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Sampdoria 1 – 2 PSV: A 4-4-2 diamond running out of steam

PSV went into this fifth Europa League match knowing that a draw would be enough to secure a place among the final 32 teams. Sampdoria, on the other hand, were in need of a win to keep their hopes of qualifying alive.


PSV’s 4-2-3-1

Most of PSV’s regulars featured in this match, with two exceptions. Midfielder Otman Bakkal and right winger Jeremain Lens missed out due to illness, causing Fred Rutten to move playmaker Afellay to the right wing, drafting Hutchinson into midfield and thereby creating space to allow Manolev a first start at right-back after a three months injury.

The starting line-ups (Volta replaced the injured Lucchini early in the first half). Note Sampdoria's packed centre versus PSV's dominance on the flanks

PSV’s system is well known as a 4-2-3-1, which has been described here before, for example in their home match against Twente A clear difference between their home and away games can be seen in the positioning of Toivonen. Featuring as a second striker, or a false number ten if you like, in PSV’s home matches, he tends to put in more of a true central midfield role in away games, as evidenced by PSV’s display against Ajax two weeks ago, and more recently in their 4-2 defeat at the hands of NAC.


Sampdoria’s 4-4-2

Past manager Luigi Delneri installed a flat 4-4-2 system, based on bombarding wing players with quite some success. His successor, Domenico di Carlo, was drafted in from high-flying Chievo Verona to continue this same line. And although he still plays with what is best described as a 4-4-2, he did make certain alterations to their line-up and playing style. Regularly facing four band  formations, he prefers a 4-4-2 diamond. In a way this compares to the only Eredivisie team to consequently play a two striker system, Roda JC.

Sampdoria’s hot headed big star, Antonio Cassano has fallen out of favour with the club president after refusing to attend an awards ceremony and the club is currently in the process of looking to terminate the player’s contract. So no ‘Gioiello di Bari Vecchia’ (Jewel of old Bari) tonight, but a striker combo of regular Italian international Giampaolo Pazzini and 21 year old Guido Marilungo.


The previous confrontation

Both teams played each other in the first Europa League match, where Sampdoria held PSV to a 1-1 draw. Aided by an early lead due to a glaring communication error in PSV’s defense, Sampdoria seemed happy to sit deep and often use the long ball towards Cassano, hoping for his creativity to shine. Today, playing at home and being in need of a win, something different is to be expected.


The first half

And different it was by Sampdoria. As if to illustrate that playing style is quite something different to playing formation, they lined-up in the same 4-4-2 diamond they played a high paced game from the off. Often pressing PSV in their own half, Sampdoria managed several dangerous early interceptions, one of which led to Marilungo’s shot that hit the post early in the game.

PSV’s choice to move playmaker and captain Afellay out to the right wing to replace Jeremain Lens had serious implications for their midfield game. PSV clearly missed the passing qualities of Afellay, who himself was replaced by Hutchinson in defensive midfield. Furthermore, Otman Bakkal, PSV’s regular partner for Afellay in defensive midfield, missed out through illness.


PSV’s problems

Facing a packed midfield in the form of Sampdoria’s narrow diamond, PSV often found itself outnumbered here while their full-backs were smartly occupied by the dynamism of Marilungo and Pazzini upfront. Since these two hard-working players managed to occupy PSV’s entire back four, Sampdoria was always sure to outnumber PSV on the rest of the pitch.

Another problem was both Afellay’s and Dszuszak’s tendency to play as an inside forward rather than as a wide winger. This limited PSV’s ability to play around their opponent’s packed midfield, which would have been the most sensible way to go. Although Afellay managed to get in behind his marker one, delivering a dangerous cross that was missed by Toivonen, this was far from enough to pose any real danger to Sampdoria’s defense and striker Reis was limited to a handful of touches.

Sampdoria was able to commit their full-backs forward more and more and it was a cross from their right-back Ziegler that found Pazzini at the first post. His sublime diving header found the far corner and, just like in the teams’ previous encounter, Sampdoria led 1-0 at half time, although this time by dominating the game rather than taking advantage from a defensive mistake.


Second half changes

PSV made one change to the second half and that was to switch Afellay and Dszudszak. With Afellay now no longer split between defending Ziegler’s forward runs and connecting PSV’s offensive passing, his role became more prominent. At the same time Dszudszak was enabled to make some threatening runs inside from the right, looking to shoot with his left foot.

One moment of slack defending from Sampdoria was enough for PSV to equalize. Afellay was not pressured at all in his cross to a completely unmarked Toivonen.

PSV manager Fred Rutten

Sampdoria meanwhile tried to commit more bodies forward, but saw their players run out of energy which saw their tactical plan crumble. Their strikers were no longer able to bind all of PSV’s back four and PSV’s full-backs became more and more involved. This meant that PSV became able to play around Sampdoria’s narrow midfield and the face of the game started to change. Sampdoria, in desperate need for a win, starting chasing PSV’s possession and PSV found space to control the ball.

In the closing minutes of the game Toivonen scored his second goal of the game in his otherwise unimpressive performance. Sampdoria had been reduced to ten men by then, after Marilungo saw a second yellow card for furiously discussing some fairly debatable offside decisions.


In the end

This has been a match with two faces. Before half time Sampdoria was more or less in control, dominating the central area of the pitch while occupying PSV’s wide players, especially the full-backs, with their hard-working striker pair. In the second half, and especially after PSV switched their wingers, PSV gained the upper hand by dominating the flanks, bypassing Sampdoria’s crowded centre. Their strikers and ‘carilleros’ running out of steam meant they virtually surrendered to PSV, a fact further illustrated by Marilungo’s frustrations in the end of the game.

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.