FC Utrecht qualified for European Football by winning last year’s Eredivisie play-off and their Europa League qualification campaign, starting back in July, saw them defeating KF Tirana, FC Luzern and last but not least, former European Champions Celtic. Especially notable was the 4-0 home triumph over the higher rated Scottish side that featured in the Champions League group stages in three out of the past five seasons.
Utrecht’s season so far
Descibed as a young team with lots of potential, their campaign has certainly not gone unnoticed. Especially young striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel found himself in the spotlight of transfer speculation during the August transfer window, only to remain a Utrecht player for at least half a season more.
Utrecht has had quite a shaky start to their 2010/11 Eredivisie season so far. Losing all four of their away matches and in return, winning all three of their home matches (counting up until the Liverpool match that is). The first two matches of their mouth-watering Europa League group stage went quite a different way. After an excellent display in their first match away at Napoli they were perhaps a tad unlucky to come away with only a 0-0 draw. And now there’s the home 0-0 against a Liverpool side, that’s had a struggling start to their season, to throw in an understatement.
Utrecht’s preferred formation(s)
Utrecht manager Ton du Chatinier generally prefers to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. However, the recent injury problems to Utrecht’s forwards have forced some creativity from his side. Missing their influential wide player Dries Mertens, their formation tended more to a 4-2-2-2 and when Mulenga and Asare were injured too, they played a 4-1-4-1, only to find out that grinding out low scoring draws is not really their cup of tea.
Against Liverpool only Asare was still missing through injury, otherwise Utrecht’s full strength 4-2-3-1 was fielded. They play a split winger style with left-sided dribbler Dries Mertens providing a wide oulet and Jacob Mulenga playing more inside, from the right, joining striker Van Wolfswinkel. Edouard Duplan replaced Asare in the central attacking midfield role.
Liverpool’s taste of 4-4-2
Liverpool fielded what could best be described as a 4-4-2 formation, although their midfield had quite a degree of positional freedom. On paper Meireles was the right sided midfielder, but he frequently drifted inside, looking for space. The same counted for Joe Cole, who started mostly from the left side. At moments throughout the game Liverpool played more of a 4-2-2-2 in this regard. Meanwhile, Kuijt roamed around Torres who occupied the most advanced role. Both Poulsen and Lucas played a very deep role, providing the stability for the before-mentioned positional liberties.
In theory Utrecht’s three man midfield would provide with a 3 v 2 situation versus Liverpool’s Poulsen / Lucas combination. This did not work out, however, due to a number of reason. First, Duplan was often positioned too far upfront to be considered a force in midfield. Second, Liverpool’s Meireles played a very narrow midfield role, providing an extra hand in central midfield if necessary. Furthermore, this liberated Glen Johnson to display his prima quality, attacking down the right flank.
An even first half
This led to a rather even match without enough attacking support from either side to create any real goal scoring chances. Utrecht was a bit conservative in the sense that both full-backs played quite defensive role. Especially in a 4-2-3-1 versus 4-4-2 where Liverpool needed their midfield wide players to support the centre, an attacking role for the full-backs would be a good option.
Utrecht created a handful of chances in the first half, but these were mainly long range efforts, or blocked shots. The only real goal scoring opportunity came from a smart Mertens dribble after a corner was initially cleared, but his short found the hands of goalkeeper Reina.
The paradox of the second half
The second half initially saw more end-to-end play, even leading to both sided being only that bit away from opening the score. First an aerial bombardment with a corner series by Utrecht challenged Reina’s aerial capacities and upon clearance Kuyt crossed for Torres who only just missed the shot to finish a high-paced break.
As the match neared the final half hour a beautiful paradox became apperent. On one hand there were both sets of players throwing in an namirable amount of energy, especially notable with Utrecht’s physical labour in search of a win. On the other hand, both managers seemed content with keeping both defensive midfielders in their respective formations behind the ball at all times. With both teams effectively playing 4 v 8 in attack this contributed to the 0-0 final score line.
In the end
The same holds true for this game as for the Napoli game. Utrecht will be proudly showing a 0-0 versus big name opponent in a few years from now. In reality, however, a bit more tactical endeavour might have brought a narrow 1-0 here. Too often Van Wolfswinkel found himself isolated and outnumbered upfront. But then again, with two points against Napoli and Liverpool, Utrecht still very much has everything to play for in this group.