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.
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.