A battle at the very top of the table, both teams went into the game with the intention of improving their chances of qualifying for the championship stages of the Jupiler Pro League. Genk went into the game with three wins in five games and made it four in five. Charleroi, on the other hand, came into the game on the back of a zero goals draw with league leaders, Club Brugge.
Hannes Wolf, the German tactician sent Genk out within 4-2-3-1 tactics. Thomas Didillon started in goal and was supported by centre backs Jhon Lucumi and captain Sébastien Dewaest. This trio often started Genk’s build-up plays. They were supported on the flank by full-backs Jere Uronen and Joakim Mæhle Pedersen who had both defensive and attacking duties in this game. Carlos Cuesta and Dries Wouters formed a double midfield pivot, functioning as defensive midfielders. Since they were also given the task of linking play between the defenders and the more attacking players, it’s more accurate to call them deep-lying playmakers. Patrik Hrošovský (centre), Junya Ito (right) and Theo Bongonda (left) were the three attacking midfielders. In this game, the wingers sometimes played as inside, thereby creating space for the full-backs and overloading the midfield. Other times, they played purely from the wing, with Ito providing an assist. Paul Onuachu the big Nigerian was the target man for Genk.
Charleroi were set up in a 4-2-3-1, but Karim Belhocine preferred a slightly more defensive system. Nicolas Penneteau was the goalkeeper, protected in a flat line by full-backs Maxime Busi and Núrio Fortuna; as well as centre-backs Steeven Willems and Dorian Dessoleil. This backline of four was supported by defensive midfielders Marco Ilaimaharitra and Ryota Morioka. Ilaimaharitra also functioned as a box to box midfielder, supporting attacking midfielders Mamadou Fall, Massimo Bruno, and Ali Gholizadeh. Together, they tried to play with the lone striker, Kaveh Rezaei.
The mid-block served as the foundational tactic of Genk’s attack and defense. Seeing as they dominated the game, their tactical strategy was effective. They were set up to switch from defense to attack, with just a few movements. This fluidity in shape allowed the team to adapt their play according to how the game went. This helped Genk in three phases of their play. It affected the way they pressed, the way they attacked and the way they defended.
In this scenario, the middle block prevents Charleroi from building up play. This is because the short passing channels have been blocked by the Genk midfield shape. As a result, Charleroi had to resort to long passes, as it was the easiest way to get the ball forward.
In the mid-block, Genk featured six men, including the midfielders and attackers. The implication of this is that they were able to stay solid defensively, as the full-backs didn’t have to come out, initially. This was the defensive module of their mid-block.
For this to be effective, the full-backs hardly left the defensive line to try and win the ball back. It was the left and right attacking midfielders who would chase down the offending party, who would run into the waiting full-back. This created a sandwich of sorts, with whoever dared to make runs through Genk’s flank serving as the meat in the middle. Basically, Genk’s fullback stayed on the defensive line and that created space for the opposition wingers to run into. Except, then Genk’s wingers would start closing the intruder down. The opposition winger was then caught between Genk’s full-back and winger. This was the basic shape which Genk deployed for the majority of the game.
As the game progressed though, this would change. As Genk took control of the game, the full-backs started to take advantage of the mid-block. Since the majority of Genk’s firepower was concentrated through the middle. The opposition defense had their hands full in the central zones of the pitch. This freed up space on the flanks, which Genk’s fullbacks constantly attacked.
They shifted gears to attack by pushing the attacking midfielders center and allowing the full-backs to move into the attacking third. As seen in the above illustration, this created half-spaces which the fullback and winger could use. This created a number of interesting options. First, the line tagged ‘pass a’ refers to the passing channel open to that full-back. in this case, the winger is moving into space, in order to receive a through the pass. Also, note that the Genk striker and attacking midfielder are making their ways to the 18-yard box. They are making these runs in preparation of the cross from the winger. This was a classic Genk attack during the game.
This way, Genk was able to create half-spaces in the wide areas of the pitch. They exploited this space by playing in-depth passes and crosses into the 18-yard box. In the above scenario, the attack is coming through the middle but the intention is the same. The winger and fullback are both free on the right flank.
This change of mentality from a defensive to an attacking style was often a gradual process. The full-backs grew into the attack by moving into the wide areas in the midfield. This allowed the wide attacking midfielders to join the target man up front and form a front three. From this shape, the opposing defenders had their hands full, giving the full-backs the chance to push up and combine with the wide forwards. If the wide forward went far wide, the full-back would underlap rather than overlap, cutting into the central attacking areas.
Charleroi’s shaky start:
Charleroi played with a 4-2-3-1 that changed to a 4-1-4-1 during the press. There was a box to box midfielder who was an important part of this game plan. When Charleroi pressed, he joined the three attacking midfielders to form a line of four. If this initial press was bypassed, he joined the defensive midfielder in a double pivot
More often than not, Charleroi had to be on the defensive. Their opponents were quite good at keeping the ball and moving it around. This affected Charleroi in that they were constantly on the back foot. Genk’s pressing was especially problematic, as it ensured that Charleroi could not build-up play and had to settle for the good old long pass to the forwards.
As illustrated here, Charleroi’s passing options were limited. This made long passes the viable option. The issue with this though was that the long passes left Charleroi’s men isolated upfront.
This failed, many times as Charleroi’s players were always outnumbered There was a gap between the team’s defensive and attacking phases – the transition was nearly impossible to achieve. This was because when the long ball was played, Charleroi’s players could not get to the opposition’s final third quickly
enough to provide enough support for the forwards.
The above illustration is a perfect representation of how toothless Charleroi was in attack. In this situation, there are only three attackers who can cause any real damage. These three have at least two opposition players defending them. The two Charleroi midfielders are there to provide support, but since they are wary of a counter-attack, they are standoffish. As such, Charleroi is trying to take eight men on with just five men. This made things especially difficult for Charleroi, recording only a 0.26 xG for the whole first half. Something had to change.
A fighting chance:
Charleroi could not muster momentum in the starting stages of the game. However, they were only one goal down. There was nothing in the game that suggested that the tie was over. Charleroi’s head coach recognized this, played his cards well, and coaxed a better second half from his players. Unfortunately, it was not enough.
On the break, Charleroi’s forward were always outnumbered. They needed to change that if they were to create good chances. They also needed to retain their defensive structure, so as to guard against Genk’s attack. The answer came in a rather counterintuitive manner.
Charleroi was on the back foot and almost always involved in defensive actions. This created an opportunity to pull the forwards to joining the low block. Genk would only attack with seven or eight of their players, the Charleroi low block thus created a ten vs seven situation.
As illustrated, all of Charleroi’s ten men are in their own half. This numerical advantage allowed Charleroi to be more comfortable in their own half. The implication of this was that they had seriously put a hole in the opposition’s attacking machine.
This numerical advantage gave Charleroi the ability to win the ball back easily. They canceled most of their opponent’s forward passing options. Hence, when they won the ball back, there were plenty of men around to pass the ball to.
Now that it was easier for Charleroi to move the ball around, they could focus on transitioning from defense to attack. As illustrated above, they no longer had the issue of the forwards being isolated. They dropped deep, supported the defensive action, and won the ball back more quickly. This allowed the forwards to join the team in building up attacks. From this point, some of the attacks were instant. But Charleroi also sometimes went for a more elaborate buildup, preferring to hold the play up and overload the opposition with players.
Charleroi had found a way to give themselves a fighting chance without being dependent on hail mary long passes. With the forwards holding the ball up, Charleroi had the chance to attack as a unit. This allowed the fullbacks and midfielders to easily join the attack. As a result, Charleroi had men upfront and created patches of triangles which allowed them to play short combination passes with the hope of breaking the opposition down.
The statistic tell the story. In terms of possession and chances created, Charleroi had a better second half. The change in strategy was responsible for this.
This was a close game which lived up to its billing of a close encounter. Charleroi lost the game, but did a good job defending their goal. The way Charleroi stated the game allowed Genk too much possession and attacking freedom. Charleroi responded with a tactical tweak of their own and this gave them a chance to stage a comeback. At this time, it was already too late as Genk switched their focus from scoring more goals to simply protecting the lead. One couldn’t but wonder how different the outcome could have been if Charleroi had made the changes before Genk scored a goal. We’ll never know, till both teams meet again.