Tag Archives: Utrecht

Ajax 0 – 2 Utrecht: From bad to worse for Ajax…

Frank de Boer lost his first Eredivisie home game as an Ajax manager, while Utrecht set a unique series of four wins out of the past for meetings with their fierce rivals. With the complete forward three and back four of his presumed starting XI missing, De Boer never got his team going, while Utrecht proved well organized in defense and  taking maximum advantage of the opportunities presented.

This is the first 11tegen11 article to use in-match data. Credit goes to Infostrada Sports, without whom this article could never have been created.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

The starting line-ups of Ajax' 4-3-3 and Utrecht's 4-4-2. Bigger dots indicate more passes received, ranging from Anita's 72 to vd Maarel and Fernandez' 11.

Ajax played an improvised and very young starting XI, with only Enoh, Janssen and Vermeer aged over 23. At the back, Daley Blind made only his tenth Eredivisie start as a centre-back, while his partner Ricardo van Rhijn (3) and left-back Dico Koppers (2) were only just past their starting debuts. Up front, Siem de Jong played the striker role, with Özbiliz and Ebecilio on the wings. Ajax’ midfield seemed least undone by the wave of injuries that hit the squad hard, the midfield three of Eriksen-Janssen-Enoh had started the past four matches too.

 

Utrecht’s 4-4-2

For this match, Jan Wouters changed his usual 4-3-3 formation in order to exploit Ajax’ presumed weaknesses. He declared prior to the game that his choice for a flat 4-4-2 system was motivated by the fact that Ajax was forced to start a young centre-back pairing, which he wanted target with the physical presence of Demouge and Gerndt. In midfield, Utrecht missed Martensson, which meant a return to the starting XI for Ajax loanee Rodney Sneijder.

 

The opening phase

Utrecht’s game plan was easy to decipher right from the kick-off, and it worked very well. Jan Wouters’ team looked quite comfortable out of possession, keeping the two banks of four tight together and refraining from playing an all too high defensive line altogether. Going into this game, Utrecht were one of only two sides that had more possession away from home than at home, even having the lowest overall possession at home of all teams (43.3%).

In possession, they quickly passed the ball forward to target man Frank Demouge. The Utrecht striker smartly dropped off the front line a bit, to win balls in the air in the area of the pitch that was generally covered by Enoh, which allowed Demouge to exploit his length advantage.

Ajax, meanwhile, once again enjoyed possession in their own half. Just like in their away loss at Feyenoord, the Amsterdam side seemed impotent in possession, having all sorts of trouble circulating the ball into the final third of the pitch. Ajax ‘outpassed’ their opponents  in sheer number of passes (694 vs 374) and pass completion (76% vs 59%), but this dominance never reflected in the danger it created. The majority of passes were made too far away from Utrecht’s goal, as indicated by the fact that Ajax’ back four of Anita (94), Blind (76), Van Rhijn (74) and Koppers (70) were responsible for 59.6% of all passes.

Judging by the pass count, Ajax had quite some trouble getting left winger Ebecilio into the game. He received only 29 passes throughout the game, compared to Özbiliz’ 47. On top of that, both of Ajax wingers did not contribute anything in terms of offensive threat. Both completed around 55% of their passes, indicating that Ajax lost a lot of possession on the wings, an indirect compliment to Utrechts organized defensive, with excellent games by both full-backs who were well assisted by the defensive work of wide midfielders Kali and Duplan.

Utrecht’s defensive organization was further reflected in their interceptions. While overall, Utrecht did not make significantly more interceptions that Ajax did, they did so in a different part of the pitch. The majority of the 124 turnovers that Ajax won were won in defense (71), while Utrecht often intercepted the ball earlier, winning 49 of their 132 turnovers in midfield. Upon such turnovers, they quickly launched balls forward in the direction of Demouge.

Close to half time, Utrecht took the lead. The first forward run by one of their full-backs allowed Dave Bulthuis to cross from the left wing. Kenneth Vermeer made a mess of his high ball clearance and the ball simply fell to Duplan, who found the back of the empty net with Utrecht’s first shot on target.

 

The second half

Changes were needed the get Ajax going, and indeed some changes were made. Theo Janssen did not return to the pitch, his place taken by Nicolas Lodeiro, which moved De Jong into a central midfield / second striker role. Full-backs Anita and particularly Koppers were pushed forward more too. The switch around in midfield solved part of the problems that Ajax had. In the first half, De Jong lacked all sorts of support, with Janssen refraining from overlapping, and Eriksen more in a distributing role than coming at the end of moves.

Much of the impotence of Ajax was demonstrated by the fact that by the hour mark Ajax fired in its second shot on target of the game. Ajax’ inefficiency in possession was also demonstrated by looking at the length of possession spells of both teams. Ajax’ average length of possession was 23 seconds, compared to Utrecht’s 14.5. However, Ajax average length of possession that generated a shot was only 9.4, compared to Utrecht’s 35!

This illustrates the fact that, despite dominating possession, Ajax depended on turnovers in Utrecht’s half, which were mostly a result of individual errors by Utrecht players. Combine the fact that Ajax needed opposition half turnovers to create shots the (above presented) fact that most turnovers were won by defensive players and the problem is well shown. Winning most balls in your own half, while being unable to create anything from longer possession spells indicates quite a flawed concept.

Utrecht, on the contrary, were very effective in their longer possession. Admittedly, their possessions were generally shorter, but on longer spells they did managed to create danger. Think of long balls up to the target man striker. Since Demouge loses the ball a lot in such a tactic, possession spells were generally short, but once he did hold the ball up, Utrecht connected very well.

 

Fading to the end

The graph below illustrates both teams’ completed passes per chunk of five minutes. As can be seen from the graph, Ajax faded around the hour mark. From that moment on, their passing dominance disappeared and only a single shot on target resulted from what should have been on offensive spell in chasing the equalizer. Near the end of the match, Eduard Duplan doubled his tally, with only Utrecht’s second shot on target in the game, further hurting Vermeer’s terrible save percentage, which will see him re-take the bottom spot in the Eredivisie in this regard, with 28.0% of shots on target finding the back of his net.

These lines represent the amount of passes completed per five minutes of game time. Ajax' dominance in this regard lasted 60 minutes, while Utrechts remained fairly constant in terms of the amount of passes completed.

 

In the end

This was probably the worst performance that I’ve seen by an Ajax team and for sure the worst of the season. That sounds harsh, but there are objective parameters to go with that. De Boer lost his first Eredivisie home game, Ajax failed to keep a clean sheet for the eighth of nine home Eredivisie games this year, Vermeer failed to keep any of the two shots on target out. Both Ajax’ 8 shots and their 4 shots on target were a season low.

If Ajax turned in its worst performance, the credit should go to Utrecht. Wouters’ switch to two up front worked very well and Demouge played a perfect target man role, targeting Enoh to win headers off. His partnership with Gerndt, who played an energetic and dynamic game around the more static strike was very well executed. In defensive regard, Utrecht’s midfield turned in a performance of high quality, the wide men keeping close to the full-backs, thereby eliminating Ajax’ wingers from the game, and the central midfielders winning balls early on.

 

Data for this article were provided by Infostrada Sports. Without their generous support, this article could not have been written!

Utrecht 6 – 4 Ajax: Goal fest illustrates both teams short-comings

In a true goal fest, that ultimately saw Utrecht run out 6-4 winners, both teams illustrated their short-comings, rather than their qualities. The prejudice of the Eredivisie being a high scoring league due to a generally low level of defending was fed once more, as virtually all of today’s nine goals involved defensive weaknesses rather than offensive brilliance.

 

Utrecht’s formation

Disappointing would be the best one-word summary of Utrecht’s season up to this game. Having competed in the Europa League group stage of the past season  , Utrecht are a very different side at this moment in time. Of last year’s squad that beat Ajax 3-0 at home for De Boer’s first defeat as Ajax manager, only three players remain today.  Influential players like Dries Mertens and Kevin Strootman were sold to PSV, while striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel left for Sporting Lissabon. To make things worse, goal keeper Michel Vorm left during pre-season to join new Premier League side Swansea and captain and Danish international Michael Silberbauer left Utrecht for Swiss side Young Boys.

With such severe depletion, only moderate expectations should be kept this present season, and unfortunately this has been what’s in store for Utrecht so far. On top of the exodus of first team players, manager Erwin Koeman, who had only just started his work at the club this summer, left a few weeks ago, with former Ajax manager Jan Wouters taking care for the moment.

The starting line-ups, although Bulykin and Ooijer replaced De Jong and Alderweireld within the first twenty minutes.

In tactical terms, Utrecht lines up in a 4-3-3 formation with central midfielder Asare looking to roam behind strong striker Mulenga, and the pair of Sneijder and Mårtensson responsible for holding the midfield.

 

Ajax’ flirt with the 3-3-1-3

During this year’s Dutch Cup campaign, Frank de Boer first showed his three-at-the-back system in competitive matches. He did so again amateur side Noordwijk, and later on away at Roda. Against Roda’s 4-4-2 diamond, the 3-3-1-3 did an excellent job, providing an excellent example of why defense should ideally contain one man more than the offenses their defending. De Boer stuck with the system for the follow-up Eredivisie match, again away at Roda, and Ajax earned another victory.

In the preface of the Zagreb match, last week, De Boer proclaimed that Zagreb playing a single striker formation was the main reason not to go with the 3-3-1-3 again, in turn choosing for the more familiar 4-3-3 formation, with offensive full-backs, complemented with offensive intentions for centre-back Vertonghen.

Against Utrecht’s 4-3-3, De Boer went with the expected 4-3-3 again. With Sigthorsson out for quite some time, Siem de Jong made another start in the striker position, although he got injured as early as in the second minute, when Dmitri Bulykin replaced him.

 

Spectacle or painful?

With five first half goals scored it does not make sense to go through all of them in chronological order to describe the tactical developments during the match. As a general theme, both teams threw any notion of control over the space in front of their back fours to the wind and paid the price for it. A match like this will generally go down as a spectacle and a ‘really good game to watch’, but at times the defensive performances of both teams were that far below par that it was painful to watch.

 

Utrecht’s problem

Let’s first describe Utrecht in this regard, and then turn our attention to the visitors. Jan Wouters, known more for his motivational than his tactical qualities in a general sense, lost the balance in his team in midfield. When deploying a 4-3-3 with wide strikers, rather than wide midfielders who tend to put in defensive shifts too, the balance in defensive terms needs to come from the central midfielders. Utrecht fielded three central midfielders today, but Asare mainly played close to striker Mulenga, and apart from topping the fouls charts of the Eredivisie, he is not known for his defensive input. Of the remaining two midfielders, Sneijder (brother Rodney, on loan from Ajax, that is) is a renowned playmaker more than a holding midfielder.

With a defensive line of four afraid to push up all too high when faced with the pace of Boerrigter and Sulejmani, the pair of Sneijder and Mårtersson could never cover the wide space in front of the defense. The resulting freedom was a gift, most notably for Eriksen, but also for both Ajax’ wingers when Utrecht’s full-backs needed to support the centre-backs by playing narrow.

 

Ajax’ problems

Contrary to Utrecht, Ajax did field a genuine holding midfielder in terms of Eyong Enoh. And he did a decent job playing against Asare, apart from that one moment where Enoh failed to step out of Ajax’ back line, which allowed Asare all the time he needed to fire in a shot, finding the net after Enoh’s unlucky deflection. Although the deflection proved vital for that particular shot to find the back of the net, Asare’s wide movement saw him escape the zone of Enoh to the right wing time and again, allowing him to join Duplan in overloading Ajax’ left-back Anita.

An important development in terms of Ajax’ back line might have been the early substitution of Toby Alderweireld. André Ooijer, who replaced him, lacks the pace and agility to deal with quick balls over the top, balls that are inevitably going to come given Ajax’ possession centered style of play. Ooijer’s short-comings in this regard were well illustrated in Utrecht’s second goal.

Ooijer was again at fault for inadequately marking Bovenberg for Utrecht’s third goal of the day. The right-back, who scored regularly from indirect set pieces for Excelsior last season, wasn’t tracked by Ooijer in a man-marking set piece situation that should be well-known terrain for a veteran defender.

Ajax’ miscommunications in the back line were frequent, and most of them could be dealt with through late tackles, but for Utrecht’s fourth goal the defensive line was all over the place. Ajax generally has its defense playing for offside in order to control the space behind the defensive line, but today the centre-backs and full-backs had all sorts of trouble keeping that offside line intact. For the fourth goal none of the four defenders even stayed on the same height of the pitch, and Mulenga was easily onside and in behind the defense.

Finally, Ajax’ fifth conceded goal will hopefully be seen as a demonstration that pragmatism should triumph over principle. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Dutch Disease’, consequently re-circulating the ball to your own goal keeper led to a series of precarious back passes, one of which ultimately saw Vermeer give possession away, only for Asare for fin the back of an empty net.

 

In the end

Matches like these can be described as either a ‘true goal fest’, or a painful series of defensive errors, and in terms of tactically reviewing a match the latter prevails. In honesty, both teams should have won this match based on their opponents short-comings and the fact that in offensive terms, they generally took advantage of the space presented.

For Utrecht, there may still be hope that Wouters will sort out this obvious problem of conceding acres of space in midfield, although his track record as manager before doesn’t serve to provide much confidence here.

And for Ajax, this may well be the most disappointing defensive performance of the season. The back line was all over the place, missing the communication that is essential in a team that aims to put pressure on their opponent, and therefore plays with a high defensive line. The substitution of Ooijer for Alderweireld introduced a painful series of problems in terms of (A) communication, (B) positioning, and (C) pace to make up for short-comings in either (A) or (B).

Utrecht 1 – 0 Groningen: Passing problems make Groningen lose the game

Utrecht finally managed a win after six consecutive Eredivisie draws and Groningen extended their losing streak to four games, making a Europa League play-off spot more likely than direct qualification. In not the best of games, Groningen set back and absorbed Utrecht’s pressure in the first half and paid the price for their abysmal build-up play early in the second half.

 

Two 4-2-3-1 formations

Both teams have consequently played 4-2-3-1 formations throughout the season, although Utrecht did shape up as 4-2-2-2 earlier when both Asare and Mulenga were still fit to play. Both teams operate from a quite fixed defense and midfield selection, while most variety arises from the attacking selection.

Two 4-2-3-1 formations. Note that Van Wolfswinkel and Strootman covered Groningen's passing midfielders Sparv and Holla very well, a crucial element of the game.

At Groningen Maikel Kieftenbelt and Danny Holla return to the squad after being left out against Heracles. Daryl Lachman lost his right-back spot after his unconvincing performance and Tom Hiariej was advanced into an unusual attacking midfielder role. This highlighted Groningen’s poor squad depth when it comes to offensive players. With Koen van der Laak out for the season with a knee ligament injury and offensive midfielder Andersson and strikers Pedersen and Matavz injured too, the squad is out of depth. Youngster Leandro Bacuna started in the lone striker position, even after he fell out of favor after his weak display against Roda last November.

Utrecht has had their striker issues too, although they are slowly climbing out of the deepest of worries. Despite still missing Asare and Mulenga, Utrecht saw some players return from injury during the past months. Top scorer Van Wolfswinkel, with an impressive goal scoring tally of one goal every 131 minutes, returned in the past month and strong striker Demouge, often used as a substitute, was fit enough to start from the bench again. Curiously, Van Wolfswinkel started behind young striker De Kogel, who saw his late equalizer against Roda rewarded with another start.

 

Messy first half

After having conceded 13 goals in the past three matches, Groningen primarily focused on their defensive issues. They conceded quite some goals from simple balls over the top, with the offside trap failing to do its job and the central defender’s speed not able to make up for it. As was neatly pointed out during Kenneth Perez’ half time analysis on Eredivisie Live, Groningen took a deep an compact stance. Even to the point where Bacuna, supposed to play the striker role, but used to playing in midfield, positioned himself rather deep inside his own half.

As a result, Groningen’s spells of possession were extremely short. They had all sorts of problems building from the back. On one hand, Bacuna’s deep stance deprived them of a decent outlet for longer passes. On the other hand, midfielders Sparv and Holla were well covered by Utrecht’s midfield and failed to work their way around this. Credit goes to Kevin Strootman who did an excellent just, pushing forward just enough to keep Holla and Sparv out of the game. The build-up was therefore a repeat pattern of long balls over and over again, either by Groningen’s central defenders, who are not the best passers around or their goalkeeper.

 

Groningen took a deep and compact stance, note striker Bacuna's position on Groningen's side of the midfield circle.

Manager Huistra could have improved things here by having either Holla or Sparv, who are renowned passers with an eye for the game, drop deeper, in between the central defenders. This would either drag Utrecht’s midfielders out, creating more space in the central midfield, or it would leave them some time on the ball to work out better passing options.

All the while, Utrecht did not succeed in turning their possession advantage into goal scoring chances. Their passing in the final third was often astray and the skilled dribbling of Dries Mertens on the left flank was their prime source of danger. Should Groningen have fixed their build-up issues, they could have taken more advantage of their strong left flank too, with Dusan Tadic’ dribbling and crossing and Frederik Stenman’s overlapping runs.

 

The second half

At the start of the second half Groningen seemed to have fixed their deep stance, but not their distribution issues. This ensured for more of an end-to-end game, but with Groningen low pass completion ratio, most chances fell to Utrecht. On one of these occasions Du Chatinier’s team capitalized through substitute striker Frank Demouge, who scored with a free header from a Mertens corner just two minutes after entering the pitch.

Groningen, as mentioned above, have a squad short on strikers. So, as expected, they had a difficult time turning this game around. Pieter Huistra did what he could, which, in this situation means he brought two youth players to the pitch. First, young and promising striker Norair Mamedov replaced Danny Holla. As Huistra stays consequent on the 4-2-3-1, this meant Bacuna and Hiariej both moved a line deeper. Only 19 year old, the youngster who currently leads the top scoring charts in the Dutch youth competition, could hardly be expected to fix the game while to more serious passing issues were still at hand. Later on, midfielder Danny Post was allowed to make his first senior appearance in the final minutes.

 

In the end

Groningen seemed to have fixed their defensive issue which led to them conceding thirteen goals in the three matches before this one, but still extended their losing streak to four now. Serious pass completion problems, caused by having their two passing midfielders shielded and their central defense resorting to long clearances, disturbed their game here. On top of that, injuries to Matavz, Pedersen and Andersson meant they ran out of option upfront. And with Matavz leaving for Napoli this summer, there’s a job to be done it that department for sure.

Utrecht, meanwhile, managed to win this game off the bench, with Demouge scoring an important header.  With their strike force returning just in time for the Eredivisie finale, expect Utrecht to qualify for the Europa League play-offs again.

Twente 1 – 0 Utrecht: Early red card decides the game

Twente managed a narrow win over an Utrecht side that got reduced to ten men after just twenty minutes of play. They saw the correct, but late, decision making of Preud’homme rewarded with the goal their numerical advantage on the pitch deserved.

Twente just came off a temperamental defeat to AZ this past weekend, where Preud’homme and fellow Twente staff members had a tough time keeping their cool in response to what they considered to be dubious decisions by referee Bossen. But tonight illustrated that these decision will eventually balance out as the slightly harsh and very early second yellow card for experienced Utrecht full-back Cornelisse provided the path for their qualification for the Dutch Cup final.

 

Without Ruiz and Douglas

The starting line-ups, which were in effect only until the early red card.

Twente obviously missed their wide playmaker Bryan Ruiz after his recurrent knee injury forced him to come off against AZ last weekend. Today formation contrasted with the rule of thumb that Twente goes 4-2-3-1 when both Janko and De Jong is included in the starting eleven and 4-3-3 when either of them is replaced by Landzaat. Versatile Luuk de Jong replaced Bryan Ruiz on the right wing, keeping the 4-2-3-1 intact. At left-back there was another start for Bart Buysse ahead of young Thilo Leugers.

At centre-back Twente missed Douglas, who sits out a six match suspension after his violent behavior against AZ. He was replaced by Rasmus Bengtsson, keeping Onyemu on the bench after his disappointing game against AZ.

 

Ongoing injury problems at Utrecht

While Twente may had had to slot in a few unusual starters for this game, Utrecht manager Du Chatinier has done so for most of the season so far. Mainly his attacking line-up has hardly been at full strength with Jacob Mulenga out since early November after tearing his cruciate ligaments. Furthermore, Nana Asare misses another four to six weeks with a meniscus injury, after already missing several months earlier this seaon.

Should he have a full strength squad for once, manager Ton de Chatinier prefers a 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-2-2 formation with Asare playing behind Van Wolfswinkel, who is regularly joined upfront by Mulenga, playing from the right wing. Dries Mertens tends to play a wide playmaker role from the left, looking to bring others into play with his pace and dribbling skills.

So with two of his presumed attacking four out, De Chatinier fielded a more defensive midfielder on the right wing. He obviously preferred to keep Mertens on his beloved left wing, looking to take advantage of Rosales’ defending, Twente’s weak link in defense.

 

 

An early red card

With the game still settling in and Utrecht proving quite match for Twente, the away side saw themselves reduced to ten men just twenty minutes into the game. Veteran right-back Cornelisse received to quick yellow cards, seeing his hopes to finish his career with a Cup final fall to pieces. Utrecht immediately switched things around in order to prevent themselves from getting overrun.

A 4-4-1 formation was the result, with Lenksy operating as a temporary right-back and Van Wolfswinkel in a lone striker role. Both lines of four were kept were tight with Silberbauer and Strootman playing close to an otherwise already deep back line. This successfully denied space for Twente’s creative players Chadli and De Jong to work in. As expected, Twente did dominate possession from that moment on, but the passing was often off the pace and hardly ever was there more than one passing option available.

At half time, Utrecht surprisingly replaced striker Van Wolfswinkel with right-back Van der Maarel. This meant another series of switches, although the compact 4-4-1 system that worked so well during the second part of the first half remained intact. Dries Mertens fulfilled the lone striker role with Lenksy now playing on the left side of midfield and Duplan on the right.

 

Twente’s problem

Although Utrecht’s deep stance made it easy for Twente to dominate the game possession-wise, they had hard time turning their possession into goal scoring chances. Their game plan was quite simple: crossing high balls into the box from deep positions, hoping that either Janko or De Jong would connect. In order to play this game, Luuk de Jong frequently joined Janko upfront, vacating the right wing. Denny Landzaat was the most likely candidate to fill in here, shifting Brama, whose holding midfield role was completely redundant, into a central midfield role beside Theo Janssen. But Landzaat is hardly the player you’d want to occupy a right wing role. And although wing-back Rosales provided support here, Twente failed to stretch Utrecht’s back line.

The formations at the time of Twente's late opening goal. Note Utrecht's compact 4-4-1 and the big gap to lone striker Mertens. And not the difference on Twente's right wing.

 

Twente’s solution

This problem was solved by Preud’homme, but only as late as in the 64th minute. Young winger Ola John, younger brother of Collins John, who enjoyed a five-year spell at Fulham after playing for Twente himself, entered the pitch to replace Landzaat. His wide right sided role immediately made a difference.

Utrecht’s back four, which by then consisted of  Van der Maarel-Silberbauer-Wuytens-Nesu as Alje Schut also had to leave the field injured, got strechted. As a result, space opened up for the creative game play of both Luuk de Jong and Nacer Chadli. And after Twente first hit the bar and the post, it was a matter of time before they scored the opening goal. As if to illustrate the solution of their problems, it was a right wing cross that set-up Mark Janko for a neat first post tap-in.

 

In the end

An early red card like this is almost always decisive, but in order to break down the compact 4-4-1 formation that Utrecht switched to, Twente needed to adapt. In the end they did, but it took half a match to figure that out and by then hope of survival had really settled in among Utrecht’s players. This unnecessarily toughened up Twente’s battle in an already tough fixture list at present.

Perhaps it’s these small managerial differences making a difference come the end of the nine game run to the finish of the Eredivisie and to the final stage of the Europa League.

FC Utrecht 0 – 0 Liverpool: A paradox of players committing themselves and managers holding their horses

FC Utrecht qualified for European Football by winning last year’s Eredivisie play-off and their Europa League qualification campaign, starting back in July, saw them defeating KF Tirana, FC Luzern and last but not least, former European Champions Celtic. Especially notable was the 4-0 home triumph over the higher rated Scottish side that featured in the Champions League group stages in three out of the past five seasons.

Utrecht’s season so far

Descibed as a young team with lots of potential, their campaign has certainly not gone unnoticed. Especially young striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel found himself in the spotlight of transfer speculation during the August transfer window, only to remain a Utrecht player for at least half a season more.

Utrecht has had quite a shaky start to their 2010/11 Eredivisie season so far. Losing all four of their away matches and in return, winning all three of their home matches (counting up until the Liverpool match that is). The first two matches of their mouth-watering Europa League group stage went quite a different way. After an excellent display in their first match away at Napoli they were perhaps a tad unlucky to come away with only a 0-0 draw. And now there’s the home 0-0 against a Liverpool side, that’s had a struggling start to their season, to throw in an understatement.

 

The starting line-ups

 

Utrecht’s preferred formation(s)

Utrecht manager Ton du Chatinier generally prefers to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. However, the recent injury problems to Utrecht’s forwards have forced some creativity from his side. Missing their influential wide player Dries Mertens, their formation tended more to a 4-2-2-2 and when Mulenga and Asare were injured too, they played a 4-1-4-1, only to find out that grinding out low scoring draws is not really their cup of tea.

Against Liverpool only Asare was still missing through injury, otherwise Utrecht’s full strength 4-2-3-1 was fielded. They play a split winger style with left-sided dribbler Dries Mertens providing a wide oulet and Jacob Mulenga playing more inside,  from the right, joining striker Van Wolfswinkel. Edouard Duplan replaced Asare in the central attacking midfield role.

Liverpool’s taste of 4-4-2

Liverpool fielded what could best be described as a 4-4-2 formation, although their midfield had quite a degree of positional freedom. On paper Meireles was the right sided midfielder, but he frequently drifted inside, looking for space. The same counted for Joe Cole, who started mostly from the left side. At moments throughout the game Liverpool played more of a 4-2-2-2 in this regard. Meanwhile, Kuijt roamed around Torres who occupied the most advanced role. Both Poulsen and Lucas played a very deep role, providing the stability for the before-mentioned positional liberties.

 

Liverpool's flat 4-4-2 in defense

 

In theory Utrecht’s three man midfield would provide with a 3 v 2 situation versus Liverpool’s Poulsen / Lucas combination. This did not work out, however, due to a number of reason. First, Duplan was often positioned too far upfront to be considered a force in midfield. Second, Liverpool’s Meireles played a very narrow midfield role, providing an extra hand in central midfield if necessary. Furthermore, this liberated Glen Johnson to display his prima quality, attacking down the right flank.

An even first half

This led to a rather even match without enough attacking support from either side to create any real goal scoring chances. Utrecht was a bit conservative in the sense that both full-backs played quite defensive role. Especially in a 4-2-3-1 versus 4-4-2 where Liverpool needed their midfield wide players to support the centre, an attacking role for the full-backs would be a good option.

Utrecht created a handful of chances in the first half, but these were mainly long range efforts, or blocked shots. The only real goal scoring opportunity came from a smart Mertens dribble after a corner was initially cleared, but his short found the hands of goalkeeper Reina.

The paradox of the second half

The second half initially saw more end-to-end play, even leading to both sided being only that bit away from opening the score. First an aerial bombardment with a corner series by Utrecht challenged Reina’s aerial capacities and upon clearance Kuyt crossed for Torres who only just missed the shot to finish a high-paced break.

As the match neared the final half hour a beautiful paradox became apperent. On one hand there were both sets of players throwing in an namirable amount of energy, especially notable with Utrecht’s physical labour in search of a win. On the other hand, both managers seemed content with keeping both defensive midfielders in their respective formations behind the ball at all times. With both teams effectively playing 4 v 8 in attack this contributed to the 0-0 final score line.

 

Why a 0-0 was always a likely result. Note Liverpool's eight-men defensive unit composed of four defenders (red), two holding midfielders (orange) and two wide midfielders (yellow). Utrecht throws only four men forward, hence the 4 v 8 situation.

 

In the end

The same holds true for this game as for the Napoli game. Utrecht will be proudly showing a 0-0 versus big name opponent in a few years from now. In reality, however, a bit more tactical endeavour might have brought a narrow 1-0 here. Too often Van Wolfswinkel found himself isolated and outnumbered upfront. But then again, with two points against Napoli and Liverpool, Utrecht still very much has everything to play for in this group.

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.

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…

Het voetbal is dood, leve het voetbal! Aftrap seizoen 2010/11: FC Utrecht – KF Tirana, 2e voorronde Europa League

Het is halverwege juli, de WKater trekt zich langzaam terug uit Nederland en de eerste officiële wedstrijd van een Nederlandse eredivisieclub in het seizoen 2010/11wordt straks gespeeld. Weet u nog? FC Utrecht won met overmacht de playoffs van het afgelopen seizoen door achtereenvolgens zowel FC Groningen als Roda JC zowel uit als thuis te verslaan. “Het is fantastisch voor de club en de stad dat we weer Europees voetbal halen”, zei Du Chatinier na afloop.

En dat fantastische begint vanavond met de dubbele ontmoeting met het Albanese Klubi i Futbollit Tirana, oftwel KF Tirana. Deze club werd de voorbije zestien seizoen maar liefst tienmaal landskampioen en speelde negen nationale bekerfinales waarvan er zes werden gewonnen. De deelname aan de voorrondes van de Europa League dwong KF Tirana af met de derde plaats in de competitie afgelopen seizoen. Dit was overigens pas de tweede keer in de laatste zeventien seizoenen dat KF Tirana het seizoen niet op een eerste of tweede plaats afsloot. Het deelt zijn stadion met aartsrivalen Dinamo en Partizani, maar speelt de grotere wedstrijden het nationale Kemal Stafa stadion, het grootste stadion van Albanië met 19.600 zitplaatsen. Voor KF Tirana, bekend als ‘het Ajax van Albanië’, zijn de afgelopen drie seizoenen aanmerkelijk slechter dan gebruikelijk verlopen en de verwachtingen voor het komende jaar worden niet geholpen door het vertrek van maar liefst acht basisspelers, waaronder speler-coach Devi Muka. De nieuwe coach, Sulejman Starova, kreeg wel de vrijheid om zeven nieuwe namen aan te trekken. Geholpen door de prestaties in het verleden was KF Tirana, op basis van de UEFA-coëfficient, nog wel geplaatst voor de eerste voorronde van de Europa League. Hierin werd Zalaegerszegi TE, de nummer 5 uit de Hongaarse competitie, na tweemaal 0-0 uiteindelijk in de verlenging uit met 0-1 verslagen. Het doelpunt viel uit een directe vrije trap van Erindo Karabeci, groot Albanees talent en aanvoerder van jong Albanië. Voor de die-hard fans is de wedstrijd hier in zijn geheel nog eens rustig te zien.

KF Tirana speelt naar verwachting met een 4-3-1-2 systeem waarbij de drie middenvelders zeer defensief zijn ingesteld en kort voor de vier-mans verdediging opereren. Het spitsenduo bestaat uit Plaku en Pejic, waarvan de laatstgenoemde transfervrij overkwam van het gedegradeerde Kroatische NK Sesvete.

Bij Utrecht vertrokken deze zomer vijf spelers. Voormailig aanvoerder Gregoor van Dijk kreeg het aan de stok met trainer Ton Du Chatinier en vertrok naar het Cypriotische AEK Larnaca. Het aflopende contract van Hans Somers werd niet verlengd en ondanks een korte stage bij Lierse, de club waar hij opgroeide, kwam het ook daar niet tot een nieuw contract. Vleugelspeler Gregory Schaken (nog geen nieuwe club), middenvelder Ken van Mierlo (RBC) en verdediger Vito Wormgoor (De Graafschap) zijn de overige vertrokken spelers.

Nieuwe krachten kwamen er in de vorm van drie jonge Australische talenten. Michael Zullo, 21 jaar en linker middenvelder, Adam Sarota, 21 jaar en aanvallende middenvelder en tenslotte Thomas Oar, 18 jaar en linker vleugelspeler kwamen alledrie van het Australische Brisbane Roar. Van dit trio maken in elk geval Sarota en Oar deel uit van de selectie voor het treffen met KF Tirana. FC Utrecht zal het vanavond in elk geval zonder WK-ganger Michel Vorm moet doen. Hij is fysiek wel fit, maar kan een beetje rust voor het nieuwe seizen wel gebruiken en wordt vervangen door Khalid Sinouh. Tenslotte ontbreekt ook de Deen Michael Silberbauer, afgelopen jaar toch goed voor dertig optredens in de basis bij FC Utrecht.

Verwacht, in lijn met het afgelopen seizoen, een 4-4-2 systeem van trainer Ton Du Chatinier. Spitsen Van Wolfswinkel, afgelopen seizoen 334 minuten per doelpunt, en Jacob Mulenga, 323 minuten per doelpunt, gesteund door gangmaker Dries Mertens zullen voor een swingender seizoen moeten zorgen dan het afgelopen jaar is gebeurd.

Tromgeroffel, stilte in de zaal… Het nieuwe seizoen gaat beginnen! En al is de atmostfeer waarschijnlijk niet die van een zinderende en kolkende uitverkochte Galgenwaard, we zijn onderweg en dat telt!