Tag Archives: Groningen

Heerenveen 3 – 0 Groningen: Derby of the North decided in second half

Heerenveen was the Derby of the North quite simply in the second half, but the score line covered up the fact that the first half was a quite close affair, with Groningen having a fair share of chances early on. Groningen’s direct passing to target man Zeefuik broke down in the second half and Heerenveen won the possession battle and the match.


The story so far at Heerenveen

As we’ve not looked into these teams this season, it may be useful to take a quick glance at their season so far.

Marco van Basten’s Heerenveen hasn’t seen the smoothest of starts. With their first win coming only seven matches into the season, at first glance Heerenveen seem to do exactly what last season’s PDO analysis expected them to do: disappoint. However, this sells Van Basten’s work short, as their Total Shot Rate (TSR) has improved compared to last season and it has mainly been last season’s overachieving in finishing that Heerenveen obviously couldn’t reproduce this year around.

Anyhow, Van Basten had responded to the initial disappointing results by temporarily switching to an Eredivisie unusual 5-3-2 formation in an attempt to restore the balance, but switched back to a more reasonable 4-3-3 in this match.


Groningen’s season start

Just like their north Netherlands neighbors, Groningen have had a rough start to a new manager’s season. Robert Maaskant took over from Pieter Huistra, who paid the price for some bad luck in combination with slightly fading performances last season. Groningen’s start to the season had initially been somewhat disappointing, but their TSR was better than the results had shown and with two wins and a draw in their last three matches, luck seemed to have turned and Groningen had prior to this match risen to an eighth spot in the league table with more points taken than expected on the basis of adjusted bookmaker odds.


The formations

The starting line-ups

Both teams set out in what’s best described as 4-3-3 variants. All four wingers played quite wide roles, while most full-backs initially refrained from overlapping too much. This allowed the midfield three a pretty straightforward battle for the most crucial area of the pitch.

Both midfields were where the tactics showed the most difference. Groningen’s midfield is more defensive and out of possession oriented, with a double holding system, with passer Sparv in a deep position beside destroyer Kieftenbeld, while Michael de Leeuw is mostly involved later on, playing off target man Zeefuik. Heerenveen’s midfield seems more comfortable in possession, with Kums and Marecek capable of circulating short passes neatly, meanwhile covering up for Djuricic who is allowed a high degree of positional freedom in an advanced playmaking role.

Heerenveen’s defensive line stood a tad higher than Groningen did, which allowed them a territorial advantage, but this also allowed Groningen the opportunity to try and exploit the space in behind that defensive line.


The first half

Initially, the best chances of the game fell to Groningen, as they successfully exploited the space in behind Heerenveen’s defense. Combining target man striker Zeefuik with two quick men on the wings in Kirm and Schet doesn’t just work well in theory, it worked well in the first half of this match too. Zeefuik’s physical game forces Heerenveen to defend relatively high up the pitch in order to prevent Groningen from chipping balls in and connecting from there. On the other hand, the space they conceded in order to keep Zeefuik out, allowed Schet and Kirm dangerous territory to exploit.

Overall, the chances throughout the goalless first half were quite balanced. Heerenveen’s main threat normally comes when their possession flows through the delicate advanced playmaking skills of Filip Djuricic, but he was well marked out of the game by the energetic Maikel Kieftenbeld. And with both formations effectively matching each other all over the pitch, it was a personal duel that provided Heerenveen their best chances.

Groningen’s Leandro Bacuna has been used as a full-back by Maaskant for the past few matches now, but fails to make an impression here. He struggled big time to defend winger Rajiv van la Parra, and Heerenveen exploited this wing even more with some nice overlapping runs by full-back Raitala, with Groningen winger Schet not showing enough defensive awareness to consequently track his runs.


The second half

While the first half went down as a more or less balanced affair, this was certainly not the case in the second half. Groningen’s game plan, as said before, is primarily focused on using Zeefuik as a target man and build from there, and when the target man fails to win his duels, there’s nothing to build from. Groningen’s possessions became very short lived and Heerenveen grew into the game. Meanwhile, both teams seemed to have full confidence in their abilities to win this match and as a result, more risks were taken and more space was conceded.

This increase in space available mainly benefited Heerenveen. Their midfield is more adept at playing in possession than Groningen’s is, and with Gouweleeuw and Zomer winning their share of duels from Zeefuik, Groningen’s Plan A was effectively neutralized.

Fitting with the picture of the first half problems, Groningen conceded from a move that involved a crucial error by Bacuna. He simply allowed Van la Parra to come in front of him on a dangerous right wing cross by De Ridder and Van la Parra, the best Heerenveen player on the pitch simply converted from close range.

Only moments later the match was effectively over as Heerenveen capitalized on a simple pass that was incomplete in Groningen’s own half. This own half turnover allowed a quick break, Luciano conceded a penalty and Finnbogason converted.

Now, facing two goals down and seeing Plan A gone astray, Maaskant threw the dice and introduced an extra striker with Suk, thereby changing formation to a risky 3-4-3. After that, Heerenveen simply picked Groningen apart, there back three was exploited heavily on both wings and one of a series of good chances settled the final score at 3-0.


In the end

After a close first half, Heerenveen won the match with two goals in quick succession. Groningen saw their direct passing game break down as target man striker Zeefuik failed to win his duels in the second half and as a result, Heerenveen grew into the game. The final goal was the result of Groningen taking risks in a 3-4-3 formation, but overall the win was deserved for the home team. However, the 3-0 final score line covers up the fact that the first half was a close affair.

Why taking up the PSV or Groningen vacancy is a good idea, and the Heerenveen job is not…

With the regular matches of the 2011-12 Eredivisie season over, and only the promotion/relegation play-offs and the Europa League qualifier play-offs still in contention, several teams are either appointing or releasing managers right now. Groningen fired Pieter Huistra, whose contract they renewed as recently as during the past winter break. Veteran manager Dick Advocaat took up the PSV job, after Philip Cocu indeed proved to be just an interim solution for the job vacancy after Rutten quit. Ron Jans announced his departure from Heerenveen earlier this season, with Marco van Basten returning to a managing job here.

This post will outline why the first two jobs, at Groningen and PSV, are excellent opportunities, while the Heerenveen job is a pitfall. The same parameter that was introduced recently to differentiate between sustainable and unsustainable performance at club level, PDO, is used again here. For a full description of PDO, read the introductory post, written a few weeks ago.


PDO from season to season

The key concept for this post is the fact that PDO has an enormous influence on a team’s performance throughout a single match and also over the course of a single season. This becomes clear when we look at two teams with very different PDO’s in the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 season. However, PDO fluctuates a lot from match to match and from season to season, as has been demonstrated before by James Grayson on his excellent blog in a much larger data set than the two Eredivisie season that I have available here.

By now it’s very much clear that last year’s over-performers, Groningen had a terrible run this year, leading to the sacking of their manager, Pieter Huistra. Groningen’s PDO dropped dramatically, coming from 1045 and 2nd best in the league and finishing the 2011-12 season at a dramatic PDO of 936, the worst in the league at some distance. The best example of the reverse trend is Feyenoord. Their PDO last year was 988, not dramatic, but still indicating that the team had more quality than their 10th place in the 2010-11 league table represented. Feyenoord’s 2011-12 PDO is 49 points higher at 1037 and they finished the season in a much improved 2nd spot in the table.

PDO data from all clubs over the past two seasons are presented in the next table. Note that this table only contains 17 clubs, as there was one promotion/relegation in between these seasons.


2010-11 2011-12



AZ Alkmaar



Den Haag





















NAC Breda






PSV Eindhoven















VVV Venlo




A quick mind will have noted that there is no correlation between both seasons. In other words, a high (or low) PDO in one year indicated nothing about the level of PDO in the next year. This is well illustrated in the next graph, depicting both seasons in a scatter plot. Note the flat trend line with a near-zero correlation coefficient.


 Now, what does this mean? Coming off a low-PDO season, things can only get better at clubs like PSV and Groningen, while teams like Feyenoord, Twente and particularly Heerenveen, who come off extremely positive PDO’s are in for a disappointing year.

Good luck, Marco!


Data: Infostrada Sports

Groningen 1 – 1 Twente: Hard working home side match superior away side skills

Having beaten Ajax at home, but losing at Heracles away recently, Groningen have been a team with two distinct faces so far this season. Against last season’s runners-up Twente, they displayed both of them, conceding the first half advantage, but making up for it in fighting spirit come the second half. Coming off an excellent 4-1 Europa League away win at Odense, Twente looked like hoping to see the game out easily, but got caught out in the end.


Groningen’s 4-2-3-1

The starting line-ups

Though playing in the same formation as they did in the past season, Pieter Huistra’s team falls way short of their record breaking season start of that 2010/11 season. They miss captain Granqvist, whose distribution tasks from the back have not been taken over yet, and striker Tim Matavz, whose excellent goal scoring record brought invaluable points during the past campaign.

Other than that, Huistra has decided to degrade goal keeper Luciano to the bench, in favor of veteran goal keeper Brian van Loo. Luciano caught some attention with a few misses come the end of the season, but his shot stopping qualities came out excellently in last year’s defensive performances analysis. Groningen conceded only 0.105 goals per shot allowed, or in other words their opponents needed on average 9.5 shots to score against them. This number was second only to Ajax’ Maarten Stekelenburg, whose qualities were reflected in 11.1 shots needed to score against him.

In spite of that, or unaware of that, Huistra decided to remove Luciano in favor of Van Loo. This match makes for interesting observations in that regards, as Van Loo was clearly at fault for the Twente goal, but made a series of excellent second half saves. Come the winter break we might need to look at the data again…


Goals per shot allowed (2010/11 season)


Twente’s 4-2-3-1

Twente manager Co Adriaanse generally has his team playing an offensive, high pressing formation. Most times this is best described as a 4-3-3 set-up, although at times Adriaanse likes to tune it to a 4-2-4 set-up with second striker Luuk de Jong pushing high up against target man Mark Janko. In the match against Groningen Twente adopted a slightly more defensive approach, perhaps taking a bit of a breather during the spell of the game where they defended their 1-0 lead. With De Jong playing behind Janko and Landzaat focusing on his defensive duties during most of the game, a 4-2-3-1 seemed the best fit to describe them today.

The three formations that Twente uses (4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-4) are in fact different shades of grey. In tactical terms, the positioning of Luuk de Jong and of the second central midfielder, Denny Landzaat in this match, is a tell tale of Twente’s ambitions in the match at hand. With De Jong closing in on Janko, joining him in the central area, Twente aims for the 4-2-4-esque formation, but with De Jong equally capable of playing a genuine offensive midfield role, and Landzaat more withdrawn, a true 4-2-3-1 comes out.


The first half

Both teams set out for an enthusiastic start to the game, with Groningen creating a hopeful series of chances during the first fifteen minutes. But as is often the case, the match settled down a bit when the home side took their foot off the gas, as their frantic start could never be kept up. The game that arose showed Twente playing a smart game, exerting pressure on all but one of Groningen’s defenders and midfielders.

Young centre-back Virgil van Dijk, an impressive physical presence, and often praised for his qualities in that regard, was deliberately left free during Groningen’s early possession. His limitations were painfully shown as he squandered a lot of short to medium range passes, opening his teams up for some dangerous quick Twente counters. One of them saw left winger Ola John fire in from the edge of the area. As mentioned above, Van Loo didn’t show his best in failing to deal with the short corner attempt and Twente got their desired opening goal.


The second half

Twente seemed intent to sit on their lead, rather than aiming to extend it further. Adriaanse made two half time substitution, with Bengtsson for Wisgerhof clearly fueled by an slight injury to the Twente captain. Willem Janssen replaced Bajrami as right winger, but this substitution had quite some impact.

Janssen is more of a central midfielder by nature and plays an inside right role at best. This freed Groningen’s best player of the game, left-back Lorenzo Burnet to venture forward and express the best parts of his game. Groningen was often praised for having the best left side of the past season’s Eredivisie, and Burnet may just be looking to fill Frederik Stenman’s boots in that regard. His wing-back qualities connected very well with Dusan Tadic’ one-on-one skills and crossing.

Groningen also threw in a more offensive stance for midfielders Kieftenbeld and, particularly, Sparv, which opened up space. Sparv’s passing qualities helped their ball circulation, although the downside of this increase in space was also displayed in the fact that Twente’s counters were hardly stopped before Van Loo’s goal was taken under fire. A series of excellent saves saw the Groningen goal keeper make up for his first half error.

Groningen’s offensive intentions were rewarded when substitute striker Hyun-Jun Suk, having replaced Bacuna at the right wing position, tapped in a rebound. The 1-1 score line, at that moment in the match, seemed a good reflection of the equality in terms of goal scoring chances created.


In the end

Groningen’s hard work and more offensive second half intentions in the end proved enough to match Twente’s de facto superior playing skills. A few glimpses of quality were shown in a substitute appearance by Nacer Chadli, Twente’s star player after the departure of Bryan Ruiz. All in all, Twente looked a tad distracted during this game. Given their busy schedule this may be intentional, but it cost them in the second half.

Groningen 1 – 0 Ajax: On hard labor and playing to your strengths

By putting up an intense physical battle and smartly targeting their opponent’s weaker points, Groningen earned a 1-0 victory. Winning most tackles in midfield, while pressuring Ajax early on, Groningen frustrated their opponents, paying a price in terms of yellow cards earned, but getting away with three well earned points. Ajax made a powerless and tired experience and never really got to their opponent’s box in order to exploit their own strengths.


Unchanged teams

Groningen and Ajax both named unchanged starting elevens from their previous matches, against De Graafschap and Real Madrid respectively. For Groningen the season has started below expectations, with key players like captain Granqvist (Genoa), Stenman (Club Brugge) and Matavz (PSV) leaving the club and only 10 points from the first 7 matches. Manager Huistra consequently sticksuisHH to the 4-2-3-1 that brought about such an impressive debut season for him, and the fifth spot in the league to go with it during that season.

The starting line-ups

Groningen features two full-backs that have been fitted in straight from Ajax’ youth team, where both Huistra and Frank de Boer have managed before making their Eredivisie debuts. Left-back Lorenzo Burnet is a regular starter for Groningen, having to fill the boots of Frederik Stenman to team up with Dusan Tadic in what was claimed to be last year’s most dangerous left wing of the Eredivisie. Right-back Johan Kappelhof features today in the absence of Tom Hiariej. Up front David Teixeira will be looking to build upon the impressive start for his new club. The Uruguayan striker, born in the same area as former Groningen and Ajax striker Luis Suarez, impressed with two goals and an assist in Groningen’s 2-3 away win at De Graafschap last week.


Ajax and their issues

There has been no shortage of Ajax coverage on 11tegen11 of lately, and their issues regarding the midfield set-up have been detailed elaborately in the coverage of the 3-0 defeat in Madrid. Today, De Boer named an unchanged starting eleven, with Theo Janssen being given another start to live up to expectations in the single holding midfielder role.


The first half

Groningen dominated the first part of the game, mainly by bullying their opponents off the ball in a crowded midfield area. Spaces were kept rather tight by applying a reasonably high defensive line, that worked quite well, apart from one brilliant Siem de Jong through ball where Sulejmani failed to finish the one-on-one with goal keeper Van Loo.

The hosts pressured Ajax far inside their own half, making life difficult for both Ajax’ centre backs to pass the ball into midfield. With that, Groningen successfully targeted exactly the pain spot of the present Ajax team. Vertonghen and Alderweireld had all sorts of trouble passing the ball into the midfield, where Janssen was closely marked by Andersson. Siem de Jong could be seen dropping deeper, to assist Janssen in receiving the ball and to provide more outlet options for his defensive team mates. Still Ajax had all sorts of trouble circulating the ball towards offensive positions and also saw striker Sigthorsson leaving the pitch injured, for Bulykin to come on.

Groningen seemed to switch their wingers, with Tadic playing Anita from Groningen’s right wing and Bacuna coming from the left, teaming up very well with left-back Burnet, who played a very good game against the club that refrained from offering him a professional contract just this summer. On the brink of half time Groningen had their best chance of the game when Bacuna headed over from a left wing cross.


The second half

Ajax seemed more intent on providing some pressure themselves from the start of the second half. This resulted in a more open game, with both teams winning balls higher up the pitch. Early in the second half Burnet made two important goal line clearances to keep the score level at 0-0, while goal keeper Van Loo kept a close range header from his team mate Kwakman only just out of his goal.

Groningen’s hard labour in midfield kept tem winning enough balls, frustrating their opponents, and ultimately also opening the score. Man of the match Lorenzo Burnet won a defensive header that started a quick left wing break with Andersson in behind Gregory van der Wiel. After Vermeer initially kept Andersson’s attempt out very well, Van der Wiel committed a handball to earn his, and Ajax’, second yellow card of the game.

Playing against ten men, Groningen didn’t change their game plan. They kept putting e remarkable amount of energy into the game, and only just avoided more serious consequences of their hard labour in the form of getting players sent off too. In the end no less than six Groningen players did receive a yellow card, while substitute Enevoldsen probably earned a bit more for  his tackle on Janssen.

De Boer removed striker Bulykin to introduce André Ooijer in order to restore his four men defensive line, but Ajax seemed to lack the energy to fight their way back into the match, being a man down and facing a hard-battling Groningen team that ultimately earned their 1-0 home victory.


In the end

Groningen successfully targeted Ajax’ weak spot. They pressured their opponents very high, making it near impossible for Ajax to pass the ball into their midfield. Although Siem de Jong did drop a bit deeper to provide more outlet options, Ajax’ passing from the back was painful to watch at times.

In danger of repeating the previous post, dealing with Ajax’ problems in midfield, it is safe to say that in order to prevent their midfield from being overrun, Janssen will need to be provided with more short range passing options. Detailed data from this present match is still to come, but data from other matches support this lack of short passes by Janssen. Take for example the PSV match, where Janssen played 4 of his 41 passes short, compared to Eriksen’s 15 of 49 and de Jong’s 16 of 27. This is not to say that Janssen should refrain from longer passing, but merely to underline the lack of control Ajax has over the defensive midfield area of the pitch.

Let’s finish this post with some credit for Groningen, who worked very hard and combined their energetic performance with enough wit to play the game at their particular strength. Manager Huistra possesses a physically strong side capable of winning a fair share of challenges, thereby keeping Ajax far from their own goal and avoiding the game to be played in their own half. In the end a 1-0 victory was their reward and with 13 points from 8 matches, Groningen are beginning to approach their excellent past season.

ADO 5 – 1 Groningen: First leg trashing fires ADO into Europe

In a first leg of what many expected to be a tight affair, ADO trashed Groningen and went on to win 5-1, thereby virtually securing their win in this season’s Europa League qualification playoffs. Groningen conceded the midfield to ADO by playing a formation bordering on 4-2-4 against ADO’s compact 4-3-3. In turn, ADO played to their strength very well and consequently circulated the ball to the feet of wingers Kubik and Verhoek. In the end, a weak performance by Groningen goal keeper Luciano did the rest.


The line-ups

The starting line-ups. Note ADO's 3v2 dominance in the midfield, due to Bacuna's advanced position.

ADO went into this match without their suspended first choice striker Dmitri Bulykin and his preferred replacement Charlton Vicento. Instead Van den Brom played Lex Immers, who had been drafted from his offensive midfield role into the striker position on numerous earlier occasions this season. The vacated spot in ADO’s central midfield was filled in by advancing versatile defender Ramon Leeuwin into central midfield, making place for Christian Kum in central defense beside captain Timothy Derijck.

Groningen also started without their preferred first choice striker. Tim Matavz, still believed to be on his way to Napoli next season, still struggles with his fitness, therefore Petter Andersson made another start in the striker position, just like in Groningen’s last match, the home win over Heracles in the EL playoffs semi final.  Thomas Enevoldsen saw his energetic substitution performance from that match rewarded with a start at the right inside winger position.

Groningen’s main absentees must have been Danny Holla and Tim Sparv, who developed into an excellent defensive midfield partnership. Holla misses out through a hamstring injury, while Sparv is suspended after his second yellow card in the hard-fought Heracles match.


The first half

The first ten minutes saw a dominant ADO, while Groningen patiently sat back and absorbed their opponent’s pressure for the moment. But around that time the game was suspended for nearly a quarter of an hour due to technical problems with the stadium lights. A break that was well used by Pieter Huistra to direct his team to a more offensive stance. Groningen re-appeared with a higher back line (which ultimately cost them a goal later on) and more offensive intentions.

Overall, ADO clearly dominated the first half, playing excellently though their strengths: the wings. Nearly all midfield balls were played out wide, into the feet of Kubik or Verhoek, who clearly had the better of Kieftenbelt and Stenman. Ironically, their opening goal came via a rare attack through the centre of the pitch. Groningen was paid for letting the pressure on ADO’s midfield slip for a moment, as Immers laid the ball off for Radosavljevic, who had escaped the attention of an overly advanced thinking Leandro Bacuna. Radosavljevic’s excellent through-ball played Toornstra in behind Groningen’s defensive line and the midfielders finished off nicely.

In the build-up to that goal, several of Groningen’s key issues in this game were illustrated. Bacuna took a very optimistic offensive stance, pressuring almost beside striker Andersson, which seemed out of line with the more conservative stance taken by the rest of the team. As a result, Groningen’s formation turned from a compact 4-2-3-1 into a stretched 4-2-4, which left space in midfield that was well exploited by ADO’s narrow midfield three of Radosavljevic, Toornstra and Leeuwin.

In possession, Groningen had their problems too. They hardly succeeded to connect more than four passes in a row, partly due to the aforementioned 3v2 ADO-dominated midfield, but also due to the absence of both Holla and Sparv, who are excellent passers of the ball. Although the Eredivisie does not provide data on pass completion, my guess would be that the both of them are among the best passers in the league when it comes to pass completion, which is a vital ingredient in the holding midfield role.


Second half changes

Huistra attempted to fix the first half issues by replacing right-back Kieftenbelt, who was clearly dominated by Kubik, with Virgil van Dijk, but he failed to address the midfield issues, where ADO continued to dominate.

After a short spell where Groningen seemed prepared to fight back into the match and their fighting spirit won a few tackles in midfield, ADO took advantage of a horrible kick by Groningen goal keeper Luciano, who placed the ball straight into Toornstra’s feet. On the resulting long range shot by Immers Luciano gave up a central area rebound, which was fired in by man-of-the-match Jens Toornstra, who whose run, again, was not tracked by Ajilore.


Clear winners

Despite a short surge of hopes for Groningen, when Ivens scored a close range header from a Dusan Tadic corner (his 22nd assist of this season!), ADO ran out clear and deserved winners with a score line as high as 5-1.

The story of the first half continued as Groningen gave up too much space in front of their back four and was punished for playing with a higher defensive line in search of the much needed away goal. First Immers won a ball in between Groningen’s central defenders and later on he also proved instrumental in ADO’s fourth goal by winning a header off Granqvist. Toornstra won a subsequent tackle off Ivens in Groningen’s box and fired in through the legs of Luciano. Ultimately, Ramon Leeuwin increased the pain for Groningen as he fired in from long range and saw his effort being deflected in the back of the net by Luciano.


In conclusion

With the danger of overexerting the same point over and again, Groningen’s midfield errors cost them the game, and with that, the possibility to crown the club’s best first half of a season ever with a qualification for European Football. Playing attacking midfielder Leandro Bacuna mainly beside striker Andersson did not fit with the (appropriate) more defensive stance taken by the rest of the team.

As a result, Groningen’s midfield effectively consisted of only Hiariej and Ajilore, who replaced Holla and Sparv in that area. ADO easily dominated that department with a close midfield three consisting of Radosavljevic, Leeuwin and a particularly excellent Jens Toornstra. They consequently succeeded to circulate the ball to wingers Kubik and Verhoek, who exploited their pace and crossing skills very well.

The resulting 5-1 home victory should ensure qualification for the qualification rounds of the Europa League, where ADO will (probably*) follow the footsteps of Utrecht, whose 2010/11 season started back in July already.


* In the past 10 seasons of EL and CL knock-out football, none of eleven teams losing the away match 5-1 went on to qualify from that tie.

Groningen 2 – 1 Heracles: Hard-fought battle decides EL play-off final ticket

Groningen managed to claim a place in the final of this season’s Eredivisie play-offs by beating Heracles with the tiniest of margins: away goal difference. After a hard-fought battle, ending in a 3-2 home victory for Heracles, Groningen’s 2-1 win was just enough to secure a place in the final and to maintain hopes of playing in next season’s Europa League preliminaries.


The squads

The starting line-ups

Groningen manager Pieter Huistra had some absentees to worry about in the run up to this important match. Top scorer Tim Matavz has been struggling with his fitness for much of the second half of the season and was absent in this match too. His preferred replacement, Danish Niklas Pedersen missed out too, making Petter Andersson, a nominal attacking midfielder the starting striker today. Behind him Olafemi Ajilore was the preferred advanced midfielder in the consequently applied 4-2-3-1 formation. Young Leandro Bacuna started in an inside right wing forward role.

Peter Bosz had to miss just one of his preferred starting eleven players, but the absence of Willy Overtoom through injury was a hard-felt one. The midfield playmaker tends to pull a lot, if not all, of the midfield strings in the Heracles squad this season and his 17 goals and 7 assists in 37 matches provided a significant part of Heracles’ attacking successes this season. He is replaced by Marko Vejinovic, a different type of offensive central midfielder in the sense that he’s more of the classic enganche type of player, who likes to dictate the game with the ball at feet, rather than Overtoom, who aims to provide an energetic and dynamic input and isn’t shy of finishing moves too.


The first half

Both teams started in comparable formations, although Groningen tends to be described as a 4-2-3-1 and Heracles as a 4-3-3. But both midfields having two holding players in Holla and Sparv (Groningen) and Quansah and Fledderus (Heracles) made for a generally comparable line-up. In a messy opening phase neither team succeeded to dominate and a high foul count led to an interrupted pattern of play, which didn’t help both teams.

The main difference in the early phase of the game was the knock-on effect of the previous tie. Heracles seemed happy enough to see out an expected frantic Groningen opening phase. But this seemed not quite Huistra’s plan. Groningen did commit to the midfield battle, but was patient enough not to waste their energy early on. The resulting game was some sort of stand-off which lasted until Huistra’s first tactical move.


Breaking the stand-off

The stand-off with both units of four defenders and two holding midfielders was broken when Holla committed himself more and more in an offensive role. Until that point Quansah had marked Ajilore quite easily and Sparv did likewise on Vejinovic. As a result, Fledderus and Holla were the midfielders with most freedom to make their choices. As said, the moment that Holla committed himself further forward, which also frustrated Fledderus’ game much more.

The first goal was another product of Groningen’s left flank, which had been mentioned as the best Dutch left flank of the season. Just look at the impressive assist tally of 7 goals and 21 (!) assists in 39 matches for Tadic, powered by the overlapping runs of Stenman. Both players proved crucial in a fluid left flank combination, leading to a well-executed ground combination with striker Andersson who finished the move in style with a curling shot into the far end of the goal.


Second half developments

Just like the opening phase of the first half, where Heracles clearly sat back and absorbed the game, the influence of the aggregate score was all too visible in the opening phase of the second half. Heracles started out with an absurdly high defensive line, perhaps over-executing the half-time instructions, or indeed instructed to play that way. Anyway, they quickly paid the price as Groningen seized on the second opportunity presented by conceding 40 yards of space behind a defensive line while not having full control of the midfield. Ajilore crowned his rare start as an offensive midfielder with a well executed finish from, again, a Tadic assist.

With Groningen now sitting on a two goal aggregate lead and Heracles hardly having been able to provide enough counter play so far, the game felt finished at that point. But the reverse proved true as the game went on. Bosz converted his formation from a 4-3-3 to a 3-3-1-3 by introducing Plet and Rienstra for outside winger Douglas and central defender Van der Linden.

In the final twenty minutes Groningen almost lost their calm, and with that their lead. First they did lose a man as Tim Sparv committed to a challenge that a player carrying a yellow card shouldn’t do. The resulting red card forced Huistra to remove striker Andersson for midfielder Veldmate to restore the balance on the midfield, but this allowed Heracles to play an all-or-nothing offensive game which led to Plet’s 87th minute close range 2-1 header. The remaining minutes passed with both sides filled with adrenaline and suspense, but Groningen successfully defended their one goal lead.


In the end

But Heracles did not find a second goal, which would perhaps be too much given the fact that it took them about 70 minutes to get the right balance between defending a narrow one goal lead (first half) and chasing one goal (opening minutes second half).

Groningen played another hard-fought battle in which they did not help themselves by committing too many early fouls. The resulting 76th minute second yellow card almost cost them in the end, but the fighting spirit that also led to this 10-men situation carried them to the final whistle.

Utrecht 1 – 0 Groningen: Passing problems make Groningen lose the game

Utrecht finally managed a win after six consecutive Eredivisie draws and Groningen extended their losing streak to four games, making a Europa League play-off spot more likely than direct qualification. In not the best of games, Groningen set back and absorbed Utrecht’s pressure in the first half and paid the price for their abysmal build-up play early in the second half.


Two 4-2-3-1 formations

Both teams have consequently played 4-2-3-1 formations throughout the season, although Utrecht did shape up as 4-2-2-2 earlier when both Asare and Mulenga were still fit to play. Both teams operate from a quite fixed defense and midfield selection, while most variety arises from the attacking selection.

Two 4-2-3-1 formations. Note that Van Wolfswinkel and Strootman covered Groningen's passing midfielders Sparv and Holla very well, a crucial element of the game.

At Groningen Maikel Kieftenbelt and Danny Holla return to the squad after being left out against Heracles. Daryl Lachman lost his right-back spot after his unconvincing performance and Tom Hiariej was advanced into an unusual attacking midfielder role. This highlighted Groningen’s poor squad depth when it comes to offensive players. With Koen van der Laak out for the season with a knee ligament injury and offensive midfielder Andersson and strikers Pedersen and Matavz injured too, the squad is out of depth. Youngster Leandro Bacuna started in the lone striker position, even after he fell out of favor after his weak display against Roda last November.

Utrecht has had their striker issues too, although they are slowly climbing out of the deepest of worries. Despite still missing Asare and Mulenga, Utrecht saw some players return from injury during the past months. Top scorer Van Wolfswinkel, with an impressive goal scoring tally of one goal every 131 minutes, returned in the past month and strong striker Demouge, often used as a substitute, was fit enough to start from the bench again. Curiously, Van Wolfswinkel started behind young striker De Kogel, who saw his late equalizer against Roda rewarded with another start.


Messy first half

After having conceded 13 goals in the past three matches, Groningen primarily focused on their defensive issues. They conceded quite some goals from simple balls over the top, with the offside trap failing to do its job and the central defender’s speed not able to make up for it. As was neatly pointed out during Kenneth Perez’ half time analysis on Eredivisie Live, Groningen took a deep an compact stance. Even to the point where Bacuna, supposed to play the striker role, but used to playing in midfield, positioned himself rather deep inside his own half.

As a result, Groningen’s spells of possession were extremely short. They had all sorts of problems building from the back. On one hand, Bacuna’s deep stance deprived them of a decent outlet for longer passes. On the other hand, midfielders Sparv and Holla were well covered by Utrecht’s midfield and failed to work their way around this. Credit goes to Kevin Strootman who did an excellent just, pushing forward just enough to keep Holla and Sparv out of the game. The build-up was therefore a repeat pattern of long balls over and over again, either by Groningen’s central defenders, who are not the best passers around or their goalkeeper.


Groningen took a deep and compact stance, note striker Bacuna's position on Groningen's side of the midfield circle.

Manager Huistra could have improved things here by having either Holla or Sparv, who are renowned passers with an eye for the game, drop deeper, in between the central defenders. This would either drag Utrecht’s midfielders out, creating more space in the central midfield, or it would leave them some time on the ball to work out better passing options.

All the while, Utrecht did not succeed in turning their possession advantage into goal scoring chances. Their passing in the final third was often astray and the skilled dribbling of Dries Mertens on the left flank was their prime source of danger. Should Groningen have fixed their build-up issues, they could have taken more advantage of their strong left flank too, with Dusan Tadic’ dribbling and crossing and Frederik Stenman’s overlapping runs.


The second half

At the start of the second half Groningen seemed to have fixed their deep stance, but not their distribution issues. This ensured for more of an end-to-end game, but with Groningen low pass completion ratio, most chances fell to Utrecht. On one of these occasions Du Chatinier’s team capitalized through substitute striker Frank Demouge, who scored with a free header from a Mertens corner just two minutes after entering the pitch.

Groningen, as mentioned above, have a squad short on strikers. So, as expected, they had a difficult time turning this game around. Pieter Huistra did what he could, which, in this situation means he brought two youth players to the pitch. First, young and promising striker Norair Mamedov replaced Danny Holla. As Huistra stays consequent on the 4-2-3-1, this meant Bacuna and Hiariej both moved a line deeper. Only 19 year old, the youngster who currently leads the top scoring charts in the Dutch youth competition, could hardly be expected to fix the game while to more serious passing issues were still at hand. Later on, midfielder Danny Post was allowed to make his first senior appearance in the final minutes.


In the end

Groningen seemed to have fixed their defensive issue which led to them conceding thirteen goals in the three matches before this one, but still extended their losing streak to four now. Serious pass completion problems, caused by having their two passing midfielders shielded and their central defense resorting to long clearances, disturbed their game here. On top of that, injuries to Matavz, Pedersen and Andersson meant they ran out of option upfront. And with Matavz leaving for Napoli this summer, there’s a job to be done it that department for sure.

Utrecht, meanwhile, managed to win this game off the bench, with Demouge scoring an important header.  With their strike force returning just in time for the Eredivisie finale, expect Utrecht to qualify for the Europa League play-offs again.

Heerenveen 1 –4 Groningen: A tale of the centre-backs

Groningen beat Heerenveen for the second time this season. Not only does this mean a second victory over their main rivals after previously beating them 1-0 at home, it also means a second victory of Pieter Huistra over his predecessor Ron Jans. Three important points for Groningen as they maintain their current fourth spot in the Eredivisie which would guarantee Europa League football next season.


Heerenveen’s striker issues

Ron Jans left striker Bas Dost out of his starting 4-3-3 for the eighth consecutive match. While in Heracles’ wide winger 4-3-3 variant the tall and talented youngster flourished in the 2009/10 season, Heerenveen’s start to the season illustrated the mismatch between Dost and his current team mates. Dribbling inside wingers Assaidi and Beerens contribute their fair share of finishing moves, rather than aiming for the floating crosses Dost so much desires. The youngster might be on his way to a move to Ajax at the time of writing, as they see an ideal combined aerial and ground target man in their current outside wingers 4-3-3 game.

The starting line-ups

Originally an attacking midfielder, but fielded as Heerenveen’s central striker now, Viktor Elm succeeded in catalyzing his team mates’ moves, as illustrated by the fact that Heerenveen’s goals per matches have increased from 1.54 before his inclusion to 3.0 in Heerenveen’s last seven Eredivisie matches. Behind him a trio of Vayrynen, Grindheim and Svec provided enough stability to the central midfield that was lacking in Heerenveen’s 4-2-3-1 formation that characterized their start to the season.


Stability at Groningen

Groningen’s impressive first half of the season did not go unnoticed and as happens so often to high-flying teams, their star players get difficult to hang onto. So far though, Groningen managed to hold onto Matavz until the end of the season (7m euro summer move to Napoli) and captain Granqvist (rejected Fenerbahce offer).

Young manager Pieter Huistra went with his preferred starting 4-2-3-1 with passing midfielder Tim Sparv returning from injury beside his holding midfield partner Danny Holla and Danish international Thomas Enevoldsen replacing vice captain Koen van de Laak who is out for the season with a severe knee injury. The only unsettled position in Groningen’s line-up remains the attacking midfielder spot. First choice Petter Andersson is working his way back up after long lasting injury problems while Garcia Garcia and Pedersen compete for the position now with the latter preferred today.


The first half

With both formations being mirror images during the first part of the game, player quality rather than tactical choices determined the face of the game early on. The only tactical exception of note was Groningen’s intense pressure on Heerenveen captain Breuer who responded with a lot of misplaced passes for Groningen to take advantage of.

Groningen applied the principle of defending narrow and spreading wide in possession to perfection, allowing them to convert their 42% possession into a fair amount of chances while Heerenveen had all sorts of trouble converting their share of possession into opponent half passes. Particularly Heerenveen’s high defensive line was tested by Matavz acceleration and timing and the home team was lucky to come away with some dubious first half offside calls.


Matavz’ excellent lone striker role

Groningen’s narrow and compact way of defending meant that they had some trouble playing balls into their midfield, but this was simply solved by playing long balls towards Matavz who excelled in his lone striker role, even converting some of these situations into shooting chances. And it was exactly one of these Matavz solo moves that forced Heerenveen goalkeeper Stuhr Ellegaard to concede a corner from which centre-back Ivens scored with a powerful header.

Jonas Ivens, a new signing this season, celebrates his opening goal

Heerenveen’s main threat came from Assaidi’s inside dribbling runs, but other than in his ‘one man show’ against Twente, he frequently ran into Groningen’s defenders as Ivens provided an excellent doubling in defense to help out Kieftenbelt here.


Poor Heerenveen passing

Illustrative of Heerenveen’s weak passing from the back was the build-up to Groningen’s second goal. Left-back Jong-a-Pin cheaply gave the ball away for Groningen to take advantage once more of Heerenveen’s poorly executed offside trap as centre-backs Breuer and Kruiswijk failed to communicate. Matavz applied the finish in a one-on-one situation for his eighth goal in as many matches.

A tell tale of Heerenveen’s misery was the fact that Jans felt forced to apply a 30th minute substitution, removing holding midfielder Svec to introduce out-of-favour striker Bas Dost. Elm moved back into the attacking midfielder role in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Despite in theory providing more passing outlet to the centre-backs, Heerenveen kept on struggling to pass the ball into their midfield and the face of the game was hardly changed.


Half time changes

In a desperate attempt to get more grip on the game, Jans decided to move Breuer into a libero-like role, positioning him in front of his back-line. If the goal of this change had been to have the Heerenveen captain even more involved in Heerenveen’s build-up, it certainly worked, but given Breuer’s poor first half passing Heerenveen kept on losing a lot of possession early on. Ten minutes into the second half Breuer was removed to introduce another attacking midfielder, Djuricic. Heerenveen effectively switched to a 3-5-2, hoping to force their way back into the match.

Within one minute the reverse happened as Tadic scored with one of those dangerous long range free kicks, curling into the far post, untouched by the mass of players in the box. Despite Djuricic scoring a beautiful long range effort, Heerenveen never found their way back into the match and resorted to a series of cynical challenges, eventually losing their second starting centre-back too. He fouled Matavz who was on a free run towards the goal and saw a direct red card. Groningen took advantage of Heerenveen’s depleted back line as Tadic crowned his excellent game with a late second goal to settle the game at a 1-4 score line.


Tim Matavz, Groningen's hot striker, firing in another shot

In the end

Groningen dominated Heerenveen from start to finish and smartly took advantage of Breuer’s weak passing by applying particular pressure during Heerenveen’s build-up. And as if to illustrate one of the main determinants of the outcome of this game none of Heerenveen’s two centre-backs lasted until the end of the game, while on Groningen’s side it was centre-back Ivens who opened the score. Furthermore, Matavz positioning, acceleration and clinical finishing proved too much for Breuer and Kruiswijk to deal with.

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.

Roda 1 – 0 Groningen: Lack of a playmaker breaks up Groningen

Groningen went into this away match at Roda knowing that a victory would take them to the second place in the Eredivisie. Roda, on the other hand, defended their unbeaten-at-home status. A match between two clubs with fairly different formations was certain to be among the more tactically interesting of the weekend. Roda’s 4-4-2 diamond is unique in the Eredivisie and even playing two strikers is unique in itself. Once completely neutralized by NEC’s three man defense, Roda may be happy that most Eredivisie managers do not show the flexibility to install this system for their Roda games.


Groningen’s playmaker problem

The starting line-ups: two very different formations.

Groningen went with their familiar 4-2-3-1 system, despite missing their playmaker Gonzalo Garcia and his first choice replacement Petter Andersson, who is still returning from injury. Leandro Bacuna showed himself unable to glue the team together in the playmaker role that is so vital for a 4-2-3-1 to succeed. Still only 19 years old, the attacking midfielder certainly has the talent, but did not show enough pass completion, nor enough pass attempts to connect Groningen’s attacking play. So, lacking creativity, Groningen seemed unable to turn the possession that they had into chances.


Roda’s 4-4-2 diamond

It cannot be stressed enough how, at least from a tactical point of view, interesting and refreshing Roda’s approach to the game is. Roda is the only team to play two upfront and follows what is a much more common formation in for example the Bundesliga.

Against Groningen they were able to field their first choice line-up in ten of eleven spots. Only ‘carrillero‘ (wide midfielder in a diamond) Laurent Delorge missed out due to injury and he was replaced by advancing Wielaert into a defensive midfield role, frequently alternating with Ruud Vormer here.


The first half

Roda’s midfield diamond players frequently alternated positions which made it hard for Groningen’s holding midfielders to get a firm grip on them. Especially on Roda’s left flank they made a quick series of dangerous crosses early in the game. Groningen tried to apply a zonal marking system to stay true to their 4-2-3-1 concept and prevent their formation from being entirely disrupted should they’ve chosen to man mark their opponents who played a very different formation.

As said in the introduction, Groningen missed an outlet in midfield who was able to hold onto the ball. In this role Gonzalo Garcia has been instrumental in their successful season so far, but Leandro Bacuna was simply not up to the task. Unfortunately the Eredivisie passing chalkboards are not available (yet?) to illustrate this better, but his low pass completion was a nuisance to Groningen’s game.

Roda, on the other hand, dominated possession and created a steady flow of chances, one of which Junker should have converted ten minutes before the half time whistle. Fortunately for him, Roda managed to grab the lead only a few minutes later when Djoum crowned an excellent run with a deflected shot into the back of the net.


Second half chances

Groningen was forced into some second half chances if they were to get anything out of this game. Hardly having created a chance in the first half, they started playing more aggressively, the defensive line was advanced much further, regularly taking stance at the halfway line. Furthermore, both full-backs, who had played an uncharacteristically conservative role up to that moment, started to get involved down the flanks. A third chance was introduced some ten minutes later, when holding midfield Sparv was clearly given more of a box-to-box role, regularly appearing around Roda’s box.

Unfortunately all that is brought was a few Roda counters and the 2-0 was always more likely than the equalizer, although Groningen did create a shooting chance through a spark of Matavz’ attacking quality in the box. With everyone expecting the introduction of Andersson over Bacuna, Groningen manager Huistra initially decided otherwise. He brought Enevoldsen for Van der Laak, which meant no relevant chance to their system or performance.

Leandro Bacuna, 19 years old, talented, but not yet able to carry his team

An early all of nothing game was what followed. With fifteen minutes to go Bacuna was finally removed for Andersson and already Granqvist was moved alongside Matavz, going one-on-one at the back. The qualities of Andersson in linking up the game were imminent in the best Groningen chance of the game, where Sparv saw his shot stopped after one of the first successful passing combinations around Roda’s box.


In the end

Roda was able to sit out the game quite comfortably and saw their unique system rewarded with another win, after going five games without one. Groningen was, once again, disappointing away from home. With only two away matches won, against VVV and Willem II, Groningen would have been ranked eighth overall, which goes to show where they can and should improve their game.  Missing a creative player to link their attacking band together proved too much for them today.

Roda’s diamond is still well on course for at least a play-off place and, with the top of the Eredivisie cropping together, both Roda and Groningen keep sight on more.