In the depths of the Eredivisie there has been a team that has not only seen amazing spectators with beautiful football but has also left teams like PSV and Feyenoord in the dust. Arne Slot and his AZ Alkmaar have been one of the best teams, statistically and stylistically, in the Eredivisie.
Appointed on July 1, 2019, the Dutch manager has instilled an enjoyable playing style at the, peculiarly nicknamed, Cheeseheads. His team currently sit second in the league table – just six points behind league leaders Ajax.
In this tactical analysis, we will show you the tactics behind Slot’s team and what has propelled them to this position. Specifically, in this scout report, we’ll dive into an analysis of the Cheeseheads’ playing style.
Alkmaar’s brilliant exploitation of the wing spaces
Alkmaar are statistically great at attacking. Their goal creation is an astounding 2.43 goals per 90 minutes – Ajax’s goal creation stands at 3.29 goals per 90 minutes. Despite this, it is really impressive for a lesser team to be recording these statistics in a highly competitive league.
In the same attacking department, the Cheeseheads record an amazing four goals and assists per 90 minutes. With statistics like those, it has seen Alkmaar record massive victories over opponents not only in the Eredivisie but also in the Europa League.
In their Group L, they have scored 15 goals in five matches. Even their xG shows that they consistently create high-goal scoring chances. Per 90 minutes, in the Europe League, they have an xG of 2.52 – a statistic close to their actual three goals per 90 minutes.
As such, Alkmaar have shown that their attacking records are not just a result of a “honeymoon” period or a simple purple patch. They have a systematic way of creating these high-scoring chances and matches.
So what makes the Cheeseheads tick when they attack?
One of Slot’s key attacking tactic is to exploit the wing area. However, the way Alkmaar exploit this space does not follow normal trends. In fact, they rank lower than Ajax in terms of crosses per game – 15 compared to Ajax’s 20.
The first step to understanding Alkmaar’s exploitation of the wing area is to understand the unique and interesting relationship between the Alkmaar’s full-backs and attacking midfielders.
All the full-backs and wingers of Alkmaar, like almost all the players of the Cheeseheads, are very comfortable with the ball and are extremely technical in playing in small spaces. As such, whenever the full-backs and the wingers receive the ball, they are able to get out of high presses and continue attacking.
This translates to the first facet of this unique relationship between the full-back and the attacking midfielder. Playing in a 4-2-3-1, it is critical for the full-back and the attacking midfielders to be fluid in their positioning – any losses of possession in the wings can lead to the team being opened up on the flank.
As such, whenever one of Alkmaar’s full-backs receives the ball, they always take the primary step in attacking – this impetus forces the opposition to react to the movements of the ball.
Next, the second step in understanding this relationship is to analyzse the positioning of the full-backs and the attacking midfielders. Often times, the full-backs will situate themselves a few yards away from the opposition full-back. Normally, full-backs stay wide as to allow the attackers to progress through the half-space
However, Alkmaar’s full-backs like to come inside the pitch slightly. The intention behind this is to open themselves as a safe passing option for their teammates.
Next, the attacking midfielders of the Cheeseheads situate themselves between the midfield and defensive line. This means that not only are they always moving around and are fluid in their positioning, it also means that they are easily able to interact with their fellow full-back.
Here we see the full-back of the Cheeseheads in slightly narrow position to the opposition full-back. Notice the attacking midfielder of Alkmaar who sits right between the gap of the defensive and midfield line.
One can see that this proximity of positions can lead to interesting relationships between the attacking midfielder and the full-back.
The profiles and positioning of the full-back combine into the actual movements undertaken by these two players.
One of the first common movements is for the midfielder and the full-back to attract play in the deeper area near the flanks. They do this by playing short, intricate passes and often engaging in combination play with one of the more deep-lying midfielders. This movement attracts the defensive block in that space to come deeper as well, which vacates space in the wing area.
From here, the midfielder and full-back are able to play penetrative passes behind the defence that allow Alkmaar to exploit that space.
In this picture, we see the attacking midfielder position himself between the Alkmaar player thereby putting him in blindside – the area where players can’t see.
The midfielder and full-back play some short passes and draw their positions deeper. Notice how the opposition players are drawn in. The players are occupying the same space and are not staggered which creates space behind the opposition’s defence.
A simple curved pass or a lobbed ball will release the ball into the space allowing Alkmaar to attack on the wings and create a 1v1 on the wings.
As we can see in this picture, the full-back, due to his technical profile, is able to make a pinpoint pass to the attacking midfielder who has now turned to attack that space.
Movements like these allow Alkmaar to create attacks spontaneously, adding an element of unpredictability to their wings as the opposition doesn’t know whether they’ll attack through the wings or through the centre.
The second common movement involves a direct interaction between the two players. Often times, the full-back will receive the ball and start going inwards. At the same time, one of the attacking midfielders will start going to the touchline.
This inversion of positions and the fact that it happens at the same time confuses the defenders as to what players to mark. The Alkmaar players take advantage of this as the full-back makes a pass to the midfielder with his weaker-foot.
This catches the defence off-guard, which has been setting its eyes upon the inward movement of the full-back. All of a sudden, the Cheeseheads have created ample space in the box and they have one of their attacking midfielders on the ball.
From here, two of Alkmaar’s most used options are to make cut-backs or low crosses.
Here two opposition players press the full-back. The full-back dribbles towards the right, shown in white. At the same time, the attacking midfielder makes a run opposite to the full-back’s movement.
The full-back will be able to slip a curved pass to the attacking midfielder, via his left foot, and as such making his teammate have a lot of space to operate in.
In this picture, the attacking midfielder has plenty of space to work in. He can either slip in a low cross or try to make a curved cross that forces the goalkeeper to wait until anyone acts on it.
Creating situations like these, regularly, is a sign of a team’s attacking ingenuity and also of the efficacy of the tactics they use. In a simple move, they have been able to create space in the box of the opposition.
Another common movement undertaken is to have the full-backs dribble up the pitch. Their technical profiles make it so that they are able to do this for many yards and evade few tackles as well.
All the while an attacking midfielder occupies himself between the full-back and the centre-back. This occupation of space means that the full-back can easily pass to the midfielder who then plays a one-touch pass ahead.
The full-back has continued this run and is now looking at a low cross. However, instead of directly looking to play it, the full-backs usually stop and pass to the attacking midfielder. Since the momentum was forward, this sudden backwards shift creates space for the attacking midfielder who can then make through-balls.
In this picture, the full-back dribbles upwards. Notice that the Alkmaar attacking midfielder positions himself between the two opposition midfielders – this makes it difficult for the opposition midfielders to pick him up.
The full-back has passed to the midfielder who expertly uses one touch to redirect the ball forwards. The full-back will then be able to take this possession and since the opposition player marking him is one or two steps behind, the Alkmaar full-back will just enough time to squeeze drag the ball behind and work it to the midfielder.
Since the momentum has shifted, the midfielder will have enough time to find a cut-back in the box.
Alkmaar’s unique use of centre-backs in the attack
Slot has set up his team in a possession-based system meaning that they want to build up through the back to create space and, consequentially, create high goal-scoring chances.
Normally, many teams choose to focus on a general pattern of centre-backs splitting up and a defensive midfielder dropping deep to facilitate ball progression. Moreover, this midfielder facilitates play and spots openings in the formation created by the movement of his teammates.
Alkmaar do this but have added a Dutch tweak that allows them to be superior in attacking whilst having defensive balance.
In an unusual tactical set-up, Slot sets a three at the back when Alkmaar are firmly stationed in the opposition’s half. However, this is not a normal back three.
Having lined up in a 4-2-3-1, the two full-backs go higher up the pitch which leaves two centre-backs in the back. In a twist, one of the centre-backs ventures upwards leaving one centre-back at the back.
Simultaneously, one of the members of the pivot drops slightly deeper to pair up with the advanced centre-back. On the other hand, the second member of the original pivot goes upfield to join the attack. As such, the Cheeseheads have a three at the back that is inverted.
Here one member of the original pivot, shown in black, has moved up to be a part of the attack. In response, one of the two centre-backs has come up as advanced to form a triangle with the second member of the original pivot.
As one can see, this is an inverted triangle, one that maximises the number of men Alkmaar can utilise in attack without risking too many counter-attacks.
This unusual set-up brings forth some very interesting attacking tactics.
First of all, both centre-backs are poised with the ball and as such, whichever one advances, Alkmaar gain another player who is able to spot out the spaces left by the movement of the teammates.
In essence, Alkmaar add another player in their attack – making it a 9v10 as opposed to a standard 8v10.
Because of this extra person, Alkmaar can often have four to five midfielders between the opposition’s lines. The addition of one or two more midfielders in these lines means that the Cheeseheads always have high technical profiles present in the attack.
Additionally, the addition of a player means that Alkmaar are able to find an extra-man almost always which in turn allows them to crowd certain areas and very fluidly work themselves out and find open situations.
This is where the full-back and the attacking midfielder partnership comes into play as these two players’ dynamic relationship means that a wing overload is able to be exploited with much more potency.
Here we can see the effects of this tactical tweak. In a block of six, there are four members occupying the space between the lines. As such, it is hard for the opposition defence to man-mark players as that would risk being too open.
Moreover, as the ball is playing, another Alkmaar player makes a curved run to add more fuel to the fire. Scenarios like this show just how much attacking control Alkmaar can exert due to the tactical tweak regarding the centre-backs.
Coming too close would open spaces while staying open would alienate the midfield and the defence too much. As such, they have to wait but seeing that Alkmaar’s players are tenacious and technically strong, this would result in countless through-balls being created.
On the other side, the same tactical tweak gives them defensive security.
One of the biggest complaints of the pivot is that when he gets dragged too far, it can leave the defence exposed to much more wider attacks.
This pivot stops that from happening from counter-attacks.
As soon as the ball is lost, the advanced centre-back and the midfielder drop down to the level of the deepest centre-back. The midfielder can be a little advanced which sees this peculiar back-three take on a standard form.
Three at the back are adept at dealing with wider attacks as the wide centre-backs can split off to deal with wider attacks knowing that at least one centre-back will remain in the centre, thereby protecting the central space.
Alkmaar’s resolute press means fewer attacks
While it is every fan’s dream to see their team engage in attacks, fewer are as enthusiastic about defence.
However, Alkmaar fans don’t have to worry about that aspect as the Dutch side has conceded the least goals in the Eredivisie, only eight goals in fourteen matches.
The only other team in the big European leagues that has scored close to as many goals as Alkmaar is England’s Leicester City who have scored 31 goals and conceded eight.
Part of that stems from Alkmaar’s effective pressing structure which limits the amount of defensive actions that the team undertakes.
This is evident as Alkmaar attempt the fewest tackles in the whole of Eredivisie, only having 22.4 per 90 minutes.
So how do Alkmaar press effectively?
There are two components to their press – both which take on their variations depending on the situation.
The first component of the press, done first as well, is a containment press. A containment press is one in which the team organises their team in such a way that the opposition are contained within certain parameters and forced to look for other avenues.
Like themselves, many teams in the Eredivisie also play possession-based systems. As such, much like Alkmaar, these opposition teams want Alkmaar to press them in the back so that they can build up and counter-attack.
Alkmaar do the exact opposite of this, not pressing at all when the ball is with the centre-backs. Instead, they apply a containment press, preventing the teams to play through their preferred avenue: the centre of the pitch.
Alkmaar accomplish this by maintaining their 4-2-3-1 formation, using their attacking midfielders to man-mark the central midfielders. This forces the opposition team to build through other avenues, which is where Alkmaar initiate the second component of their press.
Here there is no immediate pressure applied to ball-carrier as he is part of the defensive line. Pressing this line would mean opening themselves to counter-attacks and Alkmaar don’t want to do that.
However, notice they have put a containment press in the midfield. The two midfielders in the middle are being man-marked by a pair of Alkmaar midfielders. Further teammates upfield are also being man-marked by Alkmaar players.
This forces the opposition team to build through the wings rather through the centre and now Alkmaar can control how the ball moves, thereby increasing their chances of possessing the ball.
The second component of this press is to initiate an aggressive press where options to pass back are effectively blocked as much as possible. As part of this aggressive press, full-backs will push up to hurry any ball-carriers on the wings while if any passes are played into half-spaces, centre-backs will come up to apply pressure.
In the end, the fact that the play is happening through the wings and the whole team is pressing means that Alkmaar are able to crowd out their opponents and win the ball effectively.
Here the striker covershadows an Astana player – blocking that passing lane. Moreover, he does a curved run which blocks the passing lane backwards. A nearby Alkmaar midfielder covershadows another Astana teammate, forcing the ball-carrier to pass backwards.
Their aggressive press has resulted in a pass back which is good because it means that a potential attack has been halted.
Here Alkmaar ups their pressing intensity. Almost every Astana player in the centre is being man-marked by a Cheeseheads player making play through the centre impossible. Notice how many people are being committed to the press – showing that Slot wants his team to press as a team.
This number means that if need be, the Cheeseheads can crowd out certain areas and gain the ball through sheer numerical superiority.
The defender loses control of the ball and here, the advantages of the press come apparent. Having man-marked the key players, any losses of the ball will mean that Alkmaar will immediately be able to take advantage.
This threat puts extra pressure on the opposition defenders, increasing their likelihood to make mistakes and misplaced passes.
While it is still early, Alkmaar have established themselves nicely in the Eredivisie. Under Slot, they have been playing expansive football – much to the fans’ delight – and scoring a lot of goals.
This goal-scoring frenzy combined with their defensive resoluteness has seen them climb to second. While they are not first, Slot and his team should be proud. They are producing and playing very similarly, if not better, to one of the most dominant teams in the Eredivisie.
It seems that Ajax will have the toughest competition this year. Alkmaar have also held themselves against some of the biggest clubs – principal of them being Manchester United.
Alkmaar have produced something special – something which is a testament to Slot’s coaching abilities but also the excellent nature of the Eredivisie.
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