First off, for those who missed the match, or just want to refresh their memory, here are the match highlights.
There’s not much envy surrounding Mario Been at the moment. The Feyenoord manager, generally known for his humor and his direct approach, sees himself confronted with severe problems on more than one front.
Finances and expectations
First, there’s the well-known abysses that have once been Feyenoord’s bank accounts. The Rotterdam club is by no means the only Dutch Football club with severe financial problems, but is one of four Eredivisie teams to be put under surveillance by the KNVB, the Dutch FA. The KNVB has imposed a three year deadline for Feyenoord to balance their books, or the club will lose its license.
Then there’s expectations. As pointed out earlier on 11tegen11, Feyenoord’s reasonable fourth place of last season has led to quite some expectations. And upon Mario Been’s return to the club, last summer, he was given an ‘El Salvador’ status, the man that would liberate Feyenoord from the previous dreadful seasons and bring the club back to the traditional top three with Ajax and PSV. Not an easy task, if at all possible, given the severe financial limitations.
And even though the present season is only two games old, Feyenoord managed to lose the one match they wouldn’t want to lose. With the supporters demanding fireworks against city rivals Excelsior, the only firecrackers presented came from the half time dressing room during a clash between former Dutch international left back Tim de Cler and manager Mario Been. This clash must have been so severe that Been proclaimed after the match that he had no other option than to sub the player off, stating that “he would never want to even see him again”.
Excelsior’s game plan
Excelsior started the match in a well-organised 4-5-1 formation, switching to more of a narrow 4-3-3 when in possession. As expected, Feyenoord dominated possession from the beginning of the match, with Excelsior sitting back in their own half, only putting pressure on the Feyenoord players in their own half.
Telltales of the good Excelsior organization were Feyenoord striker Smolov not seeing anything of the ball during the first ten minutes and the first chance of the game being for Excelsior, when striker Guyon Fernandez was played into space. Excelsior displayed smart use of the attacking space given away by Feyenoord’s high defensive line, while at the same time limiting the space given away on their own half.
This defensive plan definitely fits into their plan in a broader sense, as they’ve opted to shrink the pitch to the minimum allowed dimensions upon promotion to the Eredivisie.
Wasted Feyenoord possession
This screen depicts that even though Feyenoord dominated possession, they never witty enough to create real danger during the beginning of the game. The screen divides the pitch in a left and a right half, showing ‘man-in-the-hole’ Luigi Bruins in possession, surrounded by four Excelsior players. Instead of quickly playing out of trouble and creating a 3 vs 3 attack on the left side of the pitch, Bruins dwells on the ball, ends up losing it and singlehandedly kills of a potentialFeyenoord attack.
Practically no danger was created through the center, with Smolov displaying a lack of movement , never coming deep to get the ball. Excelsior’s fortified centre meant some more space on Feyenoord’s wings, but the delivery of crosses was often too weak to create any danger.
Feyenoord conceded the opening goal in the 29th minute after Guyon Fernandez finished off one of a series of quick breaks from Excelsior, curling the ball into the goal with supreme skill. After this opening goal the same pattern of play was more and more visible: a powerless Feyenoord 4-2-3-1 in possession against a well positioned Excelsior 4-5-1 formation, looking for quick break through the pace of striker Fernandez.
Lack of interchance
What Feyenoord clearly lacked was movement between the lines of defense, midfield and attack. The concept of players switching their lines, moving either forward or backward, temporarily switching position is as old as the sixties and seventies teams of first Valeri Lobanovsky and later Rinus Michels. This interchanging of positions is one of the fundamental aspect of ‘Totaal Voetbal’ that formed the basis of the golden era of Dutch national football in the seventies.
Without this interchanging, Feyenoord’s attacking play looked highly predictable and was always met with a double defensive line by Excelsior, who were not ashamed to dedicate nine players to their defense during Feyenoord’s possession. And understandably even more so, when defending a 1-0 lead.
It was exemplary for Feyenoord’s lack of attacking power that the equalizer had to come from a set play. The first of four corners that was not delivered way too long allowed strong centre back Vlaar to score a good header.
Second half improvements
The second half started out with Smolov in a much more dynamic role, frequently demanding the ball on the left and right flank and immediately becoming the central figure in Feyenoord’s attack. This screen illustrates Smolov coming deep to demand the ball, thereby leaving his striker position for midfielder Fer and attacking midfielder Bruins to run onto. This meant a higher degree of variation in Feyenoord’s attack.
If passing stats like the Guardian Chalkboards were available for the Eredivisie, it would be easy to illustrate this by comparing Smolov’s first and second half passing.
Feyenoord also attempted to put more pressure by positioning controlling midfielders Fer and El Ahmadi higher up the pitch, something which often left Bahia and Vlaar exposed to quick breaks by Excelsior, speculating on striker Fernandez’ pace. The fact that shortly after the half time break both Feyenoord central defenders were already booked further illustrated the limited amount of control they could exert over Excelsior’s style of play.
A thrilling end to the match
Feyenoord took the lead, tellingly, from another corner, this time deflecting of Excelsior defender Bovenberg. Luckily for the lad, he managed to equalize with a header from yet another free kick, leveling the score at 2-2, inducing scoreline-led pundits to speak of a highly entertaining match.
Literally during the final seconds of the match it was stiker Guyon Fernandez increasing the level of drama even further by outpacing experienced Feyenoord defender Bahia and scoring the 3-2 winner. Guyon Fernandez once again showed himself as the ‘dying- seconds-hero’ of Excelsior. Regular Eredivisie followers most certainly remember his ultimate strike in the promotion-relegation play-off against Sparta, ironically, like Feyenoord and Excelsior, also from Rotterdam.
In the end this match was just about what Feyenoord did not need on the evening of their Europa League play-off match against Belgium outfit Gent next Thursday. Their level of play was below par, mainly due to a lack of positional variance. On a positive note they might stick to the first phase after half time, when Smolov’s role showed some more ‘false-nine’ characteristics, a role that has been explained extremely well in this Jonathan Wilson article.
Unfortunately Smolov was subbed off halfway through the second half for the more static 17-year old Luc Castaignos, and the match returned to its first half pattern with Excelsior claiming the win in the end.