Having been comprehensively beaten by Arsenal 4-0 in the Europa League this week, Standard Liège would have hoped for an easier tie for their next fixture in the Belgian Pro League. Instead, they had to travel to Royal Antwerp, who have made a promising start to the season. Despite being 2-0 down after 55 minutes, Standard managed to dig deep to earn a 2-2 draw.
The home side went ahead midway through the first half, with Lior Refaelov converting a penalty. The Antwerp manager László Bölöni would’ve been thrilled by the way his side controlled the game, with Dieumerci Mbokani doubling their advantage not long after the restart. However, they were unable to see the game out, with a brace from Standard striker Renaud Emond earning his side a creditable draw away from home.
Royal Antwerp’s line up was host to a number of former Premier League names; along with Mbokani up front, Kevin Mirallas was on the left side of the midfield three, with former Burnley man Steven Defour anchoring the midfield. The two full-backs were Simen Juklerød on the left, with the Portuguese Aurélio Buta on the right. The Standard Liège manager Michel Preud’homme also opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation. The two centre-backs were Konstantinos Laifis and Zinho Vanheusden, with Gojko Cimirot and Samuel Bastien the holding midfielders tasked with protecting the back four. Selim Amallah was the number ten, playing just off of Emond who led the line.
Antwerp’s hard-working full-backs
The full-back position has evolved from a primarily defensive role to now where it has become a vital part of a team’s attack. From early on in this game it was evident that when Royal Antwerp had the ball, the two full-backs Buta and Juklerød were to push on to provide additional attacking options.
In this image we see that both of the full-backs looked to move into the space in front of them, to pin back the opposing full-backs. When this would happen, one of the two holding midfielders would drop in to receive a short pass. In this example it was captain Faris Haroun who moved back, to give his centre-backs an easy passing option.
While having wide, attacking, gung-ho full-backs can be a great aide going forward, it can sometimes leave defences exposed. For the most part, both Buta and Juklerad were very disciplined, tracking back when out of possession to join Dino Arslanagić and Wesley Hoedt, into a compact and narrow back four.
By doing this, it made it very difficult for the Standard strikers and attacking midfielders’ to create opportunities to play through the middle, as there were very few gaps to play into. This clearly demonstrates the tactical benefit of working as a unit when out of possession.
Having gone 2-0, the tactics shifted, with the full-backs instructed to sit in more to protect their lead instead of searching for more goals. However, it was only a few minutes when a small lapse in concentration saw their clean sheet disappear.
As the cross came in from the right-hand side, the two defenders in the box had pushed up, in an attempt to play the attackers offside. But as Arslanagić was stood still in a deeper position, it meant he was inadvertently played both onside, allowing a simple finish. This illustrates how when a defence doesn’t work as a unit, easy goals can be scored.
Standard Liège’s quick counter-attacks
It is likely that Michel Preud’homme would have been aware of Antwerp’s attacking full-backs, so his tactics were to hit them on the counter, looking to get the ball into gaps in behind Buta and Juklerad, before they had a chance to get back into position.
After winning the ball back, the two wide midfielders Mehdi Carcela and Maxime Lestienne would look to rush forward, to exploit any gaps left behind. The plan would be to then leave them one-on-one with the centre-backs, who would need to decide whether to close them down or mark the space in the middle.
While this plan of action was effective, when Standard were unable to advance quickly and had to slowly build moves, they often found their players outnumbered and struggled to make clear cut chances.
This especially got more complicated as the game progressed, where there was less and less space to be found behind the Antwerp full-backs, as their starting positions became much deeper and narrower. So even though it was in the second half that Emond scored both of his goals, in actual fact Standard looked a lot less threatening as their counter-attacks had been largely nullified.
Mbokani, isolated and frustrated from poor service
It can be difficult playing as the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as it can lead to being isolated at the far end of the pitch without much support. The former Norwich and Hull City striker Mbokani definitely struggled at times to make an impact on the game.
When Antwerp won a penalty in the 22nd minute, a fight almost broke out between Mbokani and Refaelov, with the striker having to be pulled away and not celebrating when the goal was scored. It is possible that this affected his overall game, as lack of movement and poor touches implies that he wasn’t quite 100% right during the game.
While it is always more likely for a striker to give the ball away than a defender or a midfielder, that 30.6% of his touches were unsuccessful is quite a damning stat.
His struggles were not solely his fault, as sometimes the deliveries into the box were not accurate. Despite the full-backs pushing up to offer extra width, this didn’t help as their crosses towards the middle would often not find the striker.
In this example, the Congolese striker made an intelligent run towards the penalty spot, confident that he’d be able to get to the ball before the defender. But the cross was whipped in too quickly, running out for a throw-in. In total, only 26% of the crosses made by Antwerp players found, so it is easy to see why this poor service left him frustrated.
While it was not necessarily a vintage performance from the number nine (in position, his shirt number is 70) like all good strikers he was able to take full advantage of the one good chance he had.
From just inside his own half, Buta’s ball was inch-perfect, with Mbokani not having to alter his run. While his touch was poor and it allowed the defender to take the ball off him, following confusion between Vanheusden and the goalkeeper Arnaud Bodart, the Antwerp striker was able to nip in and poke home his sixth goal of this Belgian Pro League season. So even being isolated & receiving poor service for the majority of the game didn’t blunt his sharpness for scoring important goals.
This tactical analysis demonstrates that Royal Antwerp really went for their opponents in this Belgian Pro League fixture, clearly not intimidated by coming up against a historically bigger side. Their full-backs worked incredibly hard in getting forward to support attacking moves and mostly tracked back to form a compact back four when out of possession. Standard Liège grew into the game and refused to lie down and take a beating as they had in the previous game against Arsenal. They reacted well to being two goals behind, by exploiting the space behind the opposing full-backs and capitalising on a poor offside trap to leave the game with the points shared.
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