Tag Archives: Heerenveen

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

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.

Heerenveen 1 – 2 Ajax: Eredivisie title race still open

Ajax managed a narrow win in this must-win game away at Heerenveen. But with both sides putting in far better offensive than defensive performances, this match could easily have gone another way.

Heerenveen has had a mediocre season so far, being unable to string decent performances together. It is difficult to say which is cause and which effect, but their season has been characterized by a lack of stability in both first team line-ups and playing formation on one hand and sub-standard performances on the other hand. Today Jans went with Dost up front and played Beerens and Narsingh on the wings.

The starting line-ups

Viktor Elm filled in for suspended playmaker Oussama Assaidi, the star of their 6-2 win over Twente, and Haglund did likewise for Grindheim in central midfield. In defense, captain Michel Breuer has been shipped out to the left-back position and 19 year old Jeffrey Gouweleeuw made another start at centre-back.

Ajax manager Frank de Boer might hardly have dreamt of playing for the title at this stage of the season when he took over from Martin Jol mid season. But with both PSV and Twente dropping points during their disappointing recent weeks, both in the Eredivisie and in the Europa League, Ajax still holds their title chances in their own hands.

Against Heerenveen De Boer dropped El Hamdaoui, who disappointed in recent weeks, and went with Siem de Jong up front. This meant that Demi de Zeeuw started in central midfield in the place vacated by De Jong. Otherwise, beside long-term injured goal keeper Stekelenburg, Ajax lined up as expected.


The first half

Pressure is the one word that most characterizes Ajax under Frank de Boer. And this match was no exception. Moving well as a unit, Ajax’ offense and midfield aimed to make life difficult for Heerenveen’s defense in very early stage of their build-up of play. And they succeeded quite well, with the general passing direction for Heerenveen being side- or backwards, until Stuhr Ellegaard shipping the ball forward was the only option left.

Despite these positives, Ajax had a tough time on possession themselves too, making for a generally quite balance game early on. Remarkable in this regard was the narrow position of the wingers. Most notably Sulejmani, who played an inside left forward role, reminded of the Jol era, when Suarez generally played an inside wing forward role with loads of positional freedom.

While for Suarez this worked quite well, linking up with Pantelic (last season) or El Hamdaoui, for Sulejmani things did not quite work out, despite his excellent work rate. The problem here was that the three of De Jong, Eriksen, and Sulejmani aimed to make runs into the same space. This narrowed Ajax’ offense in general and led to extremely short and ineffective passes. All the while, Van der Wiel had his hands tied in marking Heerenveen’s best player, Roy Beerens, and was unable to overlap Sulejmani on the wing.

So, with Ajax unable to take advantage from their well executed pressing game and Heerenveen at first unable to play around their pressing opponents, the first twenty minutes passed easily. Until Vayrynen’s brilliant long range half volley that is. He took the ball very well from distance and saw Vermeer beaten.

But this might have been the shortest lead of this year’s Eredivisie, as Ajax equalized within twenty seconds. A quick ground combination involving a one-touch De Jong pass and Eriksen playing the ball over the top allowed Sulejmani to lob the ball over a stranded Stuhr Ellegaard.


Heerenveen’s wings

The goal inspired both teams to look for more and in offensive terms both did not hold back. Heerenveen in particular did quite well during the second part of the first half. Roy Beerens had a magnificent game, easily dominating Van der Wiel and providing tall striker Bas Dost with useful balls from the left wing.

On the right wing, young Luciano Narsingh outplayed his even younger opponent Boilesen, winning more than a handful of corners in the process. And these corners, as well as a series of free kicks in their opponent’s half, allowed Heerenveen to look for the head of Dost who won quite a number of offensive headers, but saw his team mates unable to take advantage.


The second half

Just like their kick-off after Heerenveen’s opening goal, Ajax managed to score a very early goal again. And again, Siem de Jong’s role dropping from the centre forward position proved crucial. He controlled possession just outside the area and lobbed the ball in behind Heerenveen’s defensive line where Eriksen displayed his perfect two-footedness in a controlled ground finish.

The score line obviously altered Heerenveen’s approach of the second half. They conceded a lot more space in behind their defense in order to position their offensive midfielders (Elm and Vayrynen) in better positions to take advantage from the dominance that both wingers had over their direct opponents.

The game got more and to end and the space in behind Heerenveen’s defense allowed Ajax’ midfield more passing options, with balls over the top now being a better option than before, as both Ebecilio and Sulejmani (who switched sides too), were allowed space to regularly outpace their markers.

A potential game changing substation was made in the 75th minute as Jans made his regular move when being a goal down in the final fifteen minutes. He sacrificed a centre back (Kruiswijk) to advance Breuer into a midfield role. Calvin Jong-A-Pin, who replaced Kruiswijk, took up the left-back position. And just like that, Heerenveen took full control of the midfield, and with that, of the game. Ajax were hardly unable to control possession and the Heerenveen dominated the game from this moment on.

But despite their control, Heerenveen’s high crosses did not produce another goal, although they were quite close on more than one occasion, another reminder of problems Ajax faced earlier this same season, defending high crosses. In the end, Ajax managed to squeeze out the 2-1 win.


In the end

In a match that contained more suspense than quality, more offense than defense and more misses than saves, Ajax came out with a very important win. Heerenveen did not get the reward that their dominance towards the end of the game deserved, but to see the Eredivisie decided by a true final match day finale with Ajax hosting Twente is worth something too.

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.

Heerenveen 6 – 2 Twente: The champions provided the stage for the Oussama Assaidi show

Eredivisie champions Twente succumbed to a painful defeat at the hands of Heerenveen, where Oussama Assaidi ran the show, scoring three and assisting the other three goals. A four goal loss for the reigning champions is not unique in Eredivisie history – it has happened two times before – but it illustrates the cropping together of the Eredivisie teams, where, as it seems, any team can beat anyone at present…


Heerenveen’s front-line issues

Ron Jans managed to find some stability at Heerenveen, at least with respect to the playing style. The beginning of the season saw too many disconnections between inside forwards Beerens and Assaidi on one hand and towering central striker Dost on the other hand. Frustrations at both parties grew and manager Jans had to make a choice whether to play for direct danger through the flanks or direct danger through crosses towards the center forward.

The starting line-ups

On matchday 15, against Willem II, Bas Dost was left out for the first time. His replacement was Viktor Elm, a hard-working natural attacking midfield, but by all means capable of playing as a link-up forward too. His tendency to take up slightly deeper positions and to get involved in the build-up of attacks rather than finishing them did Heerenveen’s attacking game a lot of good and results-wise….

In the match against Twente, however, Jans’ choice to leave Dost out was a forced one, as the striker suffered from injury. Furthermore right winger Roy Beerens missed out due to injury too. He was replaced by Narsingh.


Twente’s injury problems

Many of players that gave Twente their first ever Eredivisie title last season are either no longer at the club, or missed out due to injuries. Captain Blaise N’Kufo (sold), playmaker Kenneth Perez (retired), left-back Stam (sold), left-winger Stoch (end of loan deal) are no longer part of the club. On top of that, influential winger Bryan Ruiz severely injured his knee, underwent surgery recently and is expected to be out for a few months. Finally tall striker Mark Janko is injured for this game.

Needless to say that manager Preud’homme had to make some changes to his attacking line-up. On top of the 4-3-3 Luuk de Jong replaces Janko and his spot in-the-hole is filled in by Landzaat, who is a more defensive minded player, making the formation look most like a 4-3-3. At right-wing young Dario Vujicevic faced the difficult task to replace Bryan Ruiz.


The first half

In terms of possession Twente dominated the start of the match, but they had severe problems with Heerenveen’s pressing which was clearly aimed at preventing Twente’s centre-backs passing the ball into midfield. Playmaker Janssen and holding midfielder Brama hardly completed any forwards directed passes during this phase. In terms of chances the start of the match was fairly balanced, although both teams were limited to shots from outside the box.

The best chance of the game so far led to the opening goal by Heerenveen. In a quick counter move the ball was transferred from the right side of the pitch to the left, where Assaidi was left in acres of space by his ‘supposed-to-be-marker’ Rosales. The Heerenveen winger ran at his man at high speed and lifted the ball over goalkeeper Boschker from distance. Definitely a nice piece of skill by Assaidi, but by all means sloppy defending by Rosales who was way too far away from him in the first place.

This Assaidi-Rosales match-up proved to be very influential in the rest of the game. Twente tends to play with an inside drifting right winger when Bryan Ruiz is match fit, but his replacement Vujivevic showed the exact same role in an attacking sense. He drifted inside at all times, only to run into traffic as Heerenveen kept their midfield quite close to the defensive line. In a defending sense Vujicevic did differ from Bryan Ruiz. The latter tends to put in a lot of, generally unnoticed, defensive work too, while Dario Vujicevic, at least today, was rarely seen to assist his full-back Rosales.

Oussama Assaidi dribbling past Rosales

This problem was even more acute as Twente depended on Rosales’ runs from deep to provide width on the right wing. Heerenveen smartly chose to have Vujicevic picked up in the already crowded center, reflecting their zonal marking system. This left Heerenveen’s left-back Jong-A-Pin free to deal with Rosales and in turn Assaidi was able to play a sort of trequartista role, albeit on the left wing. This role allowed the winger to flourish more and more as the match went on and Twente was a goal down for most part of the match to come.

The disadvantage of this strategy was obviously the fact the Twente at times was able to double up on their right wing when Vujicevic did move (back) to the right wing. In the build-up to their equalizer this can be seen and Chadli was found by a Rosales cross to tap in.

The second Heerenveen goal was a copycat from the first one. Assaidi was allowed at least 20 yards of freedom to receive the ball around the halfway line, accelerated towards the Twente defenders  and he finished with another shot from around the edge of the box.


The second half

Five minutes into the second half Nacer Chadli took advantage of a moment of disorganization in Heerenveen’s defense. This positioned him in a one-on-one with Breuer and he smartly used his superior acceleration to create space for the shot form a narrow angle.

Vujicevic ran into a yellow card quickly hereafter and was subbed off for Ola John around the 60th minute.  Shortly hereafter, with Twente growing into the match and playing two wide wingers now, it was Heerenveen that scored a third goal. Assaidi, marked by two men now as John did at least try to help Rosales out, still succeeded in swinging in a second post cross where, against all odds, Elm beat Douglas to the ball.

Of course Twente did press for another equalizer, but as the match went on Heerenveen grew into their counter-attacking role and even managed to extend their lead in the 74th minute. Striker Elm displayed his qualities as a link-up man by dropping into midfield and forming the base of a counter attack where, again, Assaidi found Narsingh with a lobbed pass.

In the closing minutes of the match Heerenveen extended their lead to the 6-2 final score, only to rub more salt into Twente’s wounds and to generate and even more eye-catching score line.


Narsingh (left) and man of the match Oussama Assaidi


In the end

Perhaps with Bryan Ruiz on song Twente’s strategy of a drifting right winger would have worked, but young Dario Vujicevic simply did not possess the amount of quality that Ruiz has to create danger in the crowded central area of the pitch. Thereby Twente missed the advantage of this strategy and suffered mainly from the disadvantages. Heerenveen’s left winger Oussama Assaidi was provided with the perfect stage for the winger trequartista role that he played to perfection, finishing the match with no less than three goals and three assists.

In truth, the balance could have tipped over to Twente’s side during parts of the second half too, as the match was up for grabs during the phase where a 2-2 score was on the board.

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

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

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

Jans still searching

The starting line-ups

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

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

NAC reverted back to 4-3-3

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

The first half

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

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

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

An image to symbolize that NAC outnumbered Heerenveen's midfield

The second half

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

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

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

In the end

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

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

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

Groningen 1 – 0 Heerenveen: ‘The Derby of the North’ springs to life in the second half

The first half of this season’s first ‘Derby of the North’ was a tame affair, as reflected by the 0-0 half-time score. In the second half the game came to life, with Heerenveen passionately chasing the game after conceding the opening goal immediately after half-time.


Stable FC Groningen

Groningen went into this match against northern rival Heerenveen off the back of their best season start ever. Even having topped the table for a day, the ‘Pride of the North’ consequently operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation that is characterized by their outside wingers. Withdrawing Niklas Pedersen to play behind lone striker Matavz have been a wise move from manager Pieter Huistra, as the pair have produced over half of Groningen’s open play goals so far.

Their back-line provides stability and offers an aerial presence too. Both centre-backs, Granqvist and Ivens, have played all of the matches so far and have proven to be a valuable presence during attacking set pieces too.


Disconnected Heerenveen

Heerenveen still seems a bit disconnected, based on their performance in the first eight matches of this season. The acquisition of Bas Dost, who was transferred from Heracles this summer, seems to bring about quite some chances to their type of play. Dost is an aerially strong target man who needs his share of supply from the wings, while both Ousama Assaidi on the left and Roy Beerens on the right have a natural tendency to cut inside an look for space.

The starting line-ups. Note the Stenman-Beerens match-up that proved important during the first half.


Heerenveen’s 4-1-4-1

In this derby, Heerenveen did in fact not play their regular 4-2-3-1, but looked more like a 4-1-4-1 set-up. Viktor Elm controlled the midfield behind central midfielders Vayrynen and Grindheim. The pair of them looked to join the attack by making runs from deep, but in general kept within the line of four midfielders.

While in theory looking like an excellent plan to counter Groningen’s 4-2-3-1 in an away match, Ron Jans’ Heerenveen side did not provide the defensive stability that a 4-1-4-1 should have done. And this had very much to do with their right flank. Although Beerens’ pace and dribbling skills are a renowned weapon in the Eredivisie, his lack of defensive responsibility offers a liability to the team too. Confronted with the overlapping power of Groningen left-back Stenman, this proved Heerenveen’s biggest problem of the first half.


The first half

Groningen, meanwhile, operated their 4-2-3-1 from a rather deep defensive line initially, which lead to a tame start to the match. Both teams did not achieve a reasonable pass completion, leading to short possession spells and not the best of entertainment.

With around fifteen minutes played Groningen tried to take matters more in their hands. They played a more pressing came, at the cost of conceding more space at the back. But while Groningen did not create much danger, Heerenveen used this new found space to some effect.


First-half tactical change

Ron Jans is generally known as a man with a hands-on approach and this was shown in his first half substitution. Still somewhat of a taboo, a first half tactical substitution, brining on Koning for overrun right-back Janmaat did succeed in limiting Heerenveen’s right-sided problems. Roy Beerens was clearly instructed to track back more too, limiting Stenman’s offensive play.


The second half

Immediately after half-time Groningen’s aerial set piece danger was illustrated by Granqvist’s fourth Eredivisie goal. His header from a Dusan Tadic inswinging corner found the net to put the home side 1-0 up.

Unexpectedly this did not bring any comfort to Groningen’s game. Heerenveen started pressing by advancing midfielders Grindheim and Vayrynen and Groningen’s defensive midfielders were unable to find their passing targets anymore. It was quite clear that Groningen misses outlet options as both striker Matavz and man-in-the-hole Pedersen played a rather flat game.


Chasing Heerenveen

After substituting Vayrynen for Djuricic, who is a more offensive midfielder, Heerenveen switched from their 4-1-4-1 to their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Djuricic did succeed in finding some space between the lines of the Groningen defensive and his through-balls created a few chances here and there. Groningen’s lack of defensive outlets meant that they had to resort to an ugly defensive game, hoping for a quick break on their long ball clearances. However, lacking true pace in their attacking line-up or on the bench, this was never quite likely to occur.

Groningen manager Jans indicating his style of play for the final minutes.

Nearing the end of the match Ron Jans clearly indicated his switch to a one-on-one back line and Heerenveen lined-up in what was effectively a 3-3-4 formation after captain Breuer was sacrificed for extra striker Fazli. Throwing men forward was the recipe towards the final minutes of the game, but Groningen managed to hold on to their narrow lead, nicely symbolized by young full-back Kieftenbelt’s cheering after clearing a ball from the goal line in the final minute.


In the end

In the end it was a poor match if not for the tension induced by the close score line. Heerenveen still looks like a disjointed team at the moment. Tall striker Dost is clearly unhappy with the lack of quality crosses that the inside wingers provide while wingers Assaidi and Beerens need their striker to join in ground combinations and through balls aiming to use their dribbling skills and pace. Today their choice for a 4-1-4-1 made things look even worse, although from a rational standpoint this approach in an away match against an in-form opposition playing a 4-2-3-1 seems very much justified.

Groningen will definitely take this. Winning the Derby of the North, taking three points from a team that was regarded to be a rival to their ambitions to qualify for European Football this season. Manager Pieter Huistra most certainly made his debut as a manager in impressive fashion, providing Groningen with their best season start ever, despite already having played Ajax, PSV, AZ and Twente.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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