

Against AZ, Ajax had to do without injured striker Sigthorsson, who was replaced up front by Siem de Jong, rather than target man Dimitry Bulykin. Further troubles were to be found at the back, where Gregory van der Wiel missed out due to a one game suspension after his red card against Groningen and left-back Boilesen is on the long-term injury list. Frank de Boer moved Toby Alderweireld to right-back, to give veteran defender André Ooijer his first start since April, when, coincidentally, also was Ajax’ last clean sheet.

Ajax’ much debated midfield consisted of Eyong Enoh in the single holding role, with Christian Eriksen and Theo Janssen aimed to display more offensive intentions from the left and right central area respectively.


AZ’s impressive campaign

Not having received the 11tegen11 attention their excellent season start had deserved, Gertjan Verbeek’s team have impressed so far during their season start. The 2009 Eredivisie champions sit proudly atop of the table, defending a six point lead over reigning champions Ajax already.

Verbeek’s optimistic style of a high pressing game seems to have landed among his hard working squad and with a league low of six goals conceded for eight matches (going into this one), AZ seems to have found an excellent balance between their offense and defense, with ‘over-offensiveness’ having been an issue before.

AZ nearly features a full strength starting eleven, with only creative wide playmaker Maarten Martens missing out through injury. They operate from a 4-2-3-1 organization, with Holman starting from the left wing, but drifting inside a lot, thereby opening up space for left wing back Poulsen.


The first half

AZ took hold of the game from the first minute on. Pressing Ajax extremely high up the pitch, they immediately demonstrated their opponent’s prime weakness during the first thirty minutes of this match. Faced with this intense pressure, Ajax had severe problems building from the back. The pass completion rate in this area during the opening phase of the game was dreadfully low, particularly due to the fact that Ajax hardly provided itself with simple close range passing options.

Much credit usually goes to the sexy cross pitch long passes sent by centre-backs Vertonghen and Alderweireld, but in terms of effectiveness, short passing outlets into the midfield area are worth much more. With Enoh playing the single holding midfield role, both Eriksen and Janssen ventured too high up the pitch, resulting in the both of them spending a lot of time in front of the ball, rather than taking an active role in the early distribution of the ball.

A second, an recurrent, problem in the first thirty minutes was the lack of Ajax’ defensive midfield organization. Both central midfielders were easily overrun, as the distribution problem described above caused a significant amount of dangerous early losses of possession. AZ smartly used Brett Holman in this part of the pitch, and his inside left wing role saw him help offensive central midfielder Maher in overloading Enoh.

Both of AZ’s goals were excellent examples of Ajax’ atrocious midfield organization. Traditionally, to concede from a deflected shot like Ajax did at AZ’s first goal is shoved aside as ‘bad luck’ and ‘unpreventable’, but the build-up of that attack revealed Janssen to provide coverage for the left-back and Eriksen to provide coverage for the right back. This resulted in acres of space at the edge of the box, something that was excellently taken advantage of by AZ when scoring their first goal.

At the second goal both central midfielders took position near the edge of the opponent’s box, while left-back Anita took a throw in halfway on the opposing half. Twelve (!) seconds later Beerens had found the net, after the throw in was squandered and one pass eliminated Ajax’ entire midfield from defending a quick counter.



The second half

A half-time substitution saw De Boer remove André Ooijer from young Ruben Ligeon to make his first team debut. This allowed Ajax a much higher defensive line, which would have been awkward with Ooijer’s lack of pace, and the chase for the come-back was on. Early in the second half Ajax got a rather cheap penalty when Marcellis slid in on Boerrigter, starting the foul outside of the box. Sulejmani fired in a text-book upper corner shot from the spot to set things sharp early in the second half. And sharp it was…

Ajax had their midfield organization back with Janssen playing behind the ball for most of the time, providing more and simpler passing outlets from the back, while distributing the ball much better himself. Playing to his strengths, you might say.

But within a few minutes Ajax first lost their goal keeper, when Vermeer injured himself in an aerial challenge with Wernbloom, forcing Cillessen to make his Ajax debut. And in the 70th minute, Frank de Boer was punished for leaving Enoh out too long after the midfielder had been booked in the first half. A series of persistent fooling came to an end when referee Kuipers showed him a second yellow card, while in fact De Boer should have acted earlier, given the three fouls in a short space of time just prior to the incident.


The unexpected equalizer

Despite having the numerical advantage, AZ lacked the flexibility to adapt to Ajax’ new found organization in the second half and ended up paying the price for it in the end. Initially, substitute striker Charlison Benschop missed the best chance of the game to put his team 1-3 up, when played one-on-one with Cillessen, but in the 82nd minute it was Janssen, of all Ajax players, who found the net with an excellent long range effort from an area where AZ could and should have put much more pressure on him.


In the end

Given the sequence of events in the match, Ajax will probably feel this as a point won and AZ might feel like having lost two points here. But drawing away at Ajax is an excellent result for Verbeek’s team, who remain top of the table and consolidate their six points lead over Ajax. Apart from their difficult spell near the end of the game, where they should have done better against ten men Ajax, AZ did impress. Their courageous start was rewarded with Holman scoring the opening goal to crown the tactical superiority provided in part by his inside left wing role. Unsung heroes might be Rasmus Elm and Pontus Wernbloom who controlled most of the game excellently from anonymous holding midfield roles, while also 18-year old Adam Maher deserves a mention for his creativity and technical skills.

Ajax did overcome their midfield problems after about thirty minute, but was 2-0 down by that time. Theo Janssen operated from a deeper role and this solved both the distribution problem and the lack of cover in front of the back four, leading to Ajax being able to control the second part of the game, eventually scoring the late equalizer to go with it. De Boer should have recognized the fouling pattern by Enoh and remove a player in such situation, particularly given the recurrent fouling nature of Enoh’s game.

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

AZ managed an excellent result in winning 2-0 at home against Czech side Jablonec. And they did so in an offensive and entertaining style, but sometimes got ahead of themselves in the process. Manager Verbeek pulled off  his dynamic three man defensive system to unlock his defensive opponent and was rewarded with an excellent prospect of reaching the play-off for the Europa League group stages.


AZ’s fluid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formation

Much like they did during the opening phase of last season, AZ played a dynamic formation in the sense that they kept a back four while defending, but consequently advanced one of their defenders, mainly left wing back Poulsen, to match their opponent in midfield. As a consequence, AZ played the majority of the game with a three man defense, keeping Jablonec’s single striker under control.

The starting line-ups

Verbeek abandoned this optimistic approach early last season, after a series of disappointing results saw his team pick up only three points from last season’s first five matches. It’s a sign of courage and offensive intend that he used this approach again, even more so as it proved instrumental in breaking down their opponent’s compact 4-1-4-1 formation.

Esteban replaced Argentine international goal keeper Sergio Romero, who is rumored to be on his way out of the club, but no concrete further information has been provided yet.


Jablonec’s initial 4-1-4-1 formation

The visitors made no secret of their intentions during the first half of the game and merely sat out AZ’s offensive storm. Meanwhile, their sparse offensive opportunities arose from quick breaks through their single striker and Czech top scorer Lafata. Theoretically their compact five man midfield would always allow them to dominate most of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3-esque formations around, but AZ’s offensive approach negated this potential advantage.


The first half

AZ took matters into their own hands right from the start of the game. Their offensive three featured new acquisition Ruud Boymans in the striker role. Benschop, mainly known as a central striker, played a rather wide right wing role, while last season’s right wing player Holman was shifted to the left side, mainly playing an inside winger role here.

The space created by Holman on the left wing was filled excellently by wing back Poulsen, who covered most of the left flank during the first half. His absence in defense was filled in by Moisander who shifted over to the left side of what was then a three man defense.

This dynamic 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system worked very well in the sense that Jablonec was not allowed to dominate bodies in the central area of the pitch. Benschop on the right and Poulsen on the left provided sufficient width to prevent traffic jams in the central area. In this area, intricate playmaker Maarten Martens, left season’s left wing man, showed off nice passing skills and vision and most of AZ’s offensive threat was created through his flair.


No goals yet

Despite their dominance, AZ did not score a goal during their excellent first half. They did created several excellent goal scoring opportunities though, but excellent work by Jablonec goal keeper Spit ensured a blank score at half time.

At times, Jablonec was able to create some danger itself, mainly taking advantage from sloppy midfield passing on AZ’s behalf. On more than one occasion defense and midfield did not connect and Jablonec was provided a clear turnover opportunity with most of AZ’s players in front of the ball, positioning themselves for another attack. Perhaps the best opportunity Jablonec has to open the score was Jarolim’s delicious little chip that went over goal keeper Esteban’s head, but just over the bar too.


The second half

A tactical change made at half time, as was also clear from Verbeek’s statements after the match, was to keep both full backs in a more alternating offensive role and also allow one of the centre backs, mostly Viergever, more freedom to advance into midfield. Unfortunately, this change reduced the amount of width offered by AZ and seemed to backfire on them.

Still dominating possession, more and more passes had to be directed backwards and their offensive sparkles of the first half remained absent during the first fifteen minutes of the second half. AZ’s change of approach allowed Jablonec a slightly more narrow defense, making life easier for them.



A game changing goal

As if to illustrate AZ’s reduced dominance in the open play area of the match, they opened the score from a corner. Pontus Wernbloom crowned his hard work in midfield with the opening goal from a Rasmus Elm corner.

Immediately hereafter AZ returned to the winning ways of the first half. Verbeek introduced winger Gudmundsson for Benschop, thereby once again stretching the game more than before. The effect of this tactical change was immediately to be seen. The Icelandic U-21 international had a lively substitute appearance and chances from open play started appearing again.

It was not until the final minutes though that AZ extended their lead to 2-0, a significant improvement over a 1-0 result in a European tie first leg. Gudmundsson saw a shot from distance deflected, rendering Jablonec’s excellent goal keeper Spit chanceless. Knowing that 63% of teams advance from a 1-0 first leg compared to 89% from a 2-0 result, this might have been an important late reward for AZ’s re-established tactical dominance.


In the end

In this entertaining and very interesting match, at least from a tactical perspective, Verbeek initially got things right, and managed to fix his formation after the opening goal. It’s a sign of courage to pick up the dynamic three man defense system again, but if applied against the right (defensive) opponents, this system might be very valuable to AZ this season.

Ajax 4 –0 AZ: Early goal secures a dominant win

Only three months after their match in the Dutch Cup quarter final, where Frank de Boer made his debut as Ajax manager, Ajax and AZ met again in the ArenA. An early goal gave Ajax a comfortable start on which they built a patient game, pressing AZ just enough to stay clear of trouble, preferring to save their energy for later this week.


The starting line-ups

The starting line-ups

Ajax’ played their familiar wide wingers 4-3-3 system where a disciplined defensive midfield task allowed both full-backs to bomb forward regularly in support of the wingers. Holding midfielder Eyong Enoh was rested one more match, ahead of the Europa League match with Spartak Moscow later this week, to fully recover from his arm injury. Vurnon Anita replaces him in Ajax’ central midfield were Demi de Zeeuw returns in the starting line-up too, after struggling with the prolonged consequences of the nasty kick in the face against Uruguay during the semi finals of the World Cup.

His appearance in Ajax’ starting eleven has everything to do with another clash between Frank de Boer and Mounir El Hamdaoui, who by seems to have definitely fallen out of favor with the Ajax manager. After being subbed of for disciplinary reasons, with the Moroccan striker eager to provide his view on the subject in the Dutch media. Siem de Jong, who replaced El Hamdaoui’s in the lone striker role during Ajax’ comfortable Cup semi-final win over RKC, plays up front again.

AZ figures their preferred starting eleven, one might say, although recently Viergever did play ahead of Moisander at times. With the former Ajax academy defender suspended after his red card against Twente, Moisander partners Moreno in central defense again. Attacking midfielder Wernbloom, suspended too, is replaced by last week’s match winner Erik Falkanburg.


A quick lead

Ajax, particularly at home, is known for playing a pressing game and they did so right from the kick-off here. Often winning possession early in their opponents half, Ajax created a handful of chances early on. As early as in the fifth minute AZ captain Stijn Schaars blatantly failed to cover a well-timed run from deep by Demi de Zeeuw and the Ajax midfielder completed a neat finish from a left wing cross.

And these runs from deep, both from De Zeeuw and from Eriksen were Ajax’ main source of danger. Both wide players stretched AZ’s defensive line from one side of the pitch to the other to facilitate this. Siem de Jong did not play a false nine role here, but looked to receive the ball at feet, taking advantage from his excellent teamwork skills. In that regard, he’s a more fitting player to Ajax than El Hamdaoui, who is more keen on being a goal scoring threat himself.


AZ’s game plan

Did AZ not put any sort of counter play against Ajax? Well, they had a plan, but were generally unable to carry it out and when they tried, they were often punished by Ajax.

Verbeek likes his teams to play with three defenders at the back when in possession, as has been detailed here before. Today he didn’t do so by advancing one of the full-backs into the midfield, but rather by having Moreno play a libero style of centre-back role. The Mexican international frequently showed up in Ajax’ midfield, in order to try and create a numerical advantage here.

But as Ajax applied early pressure, AZ had lots of trouble playing around their opponents, even early in the build-up. Meanwhile, on the rare occasions that AZ did control the ball in midfield, both Ajax wingers proved well aware of their defensive tasks and helped their midfielders out, nullifying the potential numerical advantage for AZ.


The second half

As expected, AZ started the second half in quite a different tone. Aggressively entering the midfield tackles now, they succeeded to win some tackles in that department and with that Moreno’s libero role came to some effect. Ajax absorbed this AZ momentum patiently without giving too much away and looked to take advantage of the increased amount of space between AZ’s midfield and defense.

It was exactly that kind of move, involving Sulejmani’s pace and De Jong’s link-up play that created the second Ajax goal. And with that, AZ’s momentum was gone.

Verbeek made a desperate attempt to find a way back into the match by bringing on a second striker, Pellè, to replace holding midfielder Elm. Previously playing as the aerial target man in a fairly direct AZ game, the big man lasted only two minutes today. He got sent off after a vicious tackle on substitute striker Cvitanich, sliding boots first over the ball.

And again, any attempt to gain the momentum was gone for Verbeek’s team. Ajax’ left winger Ebecilio, by now firmly established in the first team, opened his league goal scoring account, just a few days after finding his first Ajax goal in the Cup semi-final against RKC. On top of that, in the closing minutes of the game, Vurnon Anita crowned a sublime performance with the final Ajax goal to make it 4-0. Anita generally controlled the midfield very well, winning a fair share of tackles, and making analysts regret that chalkboards have not made their way to the Eredivisie yet.


In the end

AZ gave away the first Ajax goal cheaply and never fully recovered. They didn’t find their way around Ajax’ pressing game and the move to advance Moreno to the midfield in a libero role backfired on them, opening spaces for Eriksen and De Zeeuw to make their runs from deep.

AZ 2 – 1 Twente: An emotional defeat for the Dutch Champions

Reigning Eredivisie champions Twente were defeated by the previous champions, AZ. This all happened in a much debated game, played out in pouring rain, bringing all the excitement that may be expected when these two teams are involved, and more. Twente received their second red card of the season after Douglas lost control near the end of the first half. Their first red card of this season? Indeed, Douglas, against AZ at home, in the first half, with the same referee, Ruud Bossen. Twente went on to lose that game 1-2 too… So after Twente being the only team unbeaten by AZ in their winning 2008/09 Eredivisie campaign, this year AZ is the only team to beat Twente twice.


AZ’s successful switch to the 4-2-3-1

Both teams set out with an ambitious single holding midfielder formation, only to see them forced to give up on those plans a few games into the season. AZ started out with an ambitious hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formation where both full-backs took turns of advancing into wide midfielder roles and the remaining three defenders moving sideways to form a temporary three men defense. While this should give AZ the edge on the doubled-up flanks, paying relatively less attention to the centre of the pitch posed insolvable problems, as exposed during their early season games against 4-2-3-1 formations such as the Kazakh side Aktobe in the second half of the home game or Excelsior’s compact 4-1-4-1 system.

Realizing this, Gertjan Verbeek shuffled his formation around in order to double up on the holding midfielder, effectively turning the formation into a 4-2-3-1, now playing Rasmus Elm in a more conservative role beside deep-lying playmaker Schaars, preventing him from getting overrun. And after a hugely disappointing three points from their first five matches, AZ then went on to win 40 points from their next 20 matches using this stable 4-2-3-1 system.

Another interesting development in AZ’s tactics has been the installment of the wide playmaker. Originally much depended on the central midfield playmaker, the man-in-the-hole, in Holland often called ‘the number 10’ in line with Louis van Gaal’s and Ajax’ influential nineties coaching philosophy. In response to that, many teams fielded the double pivot, placing an extra holding midfielder in front of the central defense in order to limit space for the central playmaker. This helped to prevent the single holding midfielder from getting overrun when the central playmaker was assisted by a striker dropping deep or a deeper midfielder making a run forward. In response to the fashionable double pivot, many teams were forced to shift their creative players wide.

In AZ’s formation the offensive creativity is provided by Maarten Martens, playing from the left wing. He is given a reasonable amount of positional freedom by the offensive nature of the AZ left full-back, proving the necessary width when he drifts inside. This allows him to avoid the crowded central area of the pitch , but dictate AZ’s offense from the left wing.


Twente’s similarities with AZ

Just like AZ with Verbeek, Twente started the season with a new manager, as Michel Preud’homme took over from Steve McLaren who left for Wolfsburg during the summer. And Preud’homme initially went with the 4-3-3 formation that was so successful for Twente during the 2009/10 season. But just like Verbeek at AZ, Preud’homme had all sorts of difficulties to prevent Brama from getting overrun in the centre of the pitch. Missing the intelligent positioning and decision making of Kenneth Perez in the central midfield area left Wout Brama with a double task in the defensive midfield role.

Being the most conservative of the midfield three, he played the role of ‘destructive’ midfielder, but was expected to build-up play too. Switching to a system with a second holding midfielder relieved Brama from his constructive tasks, allowing him to break down the opposition’s play, and allowed Janssen the role of deep-lying playmaker. As an added bonus it allowed to play both talented Luuk de Jong (in the advanced midfielder role) and new signing Mark Janko (in the lone striker role).

The starting line-ups. Playmaker Bryan Ruiz frequently sropped deep to collect the ball, leaving a vacated right wing and contributing to Twente's early passing problems

At present Twente alternates between their 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations, which can be easily discriminated by the inclusion of Brama, Janssen and Landzaat in the 4-3-3 formation and the two of Luuk de Jong and Mark Janko in the 4-2-3-1 system used today.

And, to draw another parallel with AZ, the concept of offensive creativity on the flanks holds true for Twente too, as their playmaker Bryan Ruiz plays from the right wing, often drifting inside, supported by a very offensive wing-back role by Roberto Rosales.

For this particular match, Twente’s in-form left winger Nacer Chadli started from the bench, after Twente’s demanding confrontation with Russian side Rubin Kazan. United States international and AC Milan loanee Onyewu makes his fifth consecutive start at left-back.

AZ misses playmaker Martens due to an ankle injury and plays young Icelandic winger Gudmundsson on the left flank, who teams up with his national team mate Sigthorsson in the striker role. The latter scored no less than eight goals in his previous seven matches, largely because of his five goals in the 6-1 win over VVV.


AZ dominance

AZ clearly dominated the opening phase of the game. Twente’s ball retention was simply not up to the task , too many tackles were lost and the pass completion rate was dramatically low. The three short days in between the tough battle with Rubin and the long travel the week before clearly didn’t help here.

With Janssen and Brama having trouble carrying the ball over the midfield line under quite some AZ pressing, playmaker Ruiz decided to help out by dropping very deep. His good intentions, however, increased Twente’s problems as they lacked another passing outlet with Ruiz dropping that deep.

AZ striker Sigthorsson played an impressive game against Douglas, regularly winning tackles and even headers. The young Icelandic international made good use of his movement, pace and agility and formed a dynamic focal point of AZ’s midfield passing.



From bad to worse for Twente

AZ’s opening goal, in fact an unlucky own goal by Janssen, was a matter of time and things got worse and worse for Twente as Douglas proved unable to control himself. The Brazilian hit out at Wernbloom, attempted to assault referee Bossen upon being shown the red card and had to be escorted off the pitch by his team mates.  Just a few minutes later Twente lost another influential player as Ruiz was unable to continue, suffering from left knee problems that kept him sidelined for a few months earlier this season. Bart Buysse replaced him, moving Onyewu to the central defense. Twente otherwise kept their formation intact which implied a 4-2-2-1, which due to Ruiz’ free role was close to what was already in effect before the red card.


Play suspended

Fifteen minutes into the second half, with Twente bravely battling back into the game by advancing their holding midfielder to full central midfield roles, referee Ruud Bossen called a temporary stop to the game because of abusive and insulting vocal chants from the Twente fans. While Preud’homme and his players seemed outraged and had a tough time controlling their emotions, Verbeek seemed to use this break as a tactical time-out. He brought Falkenburg for Elm, substituting a conservative for a more offensive midfielder.

The line-ups near the end of the game, with both teams reduced to ten men.


A second red card and more drama to it

And just as AZ started to take matters into their own hands again, a second red card followed. Nick Viergever could easily have been given a yellow card for a push on Luuk de Jong, but Bossen judged it as a cynical foul and sent him off. With both teams reduced to ten men now, both managers made several substitutions, Twente in chasing the game and AZ answering and thereby turning into a counter-attack 4-4-1 formation.

Twente ended up with a completely unbalanced 3-2-4 formation, desperately trying to overload AZ’s penalty box. And on one of those crosses Luuk de Jong managed a beautiful finish into the top corner for the final minute equalizer.

But as if there hadn’t been enough suspense and Twente drama yet, it was still AZ winning the three points as Erik Falkenburg managed a 93rd minute winner after sloppy marking in Twente’s vacated defensive line.


In the end

Much attention after the end of the game went to the dramatic scene of the red-carded Douglas and  the abusive chants leading to a suspension of play, but underneath that a true football battle was fought. Both sides kept adapting to the developments on the pitch and in the end Twente had a hard time keeping their cool in circumstances where luck wasn’t always on their side.

AZ 0 – 4 PSV: Less than the score line suggests

Both teams had to make up for three lost points in the previous round of the Eredivisie. PSV uncharacteristically failed to score at home and lost through a dying seconds opening goal to ADO while AZ gave away their 1-0 lead at Excelsior to lose 2-1 in the end. Tonight PSV needs the win to keep the close title race with Twente going and AZ needs these home points in order to keep their hopes of direct Europa League qualification alive.


Two 4-2-3-1’s

The starting line-ups with Hutchinson marking Schaars out of the game from the 20th minute on. Of further note is the Holman / Pieters area.

Both teams tend to favor the fashionable 4-2-3-1 system, but their style of play is not exactly alike. PSV draws a lot on the quality of wingers Lens and Dszudszak, the latter now definitely staying another half season in the Eredivisie after his suggested move to Lille, curiously PSV’s next Europa League opponents, fell through during the past transfer window. PSV does have to do without the passing skills and offensive input of Ibrahim Afellay now that he moved to Barcelona. Their double pivot is formed by Hutchinson in a ‘destroyer’ role with ‘passer’ Engelaar beside him. In central defense ‘Maza’ Rodriguez replaced Marcelo who returns from injury, and might just make PSV’s Europa League clash with Lille next Thursday.

AZ misses a central defender too, as Moisander is suspended. Nick Viergever partners Mexican international Hector Moreno in AZ’s central defense. Behind them another unfamiliar face features, as goalkeeper Sergio Romero carries an injury picked up during the recent Argentina international friendly and he is replaced by AZ’s rather unknown reserve goalkeeper, Costa Rican Esteban Brown.


Deep-lying playmaker

The match started out as a fairly balanced affair with two team playing essentially the same formation. As can be seen from the depicted starting line-ups, pairings of AZ and PSV players can be recognized all over the pitch, the only exception of course being that both teams have a spare man in defense due to their 4v3 defenses, and both double pivots outnumber their opponents man in-the-hole.

And this area of the pitch proved crucial in understanding the shift in the balance of play that occurred throughout the first half. During the first twenty minutes AZ captain Stijn Schaars was allowed quite some freedom and excelled in his deep-lying playmaker role. Often receiving the ball slightly left of the central axis he was allowed too much space and was able to direct AZ’s game. Just like in PSV’s victory over Roda, manager Rutten showed his flexibility and changed his approach during the game as he direct Hutchinson to a direct man-marking role on Schaars, successfully limiting the role of the AZ captain for the remaining part of the first half. Schaars had to drop even deeper to receive the ball at feet, but was unable to direct the game due to the Hutchinson pressure and the increased passing distance.



Meanwhile, as stated above, PSV drew on the strengths of their wingers. On the right wing Lens was occasionally able to get in behind his marker and use his pace to good effect while on the left wing Balasz Dszudszak emerged from his rather anonymous start to the game with a beautiful long range effort, curling the ball into the far top corner for PSV’s second goal. A crucial factor in PSV’s left wing game was the amount of freedom for left-back Pieters, who shows signs of an excellent development of late and is now regarded as the main candidate for the left-back spot in Van Marwijk’s national team too.

AZ right winger Brett Holman did not have the best of games, missing quite some shooting efforts in the first half and often drifting across the pitch in an attempt to make up for this by sheer work rate. As a consequence, his opponent Pieters was often allowed too much space and was able to assist Dsuzdszak on PSV’s left wing, outplaying Simon Poulsen 2v1 here. One of Pieters’ overlapping runs from deep saw him provide the cross that ultimately led to Berg’s tap-in after goalkeeper Esteban Brown pushed Toivonen’s effort on the post.


Second half changes

AZ made some logical changes chasing the game after half time. Seeing playmaker Schaars being effectively cancelled out by the excellent marking job of Atiba Hutchinson, they turned to the other part of the double pivot instead. Rasmus Elm, Swedish international, was deployed in more of a box-to-box role, frequently making runs to join Sigthorsson in the attack.

Atiba Hutchinson, whose marking job on Stijn Schaars made a huge difference

On top of that, with half an hour to go, AZ switched to a three-at-the-back concept with central defenders Moreno and Viergever taking turns in joining the midfield, both with and without the ball at feet. This immediately created some chances with Elm shooting from distance and Holman, again, missing a great opportunity from a left wing Elm cross.

Instead of providing a way back into the match, the changes backfired on AZ, shortly after manager Verbeek was, not for the first time in his career, sent off to the stands. Balasz Dzsudzsak once again showed his class by scoring another effort from outside the box after making his favorite run, cutting inside from the left wing. With the match effectively over, Berg scored a second goal too, rounding the goalkeeper after being played onside through in behind AZ’s advanced defensive line.


In the end

Despite the impressive 0-4 score line, this may have been the type of match to go down as AZ losing rather than PSV winning. Two similar 4-2-3-1 formations ensured a rather boring match from a tactical perspective as the teams cancelled each other out right from the start. In the end, PSV’s individual class provided enough for the win, with Dzsudzsak and Pieters on the left side performing particularly well, assisted by Holman’s poor game of missing chances and lacking defensive discipline.

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.

Groningen 2 – 0 AZ: Hard-working Groningen break down AZ’s direct game

Two high-flying teams went into this match that turned out to be the fierce battle that was expected beforehand. With two team playing a very comparable formation and playing style, this was a match to be fought out quite as a straight match-up of the qualities of the players involved and Groningen managed to come away with the win, their ninth in a row at their home stadium, and became the first team to keep AZ from scoring in an Eredivisie match this season.


Groningen’s 4-2-3-1

The starting line-ups: two identical 4-2-3-1 formations

Debutant manager Huistra keeps on compiling results in record-breaking fashion with Groningen. Based on a consequently applied 4-2-3-1 system he favours to stick to the system and have his players use their versatility to perform in different roles rather than adapting the system when players are missing through injury or suspensions.

Against AZ right wingers Van der Laak and Enevoldsen missed out due to injuries and Gonzalo Garcia Garcia, generally more of a central trequartista type of player, was drafted into the right winger role. One more substitution had to be made: Darryl Lachman replaced the suspended Maikel Kieftenbeld at right-back.


AZ’s 4-2-3-1

That’s right, two team with the same formations in this match, although AZ have adopted this system at a later stage in the season, and achieved much more success with it than with their overambitious hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system, which demanded too much from the wing backs and led to a weakening in defense.

AZ enters this match with a nearly full-strength squad. The only missing first team regular would be left-back Klavan, who got ill on the day of the match. Nick Viergever made his second start of the season.


The first half

Groningen had the upper hand in terms of possession in the first phase of the game, but AZ’s solid four men defense, aided by the double pivot of controlling midfielders Elm and Schaars, took a deep stance and sat out the pressure quite comfortably during the first ten minutes.

But already in the twelfth minute Groningen managed to open the score. Dusan Tadic showed his skill by creating space for the inside low cross and Tim Matavz expressed his excellent finishing skill with a one-touch control of the ball and a clinical finish.

An early goal like this is certain to be a match changer and in this game Groningen initially took heart from their early goal and kept on dominating the game. Based on the excellent defensive positioning of midfielders Holla and Sparv, both full-backs regularly ventured forward to link-up with the wingers. Garcia and Andersson, both skilled central playmakers, frequently switched positions, making it harder for AZ to man-mark them. A final aspect where Groningen took the upper hand in the first half was the aerial dominance at the back. A chalkboard showing the headers Groningen won in their own half would have been nice here. AZ likes to play quite direct balls to their physically strong striker Graziano Pellè, who features as a target man at times. Frustrating this preferred playing style did Groningen good in the first part of the game.


AZ in need of a plan B

AZ wouldn’t be one of the Eredivisie’s better teams if they would base their game on just this direct playing style. They quickly adapted to Pellè not being able to win the balls that were aimed quite directly at him and started circulating the ball to the wingers instead. Both Martens and Holman took a wider stance and looked to receive the ball at feet.

Now able to control possession better, AZ grew into the game halfway through the first half. Groningen, sitting on their lead, initially withdrew a bit and managed to limit AZ’s danger to long range shots in this period.

During the final fifteen minutes of the first half Groningen manager Huistra, visibly annoyed with the lack of pressure applied by his team, direct his defense to a more advance line and had his midfielders chasing AZ’s possession. Although Groningen’s players upped their work rate, AZ possessed the technical quality and the speed of passing to play around their opponents regularly.

With Groningen unable to hold onto possession and AZ unable to convert their, often own half, possession into fluid attacks the game panned out to half time with a 1-0 score line.


The second half

The screens below illustrate the pattern of play at the start of the second half. This is a situation where AZ managed to successfully apply a direct passing game around Groningen’s pressing attacking midfielders. The first screen shows AZ’s defense in possession with Groningen’s attacking midfelders applying pressure. Instead of recirculating the ball through the goalkeepers, the ball is passed long and, as illustrated in the second screen, man-in-the-hole Wernbloom is positioned quite close to striker Pellè and manages to win the header leading to AZ’s attackers outnumbering Groningen’s defenders for once. The move ends with Holman hitting the bar with his chip over Luciano.

Screen 1: AZ central defender Moisander bypasses Groningen's attack (blue) and offensive midfield (yellow) with a long pass

Screen 2: The same pass a second later. AZ's central midfielder Wernbloom took up a more attacking stance and wins the header from Ivens. This leaves AZ's offensive midfield (yellow) and striker (blue) outnumbering Groningen's defense. Of further note is the rather advanced stance of AZ's holding midfielders Schaars and Elm (orange).

The game saw an increase in the number of fouls as well as more physical intensity. AZ’s frustrations grew and Groningen’s midfield, led by an excellent hard-working Holla, rolled up their socks to defend their narrow lead. As a reflection of their choice to defend their narrow lead Huistra replaced technical playmaker and winger for a day Gonzalo Garcia Garcia with another defensive midfielder: Nigerian youth international Femi Ajilore. The climax of Groningen’s physical hard labour was Sparv’s red card for a vicious foul in the 78th minute.

A bombardment of crosses and direct balls into Groningen area followed, but AZ did not create the equalizer. In the final minutes frustrated central defender Moreno saw a red card too and AZ’s resistance broke down. Groningen even managed to put the 2-0 on the scoreboard from a last minute counter attack. It was that man Matavz again.


In the end

Groningen put in an excellent hard-working effort to come away with the win in a roughly balanced match. AZ will feel hard done, but has itself to blame for consistently playing the same direct game against Groningen’s tall centre-backs who hardly lost any aerial battles to striker Pellè.