Mechelen and Standard Liege promised us a tight Belgian 1st division A-League fixture. The tactics were billed to be cagey. Neither Standard Liege nor Mechelen went into the game on the back of an impressive form. Despite their position on the table, neither team have been very impressive this season. With not much between the two, it was difficult to predict who would come out on top. The fixture lived up to its billing of a close encounter. In this match analysis, we do a tactical analysis of the tactics deployed by Mechelen and Standard, and how it leads to the result after 90 minutes.
Mechelen are a ball playing team. They exchange short, fast passes and play adventurous passes forward. Their style is usually not enough to break down defenses and they have conceded a lot of goals. With a negative goal difference, Mechelen went into the game with 34 points, hoping to boost their chances of qualifying for the championship stage of the competition. For this game, Mechelen made four changes to their starting line up.
A once Champions League side, Standard now have a similar story. They went into the game with one win in five games. Although their recent win against Zwolle in a friendly would have boosted their confidence going into the match. For Standard, it was a matter of building on that win to get a result against Mechelen. They would be hoping to garner some momentum going forward. For this game, Standard made three changes to the starting lineup.
Mechelen style of play
Mechelen played with a traditional 4-4-2 and kept possession by stringing short passes together. In this shape, the two defensive wingers alternated their roles from wing-back to full-back. When the right full played with attacking intent, the left wing-back would play with defensive duties. Although, more often than not the right full-back took the attacking initiative.
This shape affected Mechelen’s build-up play in that they had enough men and space to patiently build up their attacks.
This was the classic scenario in the Mechelen build-up phase. The tactical aim of this was to transition smoothly into midfield while retaining possession. Jordi Vanlerberghe and Aster Vranckx played as box-to-box midfielders. They would drop deep to support the build-up play and the transition into midfield. Note Valnlerberghe moving forward into space, the aim of that was to provide an immediate option for a one-touch pass. Jules Van-Cleemput, the full-back has also strayed centre, to provide passing options. With this tactic, Mechelen did not have to play back passes too often. This build-up also allowed them to keep possession.
This, however, was ineffective going forward, Standard chose to standoff. As illustrated in Fig 2, Mechelen have the possession but there is little they can do with it. This is because Standard have most of their men behind the ball. The circled white shirt in the Mechelen defense is the only Standard player that’s not behind the ball. However, Standard’s compact shape provided an opportunity to use the width as illustrated in fig 3
Mechelen wide midfielders have the luxury of space on the wing, making them good prospects for receiving passes.
When either of the wide players received the pass, the corresponding midfielder would run into the space illustrated above. This created an opportunity for one of the strikers to drop into midfield and form a constantly moving triangle and create passing combinations.
Mechelen build-up play linked with their style of attack but as mentioned earlier, Standard preferred to keep their men behind the ball. This made it difficult for Mechelen to find a breakthrough. This was even more effective as the Mechelen Full-back, Winger and box to box midfielder would pass among each other. Very often, this was their primary method of transitioning to attack. In the attacking phase, the 4-2-4 shape meant that they had a lot of men disturbing the Standard defense. The fullbacks also helped the cause, allowing the wingers to play centrally and creating a five-man front line. The box to box midfielders then provided support as they were the orchestrators of the through passes.
The triangle allowed Mechelen to combine passes, so as to create space. The left fullback in this scenario has pushed into an advanced position, allowing Nikola Storm to play centrally.
In this scenario, Mechelen’s two strikers are preparing to make a run behind the defense and receive the through the pass.
However, Mechelen found penetration hard to come by. They simply could not hold possession long enough in the final third. When they did get the ball close enough to cause damage, they could only hit through passes and early crosses. Standard simply made life hard for them. This is reflected by the fact that Mechelen did not have a single clear cut chance. The individual brilliance of Igor de Camargo should be commended. He took his half chances well. Although, they were more aggressive in the second half, where they hit more crosses. Onur Kaya and Valenberghe played the role of provider, never tired of crossing the ball.
The teams were evenly matched and Mechelen, while holding most of the possession, did not garner a lot of attacking pressure. This was a match that was played predominantly in the middle of the park and Standard did very well in this regard. They did not attempt to hoard possession, preferring to quickly get the ball forward. This is reflected in even the build-up. More often than not, Zinho Vanheusden and Konstantinos Laifis looked to play the long ball to Obbi Oularé, who played as a target man. His physicality was perfect for the role, allowing him to dominate opponents and play a one-touch pass to a near-by teammate.
In situations like this, Oularé would receive a long pass and instantly lay it off to the attacking midfielder. For this to work, there had to be one man close by, always. The aim was to get the ball forward as quickly as possible. However, that changed as Mechelen reduced the intensity of the initial press.
For Standard, the build-up was more of an instant attack than a transition to attack. Their tactic was to push as high as possible and receive the long ball. They preferred to run at their opponents when they had possession, although they did string a couple of short passes together. They played with a 4-2-3-1, which allowed them to instantly have a lot of men upfront, with the two midfielders having both attacking and defensive duties.
This part of Preud’homme’s tactics is what I find most fascinating. They weren’t too aggressive in the counter-press, preferring to create pockets of space, begging the opposition to come into it. This allowed them to easily predict the channels which Mechelens runs and passes would go through. As soon as the pass was released, they would close the opponent down. It was like luring Mechelen into a trap and it almost always worked.
The Mechelen centre-back has been given space to move into. As soon as he makes the move, three Standard players are preparing to close him down.
Such spaces were also given in the middle of the park, allowing Mechelen greater freedom on the ball. Mechelen, however, could not use this space effectively as it was taken away almost as soon as it was given. In this illustration, the Mechelen midfielder has found some space. But he does not expect to be closed down by two white shirts as soon as he proceeds to get into that space.
Most of their pressing was also done in the midfield. They gave considerable space to their opponents during the build-up but switched up once the ball got into the midfield. Their strategy was to press and try to intercept, then instantly fall back if it was unsuccessful. The double Pivot was especially responsible for this. Since Mechelen played a lot of short one-touch passes. The standard midfielder would track a player after passing the ball and moving into space. Effectively canceling the option of that player receiving the ball back.
Standard’s attacking strategy was to commit many men into the box and pump the ball toward their general area. Other than this, they mostly played long balls forward, hoping that the attackers would break the Mechelen defensive line. Other times, they made forward runs, exchanged passes and took rather adventurous shots. Since Mechelen kept a lot of men behind the ball, they didn’t have much to fear in the way of a counter-attack as one centre midfielder always stayed back.
Here, Standard have created the most effective kind of attack they managed to put together. Coming in from the flank with three men in the middle and one midfielder drifting on the edge of the box to gather the loose balls.
It’s the same situation here, but the full-back has joined the attack, looking to run in behind the defense.
The story in stats
Looking at the statistics, It’s obvious that neither team really had the upper hand. This is also reflected in the quality of the chances that were created as illustrated below.
As the xG stats suggest, the best of Standard’s chances were created when they attacked through the right. This paid off in that their three goals were from the same position in the box. That says more about Mechcelen’s defensive woes that Standard’s attacking prowess. With neither team managing to create a clear cut chance, it was down to the individual brilliance of the players. Standard players rose to the occasion.
There was very little to separate the two teams. They both came into the fixture needing points. It was always going to be a cagey affair as neither side expected to dominate the other. As a result, both teams were locked in a midfield battle, looking for a breakthrough. Mechelen’s passing was ineffective against Standard’s supposed aggression in the press. With neither team managing to create a clear cut chance, it was down to the individual brilliance of the players. Standard players rose to the occasion.