Tag Archives: Match analysis

Twente 2 – 2 Ajax: Clash of the top sides living up to expectations

This weekend saw the first clash of last year’s Eredivisie’s top two sides. Both clubs managed to win an impressive 16 out of 17 home games last season . Ajax’ only draw was, ironically against to-be-relegated Sparta (0-0), in the second home game of the season and Twente’s against PSV in their first home game of the season. Ajax managed to win their final 14 games of the season, scoring a magnificent 50 goals while conceding only 4 in these series. In spite of that, Twente managed to just hold on to their early season lead, keeping a one point margin intact over the final six matches, ensuring a thrilling end to the 2009/10 Eredivisie season and claiming their first ever title.

Despite both teams still being unbeaten in their first games this season, things look a bit different compared to last year already. Twente dropped points by drawing at home against Heerenveen and away at Roda and Heracles. All of these games ended up 0-0, indicating Twente’s lack of goal-scoring ability quite blatantly. Meanwhile, Ajax dropped points away at Groningen (2-2) and conceded an unexpected seven goals in their first seven games already.

The starting line-ups, for clarity Ajax are presented in their blue/yellow away kit. Note the high defensive lines, limiting space in midfield

Twente missed tall striker Mark Janko, a new acquisition, but already one of the key elements of the 4-2-3-1 system that they’ve turned to halfway through the third Eredivisie match of the season. Playing Luuk de Jong in-the-hole behind Janko finally produced the goals that were missing before. Now, without Janko, and not having a third central striker in their squad, Twente was forced to turn back the 4-3-3 that former manager Steve McLaren had built upon to great success. Luuk de Jong moved to the striker position again and veteran midfielder Danny Landzaat took up a controlled central midfield role.

Although complaints about the lack of stability are never far away at Ajax, this does not hold true for their formation. An inside winger 4-2-3-1 it is, with right winger Suarez, comparable to Twente’s Ruiz in this regard, frequently looking to roam around and connect with striker El Hamdaoui. Interestingly, Demi de Zeeuw, still a recent Ajax captain, seems to have lost his place for more than just one ‘punishment’ game. After his tactical indiscipline against Real Madrid, he has only been given one starting appearance which was in the Cup ‘walkover’ against MVV.

El Hamdaoui’s false nine role

With both teams playing fairly comparable formation, an array of midfield couples initially fought their predominantly midfield battle. Twente’s midfield triangle being a mirror image of the opponent’s helped them in the who-marks-who of the opening minutes.

Twente’s midfield was the area where Ajax looked to take advantage of. Never having played together before in this combination, their communication wasn’t always right. This screen illustrates an early match moment, leading to Ajax’ first chance, a delightful Suarez chip hitting the bar. Note the advanced position of Twente’s midfield with both central midfielders (yellow) and controller Brama (orange) in front of the ball. This is induced by de Jong (white) smartly dropping deep and it is further exploited by El Hamdaoui (near the ball) dropping deep too. The central area opened up for Suarez, who takes advantage and almost scores the opening goal.

Twente’s opening goal and a quick equalizer

Shortly after Suarez’ chip, it was Twente’s man-on-fire Theo Janssen who put ‘the Tukkers’ ahead. His clever run was not picked up by Enoh in a situation where Ajax’ defensive line was happy enough to play two Twente forwards offside who didn’t participate in that particular attack. Only ten minutes gone and yet another goal against the Ajax defense.

Ajax’ equalizer came within a few minutes. And again, El Hamdaoui dropping from the striker role was an essential part of it. Central defender Wisgerhof was drawn away from central defense, Siem de Jong used his aerial strength to win a header in front of Twente’s goal and El Hamdaoui arrived just in time to tap in a free rebound.

 

Levelling play

Ajax kept the initiative due to their intense pressing on the ball. Twente had a rough time passing the ball out of their own half and Ajax’ risky offside trap didn’t misfire a second time. In this phase Ajax hit the woodwork for a second time as, again, El Hamdaoui vacated Twente’s box, making room for an excellent individual effort by Suarez, crossing the ball for Emanuelson to hit the post. Nikolay Mihaylov must have contracted a pair of angels to protect his goal in the first half, as Ajax managed to hit the post from a Suarez free-kick for the third time in fifteen minutes.

As expected, Ajax could not maintain the intense level of pressure for the entire first half and both teams reached the half-time whistle with an even score. Twente’s smartly adaptated to Ajax’biggest threat by having midfielder Landzaat  pick up El Hamdaoui to prevent one of their central defenders getting dislocated.

Balanced start to the second half

The second half started where the first had ended, quite a balanced situation with both sided missing the passing accuracy to construct their attacks. Ajax set-out in quite the same style, where Twente got their full-backs more involved like they use to do so well and playing a slightly higher defensive line. To no surprise the best Twente chance came from a cross by right full-back Rosales that forced Stekelenburg to save on a  Chadli header.

A rare Ruiz header, beating Siem de Jong to the ball, set-up a second central run by Theo Janssen, who finished off a nice Luuk de Jong cross for Twente to regain the lead. But once again this lead was short-lived as Enoh scored a 30-yard volley to make it 2-2.

After that, fatigue seemed to kick in and it was merely the exciting score line that kept the game exciting. Credit to both managers for having their teams play for the win, producing an end-to-end closing fifteen minutes. The most exciting moment was when Twente succeeded in hitting the woodwork three times within just a few seconds, with a misplaced cross almost beating Stekelenburg and this same goalie only just keeping the rebound shot out, pushing it onto bar and post in an excellent, though somewhat lucky save.

In the end

Both title contenders remain unbeaten in their impressive recent streaks. After this 2-2 Twente now goes 19 Eredivisie matches unbeaten and Ajax even 25. A draw therefore not only respects the balanced performance on the pitch in this game, but also allows for these impressive runs to carry on.

Twente showed to able to perform in a 4-3-3 now too, which offers more tactical variety to manager Preud’homme. Ajax once again conceded goals, this time a consequence of the choice to deploy a high line, playing for offside. It brought them a lot of initiative when pressing their opponent, but the risk it carries couldn’t have been illustrated better than by Janssen’s penetrating runs.

Finally, El Hamdaoui’s dropping striker role deserves a mention here too. Highly effective in the first half, the more advanced defensive line in Twente’s second half saw his role much more negated later on.

All in all, an advert for the Eredivisie with both teams giving it their all, aided by an attractive score line and the suspense and moments of individual brilliance that this kind of top match deserves.

Excelsior 0 – 2 Vitesse: Half-time words of wisdom win the game for Vitesse

Seven games into the new season and not a word spent on Vitesse yet in 11tegen11. And yet, in some regards Vitesse has been one of the most dynamic teams so far. Disappointingly, however, this only held true for the off-pitch events so far. A change of ownership last August meant that Vitesse is the first, and so far only, foreign owned club in Holland. Georgian Merab Jordania took over the club, speaking of title challenges within three years and building the club into a stable force in European club football. Not the smallest of ambitions for last year’s number 14 of the Eredivisie, is it?

The Arnhem-based club saw an influx of (mainly loaned) players with the likes of Aissati (Ajax), Rajkovic and Delac (Chelsea) and Barazite (Arsenal) coming in. However, building a team is quite a different story so far and despite all this talent that Vitesse brings to the pitch now, results have so far failed to pick up. New owner Jordania, who is rumoured to be financially supported by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovitsj, only picked up his first points today.

Excelsior, a satellite club to Feyenoord and also from Rotterdam, have had a kick-start to their season. Building upon a solid 4-1-4-1 formation Excelsior already obtained an excellent return of 10 points after six matches, winning all of their three home matches of which the beating of big brother Feyenoord certainly helped building their confidence. Key factor in their ‘plan A’ system is pacy lone striker Guyon Fernandez. Plan B is formed by strong target man Roland Bergkamp who sometimes alternates his midfield position with Fernandez in an attempt to confuse the opponent’s defense.

Line-ups

The starting line-ups

Today, Excelsior had to do without their top scorer Fernandez, who suffers from a two match suspension after violent behaviour in the match against AZ. So, it’s plan B today, playing big man Bergkamp upfront. Another player who deserves to be highlighted on Excelsior’s part is captain Ryan Koolwijk. After only making his debut as a professional football players at the age of 22, the tall and skilled mifielder has grown within three years to Excelsior’s captain and deep-lying playmaker. His influential role on their game is not to be underestimated.

Vitesse tends to line up in a rather regular 4-3-3 formation, although off-pitch developments have not allowed manager Theo Bos to build a team and frequent adaptations to the preferred eleven have been seen. Against Excelsior no less than five players featured in the first eleven who were not part of the pre-season squad, before the Georgian takeover.

Intense Excelsior pressure for fifteen minutes

The match surprisingly started out with intense pressure from the home team. Excelsior pressed Vitesse all over the pitch, not allowing them any space to pass the ball. Aided by having a pitch of the minimum required dimensions, they succeeded in limiting space to the extreme. A telling example of this phase was the fact that their biggest scoring chance arose from their right-back missing a left-back cross close to Vitesse’s goal. However, most teams cannot play this type of pressure game for longer period of time and after 15 minutes Excelsior took a deeper stance, taking up their more familiar 4-1-4-1 shape.

In consequence, possession fell to Vitesse, dominating in this area with 66% during the first half. This was not to say that Excelsior lost their grip on the game, since their game of limiting space to the extreme was played very well by the low-budget home team. Vitesse did not force a single chance, but on the other hand, missing the raw pace of striker Fernandez, Excelsior didn’t create their usual chances from quick breaks. The only exception was formed by a beautiful chip into the penalty area from captain Koolwijk, leading to a situation where left winger Vincken was pulled to the ground. Excelsior should have had a penalty there, but as so often happens, it was a lot easier to spot from a close-up camera shot than from the referee’s point of view.

Half-time changes for Vitesse

Some matches are made to illustrate the importance of a half-time managerial talk and this one can definitely be viewed in that regard. Vitesse manager Bos changed things around, subbing off the disappointing Nilsson and Pluim and introducing the experience of Dejan Stefanovic and the technical skills and pace of Julian Jenner.

Both players set out for an energetic return from the dressing room, as can be said for the entire Vitesse team in the second half. Playing higher up the pitch, inducing more pressure on Excelsior’s midfield, they forced more passing mistakes and looked to capitalize on the subsequent interceptions.

The deserved turn-around

 

The difference between Vitesse’s first and second half couldn’t have been illustrated better than by Dejan Stefanovic scoring the opening goal from an energetic display of work rate, winning the ball at the edge of Excelsior’s box and taking maximum profit.

After this opening goal, Vitesse started to play like a team with self-confidence and the making of something potentially beautiful could be seen. In part aided by the fact that Excelsior had to give up more space given the 0-1 score, Vitesse’s passes connected much better now. Unlike for the English Premier League, no passing statistics are available in the Eredivisie to quantify this type of statements, so we’ll have to do with this sideline observation here.

Excelsior’s ‘plan B’ falling apart

 

As mentioned before, big target man Bergkamp forms Excelsior’s ‘plan B’ in the absence of pacy striker Fernandez to use in quick breaks. Unfortunately for manager Pastoor, his ‘plan B’ fell apart too, when Bergkamp had to leave the field injured with over half an hour to play. Lacking squad depth for a serious ‘plan C’, Excelsior only was to be applauded for trying anyway.

With the best developments from a tactical viewpoint now having passed, the best moment of football in this game was yet to come. If you’d just check out one moment of this match, make sure it’s this one. A magnificent strike from Ismail Aissati drove the ball over goalkeeper Paauwe into the Excelsior goal from 35 yards out. After this, Excelsior even forced central defender Van Steensel forward, but it was to no effect. Missing their structure from that point, the match was over by then.

In conclusion

 

Excelsior shouldn’t take too much from this game. Missing the prime focal point in attack, they were forced to a ‘plan B’ from the beginning, and with Bergkamp leaving the field injured, things started looking quite bleak. Not a surprising fact considering the small stature of the newly promoted club. Their return of ten points from seven matches still forms a solid base to achieve their goal of avoiding relegation.

Regarding Vitesse, we might just have seen the first signs of things to come. In for a turbulent season this year, expectations should best be kept inside until next year. Manager Bos seems more than capable of building a squad from all the loose pieces coming to his disposal recently. And given these mutations, it’s just too early to draw conclusions on their playing style and tactics as yet.

Willem II 2 – 4 ADO Den Haag: Willem II lacking manpower upfront and ADO producing another high-scoring game

Willem II and ADO Den Haag are amongst the teams that expected to battle against relegation this year. The ‘Tilburg Tricolores’ avoided relegation only in the play-offs of the past season after finishing in 17th place, while ADO only just avoided these play-offs by grabbing six points from the final four games of the season.

After six matches, Willem II are still pointless, conceding 20 goals in the process. This weekend’s 2 -4 home loss against ADO Den Haag was extra painful in that context, as Willem II might see ADO as a rival for the relegation places, come the end of the season.

 

 

ADO, on the other hand, find themselves on the 8th spot after six games, having produced a W2 D2 L2 start to the season, and the average number of goals in matches involving ADO is as high as 4.5. Since the start of the play-off system, where the 16th and 17th placed team enter the promotion/relegation play-offs, now seven seasons ago, the number of point needed to place at least 15th has been 27 to 34, averaging 31 points. And with 6 of 34 games (17.6%) of the games played, ADO has already acquired 8 of these 31 points (25.8%). Okay, this is never any sort of guarantee, but things are looking good in Den Haag.

Things look even better when considering ADO’s  fresh and attacking 4-3-3 formation, making excellent use of the physical abilities of striker Bulykin, who joined their campaign after three games. The strong target man is supplied by excellent crosses, especially by right winger Verhoek and receives his share of long balls in ADO’s direct style of play too. His return of three goals in as many matches proves that manager Van den Brom has installed a playing style that fits his group of players well.

 

The formations

Willem II missed three important players in Sheotahul, Hakola and Wojciechowski, much like Utrecht missing most of their first-choice attackers away at Groningen. This led manager Heerkes to a rather defensive 4-5-1 formation, packing the midfield, aiming to control possession there. They refrained from pressing ADO in their attacking half, drawing up a curtain of tricolored shirts around the halfway line. In Maceo Rigters, their new leading striker who was contracted on loan from Blackburn, featured in the lone stiker role. He left the Eredivisie in 2007 to join Norwich City in the English Championship and was transferred to Blackburn Rovers the following season, but did not score a single goal during the past three foreign years.

ADO, as mentioned before, lined-up in a 4-3-3 formation with strong target man Bulykin leading the line. His supply consisted mainly of crosses, especially from right winger Wesley Verhoek, and of long balls from defense. The midfield consisted of Toornstra and Radosavljevic in controlling roles and fans’ favourite Lex Immers looking to connect with the strikers, making more probing runs from midfield.

 

A quick goal

Ironically it was Maceo Rigters who found the net after just five minutes of play. ADO mainly used the opening minutes to play the ball around at the back, and Willem II manager Gert Heerkes was seemingly still busy organizing his midfield. Rigters seized upon the first opportunity to shoot , following a weak headed clearance by ADO, and ended his three and a half year of goal drought with a powerful effort from the edge of the area.

After this early opening goal, ADO kept searching a way past, through or around Willem II’s packed midfield. By exerting more pressure than their opponents, even as far as Willem II’s central defenders, ADO succeeded in dominating possession, but mainly in their own half where Willem II sat back. The best chance in this phase fell to Willem II, forcing Coutinho to block a close header from an indirect free kick.

 

ADO finding a way back into the game

After about twenty minutes, ADO succeeded in imposing their game plan on Willem II. Taking advantage of the lack of pressure on the full-backs, they successfully circulated the ball to their wingers, leading to a series of crosses and therefore. The lack of an outlet on the wings meant that Willem II’s possession spells became shorter and shorter, leading to an ADO-dominated phase shortly before half-time. In the end it was through a deflected long range effort by midfielder Radosavljevic that ADO got the deserved equalizer.

The remaining minutes before the half-time break saw an insecure Willem II clearly affected by the disappointing equalizer. Defensive midfielders Van der Heijden and Landgren took a very defensive stance, almost changing their 4-5-1 into a 6-3-1-like defensive fort. ADO’s bombardment, however did not produce a second goal and manager Heerkes and his Tricolores safely reached the dressing room, just in time for some much-needed tactical changes.

 

The second half

And indeed, Willem II started the second half with more pressing, now drawing the line about ten meters over the halfway line. But, still having a lack of outlet on the wings, the possession that they now won more often was only short-lived. And to add to their misery, a 49th minute series of comical defending allowed Frantisek Kubik a free shot on goal to score his third goal of the season.

But Willem II did not leave it at that. Another moment of irony saw Willem II scoring from practically their first cross into the box, after ADO bombarded their area with crosses in the first half. The highlight of this goal was certainly the technically skillful cross by Jan-Arie van der Heijden that found the head of captain Levchenko who scored the 2-2, just minutes after Kubik put ADO in front. A glaring marking error where two ADO defenders marked the same player after a textbook cross of runs by two Willem II players did not help either.

Strengthend by this equalizer, Willem II took matters more in their own hands now. Their midfield played much further up the pitch, using Van der Heijden’s passing skill and Levchenko’s experience to dominate ADO, simply outnumbering their midfied 5 v 3. To be fair Willem II lacked a bit of luck when, again, Van der Heijden hit the bar with a long range effort, which took a deflection on its way in. After having been used as a central defender in the opening matches of the season, it’s these type of efforts that highlight why Heerkes should definitely play him in midfield as he does now.

 

Dimitry Bulykin indicating to his team-mates how he likes to receive the ball

 

ADO wins in the end

The 70th minute mark is probably where fatigue kicked in as Willem II’s midfield fell back a little and ADO lacked passing accuracy. It was ADO scoring the winner in the 79th minute after hesitant defending and slightly sloppy marking allowed Verhoek to cross the ball for Kubik to score his second goal of the evening.

After this, the match was practically over. Willem II lacked all sorts of attacking options on the bench and ADO survived up to the final whistle, even scoring a fourth goal in the process. Bulykin got his deserved goal in injury time, settling the score at 2-4, another high scoring ADO game.

 

Only  28 matches left

With six games gone, Willem II manager Heerkes is left empty-handed. Against ADO, his defensive 4-5-1, partly forced by his injury-plague, lacked both pressure and an outlet on the wings. On a more positive note, the appearance of Jan-Arie van der Heijden in a passing role on their midfield might offer something to build on.

Once the injured players return, a form of 4-3-3 seems the most logical way forward for Heerkes and his men, positioning Levchenko in front of defense, Van der Heijden as playmaker in midfield and having Lasnik link up with solo striker Rigters. As the latter is neither known for his goal-scoring ability, nor for his pace, Willem II should definitely try to connect their attacking midfielders and their wingers with their new acquisition upfront. A slight withdrawal of the wingers turns this formation into a 4-1-4-1, offering more stability for away matches and in defending a much desired lead.

ADO, as mentioned above, are well on course to their target of staying clear of this year’s relegation places. New manager Van den Brom quickly found a suitable formation and playing style in a direct 4-3-3 which will bring them a nice season if the first six matches are anything to go by.

Feyenoord 1 – 2 Ajax: A disappointing Classic and signs of an unwanted trend in the Eredivisie

Feyenoord and Ajax contested each other in the 164th edition of ‘The Classic’ today. Regardless of actual rankings and present from, this Classic encounter remains one of the high-points of the year for both teams. The fierce rivalry between these clubs tends to bring out the best of games on the pitch ,but unfortunately also the worst of ‘supporters’ behaviour outside of it. In an effort to control this violence, until 2014 the Eredivisie matches between Ajax and Feyenoord are to be played without any attending away fans, taking away much of the stadium atmosphere.

Feyenoord enters this years’ Classic on the back of a 2-1-2 start to the season, leading to a ninth place at present. The debt-ridden club should prepare for a few years of the gray mid-table football, according to their outspoken director Leo Beenhakker. He continued this recent interview by stating that he considers himself to be a realist in predicting a mid-table role for his clubs in the next years. In spite of these concerning statements, manager Mario Been tried to raise confidence in his squad by stressing their home advantage and pointing at Ajax’ recent tough game at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.

And indeed, Ajax enters this season’s first Classic after a degrading 0-2 defeat by Madrid, where they played a tactically naive variant, vacating their right wing, thereby allowing Madrid to dominate the game completely. On the other hand, the performances of goalkeeper Stekelenburg, winning a place in UEFA CL Team of the Week in the meantime, and the return of Suarez and Vertonghen might install some confidence again.

The starting line-ups

Feyenoord manager Mario Been decided to punish right winger Ruben Schaken for allowing NAC right-back  the freedom to score a late opening goal in their lost match against NAC Breda last week. Schaken was replaced by Fedor Smolov. Futhermore, young defender Leerdam was preferred in defensive midfield over the more experienced El Ahmadi. Feyenoord’s formation was still best characterised as a 4-3-3 with Leerdam playing very close to his defense, giving Feyenoord a 5-2-3 look at times.

Ajax manager Jol also dropped one of his regular starting players. Defendive midfielder and stand-in captain Demi de Zeeuw was punished for both his positional indiscipline during the CL match against Real Madrid and for his verbal indiscipline right after that match, stating his opinion on his substitution in that match. Again, Sulejmani featured on the wing for Ajax, his preferred left one this time, meaning that Emanuelson started on the bench.

The opening phase of the match was characterised by a lack of structure. Both teams started preferred constant positional switching of their front line, but these switches were so frequent that their build-up had a difficult time finding the right players. Feyenoord’s 5-2-3 lookout forced them into quite a few long balls in this initial phase of the game, where young striker Castaignos consequently lost in the air against either Vertonghen or Alderweireld.

Ajax, meanwhile, did not succeed in connecting with their forward three, lacking width and making their build-up all too transparent for Feyenoord’s defense. It was no surprise that it took until the 16th minute to see a shot on target, neither was it a surprise that this chance came from an inside dribble from Suarez.

With both teams having a hard time controlling even their own build-up, the only danger was found in quick breaks after opposition errors, but given the rather high defensive line of both teams and the lack of true pace upfront, no real goal-scoring chances were created. Perhaps the best chance was seen when Smolov seemingly put Feyenoord 1-0 up, but he was correctly ruled offside.

Ajax brought some more width to the game around the 30-minute mark, when Sulejmani started to stick to the left side more, and their positional rotation was limited to Suarez and El Hamdaoui only. In addition to this change, also their defensive line took a deeper stance, offering a longer pitch and allowing more space for the four-band philosophy of the 4-2-3-1. Defensive midfielders Enoh and Lindgren, who as expected operated deeper than de Zeeuw usually does, started seeing more of the ball and found an easy outlet in left winger Sulejmani.

In line with the lack of beauty in this game, the opening goal was a result of a mishit clearance by de Vrij after an Ajax free kick. The ball fell to de Jong, who had escaped Fer’s marking with a clever move, and his header put Ajax up 1-0.

Shortly hereafter, Feyenoord suffered a second blow by losing captain Vlaar due to injury. Right-back Stefan de Vrij was transferred to the centre and Leerdam to right-back. El Ahmadi entered in a defensive midfield role, and with Feyenoord forced to search for a goal, gradually developed into a box-to-box role as the match developed.

At half-time a second Feyenoord substitution was added. Pacy wing dribbler Schaken replaced Smolov, who expectedly disappointed in his out-of-position right wing role. As a result, also Feyenoord abolished their positional switches, lending more structure to their game.

In spite of these changes, it was Ajax who took the immediate initiative after half-time, and they did so by introducing the old principle of pressure. Feyenoord, thinking forward, seemed surprised and could not cope with this. The result was a series of chances both with El Hamdaoui and Suarez hitting the post, but also with El Hamdaoui scoring the 56th minute 0-2 from a beautiful Suarez through-ball.

The match seemed practically over now until Bahia scored the connecting 1-2 from a corner ). This goal, however, fits into the rather unwelcome modern trend to have another player deliberately obstruct the goalkeeper during a set piece. Diouf’s obstruction against Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer, allowing Blackburn’s Dempsey to equalize in this Premier League match yesterday was discussed quite boldly by Alan Shearer on BBC’s Match of the Day yesterday and one can only hope that these public voices contribute to the quick end of this unwanted trend.

The final ten minutes saw Ajax switching to survival tactics, aiming for possession only to play down time and aiming to obstruct Feyenoord’s play whatever way possible. However, this did not result in more than a few yellow cards for Ajax and the match ended with a 1-2 score.

Should you not have known that Ajax and Feyenoord are two high-profiled teams, in Holland at least, you would not have guessed on the basis of today’s performance. The lack of width and the abundance of positional switches from both sides made for a disappointing match. In the end, Ajax ran out deserved winners, mainly based on the final fifteen minutes before and the first fifteen minutes after half-time.

PSV 1 – 1 Sampdoria: A misfitting 4-2-3-1 does not beat a defensive diamond

For the first time  in 18 years, PSV has to settle for Europa League (former UEFA Cup) football for two consecutive seasons. And despite 12 Champions League participations in these 18 years, they’ve only passed the group stage three times, with a Hiddink-managed side reaching the semi-finals of 2004/05 as their best result.

Today PSV kicks off their Europa League campaign against Sampdoria, that was only just knocked out of the Champions League qualifications by Werder Bremen. With Hungarian side Debreceni and Ukrainian Metalist Charkov completing their group, PSV and Sampdoria are expected to battle for the group victory, providing an extra edge to this opening match.

PSV’s 4-2-3-1

PSV, like their title rivals Ajax, consequently line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Their back line is fairly consistent with new signing Marcelo and Mexican international ‘Maza’ Rodriguez forming the centre-back couple. Howver, the latter is suspended for the Sampdoria game after receiving a red card in the EL qualification match at Novosibirsk and is replaced by veteran defender Wilfred Bouma who was contracted on a free after being released by Aston Villa.

PSV’s wing attackers play a fairly wide role compared to a lot of 4-2-3-1 teams featuring inside wingers. Balasz Dszudszak on the left and Jeremain Lens on the right are true wing players, both being capable of passing their defender for an out-swinging cross or turning inside for a shot on goal. Especially two-footed Dszudszak is renowned for his goal-scoring ability from the wing.

The starting line-ups

In turn, PSV’s full-backs are not provided with an empty wing to run into, looking for overlap, like we so often see in inverted wingers based 4-2-3-1  formations. In this match, first choice right-back Manolev is suffering from a groin injury and is replaced by Atiba Hutchinson who is capable of performing full-back as well as defensive midfield duties.

Last season saw Ola Toivonen being deployed in the striker position where he could pose an aerial threat to connect with the wing crosses. This year he’s deployed as the in-the-hole man behind striker Marcus Berg, contracted on a season-long from HSV. Toivonen seems to flourish in this new role, using his off-the-ball skills to maximum effect, scoring seven goals in six matches in the process.

A final mention goes to the defensive midfield players, where Orlando Engelaar teams up with the ambitious Ibrahim Afellay. The latter strongly expressed his desire to leave PSV (“… but only for a top team!”) and refrained from playing in the EL qualifiers for that reason. However, no suitable offers came in and Afellay joins PSV for another season. After initially being deployed behind striker Toivonen he is now regularly used as a box-to-box holding midfielder besides natural passer Engelaar.

Sampdoria’s 4-4-2

Opponents Sampdoria are renowned for being a 4-4-2 team, the more and more ‘endangered species’ of modern football formations. Last year, however, manager Luigi Delneri managed to finish fourth in the serie A with this 4-4-2 line-up, often showing bombarbing wing players who connected with strong striker Giampaolo Pazzini for him to score 19 serie A goals last season. This even led national manager Cesare Prandelli to select both Sampdoria forwards Cassano and Pazzini for Italy’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Estonia. Another 4-4-2 diamond success story has been Roda JC breaking down champions Twente for a 0-0 home draw early this season.

Delneri left for Juventus to continue his 4-4-2 philosophy there and Domenico di Carlo, who had enjoyed a successful two-year spell at Chievo Verona was brought to Sampdoria the continue the 4-4-2 success story. He made some adaptations to Delneri’s line-up though. The midfield was slightly altered and features a four-man diamond now, as illustrated in the screen below, providing better cover against four-band formations (like 4-2-3-1).

Sampdoria’s narrow 4-4-2 diamond. Don’t mistake the ref for a yellow dot though…

Pazzini did not play against PSV due to a back injury and was replaced by 21-year old Marilunga. This substitution had immediate consequences for Sampdoria’s style of play. Instead of deploying wide running midfielder, looking to swing crosses in for Pazzini, their midfield now consisted of a very narrow diamond, cropping space in front of their four-man defense.

A costly defending error

That being said, let’s turn our attention to how the match developed. Sampdoria’s line-up could virtually be broken down in two parts. There’s the defending line of the back four with the narrow midfield in front of them. And there’s Cassano roaming around and slightly to the left of fellow striker Marilunga. Sampdoria’s midfield successfully dedicated the majority of their efforts to frustrating PSV’s midfield play. Upon possession, the Italians quickly passed the ball to Cassano, hoping for some brilliance that he has already frequently brought this season. Given their deep defense Sampdoria was not ashamed to use the long ball forward.

PSV had a lot of trouble breaking Sampdoria’s deep defense down. Dszudszak consequently faced two or even three defenders in his beloved left wing dribbles and apart from a few long range shots did not succeed in creating danger. With Marcus Berg not offering the aerial presence of Toivonen in that same position last year, Dszudszak’s crosses seem less efficient. Even more dramatically, a communication error between striker Berg and defender Marcelo left Cacciatore unmarked after an half-cleared corner and the Sampdoria right-back scored rather easily.

This error proved costly to PSV as it allowed Sampdoria to withdraw even further, letting their formation break into a defending unit of eight with a separate pair of roaming strikers. PSV did not succeed to play around this defending unit. One of the man factors why PSV did not succeed may be the role of Marcus Berg.

Marcus Berg and PSV’s 4-2-3-1: not a happy couple

The Swedish striker was brought into the club based on his successes at FC Groningen, where he scored 41 goals in 64 matches. His move to HSV was not quite a success and PSV snapped him up for a year-long loan. Important to note is that Berg obtained these impressive figures by excelling in a 4-4-2 system at the time. His goals are predominantly  scored with ground strikes. His role in PSV’s 4-2-3-1 system is quite a different one. He’s mainly to receive aerial crosses from wingers Lens and Dszudszak and the match against Sampdoria was no exception. Last week’s match against NEC illustrated the same problem, where manager Rutten subbed Berg of during half-time for PSV to overcome a 0-1 half=time score by scoring three second half goals with the aerial presence of Koevermans in their side.

The second half

At half time PSV manager Rutten refrained from major changes. If anything, Afellay was positioned slightly higher up the pitch, where Sampdoria’s narrow diamond provided enough bodies to limit space here. PSV did fire quite a few long-range shots, but consequently found goalkeeper Curci on their path.

It took until the 75th minute for Rutten to make the desired change, subbing Koevermans on for Berg.  But by then Sampdoria had completely parked the bus to see out the remainder of the match, hoping to hold on to their 0-1 lead.

The final minutes

In the end Dszudszak scored a well-deserved equalizer from the standpoint of those appreciating PSV’s continuous hard labour in this difficult game. Or a sore late goal conceded by Sampdoria for those appreciating the art of defending and appreciating the well-organised eight-men Italian defense. A matter of taste…

PSV’s impressive pass completion rate of 87.7% illustrated both the deep defensive stance of Sampdoria, refraining from any sorts of early pressure, and it illustrated that PSV’s shortcomings are mainly to be sought in the final attacking pass, connecting well with the presumed misfit of Marcus Berg and PSV’s style of 4-2-3-1 wing play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Groningen’s new manager

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

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

Groningen manager Pieter Huistra

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

 

The line-ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The first half

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

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

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

 

The second half

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

Andreas Granqvist converting the late penalty

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

 

In conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Finish self-fulfilling prophecy

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

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

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

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

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

The Finish ‘plan B’

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

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

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

Half time changes

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

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

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

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

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

Holland in fine display against small San Marino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first half

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

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

The second half

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

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

The conclusion

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

AZ 1-1 Excelsior: how to execute a 4-1-4-1…

It’s only slightly over a year ago that Dirk Scheringa’s AZ broke the 27-year span in which either Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord won the Eredivisie title. However, things look rather different for AZ at present. The worldwide financial problems induced the bankruptcy of Scheringa’s DSB Bank, AZ’s main sponsor since 1993 and the driving force behind their success, culminating in the Eredivisie title of 2008/09.

With the DSB Bank and owner Scheringa now gone, AZ tries to rebuild its foundations. The club was forced to cut their budget from 40 to 25 million euro’s, necessitating the sale of influential players like El Hamdaoui (Ajax), Dembélé (Fulham) and Jeremain Lens (PSV) and the projected sale of Argentine World Cup keeper Romero and striker Graziano Pellè.

With so many players gone, new manager Gertjan Verbeek faces a difficult task. AZ supporters wish to relive the dream of the 2008/09 season, yet to see their team ranked 14th after a 0-3-1 series (three draws and a loss, that is). While Verbeek deserves to be pleased for his hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system, football is still very much a result game and the pressure is on.

In contrast to AZ, their opponents Excelsior, newly promoted after a dramatic promotion play-off match against city rivals Sparta, find themselves in the 8th position after a 2-1-1 series. Much of the credit for this initial success should go to their execution of the 4-1-4-1 system.

This system is definitely the small team’s answer to the big team’s 4-2-3-1. As an example we’ve recently seen Ajax forced to make major in-game adjustments to their 4-2-3-1 to work their way around PAOK’s 4-1-4-1.

Starting line-ups: AZ’s 4-3-3 vs Excelsior’s 4-1-4-1

So, AZ’s hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formation was up against Excelsior’s neat 4-1-4-1 in a wet and windy Alkmaar. In the pouring rain of the first fifteen minutes, Excelsior kept their two banks of four close together, defending rather deep and having captain and controlling midfielder Koolwijk cleaning up where necessary.

Excelsior withdrew on their half of the pitch, with striker Fernandez and, during that period of the match, midfielder Bergkamp waiting to pressure AZ as soon as they crossed the halfway line. AZ’s manager Verbeek, never afraid to throw his men forward, had sent his team out in their by now familiair 3-4-3 when in possession.

However, AZ lacked passing accuracy in midfield with captain Schaars still looking to regain his fitness and technically skilled Martens not having his best game. Combined with their line-up where usually four or five men are in front of the ball, this inaccuracy meant that they could not convert their 70% possession into clear goal scoring chances. Furthermore, their lack of attacking width allowed Excelsior to get away with their narrow defensive system.

Excelsior had started out with pacey striker Guyon Fernandez in the lone striker role, having him chase long balls from their withdrawn midfield. However, halfway during the first half Fernandez switched roles with Roland Bergkamp, who offers more of a physical presence and played the role of an aerial target man. This provided Excelsior with a clear aiming point of their quick outbreaks, resulting in long spells of AZ domination, but with Excelsior having their fair share of chances.

These outbreaks were also the reason that Excelsior’s two bands of four got a bit stretched and AZ was looking to profit from this space, with Martens cleverly taking up his position between the lines. Another thing to note here is that Erik Falkenburg, playing the striker role since the beginning of the season, is in fact an attacking midfielder. In the absence the transferred El Hamdaoui and Dembéle, and with young Brazilian Jonathas still looking for full fitness, Falkenburg temporarily fills this space.

The match was of course clearly influenced by AZ-keeper Didulica’s first half error, passing the ball straight into right midfielder Tim Vincken’s feet, for him to find striker Fernandez who skillfully placed the ball in the back of the net. Backed by this 0-1 lead, Excelsior withdrew in their 4-1-4-1 fortress and AZ, lacking confidence, was unable to increase their pass completion and, apart from a Falkenburg header hitting the post after a glaring marking error in Excelsior’s defense, was unable to find their way through.

Guyon Fernandez scores the opening goal

Verbeek threw on two new players during half time. Striker Jonathas and holding midfielder Elm took the place of invisible winger Gudmondson and the disappointing Wernbloom. The meant that AZ had effectively converted their line-up to the fashionable 4-2-3-1, albeit with passing midfielder Schaars in a quite advanced position.

With so many men thrown forward and the difference in individual player skills between the teams, it was inevitable that Excelsior suffered more pressure than before half time. Manager Pastoor cleverly switched controlling midfielder Clasie and Koolwijk, in order for the latter to exert his excellent passing skills from a slightly more advanced position, looking to play striker Fernandez, who was switched back with Bergkamp, into space. And it was a gem of a Koolwijk pass that gave Fernandez a one-on-one chance in front of Didulica. Had he converted that one, the match would have been done, but he missed the chance this time.

The final twenty minutes saw AZ playing in a formal three men defense, throwing their men forward in a 3-2-3-2-ish shape, with both Jonathas and Falkenburg a central striker role. With so many bodies present, chances started coming and it was another sub, Kolbein Sigthorsson, who scored from a deflected shot after Jonathas won an important attacking header for the team.

The closing minutes consisted of AZ overloading Excelsior’s defense, with Excelsior mainly looking to frustrate their opponents, successfully aiming to hold on to the 1-1 score line.

In the end, Excelsior manager Pastoor can be proud of a neatly executed 4-1-4-1, in turns making use of pacy striker Fernandez and physically strong target man Bergkamp. AZ, meanwhile, will be a different team once captain Schaars and striker Jonathas find their full fitness back. However, it remains to be seen if their lack of squad depth in attack will jeopardize their combined European and national ambitions.