Play-off football always brings the drama and excitement that fans relish from live sport. While the Belgian second division, known as the Proximus league, has a unique way of deciding who gets promoted, its two-legged final is certainly a provider of footballing tension. The Proximus league is split into two stages, with the winners of each stage contesting a play-off final. While KVC Westerlo picked up the most points overall, it was OH Leuven and Beerschot-Wilrijk who won the opening and closing stages and were to compete for a place in the Pro League.
OH Leuven, owned by the same owners as EPL club Leicester City, triumphed in the opening round, winning nine of their 14 matches. In the closing round however, they only managed five wins and finished in fifth place overall. Leicester are hoping that Leuven could become a development club for their players, much like Cercle Brugge are for Ligue 1 side AS Monaco. Manchester City also recently added Lommel SK to their group with a similar ambition.
Winners of the second round were Beerschot, also linked to an English club, with their owner being a co-owner of Sheffield United. With the Antwerp-based side only winning five matches in the opening stages, they turned it around in the second stage by winning seven. The first leg was to be played at their home ground, with the return leg set for Leuven’s. However, with the decision to suspend the league, we were only able to witness the first leg.
This tactical analysis will look at how this first leg played out, which may help us to predict what may happen when the second leg takes place, COVID-19 permitting, on 2 August. This analysis will look at the tactics of both sides, namely how Beerschot were able to gain a narrow advantage going into the next match.
Home side Beerschot went with their favoured 3-5-2 formation. Denis Prychnenko, Pierra Bourdin and Frédéric Frans made up the back three for a defence that ranks second overall in the league. Gregory Grisez and Joren Dom were operating as the wing-backs tasked with providing width, while Ryan Sanusi and Tom Pietermaat joined Raphael Holzhauser in a midfield three. The all African strike force of Marius Noubissi and Tarik Tissoudali led the line. Young Argentine manager Hernan Losada has been known to use this lineup either as a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2, depending on the game situation.
Leuven manager Vincent Euvrard went with a 3-4-2-1, one which he has used on occasion this season alongside four at the back formations. While Beerschot boast the second-best defence in the league, Leuven have the league’s strongest attack. Lone striker Thomas Henry has 15 goals in the league this season and was supported by on loan Leicester midfielder Kamal Sowah and the experienced Jeremy Perbet. For width, Euvrard went with Pierre-Yves Ngawa on the right and Derrick Tshimanga on the left. Mathieu Maertens, who has eight goals this season, joined Aboubakar Keita as the central midfield pair. Jan Van den Bergh, Kenneth Schuermans and Frederic Duplus made up the back three.
Beerschot midfield structure
Giving Holzhauser freedom to roam was clearly a plan for Losada. Holzhauser had no real position during the game and was given license to roam up and down the left-hand side of the pitch, either dropping deep or pushing forward alongside the strikers. In order for this to happen, Sanusi and Pietermaat were given less freedom in their roles.
As the below image shows, Sanusi and Pietermaat are both deep to act as options for the ball. We will touch on how this affected the ability of the Leuven press later, but for now it highlights how Holzhauser is further forward. Dropping in deep means that the defenders of Beerschot always had an option in midfield for a pass. Furthermore, Holzhauser was not required to come and help with this passage of play and could decide where he wanted to play.
The freedom given to Holzhauser thanks to the play of his fellow central players allows him to confuse the opposition and create different attacking situations. In some instances, he would appear as a left wing-back, others as a central attacking midfielder close to the strikers. For the only goal of the game, we see a perfect example of how the freedom given to the Austrian can give Beerschot an attacking advantage.
In the below image, we see that Holzhauser has drifted into the left centre back position to get on the ball, allowing Bourdin, who is the left-sided defender, to push into a left wing-back position. Again we see that Sanusi and Pietermaat are both deeper options for passes. The furthest player forward is the left wing-back Grisez, who has come inside to where Holzhauser was operating in the image above.
This causes confusion amongst the opposition, as up to this point Holzhauser had been operating further forward on the left hand side. We see this confusion play out when Holzhauser finds Noubissi with the pass. This pulls the defensive midfielder Keita towards the ball, while Grisez and Bourdin continue their runs to drag players with them. Noubissi is a strong runner with the ball, and it is clear Leuven are worried about this, which draws even more players towards him.
When we look at the highlighted defender above, we can already see the problem in that he is not going to track Grisez’s run, but is instead going to support Keita in dealing with Noubissi. As this next image shows, Noubissi’s run has dragged plenty of defenders to him, while Grisez has moved a defender over, leaving the other striker, Tissoudalli, one on one with his marker. Eventually the ball finds Tissoudali, and isolated with the defender he can turn and score.
This passage of play was made possible by the creative freedom given to Holzhauser. During the game, he operates in different areas of the field, thanks to the creative license given to him by the more rigid play of his fellow central midfielders.
Playing off Henry
Thomas Henry is the clear focal point of the Leuven attack. The imposing striker likes to get physical with defenders and was the clear outlet for his team. From the outset, it was obvious that Leuven wanted to use the target man to hold the ball up and bring others into play. Defenders would look to hit balls into his chest, where he was expected to bring it down and then Leuven would build their attacks from there.
However, the positioning of Sanusi and Pietermaat disrupted this tactic. Sanusi especially was excellent in supporting the defenders and disrupting the ability of Henry to bring his midfielders into play.
As the below image shows, the centre-back is touch tight with Henry so that he cannot turn on the ball, while Sanusi is there to look to steal the ball from Henry’s feet. Sanusi was constantly putting pressure on Henry and it often led to a turnover in possession, as the big striker had difficulty in passing the ball before Sanusi was on him.
Here we see that Senusi and Pietermaat work in tandem to put pressure on Henry, even at the expense of runners. Weighing up the risk, Sanusi leaves the man he is marking in order to put pressure on Henry when he gets the ball. Pietermaat also leaves his central position to cut off an outlet pass and apply pressure.
Sanusi again is successful in stealing the ball off the striker and changing possession. This happened numerous times in the first half prior to Beerschot taking the lead. After they took the lead, they allowed Leuven to have more of the ball. Leuven aren’t a possession-orientated side, having only averaged 45.6% possession over the regular season, the second-lowest.
After taking the lead, Beerschot began to sit deeper in order to force Leuven to play through them, rather than hit long balls to Henry. As we see below, both Sanusi and Pietermaat have dropped deep to stop Henry getting the ball down at all, and to show the opposition defenders that this is no longer an attacking option. Sanusi is highlighted on the far end of the pitch, while Pietermaat is just off screen. Henry is also highlighted, and we see that Sanusi is close enough to disrupt him should a long ball be attempted.
Battle of the midfield
What the above tactical setups played into was the overall battle for midfield supremacy. Leuven’s answer to Holzhauser is the impressive 25-year-old Maertens, who has scored eight goals from midfield this season, above his 6.22 xG. After going one down, Maertens began to push further forward into a left attacking midfielder position, where Perbet was originally lining up. Perbet was then pushed further inside, closer to Henry.
In order to cover for Maertens, Keita was used to cover and break up the play. With Beerschot sitting deeper, Keita was seeing lots more of the ball and being tasked with more playmaking. As the image below shows, we see Maertens highlighted in the left central position, while Keita is sitting back. Leuven hoped this would allow Maertens to be more prominent in the attacking phases and have greater scoring chances.
However, when we compare this to Beerschot, there was an issue for Leuven in getting the ball to Keita and then forward. Beerschot’s two pivots always meant that their defenders had an option to pass out, because they have five men in or around their half against only three pressing Leuven players. With only Keita operating in the pivot role, Leuven had four players to pass out with, whereas Beerschot had a three man press as well.
Below we see the issues facing Keita and Leuven. When he picks up the ball, both Beerschot strikers squeeze to force him to make difficult forward passes. Holzhauser is used as part of the press; here he is cutting off one side of the pitch. As we can see, Keita has very few options going forward. For parts of the match this meant he was forced to pass backwards or sideways, with the side avoiding going long to Henry due to how well the home side had nullified this approach.
However, with Sanusi and Pietermaat now sitting deeper, they are in a better position to push up and intercept Keita’s attempted passes. As the below image shows, Pietermaat reads the attempted through ball from Keita and wins possession back for his side. This was a continuous theme for the majority of the match and is something Leuven will have to think about going into the return leg in August. This also nullified the threat of Maertens, who, while still getting on the ball, was unable to create as many goal scoring situations for himself and Henry.
As the game got into the closing stages, Leuven again decided to go more direct into the box, rather than playing off of Henry. They created chances but were unable to find the equalising goal. Beerschot remained a threat on the counter and did manage a second goal, which was ruled out by VAR.
Leuven have had plenty of time since the first leg to analyse their performance and look for a way to counter the tactics of their opponents. Beerschot, despite only winning by one goal, were able to win the game through their midfield setup which nullified the approaches of Leuven. For the second leg, Leuven will need to find a way to get Maertens more involved in the play, as well as ways of feeding top scorer Henry.
Beerschot on the other hand will likely look to set up in the same way, however with a one goal lead they can sit deeper and force the opposition to try and play through them, something which proved difficult during the first leg. Hopefully the situation will be safer by 2 August to allow fans into the stadium to witness what should be an entertaining promotion decider.