PSV 1 – 1 Sampdoria: A misfitting 4-2-3-1 does not beat a defensive diamond

Posted on 17 September 2010

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For the first time  in 18 years, PSV has to settle for Europa League (former UEFA Cup) football for two consecutive seasons. And despite 12 Champions League participations in these 18 years, they’ve only passed the group stage three times, with a Hiddink-managed side reaching the semi-finals of 2004/05 as their best result.

Today PSV kicks off their Europa League campaign against Sampdoria, that was only just knocked out of the Champions League qualifications by Werder Bremen. With Hungarian side Debreceni and Ukrainian Metalist Charkov completing their group, PSV and Sampdoria are expected to battle for the group victory, providing an extra edge to this opening match.

PSV’s 4-2-3-1

PSV, like their title rivals Ajax, consequently line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Their back line is fairly consistent with new signing Marcelo and Mexican international ‘Maza’ Rodriguez forming the centre-back couple. Howver, the latter is suspended for the Sampdoria game after receiving a red card in the EL qualification match at Novosibirsk and is replaced by veteran defender Wilfred Bouma who was contracted on a free after being released by Aston Villa.

PSV’s wing attackers play a fairly wide role compared to a lot of 4-2-3-1 teams featuring inside wingers. Balasz Dszudszak on the left and Jeremain Lens on the right are true wing players, both being capable of passing their defender for an out-swinging cross or turning inside for a shot on goal. Especially two-footed Dszudszak is renowned for his goal-scoring ability from the wing.

The starting line-ups

In turn, PSV’s full-backs are not provided with an empty wing to run into, looking for overlap, like we so often see in inverted wingers based 4-2-3-1  formations. In this match, first choice right-back Manolev is suffering from a groin injury and is replaced by Atiba Hutchinson who is capable of performing full-back as well as defensive midfield duties.

Last season saw Ola Toivonen being deployed in the striker position where he could pose an aerial threat to connect with the wing crosses. This year he’s deployed as the in-the-hole man behind striker Marcus Berg, contracted on a season-long from HSV. Toivonen seems to flourish in this new role, using his off-the-ball skills to maximum effect, scoring seven goals in six matches in the process.

A final mention goes to the defensive midfield players, where Orlando Engelaar teams up with the ambitious Ibrahim Afellay. The latter strongly expressed his desire to leave PSV (“… but only for a top team!”) and refrained from playing in the EL qualifiers for that reason. However, no suitable offers came in and Afellay joins PSV for another season. After initially being deployed behind striker Toivonen he is now regularly used as a box-to-box holding midfielder besides natural passer Engelaar.

Sampdoria’s 4-4-2

Opponents Sampdoria are renowned for being a 4-4-2 team, the more and more ‘endangered species’ of modern football formations. Last year, however, manager Luigi Delneri managed to finish fourth in the serie A with this 4-4-2 line-up, often showing bombarbing wing players who connected with strong striker Giampaolo Pazzini for him to score 19 serie A goals last season. This even led national manager Cesare Prandelli to select both Sampdoria forwards Cassano and Pazzini for Italy’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Estonia. Another 4-4-2 diamond success story has been Roda JC breaking down champions Twente for a 0-0 home draw early this season.

Delneri left for Juventus to continue his 4-4-2 philosophy there and Domenico di Carlo, who had enjoyed a successful two-year spell at Chievo Verona was brought to Sampdoria the continue the 4-4-2 success story. He made some adaptations to Delneri’s line-up though. The midfield was slightly altered and features a four-man diamond now, as illustrated in the screen below, providing better cover against four-band formations (like 4-2-3-1).

Sampdoria's narrow 4-4-2 diamond. Don't mistake the ref for a yellow dot though...

Pazzini did not play against PSV due to a back injury and was replaced by 21-year old Marilunga. This substitution had immediate consequences for Sampdoria’s style of play. Instead of deploying wide running midfielder, looking to swing crosses in for Pazzini, their midfield now consisted of a very narrow diamond, cropping space in front of their four-man defense.

A costly defending error

That being said, let’s turn our attention to how the match developed. Sampdoria’s line-up could virtually be broken down in two parts. There’s the defending line of the back four with the narrow midfield in front of them. And there’s Cassano roaming around and slightly to the left of fellow striker Marilunga. Sampdoria’s midfield successfully dedicated the majority of their efforts to frustrating PSV’s midfield play. Upon possession, the Italians quickly passed the ball to Cassano, hoping for some brilliance that he has already frequently brought this season. Given their deep defense Sampdoria was not ashamed to use the long ball forward.

PSV had a lot of trouble breaking Sampdoria’s deep defense down. Dszudszak consequently faced two or even three defenders in his beloved left wing dribbles and apart from a few long range shots did not succeed in creating danger. With Marcus Berg not offering the aerial presence of Toivonen in that same position last year, Dszudszak’s crosses seem less efficient. Even more dramatically, a communication error between striker Berg and defender Marcelo left Cacciatore unmarked after an half-cleared corner and the Sampdoria right-back scored rather easily.

This error proved costly to PSV as it allowed Sampdoria to withdraw even further, letting their formation break into a defending unit of eight with a separate pair of roaming strikers. PSV did not succeed to play around this defending unit. One of the man factors why PSV did not succeed may be the role of Marcus Berg.

Marcus Berg and PSV’s 4-2-3-1: not a happy couple

The Swedish striker was brought into the club based on his successes at FC Groningen, where he scored 41 goals in 64 matches. His move to HSV was not quite a success and PSV snapped him up for a year-long loan. Important to note is that Berg obtained these impressive figures by excelling in a 4-4-2 system at the time. His goals are predominantly  scored with ground strikes. His role in PSV’s 4-2-3-1 system is quite a different one. He’s mainly to receive aerial crosses from wingers Lens and Dszudszak and the match against Sampdoria was no exception. Last week’s match against NEC illustrated the same problem, where manager Rutten subbed Berg of during half-time for PSV to overcome a 0-1 half=time score by scoring three second half goals with the aerial presence of Koevermans in their side.

The second half

At half time PSV manager Rutten refrained from major changes. If anything, Afellay was positioned slightly higher up the pitch, where Sampdoria’s narrow diamond provided enough bodies to limit space here. PSV did fire quite a few long-range shots, but consequently found goalkeeper Curci on their path.

It took until the 75th minute for Rutten to make the desired change, subbing Koevermans on for Berg.  But by then Sampdoria had completely parked the bus to see out the remainder of the match, hoping to hold on to their 0-1 lead.

The final minutes

In the end Dszudszak scored a well-deserved equalizer from the standpoint of those appreciating PSV’s continuous hard labour in this difficult game. Or a sore late goal conceded by Sampdoria for those appreciating the art of defending and appreciating the well-organised eight-men Italian defense. A matter of taste…

PSV’s impressive pass completion rate of 87.7% illustrated both the deep defensive stance of Sampdoria, refraining from any sorts of early pressure, and it illustrated that PSV’s shortcomings are mainly to be sought in the final attacking pass, connecting well with the presumed misfit of Marcus Berg and PSV’s style of 4-2-3-1 wing play.

Posted in: Europa League