KV Mechelen returned to the Belgian top-flight last season at the first time of asking following their relegation in 2017/18. During the 2019/20 season, the returning Mechelen have excelled and currently sit in 6th place. If the season is annulled and the current league table is finalised, it would be their highest finish in the club’s history.
They have had some impressive performances so far this season, including a 2-0 victory against current Inter Milan and former EPL striker Romelu Lukaku’s boyhood club Anderlecht. Mechelen currently sit above the giants of Belgian football. Their success has mainly been down to their ability to find the net. Their 43 goals conceded is the worst in the top seven, however thanks to their 46 goals at the other end they have managed to be successful.
This tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, will analyse the attacking approach taken by young coach Wouter Vrancken. Their attacking prowess has centred around key players such as former Bundesliga veteran striker Igor de Camargo who has 10 goals so far this campaign. Nikola Storm on the left-hand side is another influential attacking player for the side. Formerly of Manchester United’s Europa League opponents Club Brugge, the young winger has 6 assists so far this season, tied with teammate and right winger Onur Kaya as Mechelen’s assist leaders.
Vrancken has utilised three formations throughout this season. At the beginning of the season the side switched between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2. These were relatively fluid as the attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 was usually the same player as a striker in the 4-4-2. As the image below indicates, number 7 Geoffry Hairemans is utilised as either the second striker alongside de Camargo, or in more of an attacking midfield role as part of a midfield three.
In terms of whether one or the other was used at home or away, there isn’t much of a pattern. However, it appears that Vrancken has recently stumbled across a preferred 4-1-4-1 formation which they have been using in the recent matches.
Statistically, this new 4-1-4-1 is more effective than the other two formations. Taking the 4-2-3-1 formation, the average per 90 stats give the side 1.01 expected goals, 1.63 counter attacks with 6.69 shots on target, 2.63 corners and 11.38 crosses. 4-4-2 has an 0.86 xG, 2 counter attacks per match with shots, 3.05 corners, 12.21 crosses and 7.26 shots on target.
The new 4-1-4-1, while having less of a sample size, gives 1.34 xG, 11.4 shots on targets, 2.6 counter attacks with shots, 4 corners and 15.4 crosses. Across the board this new 4-1-4-1 formation appears to generate more attacking opportunities for the side. The corner and crossing statistics are most notable as the side is effective in this area.
Usually Vrancken prefers to use one recognisable striker. Mechelen are fortunate that this season they have had two in-form strikers. Veteran striker de Camargo has already been mentioned, with his 10 goals so far this season. Behind him is William Togui, who has nine goals so far this season. The two rarely play alongside each other but give Vrancken the opportunity to make positive changes from the bench. One can replace the other and still provide a goal-scoring threat. 19 goals from two players who rarely play alongside each other is impressive.
Cross, cross and cross
Mechelen aren’t a possession-orientated side. Overall the side averages around 46.7% possession, putting them 12th overall in the Pro League. At home they average 50%, while away it drops down to 42.99%. This would explain why they average 3.4 counter attacks away from home and only three at home. When in possession they only average 12.4 seconds on the ball. Out of all the sides in the Pro League only Sporting Charleroi, KV Oostende and bottom side Waasland-Beveren spend less time on the ball.
During these 12.4 seconds of ball possession, Mechelen are looking to get the ball wide and feed the strikers’ crosses. They are 6th in attempted crosses in the Pro League. One key indicator of this is the play of central midfielder Rob Schoofs. Of his 1444 attempted passes in the opposition half this season, only 93 of these are going into the opposition box. The majority of these are feeding the wingers, namely Storm and Kaya. With an 88.4% accuracy on these passes, Schoofs is a key link man in the midfield making sure the ball gets out wide when the team are in possession.
While Storm and Kaya, the latter has unfortunately picked up an injury that kept him out of recent matches, share the same amount of assists, their approach is different. Kaya, for example, is not the technical dribbler that Storm is. He averages two dribbles per 90 minutes, while Storm averages 8.2 and wins 76.4% of these. Kaya averages 4.5 crosses while Storm is averaging 5.1. With 35% of attacks going down the left-hand side with Storm, as opposed to 31% down the right, Storm is always likely to have greater stats in these areas. That he is in the top 10 in progressive runs in the league also highlights his importance to Mechelen.
This goal against KV Kortrijk highlights the above. Vrancken went with the 4-2-3-1 formation for this match. Despite there being space on the right-hand side when Schoofs picks the ball up, he is always looking left towards where Storm is operating.
He ends up passing to the other central midfielder Aster Vranckx, who himself has drifted out left to facilitate the ball making it to the danger man. Striker Dante Vanzeir appears to be looking for a through ball that Vranckx is capable of playing, but instead he opts for Storm. The run of Vanzeir takes away defenders, allowing Storm to isolate the right-back.
When Storm gets it, he is one on one with the defender. As his dribbling stats suggest this is a dangerous situation as he can go past the defender or cut back and cross. The situation is akin to a basketball triple threat position, whereby the attacking side has a variety of options. Storm could cut back and cross, drive to the by-line past the defender and cross, or attempt to beat the defender and make his way into the box for a shot.
Storm opts for taking the defender on before crossing. Vanzeir makes a move to the near post. The cross is precise and finds Vanzeir in stride at the near post who provides the finish. Vanzeir was the only option in the box for Storm, and shows his ability when it comes to crossing.
As this highlight shows, the team is geared to try and get the ball into the feet of it’s wingers. Both central midfielders were involved in the build up that facilitated the ball getting into Storm’s feet.
Winning the aerial battle
Why do Mechelen focus on crossing? They currently sit in the top three of aerial duels won. In 90 minutes, they win on average 40.74 aerial duels, which is 49% of average duels per game. By crossing and focusing on getting the ball to wide players who are willing to cross, they are playing to their aerial advantage.
During the away fixture against Standard Liege, we again see Mechelen players are getting into the box for the cross. With the ball out on the right flank, there are six attacking players in or around the box.
We also see the aerial duels win percentage in action again, as this time midfielder Joachim van Damme wins the header which draws out the centre-backs to contest, freeing up de Camargo in the center.
When the ball falls to the veteran striker he makes no mistake with a cool finish. What this clip, and the one before, highlights is how van Damme is a threat from midfield as he is willing to push forward to join the attacks. Even when he has been deployed as the holding midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 formations, he is given license to push forward. This may explain the reason why Mechelen are able to score plenty of goals, but also concede almost just as many at the other end.
This next example is from the game against Waasland-Beveren, where Vrancken deployed the new 4-1-4-1 formation. Despite only having one striker, they still get numbers in the box. Right-back Kabore has made an attacking run and has three attackers versus four defenders in the box when he decides to cross.
Despite being outnumbered, the aerial duels percentage is again shown here as de Camargo out-jumps the defenders. The experienced striker knows that to try and score from there would be too difficult. He also knows that there will be midfielders pushing into the vacant area in the box.
De Camargo knocks it back down and again we see van Damme pushing into the box. Despite being the holding midfielder on paper in the 4-1-4-1, he is the first to arrive and get a shot away that is saved.
This puts a lot of pressure on the opposition midfielders, as they have to track their runners. Furthermore, it forces the central defenders to communicate more as they will have to pick up those midfielders who are making runs from deep to help the lone striker.
Set pieces are important for Mechelen, with 13 goals, 28% of their total goals, coming from set-pieces. However its usually the secondary action resulting from the set-piece that leads to the goal. At home Mechelen average five corners with shots at home, while they average 3.33 corners with shots away from home. It’s keeping the ball alive and capitalising on secondary chances that make set-pieces dangerous for Mechelen.
Against Wassland-Beveren we see an example of this. Schoofs fires in an incredibly dangerous free-kick, showcasing his quality from set-pieces. He aims it towards a Mechelen player who, despite being surrounded by defenders, manages to win the initial header. Again we see how the side wins a high percentage of aerial duels.
Instead of heading it goal-ward, the player can only send it vertically. This secondary action is capitalised on by another Mechelen player who reacts quickest to the loose ball to get there before the defender. Unfortunately for the side the player is unable to finish from a close angle and ends up firing well wide of the goal.
Another example against Liege, this time from the home game. Initially the corner is easily cleared by the first defender.
It’s kept alive by Mechelen and the players remain in the box waiting for the secondary action. The overlap opens up space for another cross and this time, unlike the corner, the delivery is deeper looking for de Camargo.
Despite being surrounded by three defenders, de Camargo manages to time his leap and head the ball into the net. We again see this theme of Mechelen players winning headers despite being surrounded by defenders.
Mechelen’s impressive season has been built around a simple yet effective attacking style. Wingers Storm and Kaya are the perfect providers for veteran striker de Camargo to use his ability in the air and cleverness in the box to score goals. In midfield, Schoofs compliments both wingers by having the ability to facilitate the play getting wide, while van Damme is a willing runner who will push up from deep to add numbers to the box. While de Camargo is in the twilight of his years, it appears Mechelen already have the perfect replacement in Togui who appears just as capable as the veteran in scoring goals within the system.
It will be interesting to see whether or not Vrancken decides to stick with the 4-1-4-1, or whether he will just add it to the rotation and continue to change between 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and the new formation. Statistically, the 4-1-4-1 is the most effective formation for Mechelen and one they should certainly stick with for the foreseeable future.