Tag Archives: Match analysis

Ajax 2-1 Kiev: midfield changes win the game for Ajax

Ajax beat Kiev 2-1 to advance to the group stages of the Champions League. In a match that, in the end, brought both relief and confidence, Ajax’ common 4-2-3-1 had a tough time against Kiev’s defensive  4-4-2. Jol’s essential midfield adjustments turned the game around, and in a climatic closing ten minutes, Ajax managed to get away with a 2-1 victory.

Last week saw Ajax hold out in Kiev for a 1-1 draw. In that match, Ajax opted to transform their familiar 4-2-3-1 in a lop-sided 4-4-2 formation with left winger Emanuelson playing deep from midfield and right winger Suarez roaming free around central striker El Hamdaoui. Kiev then played their familiar 4-4-2 system where, in the absence of striker Milevski, the second striker role was given to Yarmolenko, coming from the right. Once Ajax succeeded in making penetrating runs through central midfielders de Zeeuw and de Jong, they started creating danger, ending up with a 1-1 score in a match where the 56th minute sending off of Gamash didn’t hurt Ajax either.

Starting line-ups

This time around, despite the fact that the Ukrainian side had to score at least once to progress, Ajax clearly expected Kiev to sit rather deep, looking to create breaks through the individual quality of strikers Shevchenko and, back from injury, Milevski. However, just like in the first leg, Kiev played a quite high defensive line, taking advantage from the lack of pace in Ajax’ attack . And in their defensive 4-4-2 formation, central midfielders Eremenko and Vukojevic played close to the central defenders, effectively limiting the space in Ajax’ beloved central attacking zone.

As said, Ajax’ familiar formation is a 4-2-3-1 with Enoh providing a destroyer role, de Zeeuw a deep passer role and de Jong playing an advanced creator role, using his off-the-ball skills in creating space for himself and his team mates. On the right side, Suarez likes to drift inside, sometimes ending up in a free drifting role, allowing wing back van der Wiel to make his runs on the right flank. The left flank, figuring either Emanuelson, Eriksen or Sulejmani, is intended to provide width, increasing the fashionable space between the opponents right full back and centre back for de Jong and de Zeeuw to run into.

However, against the defensive 4-4-2 that Kiev fielded, Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 did not shine. On one hand, de Zeeuw and Enoh missed an attacking midfielder to aim their defensive game at. On the other hand, de Jong in attacking midfield and Suarez, drifting in from the right, ran into a forest of Kiev defenders with defending midfielders Eremenko and Vukojevic playing close to their defense.

This was very much the problem that Ajax faced during the first half hour of the game. Directly from the kickoff, Ajax had a very low pass completion rate with virtually no ground passes reaching a forward player. Young Danish winger Eriksen had a tough time even in keeping possession and ended up giving the ball away in dangerous areas, thereby providing Kiev exactly the break-out opportunities that they were looking for. This was certainly, in part, due to his inexperience, but the lack of passing opportunities didn’t help him either.

Another defensive weakness was the absence of left back Vurnon Anita. Who’d have thought that sentence would ever fit a review of Ajax when manager Marco van Basten started to convert the fragile midfielder to the left back position? But Anita’s defensive qualities could not have been illustrated better than by playing Emanuelson at left back. He regularly lost control over the smart positioning of Kiev right winger Gusev and Kiev had at least three excellent goal scoring opportunities in the first half hour. Stekelenburg’s outstanding shot-stopping qualities kept Ajax alive in this phase.

While the left back personal problems could not easily be solved during the match, the midfield imbalance could. Nearing the end of the first half, Ajax clearly started playing in four bands (4-2-3-1) instead of three (4-3-3), by increasing the distance between creator de Jong and destroyer Enoh. Passer de Zeeuw was immediately provided with more space and clear back- and forward passing options.

And it was during this phase, a few minutes before half time that Ajax opened the score through a powerful Vertonghen free kick which reminded of his recent effort in the home match against Vitesse. Although the Vitesse free kick was from further out, the pattern of El Hamdaoui and Suarez aiming for the rebound is very similar. This time Kiev keeper Koval, a highly talented 17-year old pushed the ball away, but it was converted in the rebound by Suarez, who illustrated his two-footedness with a tight angle left foot finish.

After half time, the previously described changes to Ajax’ midfield were even more clear. Destroyer Enoh now played a very conservative role close to central defense, which seems much more adept to Kiev’s 4-4-2. If there’s no attacking midfielder or dropping-deep striker to pick up, then why field two controlling defensive midfielders? Passer de Zeeuw was advanced more and more, occupying positions allowing him to reach creator de Jong with ground passes and in the meantime providing a way out for left winger Eriksen, who consequently had a much better game after half time.

Defending midfielders Eremenko and Vukojevic were now confronted with both de Jong and de Zeeuw, and were consequently less able to provide double cover for Suarez’ technical dribbling skills. On the left wing, Jol tried to exploit this situation by bringing Sulejmani for Eriksen, introducing more pace and a natural wide player. Ajax’ second goal was a direct result of this change. Sulejmani’s pace propelled him past right back Silva and his cross was simply tapped in by El Hamdaoui.

Things got tight in the end as Kiev was awarded a harsh penalty, allowing Shevchenko to score a late 2-1. Ajax even introduced the 36-year old André Ooijer to assist in central defense, and succeeded in securing what was proclaimed as “the most important match of the season”. While this may seem true from a financial point of view, the fact that this same comment was released prior to the clash with PAOK makes it all the more likely that there are more ‘most important matches of the season’ yet to come.

In the end we may praise Jol for his tactical adjustments, shifting de Zeeuw into more advanced positions, adjusting for the shortcomings against a defensive 4-4-2. Or we may criticize him for starting out with two defensive midfielders against a formation with no attacking midfielder. Well, whether the glass is half full or half empty, Ajax joins FC Twente in the draw for the Champions League group stages and that is a good thing for Dutch Football.

AZ – Aktobe 2-0, the second half struggle explained

We’ve seen a lot of European Football action this week. No less than six Dutch teams may reach the group stages of either the Champions League or the Europa League this year. Things, however, don’t look too good for Utrecht, having lost 2-0 away at Celtic and also PSV have some repair work to do after a clumsy 1-0 defeat at far far Siberia.

Better results were obtained by Feyenoord, in their 1-0 home win against KAA Gent and Ajax, drawing 1-1 in Kiev, as reviewed earlier on 11tegen11. Former national champions AZ seemed rather fortunate in the draw for the Europa League play-off round, having to battle it out with Kazakh champions Aktobe. And easy it was, at least in the first half, AZ eased to a comfortable 2-0 half time scoreline. Things, however, turned out to be rather different in the second half. And after a scoreless second half, AZ will have to do with 2-0 at home, still a result that sees 89% of teams qualify for the next round of European Football.

AZ’s hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3

AZ started out in their familiar formation, as previously described in their match-up with NAC. Their backline of four only really exists when under pressure, as they play a form of hybrid three-at-the-back with always one of their full backs venturing forward down the flank, depending on which side of the pitch their attacking play is concentrated. The remaining three then spread out to a three-at-the-back, with the central defender playing a little deeper than both wide defenders. So in formational terms it is a 4-3-3 in defense, shifting to a 3-4-3 in offense.

During an attacking move on the left side of the pitch this means that Klavan occupies a left sided midfielder role, with a back three consisting of Moreno – Moisander – Marcellis. The midfield diamond of the 3-4-3 would then consist of Schaars at the base, Klavan and Wernbloom on the left and right and Martens moving to the central attacking midfielder role.

During a move on the right side Marcellis occupies a right sided midfield role, with a back three consisting of Klavan – Moreno – Moisander. The midfield diamond then consists of Schaars at the base, Martens and Marcellis left and right and Wernbloom moving to the central attacking midfielder role. So, both defense and midfield shift according to which side of the pitch is most involved in the attack.

Of further note was the return of Stijn Schaars, who was rested after his World Cup trip to South Africa. The AZ captain is an important asset to his team, connecting their defense and midfield in a central deep midfield role, generally seeing a lot of the ball and offering a physical presence too.

Kazakh defending

Aktobe, meanwhile, was forced into major changes compared to their usual line-up. No less than seven first team regular were unavailable due to either injuries of suspensions. In the third qualifying round of the Champions League Aktobe was eliminated by Hapoel Tel Aviv, losing 3-1 away and ending up just one goal short in a 1-0 home win. Quite a narrow escape for en established team such as Hapoel is.

Aktobe lined up in what was essentially a 5-4-1 formation with both wide midfielders aiming to support lone striker Essomba. Although Aktobe was clearly aiming for defensive control by installing an extra central defender, the result was exactly the opposite. AZ’s wide attackers often drifted central, creating acres of space on the wings for full backs Klavan and Marcellis to run into. And this resulted in three central Aktobe defenders versus three rather central AZ attackers, with AZ’s full backs having a go at their Aktobe counterparts.

Aktobe’s first half 5-4-1 formation

Meanwhile, Aktobe’s defensive line was rather deep, making it difficult, if not impossible, for their central midfielders to put any form of pressure on AZ’s influential defensive midfielder Schaars, who excelled in the first half, seeing himself involved in virtually every play that AZ created. The 3v2 effect in the central midfield gave AZ total control over the game and it was by no means surprising to see them taking a comfortable 2-0 half time lead.

Half time changes

Things, however, were quite different upon the second half. Aktobe put up much more of a resistance due to a simple, but very effective formation change. The Kazakhs must have realized that this 3v2 situation on the central part of the pitch was not the way to go forward and switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation that has become so common these days. This 4-2-3-1 offered Aktobe the clear advantage of matching up AZ’s midfield. Another advantage for them was the defensive role that the attacking midfielder played, frustrating Schaars’ play that was so uncomplicated during the first half.

Aktobe’s second half 4-2-3-1 formation

The midfield space that AZ used so efficiently in the first half was gone and Aktobe succeeded in limiting AZ to just a few chances created by individual efforts. Especially left winger Gudmondson, only 19 years old, succeeded in skinning his man more than one, thereby creating a few chances.

In the end

The playground of the first half was gone and AZ did not succeed in scoring a third goal and must still be on their guard during the return match, next week. Aktobe will regret starting out with their 5-4-1 but will be back with a 4-2-3-1 next week, seeing the return of over half of their regular first team players. After all, remember that Aktobe succeeded in beating Hapoel 1-0…

Ajax getting close to the Champions League…

Match highlights to be found here.

For the first time in six years, former Champions League winner Ajax might just be competing in the lucrative group stage of the centre of European Football. The winners of 1995 had to deal with Ukrainian Dinamo Kiev, who, in contrast to Ajax, competed in these group stage in all of the past four years.

Only hours before the kick-off in Kiev, Ajax’ financial director Jeroen Slop proclaimed that the club “will sell some players in the event of being knocked out of the competition at this stage”. This remarkable statement, contrasting with previous statements saying that Europa League participation was what Ajax’ budget was based on, was immediately corrected by general director Rik van den Boog, stating that the 13 million euro’s that Champions League participation would generate would be “a welcome addition”.

Well, if not for the finances, it would be about time for the club to obtain the highest level of European Football for the fans, having missed out for five years on a row at this stage.

Ajax did not start out with the 4-2-3-1 formation that we’re so familiar with. We’re used to seeing Eyong Enoh, who returned from injury, in a destroyer role beside a passing de Zeeuw. This time however, Enoh occupied a central controlling role, spraying short passes around, completing 27 of his 29 passes . In front of him, Demi de Zeeuw and Siem de Jong, in a rather deep right sided central midfield role, completed the midfield triangle.This meant no clear player in-the-hole for Ajax, a role usually performed by de Jong.

The front three consisted of Emanuelson, who played a deeper left midfield role as the match progressed, and the two true front men Suarez and El Hamdaoui who showed an excellent level of understanding, despite having never played together before, by frequently alternating on the inside right forward and striker positions.

As the match progressed, Ajax’ formation transformed into a lop-sided 4-4-2 with no designated right midfielder, where de Zeeuw and de Jong alternated in picking up left back Goran Popov’s runs. This lop-sided formation provided a lot of space on the left wing, allowing Suarez to frequently drift out here with El Hamdaoui approaching something of a second striker role. This, in turn, opened up space for Ajax to make good use of Gregory van der Wiel’s attacking qualities, using him as a right flank player, more than just a right ful back. This was even more true after Gamash’ 56th minute exclusion. Note the difference in distance covered between Ajax’ left and right full back: 6,5k by Anita and over 10k by Van der Wiel.

Dinamo Kiev started out in a formation that seems best described as a 4-1-4-1, with Eremenko occupying a central controlling role and Yarmolenko playing a deep left sided attacking role. However, as the match progressed, a 4-4-2 seemed more accurate, with Yarmolenko playing off striker Shevchenko.

Kiev opted for a rather high defensive line, looking to put Ajax’ defense under pressure upon possession and succeeded in disrupting their opponents play at least during the first quarter of the match. Particularly industrious midfielder Vukojevic frequently chased the ball, even as far as to keeper Stekelenburg.

Meanwhile, Dinamo Kiev were looking to profit from small errors in Ajax’ unsure defense, where especially Oleguer, surprisingly preferred over Alderweireld, did not show that he was in fact Ajax’ most experienced European Football player.

About halfway through the first half, Ajax had clearly vacated their right wing as shown in the screen below. Van der Wiel started making runs on his beloved right flank and also Demi de Zeeuw and Siem je Jong started taking turns in making penetrating forward runs from midfield. All in all, this resulted in a better spell by Ajax, who, by then, started to dominate possession, even if only slightly (52% v 48%).

Ajax’ best goal-scoring opportunity came after a penetrating de Zeeuw run, moving from midfield past Kiev’s back line and cleverly preventing offside by clearly withdrawing from play at just the right time. Suarez’ ensuing effort was excellently stopped by Kiev’s 17 year old goalkeeper Koval who did just enough to push the ball beside the far post.

After this tactically rather interesting first half, the second half started out rather tame with both teams clearly doubting whether to pursue a goal or to focus on not conceding a goal. This dilemma is as old as two legged matches with the away-goals rule and will shortly see a more scientific approach on 11tegen11.

The match clearly turned when young midfielder Gamash saw his second yellow card for a harsh 56th minute tackle on central defender Jan Vertonghen. That same Vertonghen managed to equalize through a header from this same free kick, suddenly giving Ajax a bright prospect of the desired Champions League group stage.

Ajax brought Sulejmani and later Eriksen after Kiev’s red card, aiming to stretch their attacking play, anticipating on their opponents more and more sitting back. Van der Wiel now definitely played a right sided midfield role, which left a three men defense of Oleguer, Vertonghen and Emanuelson , who moved back a line after Sulejmani’s introduction, up against strikers Shevchenko and Yarmolenko.

But just like in the matches against Groningen, PAOK and Vitesse, Ajax ended up giving another lead away. And again their aerial incompatibility was part of the problem. Oleguer lost a header from a Kiev goal kick while Vertonghen and Emanuelson lacked all sorts of anticipation, leaving Gusev free to break the line and score.

After this goal, Kiev succeeded in defending the 1-1 score, knowing that after their red card this was the optimal result for now. Ajax, meanwhile, looked comfortable enough with a 1-1 away draw, since, as the pundits say, once you score the away goal, you’re good. We’ll see in a week…

Feyenoord in all sorts of trouble after losing 2-3 at Excelsior…

First off, for those who missed the match, or just want to refresh their memory, here are the match highlights.

There’s not much envy surrounding Mario Been at the moment. The Feyenoord manager, generally known for his humor and his direct approach, sees himself confronted with severe problems on more than one front.

Finances and expectations

First, there’s the well-known abysses that have once been Feyenoord’s bank accounts. The Rotterdam club is by no means the only Dutch Football club with severe financial problems, but is one of four Eredivisie teams to be put under surveillance by the KNVB, the Dutch FA.  The KNVB has imposed a three year deadline for Feyenoord to balance their books, or the club will lose its license.

Then there’s expectations. As pointed out earlier on 11tegen11, Feyenoord’s reasonable fourth place of last season has led to quite some expectations. And upon Mario Been’s return to the club, last summer, he was given an ‘El Salvador’ status, the man that would liberate Feyenoord from the previous dreadful seasons and bring the club back to the traditional top three with Ajax and PSV. Not an easy task, if at all possible, given the severe financial limitations.

Feyenoord’s 4-2-3-1 vs Excelsior’s 4-5-1

Fireworks

And even though the present season is only two games old, Feyenoord managed to lose the one match they wouldn’t want to lose. With the supporters demanding fireworks against city rivals Excelsior, the only firecrackers presented came from the half time dressing room during a clash between former Dutch international left back Tim de Cler and manager Mario Been. This clash must have been so severe that Been proclaimed after the match that he had no other option than to sub the player off, stating that “he would never want to even see him again”.

Excelsior’s game plan

Excelsior started the match in a well-organised 4-5-1 formation, switching to more of a narrow  4-3-3 when in possession. As expected, Feyenoord dominated possession from the beginning of the match, with Excelsior sitting back in their own half, only putting pressure on the Feyenoord players in their own half.

Telltales of the good Excelsior organization were Feyenoord striker Smolov not seeing anything of the ball during the first ten minutes and the first chance of the game being for Excelsior, when striker Guyon Fernandez was played into space. Excelsior displayed smart use of the attacking space given away by Feyenoord’s high defensive line, while at the same time limiting the space given away on their own half.

This defensive plan definitely fits into their plan in a broader sense, as they’ve opted to shrink the pitch to the minimum allowed dimensions upon promotion to the Eredivisie.

Note the potential 3v3 situation on the left side of the pitch

Wasted Feyenoord possession

This screen depicts that even though Feyenoord dominated possession, they never witty enough to create real danger during the beginning of the game. The screen divides the pitch in a left and a right half, showing ‘man-in-the-hole’ Luigi Bruins in possession, surrounded by four Excelsior players. Instead of quickly playing out of trouble and creating a 3 vs 3 attack on the left side of the pitch, Bruins dwells on the ball, ends up losing it and singlehandedly kills of a potentialFeyenoord attack.

Practically no danger was created through the center, with Smolov displaying a lack of movement , never coming deep to get the ball. Excelsior’s fortified centre meant some more space on Feyenoord’s wings, but the delivery of crosses was often too weak to create any danger.

Feyenoord conceded the opening goal in the 29th minute after Guyon Fernandez finished off one of a series of quick breaks from Excelsior, curling the ball into the goal with supreme skill. After this opening goal the same pattern of play was more and more visible: a powerless Feyenoord 4-2-3-1 in possession against a well positioned Excelsior 4-5-1 formation, looking for quick break through the pace of striker Fernandez.

Lack of interchance

What Feyenoord clearly lacked was movement between the lines of defense, midfield and attack. The concept of players switching their lines, moving either forward or backward, temporarily switching position is as old as the sixties and seventies teams of first Valeri Lobanovsky and later Rinus Michels. This interchanging of positions is one of the fundamental aspect of ‘Totaal Voetbal’ that formed the basis of the golden era of Dutch national football in the seventies.

Without this interchanging, Feyenoord’s attacking play looked highly predictable and was always met with a double defensive line by Excelsior, who were not ashamed to dedicate nine players to their defense during Feyenoord’s possession. And understandably even more so, when defending a 1-0 lead.

It was exemplary for Feyenoord’s lack of attacking power that the equalizer had to come from a set play. The first of four corners that was not delivered way too long allowed strong centre back Vlaar to score a good header.

Second half improvements

The second half started out with Smolov in a much more dynamic role, frequently demanding the ball on the left and right flank and immediately becoming the central figure in Feyenoord’s attack. This screen illustrates Smolov coming deep to demand the ball, thereby leaving his striker position for midfielder Fer and attacking midfielder Bruins to run onto. This meant a higher degree of variation in Feyenoord’s attack.

If passing stats like the Guardian Chalkboards were available for the Eredivisie, it would be easy to illustrate this by comparing Smolov’s first and second half passing.

Note Smolov’s deep position and Excelsior’s neat defensive structure

Feyenoord also attempted to put more pressure by positioning controlling midfielders Fer and El Ahmadi higher up the pitch, something which often left Bahia and Vlaar exposed to quick breaks by Excelsior, speculating on striker Fernandez’ pace. The fact that shortly after the half time break both Feyenoord central defenders were already booked further illustrated the limited amount of control they could exert over Excelsior’s style of play.

A thrilling end to the match

Feyenoord took the lead, tellingly, from another corner, this time deflecting of Excelsior defender Bovenberg.  Luckily for the lad, he managed to equalize with a header from yet another free kick, leveling the score at 2-2, inducing scoreline-led pundits to speak of a highly entertaining match.

Literally during the final seconds of the match it was stiker Guyon Fernandez increasing the level of drama even further by outpacing experienced Feyenoord defender Bahia and scoring the 3-2 winner. Guyon Fernandez once again showed himself as the ‘dying- seconds-hero’ of Excelsior. Regular Eredivisie followers most certainly remember his ultimate strike in the promotion-relegation play-off against Sparta, ironically, like Feyenoord and Excelsior, also from Rotterdam.

In the end this match was just about what Feyenoord did not need on the evening of their Europa League play-off match against Belgium outfit Gent next Thursday. Their level of play was below par, mainly due to a lack of positional variance. On a positive note they might stick to the first phase after half time, when Smolov’s role showed some more ‘false-nine’ characteristics, a role that has been explained extremely well in this Jonathan Wilson article.

Unfortunately Smolov was subbed off halfway through the second half for the more static 17-year old Luc Castaignos, and the match returned to its first half pattern with Excelsior claiming the win in the end.

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.

Twente’s dominant midfield triangle undone by cleverly organised Roda… Missing Kenneth Perez?

Yesterday evening saw the much awaited kick-off of the Dutch Eredivisie. And it was the defending champion’s honour to feature in the first match, away against last year’s number nine, Roda JC. A potentially tough fixture as Roda performed particularly well in the second half of last year’s competition and, in contrast to Twente, succeeded in keeping much of their squad together during the summer transfer window. Of their regularly featured players, only midfielder Marcel de Jong and central defender Jean-Paul Saeijs departed. New signing Jimmy Hempte from Belgian outfit KV Kortrijk was attracted as the new central defense partner to the athletic and passionate part-Norwegian, part-Gambian Pah-Modou Kah.

Twente’s squad deflated

Twente saw a much bigger chunk of their preferred 2009 line-up leave their squad. Just look at this list of names…  Striker and captain Blaise N’Kufo, who scored 96 goals in 193 matches for Twente; prolific left winger Miroslav Stoch, loaned from Chelsea, now on loan at Fenerbahce; creative force in midfield Kenneth Perez, who provided 22 assists in 82 Twente matches and finally right-back Ronnie Stam who missed just one Eredivisie match last season. And what’s more, success manager (in Holland that is) Steve McLaren left FC Twente for fallen German Champions Wolfsburg.

 

 

New investments

New manager Michel Preud’homme was allowed to invest nearly ten million euro to replace the key players mentioned before. Let’s go over a few of the signings made. Six million was spent to attract 1.96m high striker Mark Janko who scored 23 goals for Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg last year. A further three million was invested in lightning quick left winger Emir Bajrami, who recently earned his first cap for Sweden. And Belgian manager Preud’homme did some homeland shopping in attracting Zulte-Waregems Bart Buysse to replace Ronnie Stam at left-back.

Twente’s well-known 4-3-3

In the opening game of the 2010/11 season, only left winger Bajrami featured in the first eleven, while no less than four new signings had to take place on the bench. Twente started with the exact same line-up as they did when winning the Johan Cruijff Schaal in Ajax’ ArenA last Saturday. This meant a 4-3-3 with a narrow midfield triangle pointing backwards, aiming for control of the central midfield, with a running winger on the left and Ruiz in a drifting role coming inside from the right wing.

Roda’s aggressive 4-4-2 diamond

Roda took a very interesting approach by lining up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, thereby electing not to battle it out with Twente’s dominant midfield players, but rather trying to play around it, using athletic wide midfield performances by Laurent Delorge on the right and Willem Janssen on the left. Their formation fielded two out-and-out strikers, something which always bears the risk of being one man short in midfield when facing 4-3-3 and 4-5-1-esque formations. Look at their 4-4-2 diamond in this early match screen.

Excuse the low image resolution, will be fixed as soon as better images are available

Pressure is so 2010…

During the first minutes of the game Roda’s game plan was clearly visible. Intense pressure on Twente’s central midfield and defense, leaving them no options other than side passes to full-backs Tiendalli and Carney who saw a low of the balls that Twente would preferentially run by Wout Brama and Theo Janssen during the build-up of play.

Midfield roles, again…

In 11tegen11’s article on Ajax’ midfield performance during their home draw against PAOK we’ve discussed the concept of the three different midfield roles that are characteristic of a three-man midfield combination, be it 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-1-3 or 4-5-1. Credits again to the excellent article on Zonal Marking defining the concepts of destroyer, passer and creator.

Let’s try and determine the different roles of the three central midfield players that Twente fielded against both Ajax and Roda. As mentioned previously, their midfield is a narrow triangle pointed backwards, therefore containing one pure controlling midfielder and two central midfielders.

Three different Twente midfielders

Wout Brama

Wout Brama is their single holding midfielder who obviously does not play the creator role from that position. Whether he plays a destroyer or a passer role is a more tricky question. His style of play tends to be that of a passer, but he doesn’t have another controlling midfielder by his side, like for example in a 4-2-3-1 or in a defensive flat 4-4-2 formation. Therefore, since he is often faced with at least one nearby opponent, severely limiting his passing options, his play mostly tends to a destroyer role.

Cheik Tioté definitely has the build of a destroyer midfielder. He’s physically strong, wins tackles and positions himself well. He therefore plays best when facing a direct opponent, allowing one-on-one midfield battles. However, as he’s lined up as Twente’s right-sided central midfielder, things depend on the opposing formation for him. If the opposing formation has a left-sided central midfielder for him to battle against, like for example in a 4-2-3-1 or in a flat 4-4-2, things are looking good for Tioté.

Theo Janssen is a technically gifted player, making it easy to say he’s the perfect creator midfielder. However, he’s only half-perfect. Providing dangerous passes is only half the job that a creator does. The other half of this role consisting of positional creativity, making dangerous runs, drifting into space. Imagine Mesut Özil’s role during the World Cup and you’ll get the picture. So despite his excellent technical skills, Theo Janssen is not a true creator type of player. Twente will definitely miss Kenneth Perez’s quality in this regard.

Roda’s effective counterplay

Against Roda’s diamond midfield, these problems of Twente’s midfield became exposed. Brama was effectively limited to a destroyer role in the presence of direct opponent Hadouir, who did a good job never to be far from his side during Twente’s possession of the ball. Tioté was not given a direct opponent to excel against, since a diamond midfield has no left and right central midfielder. Compare his game against Roda with his recent performance against Ajax and you’ll know. And the static play of Theo Janssen in a forced creator role was all too easy to defend for Ruud Vormer, playing at the base of Roda’s midfield diamond.

In the end

The smart choice of a high pressing diamond midfield lined-up against Twente’s 4-3-3 ensured that Twente could never do what it did best. During their past successful season they patiently circulated the ball, waiting for a sparkling Bryan Ruiz moment. To Roda’s credits this moment never really looked like arriving yesterday…

A tactical analysis of Ajax’ second half spell that puts them past PAOK Saloniki, securing a CL play-off place…

The cream of European football clubs play their make-it-or-break-it matches during the beautiful month of may, competing in the final stages of the Champions League. On the contrary, for Ajax, despite having won that competition a mere 15 years ago, the most important matches nowadays take place in the month of August. Check out this excellent in-depth analysis of Ajax’ financial problems and it’s easy to realize that missing out on European Football would mean a catastrophe for the club. Well, in order to avoid this financial downfall Ajax needed at least a high scoring draw in their return match against Panthessalonikeios Athlitikos Omilos Konstantinoupoliton, or POAK Saloniki.

And this was exactly what they produced, with an excellent display upon returning after half time, converting a 1-0 PAOK lead into a comfortable 1-3, practically securing the desired Champions League play-off qualification. At that point in time PAOK needed three more goals and despite Ajax’ messy performance leading to a 3-3 draw, it was just enough to qualify.

The line-ups

Ajax started out with their familiar 4-2-3-1 line-up, with yet another lay-out upfront compared to the previous matches against PAOK at home and against Twente for the Johan Cruijff Schaal. Top scorer Luis Suarez was the leading striker this time, with Miralem Sulejmani on the right wing. The latter is by now at West Ham United, just a medical test away from a year long loan to the Premier League club. Urby Emanuelson again, was preferred on the left wing and Lindgren regained his fitness just in time to start beside Demi de Zeeuw in a controlling midfield role.

PAOK’s 4-1-4-1

PAOK was essentially unchanged from their line-up in Amsterdam last week, keeping star player Zlatan Muslimovic out of the first eleven. Whether he deemed not fit enough to start or deemed a too attacking choice in combination with striker Salpingidis and playmaker Ivic remains of doubt. PAOK certainly set-out for some hard-core defending, transforming into a 4-1-4-1 line-up under Ajax’ pressure in the first few minutes.

Their shape is illustrated here. The two bands of four are easy to spot, with Vitolo in a destroyer midfield role, successfully marking Siem de Jong out of the game. This 4-1-4-1 line-up is reminiscent of Japans tactical plan during the last world cup, ensuring a defensive formation that proved very difficult to break down for Van Marwijks Netherlands team obtaining only a narrow 1-0 victory.

Sulejmani’s positioning

Ajax exerted heavy pressure on the Greeks, pushing both wing backs high up the pitch, resulting in long ball played into space to lone striker Salpingidis who often found himself isolated against two central defenders.  Sulejmani practically featured in a free role, starting from the right wing, but all too often drifting inside. While, on the positive side, this opened up a lot of space for right back Gregory van der Wiel to express his attacking qualities on the right wing, it also impeded Ajax’ central attack where Sulejmani often played too close to striker Suarez and creator de Jong, limiting their positional options.

Van der Wiel’s unusual weak display

Perhaps the physical stress that this system put on Gregory van der Wiel contributed to his unusual blunders who were painfully obvious in the first half. His strange half-high back-pass in the 14th minute will probably never be explained and his shortcomings in defending PAOK’s set pieces were particularly obvious during their free kicks in the 13th and 16th minute, leading to Vieirinha’s opening goal from a header. PAOK, understandably, withdrew even further, squeezing their bands of four close together, effectively limiting Ajax’ options for the remainder of the first half. With their Greek opponents defending a 1-0 home lead, Ajax’ were forced to make some changes in order to disrupt the effective defense machine that a tight 4-1-4-1 in effect is. And so they did!

Half time changes

Take a look at this screen, displaying Ajax’ positional set-up  in the first minute after half time. Note the wide stretch of play offered by wingers Emanuelson and Sulejmani (yellow), in contrast especially to Sulejmani’s drifting in during the first half of the game.

This immediately opened up spaces for Siem de Jong (yellow) to deploy his off-the-ball skills. Furthermore, as you can also see in this screen, passing midfielders de Zeeuw and Lindgren (orange) started taking turns in penetrating PAOK’s defensive line. Their forward runs turned them more or less into box-to-box midfielders, with one covering for the other when needed.

The equalizer

This is another example of how wide Ajax’ attack is set-up immediately after half time. The wide position of wingers Emanuelson and Sulejmani force the Greek defenders to choose between marking their winger or closing in on their central defense to aid them in defending striker Suarez and creator de Jong. This screen below is taken during the cross pass of Alderweireld, providing the assist for Suarez’ 48th minute equalizer.

Ajax’ spell of glory

It took Ajax ten minutes to convert PAOK’s 1-0 lead into a comfortable 1-3 after this obvious tactical change. The remainder of the game saw the Greek come back to 2-3 after another display of weak Ajax defending of a set piece cross. This is definitely something that Martin Jol and his side will have to work on in the near future. Nearing the end of the match Ivic equalized the score, but it was too late to change the result of the two match confrontation.

The second half display of Ajax might ensure that they have an attacking line-up capable of producing in Europe and should their defensive weakness from set pieces improve on a short-term then we might see a good Ajax season. Remember, the season has only just started!

What does Twente have that Ajax doesn’t? Besides the title and now the Johan Cruijff Schaal that is…

Saturday evening marked the kick-off of the domestic football season in the Netherlands with the, by now, traditional match for the Johan Cruijff Schaal (JCS). What started out as a low profile pre-season affair has by now grown into the nation’s third ranked trophy. This is in no small part due to the variety of teams contesting this affair in recent years. While the first ten editions of the JCS were almost uniformly contested between PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord, recent years have seen the appearance of Utrecht, Heerenveen, former-champions AZ and of course reigning champions Twente. Despite these positive notes on the JCS, winning it seemed of inferior importance to Ajax this year, with saturday’s match scheduled tightly in between the double meeting with PAOK Saloniki, contesting the financially lucrative Champions League qualification.

The line-ups

 

Line ups after the 3rd minute sub of Enoh for Lindgren

We’ve recently discussed Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 line-up a few times, reviewing their friendly against Chelsea’s reserves and of course recently in commenting on their midfield line-up in the disappointing 1-1 home draw against PAOK. Ajax’ line-up for the JCS saw two changes compared to the match against PAOK. Martin Jol was forced to replace central defender Jan Vertonghen, since the Belgian suffers a two match suspension after calling Feyenoord fans cockroaches during the celebration of Ajax’ Cup win last season. And up front Martin Jol preferred Korean youngster Hyun-Jun Suk over out-of-favor attacker Miralem Sulejmani, who is rumoured to join Premier League outfit West Ham United in a few days. Suk generally offers more of a physical presence compared to the Serbian, meaning a slight switch towards more of a target man attack, compared to the role Sulejmani offered against PAOK. In that match Ajax’ front quartet was characterized by frequent positional switches, especially between Sulejmani and attacking midfielder Siem de Jong.

FC Twente has not been mentioned on 11tegen11 so far, and since they’re the reigning champions of the Dutch Eredivisie, this might well be an omission on my side. They’ve smartly avoided the spotlights during their pre-season campaign but showed to be well prepared during this match. Last summer, after they were crowned champions of the Eredivisie for the first time, manager Steve McLaren departed for VfL Wolfsburg in Germany and the coming season will see Twente face the challenge to stay at the top. Steve McLaren consequently played a 4-3-3 with Twente, taking control of the midfield with a narrow backward facing triangle of midfielders. New manager Michel Preud’homme chose a comparable strategy, at least on the kick-off of this particular match.

The immediate change to the midfield

First thing to notice was the injury to Ajax’ destroyer midfielder Eyong Enoh in the 3rd minute, forcing him to come off. Rasmus Lindgren, who plays more of a passing role replaced him, thereby changing Ajax’ desired destroyer-creator-passer trio into a passer-creator-passer combination. This early change proved fundamental in the remainder of the match, which was a battle predominantly fought out on the midfield. The essence of the match was in fact the battle of the midfield trio’s de Zeeuw-de Jong-Lindgren versus Jansen-Brama-Tioté, where Twente’s midfield, with their backward triangle, was like a mirror image of the two holding midfielders and one creative attacker that Ajax tends to prefer.

An early goal changing the game

 

This game saw an early goal which put Twente in front. Maarten Stekelenburg and Gregory van der Wiel, despite having played together in ‘Oranje’ during the recent World Cup, didn’t communicate well and Luuk de Jong, brother of Ajax player Siem, pinched the ball from the defender for a free run on the Ajax goalie. After this opening goal Twente’s shape was even more recognizable as a 4-5-1 out of possession and a clear 4-3-3 in possession.

Positions during Ajax’ possession

Let’s take a look at the midfield positions and how they’re slightly different depending on which teams controls the ball. First, this is how they were set out when Ajax controlled the ball at the back. Twente employed a man marking system, consequently choosing to tight-mark Ajax’ midfield out of the game.

Note how close each Twente player is to his respective opponent. This resulted in long spells of Ajax’ central defenders dwelling on the ball, slowing down the build-up of play. Here, central defender Alderweireld is forced into a risky pass towards the well marked Suarez because both Lindgren (orange) and de Zeeuw (orange) as well as de Jong (yellow) are well marked.

Furthermore, as one of the few provided stats showed during the match, at one point in the match Twente succeeded in making 40 interceptions, versus only 18 by Ajax. And, since intercepting is the new tackling, as pointed out in this article by Zonal Marking, this was symptomatic for the problems that Ajax had in constructing their attacks.

Lack of dynamics upfront

This was further aggravated by their static front four. Suk replacing Sulejmani meant that Ajax’ stepped away from their dynamic attack of the PAOK match, characterized by frequent positional switches, not only between striker-for-a-day Sulejmani and attacking midfielder de Jong, but also involving both wide attacking players. Instead, with Suk as their central attacking player, Ajax’ attack became static, predictable and easy to defend for Twente’s central duo Wisgerhof and Douglas.

Positions during Twente’s possession

 

Now, let’s turn our attention to the screen showing the midfield positions during Twente’s possession of the ball. This screen shows their attacking intentions. As usual, defenders are red, controlling midfielders orange, attacking midfielders yellow and attackers blue.

Tioté (orange, in possession) is a bit under pressure, Brama (orange) offers a way out, while Jansen (orange, advanced) made a run forward, pressing de Zeeuw all the way back to his defensive line. Meanwhile, also right back Tiendalli has advanced, even past Lindgren, thereby effectively creating a 5v5 at Ajax’ half of the pitch. Should Brama be able to find a quick way out, danger is to be expected.

Ajax’ loose zonal marking system failed to deal with the smart positional play, particularly by central midfielders Jansen (left) and Tioté (right). By alternating between playing very tight together most of the time and wll-timed making deep runs on occasion, they posed a huge challenge to de Zeeuw and Lindgren. Each of them must have wished an Enoh in a destroyer role by their side at that time.

The end of the match after 37 minutes

 

Some matches don’t last the full ninety minutes. This was particularly true in this edition of the JCS. Suarez’ red card after a reckless tackle on Cheik Tioté showed glimpses of frustration, not only attributable to this match, the miscommunication between Stekelenburg and Van der Wiel, but there was a bit of Ivic’ late equalizer reducing Ajax’ Champions League aspirations too. After the elimination of Ajax’ most dangerous man the JCS was unfortunately never seriously contested anymore.

Let’s hope that Ajax will be able to turn things around for the return match at PAOK tomorrow. Another new midfield is to be expected with Enoh and possibly also Lindgren (late match injury) out for this game.

What does Ajax’ central midfield do? An analysis of Ajax 1-1 PAOK… (first English contribution on 11tegen11)

First of all, as you will have noticed by now, this post is written in English. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about making the switch from a Dutch blog on Dutch football stuff to an English blog about Dutch football. The choice to come out with this English piece is in part meant to assess the feasibility of writing my analysis in English and in part meant to find out whether there is an audience to be served by writing in English instead of Dutch. So, please do speak up, let your opinion be heard in the comments section on this topic.

The three midfielder roles

That being said, let’s focus on the topic at hand here. Yesterday saw the release of this article at Zonal Marking. Another landmark piece indeed, focusing on the role of the passing midfielder in present days. Slowly consuming the concepts outlined by what is in my opinion the leading site on tactical football analysis available, I’ve decided to combine the focus of this article with my analysis of Ajax’ most recent game, their disappointing 1-1 draw at home in the Champions League Qualification match against PAOK Saloniki last wednesday.

Let me first summarize several points raised in this Zonal Marking article. The article focuses on the different types of midfield roles seen in modern 4-5-1 like formations. These formations comprise the recently exploded 4-2-3-1, it’s supposed to be rival 4-3-3 and well as more traditional 4-5-1 formations. These formations share the fact that, in order to create midfield dominance, one of the strikers is withdrawn to a central midfield role, thereby offering a 3 vs 2 advantage in the central part of the pitch. Previously, the central pairing of midfield players generally used to consist of some sort of a destroyer- creator combination with one of the players looking to regain possession by tackling opposition players or making well-timed interceptions. The other part of this pairing would look to get the strikers into dangerous plays through forward passes, combining technical skills and intelligence. This third midfielder, added to the destroyer- creator duo by switching from two-striker formations to 4-5-1 variants, what does he do exactly? This third midfielder is generally not too ‘visible’ during the game, however, he’s generally regarded as vital to the team’s success by his teammates. Think of the Makelele, Carrick, Busquets type of player. In order to dominate possession, this third midfielder is supposed to take up a passing role, doing everything needed to control possession. Generally his play is dominated by short, low-risk passes, rarely controlling the ball with more than a few touches. He adds to the destroyer-creator duo making it a destroyer-creator-passer trio. Again, courtesy to Zonal Marking for pointing all of this out.

The line-ups

Starting line-ups

With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to Ajax’ recent display against Greek outfit PAOK Saloniki. Ajax has been playing a regular 4-2-3-1 line-up for at least the duration of the reign of Martin Jol as manager. Their midfield trio fields an easily recognizable destroyer, a role generally taken up by Cameroen international Eyong Enoh. Their creator is never too hard to pick either, in this game young talent Siem de Jong, who broke into the regular line-up during last-years campaign, took up this role, frequently alternating positons with striker-for-a-day Miralem Sulejmani. The attacking flank roles were taken up by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez on the right and home-grown Urby Emanuelson on the left. This leaves one central midfield player unmentioned: Rasmus Lindgren in a role that is generally filled in by Demi de Zeeuw. The latter, however, still suffers from conditional problems after missing part of the pre-season training due to the facial injury induced by a rough challenge during the WC semi-final against Uruguay.

So, we’ve learned by now that the Ajax midfield should be described as Enoh-de Jong-Lindgren in a destroyer-creator-passer trio. Let’s focus on these players in describing the key moments of this match. It’s a pity that individual, nor overall, passing statistics are not available for this match.

The start of the game

The first fifteen minutes saw a dominant Ajax, with PAOK defending very deep, effectively only putting any sort of pressure when the ball was on their own half. Ball circulation was easy for Ajax, although PAOK succeeded in preventing supposed-to-be passer Lindgren from seeing a lot of the ball, man-marking him out and leaving Enoh unmarked. However, the lack of any sort of pressure meant that this was no problem during this phase of the match. Ajax scored 1-0 in the 13th minute through a Suarez bicycle kick giving them an easy start of the game. PAOK leaving their extremely deep line after this early opening goal effectively meant more space to play for Ajax’ creative quartet upfront. This resulted in a fairly one-sided affair, and Ajax only had itself to blame for not leading by more than 1-0 at half time. This game of Ajax dominating possession was in fact continued immediately after half time with the three midfield players nicely tending to their respective roles.

In this screen you can see that passer Lindgren (orange) takes up a free position, offering wing back Anita an easy passing option. Creator Sulejmani (yellow), for the moment switching positions with Siem de Jong, makes a run to create the necessary depth in play and destroyer Enoh (red) is well positioned, should PAOK win the ball unexpectedly.

Things started to take a turn after about an hour into the match. It looked like manager Martin Jol was not assured to enter the second leg having to defend a narrow 1-0 lead. Demi de Zeeuw, a regular first team player, was brought on to replace Rasmus Lindgren. And he started to take up more advanced positions, looking to bring the attacking quartet into play instead of preferring possession over forward directed passes, like Lindgren evidently did in the first hour of the game.

And this immediately led to the problems depicted in the second screen. Here we see central defender Jan Vertonghen in possession, dribbling into the space vacated by de Zeeuw (orange) taking up a more advanced position. Destroyer Enoh meanwhile controls the potential danger posed by Ivic and de Jong (yellow), takes up a creator position, demanding the ball in a central attacking position.

I suppose we all know by now that de Zeeuw easily squanders possession here, which is the very last thing a passer should do. This kicks off PAOK’s killing counter attack, leading to the equalizer.

In conclusion

So, in general, we’ve seen the ‘classic’ trio of destroyer-creator-passer at work here, which led to an Ajax dominated game, until they took too many risks after subbing on Demi de Zeeuw. In fact Ajax switched to a destroyer-creator-creator type of midfield, unfortunately paying the price. And this could be quite some price indeed…

Utrecht 1 – 0 Luzern: is één momentje van Zwitserse gatenkaas voldoende voor Utrecht?

Na eerst de zevende plaats in de competitie, en de aansluitende play-off overwinningen op Groningen en Roda wist Utrecht zich verzekerd van Europees Voetbal. Met twee hoofdletters, een begrip in de voetballerij, want met Europees Voetbal ben je iets. Utrecht versloeg eenvoudig FK Tirana in de tweede voorronde van de Europa League en nog twee hordes scheiden de ploeg van de lucratieve groepsfase. Vanavond wachtte FC Luzern, de nummer vier uit de tien clubs tellende competitie in Zwitserland.

De opstellingen

We hebben FC Utrecht voorafgaande aan het dubbele treffen met Dinamo Tirana al eens voorbij zien komen op 11tegen11 en zijn tot de conclusie gekomen dat ook Ton de Chatinier niet meer om het succes van de 4-2-3-1 heen denkt te kunnen. Zijn FC Utrecht speelde ook vanavond in een vrij klassieke 4-2-3-1 formatie, waarbij veel draaide om spelmaker Mertens op de linkerflank.

FC Luzern stelde daar op papier een formatie met slechts drie verdedigers tegenover, iets dat we in de Nederlandse Eredivisie toch niet elke week tegenkomen. In de praktijk bleek het eerste kwart van de wedstrijd er toch wat anders uit te zien. De Zwitsers waren er overduidelijk op uit om de eerste fase in de Domstad ongeschonden door te komen. Zoals hieronder duidelijk te zien stond er in de praktijk een formatie met vijf verdedigers, twee controleurs ervoor en een aanval bestaande uit leider en aanvoerder Yakin in de punt, geflankeerd door Gygax op links en Ianu op rechts, meer 5-2-3 dus.

Het aftastende eerste half uur

In dit eerste kwart van de wedstrijd maakte Utrecht aanvallend een weinig krachtige indruk. Met name Asare, toch centraal achter de spitsen spelend, kwam weinig tot niet in het spel voor. Wel gevaarlijk waren de met name naar binnen snijdende creatieve dribbels van Dries Mertens. Zolang FC Luzern echter de vleugelverdedigers voldoende terughield slaagden de Zwitsers goed in de missie om zonder tegendoelpunt het begin van de wedstrijd door te komen.

Van 5-2-3 naar 3-4-3…

De zaken werden echter anders in het laatste kwartier voor rust. Vleugelverdedigers Lustenberger en Ferreira bestrijken vanaf dat moment een veel groter gebied, waardoor de Zwitserse formatie in deze fase het best als een soort 3-4-3 in balbezit en 5-2-3 bij balverlies te karateriseren is. In eerste instantie is het gevolg hiervan dat Utrecht het spel wat meer aan de Zwitsers moet laten, zonder dat deze overigens spits Yakin in stelling weten te brengen. De keerzijde van deze verandering is echter de ruimte die Luzern vanaf dit moment achterin weggeeft. Cruciaal tegen een team met vleugelaanvallers is natuurlijk om geen ruimte achter de eigen vleugelverdedigers weg te geven. Ieder balverlies kan op die manier namelijk snel dodelijk zijn.

Zwitserse gatenkaas

Doordat de drie verdedigers deze vrijgekomen ruimte achter de opkomende Lustenberger en Ferreira moeten opvullen ontstaan veel te grote gaten tussen deze drie centrale verdedigers in. Weinig verrassend is het precies Dries Mertens, met afstand de beste man op het veld, die dit gat snel weet te vinden en de 1-0 laat aantekenen. Zo wordt Luzern wel erg snel gestraft voor de aanvallende keuze en is het dilemma in de Zwitserse kleedkamer in de rust voelbaar. Door op deze weg in de hoop op een belangrijk uitdoelpunt of terugkeren op de schreden en eerst deze stand noodgedwongen maar accepteren?

Hinken op twee gedachten…

Risico nemen om kans te maken op dat zo belangrijke uitdoelpunt of juist risico mijden om in eigen huis nog een speelbare kaart te hebben? De keuze van trainer Fringer wordt zo’n tien minuten na de rust een gedwongen keuze wanneer rechter vleugelspeler Ferreira met een spierblessure naar de kant moet. Zijn positie wordt ingenomen door de veel verdedigender ingestelde Zverotic. Beide ploegen lijken in deze fase met name bevreesd voor een tegendoelpunt en Luzern ziet kennelijk beide wel brood in het uitspelen van de 1-0 achterstand, nog verder tot deze keuze gewongen door het uitvallen van nog een verdediger, Lukmon. Luzern is qua formatie weer terug is bij af, de vleugelverdedigers hebben geven hun verdedigende taken weer prioriteit boven het ondersteunen van de aanval, waardoor de centrale verdedigers de linie weer gesloten kunnen houden. Wel mengen de controlerende middenvelders Kukeli en Renggli zich meer in de spel, in een poging om de geïsoleerde positie van spits Yakin te verbeteren, maar door de keuze voor drie man centraal achterin blijft er een soort ‘man achter de spits’ ontbreken.

Het laatste kwart van de wedstrijd onderstonden er wel meer ruimtes op het veld, maar gevaar zagen we slechts bij dode spelmomenten, zonder overigens dat één van beide teams serieus aanspraak op een doelpunt mocht maken.

De conclusie

 

Het streven van trainer Fringer om ook in een Europese uitwedstrijd aanvallend te willen spelen is prachtig, maar ook wel naïef, zoals is gebleken. Juist op het moment dat Luzern dacht het initiatief meer en meer te kunnen afdwingen door van 5-2-3 op een 3-4-3 variant over te schakelen vielen achterin gaten die je een handige aanvaller als Dries Mertens maar éénmaal hoeft te bieden. Direct hierna keerden de Zwitserse op hun schreden terug en speelden de wedstrijd met een formele vijfmansverdediging uit. Over een week zullen we zien of de variant met de aanvallende vleugelverdedigers weer op de mat komt…