In the Euroborg, a fine example of a modern stadium that offers an excellent footballing atmosphere, home side FC Groningen took on ‘Celtic-beaters’ FC Utrecht in a match that could be seen as an early six pointer in the battle for the European Football qualification spots. The home side saw their patient and controlled attacks rewarded with a late winner to defeat a rather tame and defensive-looking Utrecht team.
Groningen’s new manager
Groningen, nicknamed ‘The Pride of the North’ by their fans, waved their long-standing coach Ron Jans goodbye last summer, after the latter decided to leave the club for rivals Heerenveen. While Jans’ struggle to impose his 4-2-3-1 philosophy has been detailed before, his successor’s successful start to the season has remained unnamed on 11tegen11 so far. Time to change that!
Pieter Huistra was brought to Groningen to make his debut as manager. The 43-year old made his debut as a player in 1984 for this same club, and has played for Veendam, Twente, Glasgow Rangers, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Lierse SK since. Upon ending his playing career in 2001 he was contracted as a youth coach, again by Groningen. After spells as an assistant manager at Vitesse and Ajax he was appointed to manage Ajax’ youth team, obtaining a second place during the 2009/10 season.
So after making his debuts as a player and as a coach at Groningen, he has now made his debut as manager. And a successful debut it is so far. With a 3-2-0 start to the season, Groningen currently occupies the fourth place in the Eredivisie, behind PSV, Ajax and Twente.
Working with a very recognizable 4-2-3-1 system, Huistra has his team playing with inside, though not inverted wingers, leaving a lot of space for the full-backs to run into. New signing Jonas Ivens forms a stable centre-back duo with top asset Granqvist, providing an aerial dominance meanwhile, with both defenders measuring 1.88 and 192m respectively.
The midfield area provides a little less to the team so far though. With important players like holding midfielder Danny Holla and playmaker Petter Andersson still looking to recover from long-term injuries, Huistra is forced to improvise in this area during this phase of the season.
Their opponents Utrecht have seen a lot of the spotlight already this season. Their 4-0 home victory over Celtic was celebrated like a trophy in itself and striker Van Wolfswinkel provided an excellent return of 11 goals from 11 Utrecht matches, earing his first cap in the meantime. And now that a transfer rumour of the 21-year old going to the Premier League to play for newly promoted Newcastle United has not proved reality, Utrecht can count on him for at least another half season.
Against Groningen, however, Utrecht already felt the endurance of a season that started with their first competitive match on July 15 against KF Tirana. After a extension to the past season, contesting the play-offs for the Europa League qualification spot, with this same Groningen by the way, their summer break has been virtually inexistent. Today Utrecht misses left-flank striker Mulenga and attacking midfielder Asare due to hamstring injuries and playmaking dribbler Dries Mertens due to suspension.
So, with their attacking options severely limited Utrecht fielded a quite defensive formation that on paper might have looked like a 4-3-3, but the very deep position of captain Silberbauer made it look more like a 4-1-4-1 with flank players pushed on a bit.
The first half
This defensive Utrecht set-up paved the way for Groningen to exert their controlled attacking. Dominating possession from the kick-off, holding midfielder Sparv saw quite something of the ball, often playing into striker Pedersen who aimed to control the ball, looking to lay it off to attacking midfielder Bacuna or inside wingers Tadic and Enevoldsen. Tom Hiariej, generally playing as a right-back, proved his positional flexibility by taking up a box-to-box role beside Sparv.
Utrecht meanwhile, did not succeed in keeping the ball in possession, suffering quite some Groningen pressure early in their own half and missing their preferred outlet on the left wing in the absence of Dries Mertens. Although they may not have started very successful possession-wise, the first big chance of the match fell to their side, after an individual error by Jonas Ivens, who failed to control a simple ball, leaving Van Wolfswinkel one-on-one with keeper Luciano, only for the Utrecht striker to see his shot blocked.
Groningen, by all means scared that such an opportunity would ruin the plan of a controlled attack, took their foot off the gas a bit. Utrecht kept to their defensive stances and the match never really got underway before half-time again. The only thing worth mentioning would be Groningen’s continuous aerial threat from set-pieces. Although not successful in this match, regular Eredivise followers will remember their dramatic late equalizer against Ajax, following a headed corner.
The second half
The second half started where the first had ended with Groningen carefully building their attacks, although never really connecting near the box, and Utrecht looking for individual mistakes in the Groningen defense. It was quite telling that the loudest cheers so far at that point in the match came upon Slovenian international striker Tim Matavz starting his warm-up. He replaced youngster Leandro Bacuna in the 66th minute to play the advanced striker role with Nicklas Pedersen roaming around him.
And it was exactly this combination of players that earned Groningen the penalty. Pedersen smartly moved into space to receive that ball at feet, had lots of time to look for the pass, played Matavz in, who was clumsily fouled by Utrecht captain Silberbauer during his dribble in the box. Andreas Granqvist converted the penalty and Groningen comfortably saw out the remainder of the match.
In the end the defensive side did not get what they wanted, and Groningen won one over a direct Eredivisie rival. Most people might feel that justice is done when the attacking side gets one of the defensive side, especially with the winning goal being scored near the end of the match. However, Utrecht’s defensive outlook seems quite justified given that they missed several influential players and a draw away to Groningen would have suited them well. Let’s hope that this is not a prelude to the long and hard campaign, combining national and European football, taking its toll already.
Groningen fans should hope to see more of the Matavz-Pedersen tandem at work. With Pedersen claiming not to have had his full physical strength during the past season and Matavz still recovering from his World Cup efforts with Slovenia, the best of this duo seems yet to come and if it is, Groningen will definitely fight for European Football this season.