Club Brugge came out on top in the tight Belgian Cup encounter against Zulte Waregem. From an analysis perspective, it was a close game, but one that Club Brugge could have won. This tactical analysis explores the tactics deployed by both clubs in the tie.
Club Brugge head coach, Phillipe Clement featured a 3-5-2 with Simon Deli, Brandon Mecheli and Clinton Mata in defense. Eduard Sobol and Thibault Vlietnick featured on the flanks. The three-man Midfield consisted of Hans Vanaken, Mats Rits, and Ruud Vormer. The two forwards were Loïs Openda and David Okereke. Simon Mignolet was the goalkeeper and Vormer was captain. This strong starting lineup underlies the importance of the game to Clement.
Zulte Waregem head coach, Francky Dury opted for a 4-3-1-2. Edward Pletinckx and Olivier Deschacht at centre-back. Davy De Fauw and Sandy Walsh were the full-backs. Damien Marcq was the midfield anchor with Abdoulaye Sissako and Ibrahima Seck on both sides. Saido Berahino was the attacking midfielder. Gianni Bruno and Henrik Bjørdal were the two strikers. Sammy Bossut featured in goal for the visitors.
This was a cagey match, for no other reason than the fact that both sides had excellent defensive structures. This is not to say that both teams simply sat back, on the other hand, there were chances for goals. It was more about how both teams attacked to defend. Even during the midfield duels, one could still see the defensive intent of both teams.
Zulte Waregem’s man-marking
Zulte Waregem did not have many chances to attack, scoring a single goal through Simon Mignolet’s moment of madness. Therefore, the emphasis of their tactical approach is on the way they chose to defend.
It is worthy to note that Zulte Waregem had a solid defensive structure in every area of the pitch. While most teams defend as a low block and give their opponents all the chances in the world to hoard possession, Zulte Waregem still tried to win the midfield and create attacks of their own. Against a Club Brugge side that is running rampant at the moment, this was risky.
Club Brugge like to play direct passes behind the defense. These tactics allow them to instantly bypass their opposition’s midfield and transition into advanced positions quickly. Other teams have tried to cancel out Club Brugge’s attack by reducing Brugge’s time on the ball with intense pressing. This has usually bent the defending team out of shape. Others just prefer to sit deep and allow Brugge to dominate possession. This usually cancels the prospect of a counter-attacking threat, hence Brugge would pour men forward. Therefore, Club Brugge has romped to many huge victories.
Dury understood the nature of the threat against his team. He responded with a tactic, which for many periods during the game, Club Brugge’s mighty attacking machine failed to figure out. Dury’s strategy was simple, so simple it might make you laugh. First, Zulte Waregem created the illusion that Club Brugge’s signature direct passing could work against them. This illusion was created by the deployment of a high defensive line, which, in itself is a paradox. Zulte Waregem had the majority of their players behind the ball, yet, the defensive line was not so low, so it could not be called a low block. The effect of this is that Club Brugge was invited to play through balls. more often than not, those through passes were intercepted by Zulte Waregem’s solid defence.
This illustration shows just how many men Zulte Waregem were willing to put behind the ball. As noted, there are only three men beyond the ball. Berahino operated as an attacking midfielder. Should the ball be won, He is well-positioned to receive it and play with the two forwards, Bruno and Bjørdal. In this way, this high defensive line allowed for Zulte Waregem to turn defense into attack in an instant.
This single shape had two effects on the way Zulte Waregem defended. First, it allowed Zulte Waregem to start defending from the midfield often forcing Club Brugge to make a back pass. The moment an opponent started a run into an advanced position, a Zulte Waregem player would pick him up and follow him immediately. This reduced the chances of being hurt from those devastating through balls which Club Brugge play so well. They did this by creating a hexagonal shape in midfield.
Here, while the forwards aren’t putting pressure on the Club Brugge’s build-up play, they affect the fluency of the attack. Since the Zulte Waregem forwards are supporting the efforts of the midfield, the defensive line of Zulte Waregem is maintained.
In this midfield shape, Zulte Waregem ensured that they were still solid at the back while each member of the shape was directly marking an opponent. This made it possible for Zulte Waregem to track the runs of the Club Brugge players, as illustrated below.
Here, Vanaken is going in to receive a through-pass. However, he’s being closely followed by the Zulte Waregem midfielder. This is the kind of pressure that was deployed by Dury.
This man-marking proved to be very effective in stopping Club Brugge as every man was contained by an opposition player.
Man-marking was used to stop attacks in the final third and to stop them from ever getting there. In this situation, Vormer is making a forward run but has been immediately picked up by his opposite number. Hence, Zulte Waregem often intercepted such forward passes.
As the statistics suggest, Zulte Waregem surpassed Club Brugge in terms of pressing intensity by at least 8 points in each half. Goes to show that the team was hardworking off the ball.
The result of such intense pressing was a compilation of many interceptions and clearances.
Club Brugge’s dot – dot – dash
Club Brugge’s goal scoring form this season has been very good. Garnering over 38 goals in just 18 games in the season means they’ve scored an average of 2.5 goals per game in the league. This kind of goal scoring form is not down to luck. It is down to an elaborate style of build-up play from the back all the way to the opposition defence. I’ve noted two tactical plays that contribute to the effectiveness of this system. The first is the ‘dot – dot – dash’ and the second is ‘smoke screens and mirrors’. I’ll go further into detail as to how both tactics were deployed against Zulte Waregem.
Club Brugge attacks were two dimensional. Sometimes they built up play and other times they hit direct through passes from deep to the forwards. Their passing was like morse code, ‘dot-dot-dash.’ It gave Club Brugge a certain fluidity in moving the ball around. They played short passes in midfield to retain possession by moving around a lot (dot). This gave the forwards and fullbacks time to make their runs behind the opposition defence. Then, when the run had started and the intended receiver was in a good position, the person in possession would break the cycle of short passes and release a direct/long pass into space. This way, Club Brugge was often able to get into dangerous positions.
Club Brugge’s attack is set up in several triangles. The players move within the shape but always maintain a triangle. This ensures that Club Brugge can exchange passes easily as there are always passing options close by.
Note Openda and Okereke on the edge of the last defender, ready to receive the final pass.
Smokes and mirrors
Zulte Waregem gave Club Brugge a hard time by tracking those runs behind the defense. This meant that their usual style of passing would not be enough. To create space in attack, Brugge would deploy a flat forward line consisting of the forwards and midfielders. The full-back would then look to start a move by playing the midfielder in. This midfielder would drop slightly deep and would be followed by a Zulte Waregem player. As a result, the Zulte Waregem man who tracked the Club Brugge midfielder would leave some space behind him. This created space for the forward to receive the ball in a dangerous position.
Brugge also deployed late runs to get the ball behind the defense. For this to work, there had to be an obvious option to receive a short pass so it would seem as though the intention was simply to retain possession. By the time Zulte Waregem noticed the late run from Vanaken, Vormer or any of the full-backs, there would have been enough space for a through ball. The aim of these plays was usually to get into a semi-wide position, in order to play an in-depth pass or early cross.
This position creates some interesting possibilities. Vanaken makes a late run, and so does Openda who runs behind the defense. This creates the opportunity for Vanaken to receive the pass in that half-space in midfield. Then, lay it off to Openda behind the defense. If not for Zulte Waregem’s hardworking defense, they would have conceded a lot of dangerous chances.
In another example, the obvious, safe option is to pass the ball to the full-back who has come to support the attack. Another option is to cross the ball. However, obviousness is an illusion. You can see a half-space in the Zulte Waregme defense. Vanaken is making his way there and so is Openda. Receiving the ball in that position would create a solid chance for a pass across goal or an in-depth pass. This is considerably more dangerous than either of the first two obvious options.
As seen in this factsheet, Club Brugge played a lot of progressive passes with the intent of cutting the opposition open.
It was an interesting contest as both managers managed to deploy tactics that cancelled out the strategy of the other. In such cases, it always comes down to the focus and technical excellence of the players. Still, Club Brugge could have won the game had they taken their half-chances better.