Another week, another game between two in-form teams. Both Gent and Anderlecht went into the game with the confidence of being consistent in recent league games. For this reason, it promised to be an interesting clash of tactics. Both teams had conceded 25 goals each, averaging one goal conceded per game.
Jess Thorup the Gent head coach opted for a compact 4-3-1-2 tactical shape. The centre defenders in the system we are analysing were Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui and Ihor Plastun. Ngadeu, in particular, was responsible for limiting the impact of Anderlecht’s attacking midfielder.
The centre backs were supported by full-backs Alessio Castro-Montes and Milad Mohammadi, who provided defensive and attacking support. Sulayman Marreh and Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe (Captain) were especially important in midfield. The fact that there were no attacking wingers meant that the left and right central midfielders had their work cut out for them. They had to provide wide and central support to both the defence and the attack! Elisha Owusu was the defensive midfielder. Roman Bezus was the attacking midfielder and lined the two-man attack of Jonathan David and Anderson Niangbo to the midfield.
Franky Vercauteren, ‘the little prince’ chose to lead his side out in a 4-2-3-1. Derrick Luckassen and Marco Kana were the central defenders with ball-playing roles. Michael Murillo and Killian Sardella were the full-backs who were very important to the build-up phase. They also supplemented the double pivot of the box to box midfielders Peter Zulj and Albert Sambi Lokonga.
This tactical partnership between full-backs and midfielders created a line of four men. Jérémy Doku and Francis Amuzu were the left and right attacking midfielders, tasked with attacking the flanks. They often combined with the full-backs. Michel Vlap was the attacking midfielder but he often formed a front two with the main striker, Antoine Colassin
Anderlecht build-up play:
The centre defenders were always under pressure from the Gent press. According to the statistics, Gent allowed an average of seven passes per defensive action. This suggests that Gent were intent on winning the ball back, and they were often successful. If this is the case, how come Anderlecht rarely conceded possession in areas that could lead to a Gent goal? The answers are found in the tactics.
In this phase, the defenders had sufficient support from the two midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 system. The effectiveness of this phase of Anderlecht’s tactics was due to the advantage they were able to create in numbers. This is because the box-to-box midfielders dropped deep to support the defence. Creating a four-man overload in the central areas. Then, the full-backs went further wide, putting them on the same line as the midfielders.
Continuity in build-up
The beauty of a good buildup phase is dependent on its continuity. The buildup is most appreciated when it can instantly become an attack. It was apparent that the intention was to move the ball into advanced positions as soon as it was possible to do so.
Note, the Anderlecht players are positioned in such a way that they can progress with the ball into advanced positions. Apart from the two defensive midfielders who have dropped deep, the central attacking midfielder, Vlap has also come to support the build-up.
His role here is to get into the space that has been created by Gent’s high press and get the ball forward by running at the defence. On other occasions, he combined with the full-back or one of the other midfielders, who then took the ball forward. As the midfielders made the runs, the attacking line got ready to receive the ball in order for chances to be created.
Once in this position, the attacking midfielders usually joined the striker upfront to create a front four. The aim was usually to play a through pass behind the defence. The space that’s highlighted in the above illustration was usually exploited by the fullback who or midfielder, who hit early crosses. Anderlecht’s only goal came from this situation, and most of their chances were created in the same way.
The full-backs were especially important in this phase. They were able to relieve the pressure off the centre by constant movement, earnestly positioning themselves in proportion to the position of whoever was with the ball. This was done in anticipation of receiving the ball. Furthermore, the overload which was created in the centre meant that Gent’s high press had had to be cautious in trying to win the ball so high.
There was already a 6vs 5 situation in favour of Anderlecht. Throwing any more men forward would have dangerously exposed Gent. Therefore, the only way to deal with the overlord was to simply leave one Anderlecht man free. With this tactic, Anderlecht was able to retain the ball in the buildup phase.
The aforementioned free man was usually the full-back. Due to Gent’s 4-3-1-2, the only opposition wingers were the fullbacks. This created a lot of space for Anderlecht’s fullbacks to run with the ball and hit long passes to the forwards.
Playing in a compact shape, Gent could have lacked sufficient firepower. Their 4-3-1-2 shape meant that the two forwards had to choose between drifting wide and staying central. If they drifted wide, there wouldn’t be enough men in the centre of the attacking phase. If they stayed central, it would have been difficult to get any kind of penetration through the flank. The solution was that one of the forwards played as a trequarista, dropping into midfield to receive passes from his teammates.
This play was supported by the left and right centre midfielders whose impacts weren’t limited to the centre. They often drifted wide whenever the ball was with the full-backs. Since there was one defensive midfielder and one attacking midfielder, the centre of midfield was always secured with two men. This gave both the left and right midfielders the license to roam wide. In this regard, they had both defensive and attacking duties. We’ll focus on how this impacted the attack for now, and talk about their defensive duties later.
Unpredictability contributes to the effectiveness of the attacking phase. A good team should have more than one way of reaching the final third. Now, in the above illustration, the midfielder has drifted wide and the forward has dropped a bit deep. This creates a number of interesting scenarios. For the pass labelled ‘A’, the move was simply to play the ball into space where a winger would have been. This way, the forward had the option of cutting in or making a run to play a cross.
The pass labelled ‘B’ usually led to a more elaborate attack, whose aim was to first keep possession of the ball. As possession was recycled, the team searched for the perfect opportunity to send through balls behind the defence, for the forwards to chase.
As illustrated above, the midfielders had to drift wide to keep possession in those areas, otherwise, Gent would have been overrun.
The attacking duties of the midfielders included supporting the full-back by making themselves available for short passes. Ofoe, in particular, drifted into wide spaces, then cut the ball into the centre and tried to create chances for the forwards. He also served as the link between the defence and attacking channelling the ball to the attacking midfielder and combining with him to create a more fluid and dynamic attack.
As we stated earlier, this necessity also impacted the defensive duties of the midfielders.
Their defensive duties involved cutting Anderlecht’s drive from the flanks. Since they were higher up the pitch, the aim of their press was to prevent Anderlecht wingers from getting too far. This reduced the pressure on the Gent fullbacks who would otherwise have had to deal with the combined force of Anderlecht’s fullback and winger. Since the midfielders were already playing wide to keep possession, they could do so when it was time to win it back. Although, I must mention that they drifted wide only when it was necessary. For the majority of the game, they were central. This begs the question of how they were able to keep up with defending their fort, with so much shuffling of position going on.
Teams who deploy zonal -marking do so at great risk. Against a dynamic forward, the defender could lead on a wild goose chase, bending the defensive line out of shape. This can be avoided if the defending team applies some caution. Gent did this by choosing to closely man-mark the central attacking midfielder so he wouldn’t have space to do much. The rest of Anderlecht had to try to get around Gent’s defensive line. It gets interesting here. While Gent’s defensive line initially stood off, they switched to immense pressure as soon as the opposition got into certain positions.
As illustrated above, Vlap is being tightly marked by Ngadeu. This effectively cancels out the option of passing to him. Looking at the defensive line in its entirety, we not that the other Gent players are holding their line. This would change as soon as the Anderlecht forward took two or three steps closer. Gent were ready for any quick runs behind their defensive line.
Looking at the right-wing, we see that there are two free white shirts. Except, they aren’t really free. First of all, the path to passing the ball to them is blocked. Gent featured a lopsided defensive structure than tended to throw its weight to where ever the threat was. For example, when the threat came through the left-wing, majority of the Gent men went that way. While this left an Anderlecht winger free, there were many men between him and the pass.
This scenario of priority defending played out many times. As illustrated above, the backline is not balanced. This is due to the fact that three out of Gent’s four defenders are focused on thwarting the attack from the left side. With support from the midfield, most of the opposition’s passing options have been cancelled.
It was a cagey game with few chances created. The xG stats of both teams over both halves of play suggest that very few quality chances were created throughout the game. A penalty goal for Gent, a scrappy goal for Anderlecht, it was not an exciting football game. Both teams came to get points off the other, they did just that.