Ambitious Heerenveen struggling to keep their 4-2-3-1 balanced

Posted on 11 August 2010

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Ron Jans certainly made some enemies in the north of the Netherlands with his late 2009 announcement to leave FC Groningen for their rivals Heerenveen. Having been at the helm of FC Groningen for eight straight seasons, being the longest sitting manager in the Eredivisie at that time, he was clearly up for a new challenge.

There is not too big a difference between Groningen and Heerenveen in terms of their recent Eredivisie results with both teams fighting for European Qualification during most of their recent seasons. Jans’ move to the Frisian club is certainly a shot at something more than this. Heerenveen has experienced a troublesome 2009/10 season, finishing twelfth in the Eredivisie, their lowest classification for over fifteen years and the club is desperate to regain their status of ‘best of the rest’, in other words best of the non-title contenders. So, expectations are high at Heerenveen.

They’ve lost a highly influential player in Gerald Sibon. The 36 year old striker may have been one of the oldest players of the Eredivisie, but still managed to score 11 goals in the 2009/10 season. Furthermore centre-back Bak Nielsen and left-back Goran Popov left the club.

Without a doubt their biggest reinforcement is 20 year old Dutch talent Bas Dost from Heracles. Despite his young age he’s firmly established his name as an Eredivisie striker with a return of 14 goals last season. Another new face at the club is strong central defender Milan Kopic, who spent last season on loan at Slavia Prague, but is now expected to replace Bak Nielsen in the Frisian defense.

Ron Jans’ is a 4-2-3-1 man. Over the course of the past few seasons his Groningen side embraced this formation, consequently employing a double defensive midfield cover in front of a four-on-line defense. And he saw both the benefits as well as the downside of this system. Only 15 home goals conceded, of which six in the first three matches versus Ajax, NAC and PSV, indicated a well organized defensive block. On the other side, their offense often proved powerless. Particularly lone striker Matavz often missed offensive support.

In order to avoid having this problem at Heerenveen, Jans will have to shift the balance in his 4-2-3-1. But finding the right balance between defense and attack can be a delicate issue in a such a formation. The key being that the 4-2 block can throw up a concrete wall defense, but in order to lend some attacking support, the passer of the two defensive midfielders will have to allow some holes in this wall.

And Heerenveen’s season opening loss to PSV showed how Jans overplayed his hand in this regard.

Let’s focus our view on Heerenveen’s two defensive midfielders Mika Vayrynen and Christian Grindheim.  Since both teams lined up in an essentially comparable 4-2-3-1 formation, the pair of defensive midfielders played an essential role in the crucial developments of this tight match. This is best illustrated in PSV’s first and second goal, showing how too much desire to attack may open the holes in the 4-2-3-1 wall.

Here’s the situation just a few seconds prior to PSV’s counter attack leading to Toivonen’s quality header opening the score. As there’s no quality overview shot of the positioning we’ll have to do with a little explaining. Heerenveen is in possession, has seen a cross by right-back Janmaat (red) been cleared to a throw in, which has quickly been taken by right-winger Beerens (yellow).  Creator Geert Arend Roorda (yellow) recycled the ball with a short side pass to destroyer Grindheim and that is where we are right now.

The problem here is that Grindheim is under quite some pressure from Toivonen and lacks all kind of support. Ask yourself this simple question: where would you want your second defensive midfielder to be at this moment? Indeed, right beside, or at least close to Grindheim.

And this is where Vayrynen is. Despite playing no role in the previous attack, he had strolled around in PSV’s box all this time. This positional error, combined with Grindheim losing possession and PSV’s technical qualities in executing a beautiful killing counter attack lead to a 0-1 score.

Despite this disappointment, Heerenveen showed their mental strength by equalizing within ten minutes. New central defender Kopic headed the ball home from a Beerens corner and despite PSV fan’s singing Toivonen’s praise after this game, it was actually his marking error that granted Kopic a free heading chance.

The point raised earlier in this article was that Jans might have overplayed his hand in this fixture. Well, he did it on a 0-0 scoreline and he did it again at 1-1. Look at this screen, taken just prior to PSV’s second goal. Toivonen controls a goal kick on the chest in acres of space after a textbook move between the lines.

Controlling midfielder Grindheim (orange) is already beaten having allowed Toivonen the space to control the ball behind the midfield defensive line. And his partner defensive midfielder, Vayrynen, isn’t even on this picture, again strolling around in a wasteful attacking role.

Well, this is only the opening match, but Ron Jans may have wanted a bit too much on this one. Twice in a row a good result, which a home 0-0 or 1-1 against PSV would certainly have been for Heerenveen, was squandered due to malpositioning of the central defensive midfield. There’s 33 more matches to re-establish the 4-2-3-1 balance and correct the positional indiscipline.

Posted in: Eredivisie