It’s only slightly over a year ago that Dirk Scheringa’s AZ broke the 27-year span in which either Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord won the Eredivisie title. However, things look rather different for AZ at present. The worldwide financial problems induced the bankruptcy of Scheringa’s DSB Bank, AZ’s main sponsor since 1993 and the driving force behind their success, culminating in the Eredivisie title of 2008/09.
With the DSB Bank and owner Scheringa now gone, AZ tries to rebuild its foundations. The club was forced to cut their budget from 40 to 25 million euro’s, necessitating the sale of influential players like El Hamdaoui (Ajax), Dembélé (Fulham) and Jeremain Lens (PSV) and the projected sale of Argentine World Cup keeper Romero and striker Graziano Pellè.
With so many players gone, new manager Gertjan Verbeek faces a difficult task. AZ supporters wish to relive the dream of the 2008/09 season, yet to see their team ranked 14th after a 0-3-1 series (three draws and a loss, that is). While Verbeek deserves to be pleased for his hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system, football is still very much a result game and the pressure is on.
In contrast to AZ, their opponents Excelsior, newly promoted after a dramatic promotion play-off match against city rivals Sparta, find themselves in the 8th position after a 2-1-1 series. Much of the credit for this initial success should go to their execution of the 4-1-4-1 system.
This system is definitely the small team’s answer to the big team’s 4-2-3-1. As an example we’ve recently seen Ajax forced to make major in-game adjustments to their 4-2-3-1 to work their way around PAOK’s 4-1-4-1.
So, AZ’s hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formation was up against Excelsior’s neat 4-1-4-1 in a wet and windy Alkmaar. In the pouring rain of the first fifteen minutes, Excelsior kept their two banks of four close together, defending rather deep and having captain and controlling midfielder Koolwijk cleaning up where necessary.
Excelsior withdrew on their half of the pitch, with striker Fernandez and, during that period of the match, midfielder Bergkamp waiting to pressure AZ as soon as they crossed the halfway line. AZ’s manager Verbeek, never afraid to throw his men forward, had sent his team out in their by now familiair 3-4-3 when in possession.
However, AZ lacked passing accuracy in midfield with captain Schaars still looking to regain his fitness and technically skilled Martens not having his best game. Combined with their line-up where usually four or five men are in front of the ball, this inaccuracy meant that they could not convert their 70% possession into clear goal scoring chances. Furthermore, their lack of attacking width allowed Excelsior to get away with their narrow defensive system.
Excelsior had started out with pacey striker Guyon Fernandez in the lone striker role, having him chase long balls from their withdrawn midfield. However, halfway during the first half Fernandez switched roles with Roland Bergkamp, who offers more of a physical presence and played the role of an aerial target man. This provided Excelsior with a clear aiming point of their quick outbreaks, resulting in long spells of AZ domination, but with Excelsior having their fair share of chances.
These outbreaks were also the reason that Excelsior’s two bands of four got a bit stretched and AZ was looking to profit from this space, with Martens cleverly taking up his position between the lines. Another thing to note here is that Erik Falkenburg, playing the striker role since the beginning of the season, is in fact an attacking midfielder. In the absence the transferred El Hamdaoui and Dembéle, and with young Brazilian Jonathas still looking for full fitness, Falkenburg temporarily fills this space.
The match was of course clearly influenced by AZ-keeper Didulica’s first half error, passing the ball straight into right midfielder Tim Vincken’s feet, for him to find striker Fernandez who skillfully placed the ball in the back of the net. Backed by this 0-1 lead, Excelsior withdrew in their 4-1-4-1 fortress and AZ, lacking confidence, was unable to increase their pass completion and, apart from a Falkenburg header hitting the post after a glaring marking error in Excelsior’s defense, was unable to find their way through.
Verbeek threw on two new players during half time. Striker Jonathas and holding midfielder Elm took the place of invisible winger Gudmondson and the disappointing Wernbloom. The meant that AZ had effectively converted their line-up to the fashionable 4-2-3-1, albeit with passing midfielder Schaars in a quite advanced position.
With so many men thrown forward and the difference in individual player skills between the teams, it was inevitable that Excelsior suffered more pressure than before half time. Manager Pastoor cleverly switched controlling midfielder Clasie and Koolwijk, in order for the latter to exert his excellent passing skills from a slightly more advanced position, looking to play striker Fernandez, who was switched back with Bergkamp, into space. And it was a gem of a Koolwijk pass that gave Fernandez a one-on-one chance in front of Didulica. Had he converted that one, the match would have been done, but he missed the chance this time.
The final twenty minutes saw AZ playing in a formal three men defense, throwing their men forward in a 3-2-3-2-ish shape, with both Jonathas and Falkenburg a central striker role. With so many bodies present, chances started coming and it was another sub, Kolbein Sigthorsson, who scored from a deflected shot after Jonathas won an important attacking header for the team.
The closing minutes consisted of AZ overloading Excelsior’s defense, with Excelsior mainly looking to frustrate their opponents, successfully aiming to hold on to the 1-1 score line.
In the end, Excelsior manager Pastoor can be proud of a neatly executed 4-1-4-1, in turns making use of pacy striker Fernandez and physically strong target man Bergkamp. AZ, meanwhile, will be a different team once captain Schaars and striker Jonathas find their full fitness back. However, it remains to be seen if their lack of squad depth in attack will jeopardize their combined European and national ambitions.