After a positive start to the season for both sides, the fixture between KV Mechelen and R.E Mouscron was to be a big test to see if either side could continue their upward trajectory in the early stages of this Belgian Pro League season. Mouscron started the game brightly, but would ultimately find themselves 2-1 down at half time. A tense second half followed, and they finally broke down a stubborn Mechelen defence to equalise in the 89th minute with the game ending 2-2.
The possession was evenly split: Mechelen had 47%, with Mouscron just edging it with 53%. The home side exceeded their XG (1.1) while the away side could have done more with their chances, as their XG stat was 2.47. Both sides had periods of domination but ultimately shared the points in an entertaining game.
This tactical analysis will look to provide an in-depth analysis into each side’s tactics, to analyse how each reacted to formations that appeared similar on paper but were executed quite differently on the pitch.
The home side, who are also the current Belgian Cup holders, had yet to settle on a starting formation, with numerous ones being tested out in their first five games. For this fixture, they opted for a 4-2-3-1. Rob Schoofs and Jordi Vanlerberge sat just in front of the defence with Igor de Camargo operating as the number ten behind Dante Vanzeir. Mouscron also went for two holding midfielders. Their right-hand side saw Nathan de Medina at right-back, with Jonathan Osabutey playing ahead of him in right midfield. The opposite side of the pitch saw Fabrice Olinga on the left of the three, with Rafal Pietrzak sitting just behind him.
Different interpretations of 4-2-3-1
Both teams started with a 4-2-3-1 formation, but chose to implement it in quite different ways: Mouscron had their defence pushed up very high, with an aim to constrict the game into a tight midfield battle, while Mechelen opted to sit deep and hit their opponents on the break. This was the reverse of what you would expect- usually, it is the home side who would look to push up further, and the away side happier to absorb pressure by having a deeper defensive line.
This image highlights where each team’s defensive line was set up. Both had one CB sitting slightly deeper, to cover/sweep in the case of a ball being played over the top. It meant the game was played mainly in the middle third of the pitch, not leaving much space for either set of midfielders to have time to turn and move into space.
Another difference between the teams was how they chose to deploy their four attacking players. Usually, in this formation, the number ten sits behind the striker, but in front of the two defensive midfielders. Both number tens in this game operated slightly differently.
For the home side, the number ten Camargo often found himself much closer to his teammates at the base of midfield. It allowed him to be able to pick up the ball in deeper positions, but if often left the striker without any real support. The right midfielder Onur Kaya and the left midfielder Nikola Storm stuck fairly loyally to their base positions, meaning Vanzeir was left isolated for large parts of the game.
Along with their more aggressive backline, Mouscron also pushed their wide midfielders into being essentially wingers and having their number ten much closer to the striker.
This gave them a much more sustained attacking presence, with all four forward players having much higher average positions. In addition, Deni Hočko was pushed much further up the pitch than his midfield counterpart, leaving them with only one holding player in front of the defence. While it should have aided their attacking prowess, in reality, they only had marginally more shots in total (12 to 11) and shots on target (4 to 3). So, despite having a more attacking and aggressive mindset in this game, it did not reward them with the three points.
Switching off at the worst time
Both sides were guilty of switching off defensively and conceding sloppy goals during the game. Simple things like tracking runners and being aware of opposing players entering the box were missing at times, proving costly for each team. Having gone ahead in the 19th minute, it was less than 10 minutes later that Mechelen found themselves level again. A quick break found them in a four-on-three, with the defenders running back towards goal.
The ball is played out from Marko Bakić in the middle to Osabutey on the right. At this stage, even though there is space for the right-midfielder to run into, there are plenty of covering defenders back to stop any ball into the box. However, in the next phase of play, all four defenders are found watching the ball, forgetting the man at the back post.
Every mans’ eyes are drawn to where the ball is, seemingly not at all concerned by Sami Allagui standing just inside the six-yard box. Allagui is hardly a prolific striker, with only 25 goals over the last eight seasons, but following a mishit of the shot, the ball landed kindly at his feet where he had no difficulty in tapping it in. Mechelen manager Wouter Vrancken would have been fuming on the touchline after witnessing such slack marking from his players.
Teams can sometimes be vulnerable just after scoring. They are focussed on pushing on for the next goal, and not fully concentrating on defending. Another lapse less than two minutes after the equaliser meant Mechelen were able to restore their lead. A throw-in on the left-hand side, then a clever pass round the corner saw the left midfielder playing a pass across the face of the Mouscron goal.
On the edge of the area, Hočko appears to have spotted the run of Mechelen attacker Kaya. But instead of following his run, moving across to intercept the pass, he stops sprinting and goes to close down the ball, despite there already being two of his teammates doing the same job. This allows Kaya to stroll to the edge of the six-yard-area unchallenged. Even at this point, Mouscron centre-back Diogo Queirós isn’t aware of this run, eyes focused on the ball instead of the space behind him. As with the earlier example, the ball is played across, resulting in a simple finish to make the score 2-1. Yet again it is another situation where both defenders switched off, focusing on the ball as opposed to the danger zones around them. Both teams have started this season brightly but will need to cut out these sorts of errors if their good form is to continue.
Not pressing centre-backs
Over recent years the idea of pressing centre-backs early has really come into fashion. This is partly as a way to win the ball back early, hoping to force an error and create a shooting opportunity near to the opponent’s goal. In addition, with centre-backs becoming competent passers, both short and long-range, it meant stopping chances being created at the source before they could develop. Mouscron manager Bernd Hollerbach had clearly not instructed his players to do this, allowing the Mechelen centre-backs plenty of time on the ball.
No attacking player is within 15 yards of Arjan Swinkels, meaning he had time to take a touch, look up, have a drink and read a newspaper, before playing a pass out to his left-back. It was only the 17th minute but you’d expect the away side to be putting their opponents under a bit of pressure, trying to unsettle them early on to show them it wasn’t going to be an easy game. Swinkels boasted a 97% pass completion in this game- mainly short balls into midfield or along the backline, but was also successful with 4 out of 6 of his attempted long passes. As he was playing confidently on the ball with good vision, it seems strange that in this early stage he was not pressed at all by the Mouscron front line.
Later during the game, with them being a goal down, you’d have expected the away side to be really chasing the game, pushing more men up to try and force an equaliser. While they were finally successful and scored in the dying minutes of the game, they still were affording the opposition centre-backs far too much time on the ball.
Again, Swinkels has clear short options, into midfield or out to the right, with the Mouscron number nine only slowly making his way across to put him under any sort of pressure. He played a simple pass out to the right-back Jules Van Cleemput who in turn had acres of space down the right to run into. It appears this was part of the plan all along, not to press high or wide, but to keep the middle of the pitch compact, leaving players in this area with limited space to play in. However, it just gave the Mechelen defenders ample time to get their head up, look for runs, and play passes into teammates.
With both KV Mechelen and R.E. Mouscron having started the season so positively, it was encouraging to see either side trying different things in an attempt to unlock each other’s defence. The tactics of both managers did well to nullify the main threats but will be annoyed when analysing the performances to see simple goals scored due to poor marking and not tracking runs into the box. If each side can look to cut out these errors on the training ground, then both can expect a healthy run towards the championship playoffs at the end of the season.
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