This tactical analysis will look at the Belgian Cup Final between Royal Antwerp and Club Brugge on Saturday. The main focus of the analysis will be on the tactics of the underdog team, Antwerp.
The game was the first played in the country since the season was halted due to the COVID-19 lockdown in March. Club Brugge was chasing the domestic double after being crowned Pro League champions earlier in the year. However, it was Royal Antwerp who came out on top with a 1-0 win. Lior Refaelov was the scorer of the game’s only goal, earning Antwerp their first cup success in 28 years.
Ivan Leko set his Antwerp team up in a 3-5-1-1 formation. Youngster Davor Matijas started in goal, with former Premier League champion Ritchie De Laet joined by Junior Pius and Abdoulaye Seck in a back three. Cameroonians Martin Hongla and Didier Lamkel Zé started in central midfield with captain Faris Haroun sitting defensively. Wing-backs Simen Juklerød and Aurélio Buta started left and right respectively, with Israeli Lior Refaelov in an attacking midfield position. The competition’s top scorer, Dieumerci Mbokani, led the line in a lone forward role.
League Champions Brugge began the game with a 3-5-2. Ex-Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet started between the sticks, with Simon Deli and Clinton Mata either side of Brandon Mechele in defence. Eduard Sobol, on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk, lined up on the left, with Krépin Diatta on the right. Key men Hans Vanaken and Ruud Vormer started in central midfield, with Colombian Alvarez Balanta holding. David Okerere started up top alongside youngster Charles De Ketelaere, given the nod ahead of the pacy Emmanuel Dennis.
Antwerp’s Defensive Efforts
Overcoming Brugge was going to be no easy task for Antwerp. This past season they have played Champions League football and won the league, conceding the least goals and scoring the second-most in doing so. Antwerp had a defensive game plan. When out of possession, the 3-5-1-1 changed into a compact 5-4-1 formation. Lior Refaelov did an excellent job through-out the game of dropping deep to get behind the ball and flood the midfield. This made it difficult for Brugge to create anything meaningful down the middle. In the image below, this is perfectly depicted; Refaelov sits deep to pack the midfield and force Vanaken wide.
Two other players who were important in Antwerp’s flexible defensive shape were wing-backs Buta and Juklerød. When Brugge came forward in possession, they were quick to drop into a defensive back five. This made it difficult for the Brugge forwards, most notably Okereke who struggled to find any success running into the channels. Additionally, it also meant the space to get in behind for Senegalese international Krépin Diatta was limited.
It was a very solid display from the Antwerp defence. One player to mention was Richie De Laet. The experienced defender, in his third different spell at the club, won 82% of his duels, more than any player on the pitch. Another notable performance was young goalkeeper Davor Matijas. Having been signed in January, this was undoubtedly the biggest game of the 20-year olds career to date. Matijas looked like a seasoned veteran through-out and denied substitute Youssef Badji twice with two excellent saves. It was a direct, no-nonsense approach from Matijas when it came to playing out from the back. Of the 11 passes he made in the game, nine were hit long to Mbokani to challenge for.
Counter fast and in numbers
Having been on the back foot from kick-off, it was Antwerp who actually looked most likely to score. This was due to some excellent examples of counter-attacking football. Antwerp had three dangerous counter-attacks in total, whilst Club Brugge had none. Simon Mignolet was forced into early saves to prevent both Juklerød and Mbokani scoring within just the first 15 minutes. In the 25th minute, the deadlock was broken. Possession was won at the top of the Antwerp box by Richie De Laet, and within 12 seconds the ball was in the back of the Brugge net. De Laet found Lamkel Zé, who then played it to Juklerød. After an excellent touch to beat the defender, he squared it for Refaelov to score against his former club.
Either Lamkel Zé or Hongla could always afford to get forward when in possession because Faris Haroun stayed so disciplined in staying in his holding role. With the support of one of the wing-backs, it meant numbers would flood forward to support Mbokani and Refaelov. Club Brugge players were slow to react, and a lack of pace in their central midfield continued to be exploited.
The image below shows an example of Lamken Zé overturning possession and the desire to transition by those around him.
The Brugge Response
Despite 71% possession throughout the match, Brugge had little to show for it. After a laboured first half, much of the second half followed the same theme for the men in black and blue. Only two shots hit the target in the whole game, the first of which was recorded in the 65th minute. There was very little creativity in midfield, something even more disappointing when you consider the talented ability of both Vanaken and Vormer.
Vanaken, a player capped four times by Belgium, failed to record a single shot in the evening and managed only two crosses. Vormer, on the other hand, lost 83% of his duels and recorded no shots. He was caught offside three times, more than every other player combined. These kinds of stats are a result of Antwerp’s defensive discipline and limiting of space.
Two shots on target become even more disappointing considering the fact that Brugge had 9x corners in the game. Not one of these was a threat on goal. Antwerp set up with the likes of Mbokani, Seck, De Laet, and Junior Pius all zonally marking on the six-yard box. With so much aerial presence, they were able to clear their lines over and over again.
Change in Brugge tactics
Manager Phillipe Clement knew something different was needed going into the last 20 minutes of the game. In a bid to push on and attack more, Brugge went to a 3-4-3. Sobol was replaced by Siebe Schrijvers and Mats Ritz came in for Balanta. They sat alongside Vormer and Vanaken in midfield, whilst Diatta, De Ketalaere and Badji played in a high front three. Brugge looked far better for it as well. They looked to overload the right, with either Vormer or Vanaken supporting Diatta, and Badji drifting over too. At times, this meant they had four players over the right. The image below shows the right side is overloaded for a Brugge attack.
Despite tired legs, Antwerp survived the pressure. It was Schrijvers who went closest to grabbing a late equaliser. Finding half a yard on the edge of the box, he got the ball out his feet and sent a low drive just wide of the post. All in all, it was too little too late.
The Non-Stop Mbokani
Dieumerci Mbokani was crucial to Antwerps cup victory. He was a battering ram all evening up against the Brugge backline. Of the 20 aerial duels he contested, he won 60% of them. A more telling statistic of how difficult he was to defend was that he was fouled six times, more than any other player in the game. Players such as Brandon Mechele just could not cope with his physicality. Supporting players such as Refaelov were then able to pick up possession as a result from Mbokani’s hold up play and flick-ons.
If it was not for Simon Mignolet, the margin could no doubt have been greater. Antwerp battled hard and rightly earned the victory to lift the Belgian Cup for the third time in their history. For Club Brugge, on the back of such a successful league season, this was a disappointing showing.
Phillipe Clement will be frustrated at the lack of chances his team were able to create after dominating so much of the possession. They failed to break down a resilient Antwerp defence and had no reply after they were punished by some devastating counter-attacking play.
Both clubs will now turn their attention towards the new domestic league season. Club Brugge open the season at home to Sporting Charleroi on August 8th, whilst Antwerp host Gent the following day.