The first half of this season’s first ‘Derby of the North’ was a tame affair, as reflected by the 0-0 half-time score. In the second half the game came to life, with Heerenveen passionately chasing the game after conceding the opening goal immediately after half-time.
Stable FC Groningen
Groningen went into this match against northern rival Heerenveen off the back of their best season start ever. Even having topped the table for a day, the ‘Pride of the North’ consequently operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation that is characterized by their outside wingers. Withdrawing Niklas Pedersen to play behind lone striker Matavz have been a wise move from manager Pieter Huistra, as the pair have produced over half of Groningen’s open play goals so far.
Their back-line provides stability and offers an aerial presence too. Both centre-backs, Granqvist and Ivens, have played all of the matches so far and have proven to be a valuable presence during attacking set pieces too.
Heerenveen still seems a bit disconnected, based on their performance in the first eight matches of this season. The acquisition of Bas Dost, who was transferred from Heracles this summer, seems to bring about quite some chances to their type of play. Dost is an aerially strong target man who needs his share of supply from the wings, while both Ousama Assaidi on the left and Roy Beerens on the right have a natural tendency to cut inside an look for space.
In this derby, Heerenveen did in fact not play their regular 4-2-3-1, but looked more like a 4-1-4-1 set-up. Viktor Elm controlled the midfield behind central midfielders Vayrynen and Grindheim. The pair of them looked to join the attack by making runs from deep, but in general kept within the line of four midfielders.
While in theory looking like an excellent plan to counter Groningen’s 4-2-3-1 in an away match, Ron Jans’ Heerenveen side did not provide the defensive stability that a 4-1-4-1 should have done. And this had very much to do with their right flank. Although Beerens’ pace and dribbling skills are a renowned weapon in the Eredivisie, his lack of defensive responsibility offers a liability to the team too. Confronted with the overlapping power of Groningen left-back Stenman, this proved Heerenveen’s biggest problem of the first half.
The first half
Groningen, meanwhile, operated their 4-2-3-1 from a rather deep defensive line initially, which lead to a tame start to the match. Both teams did not achieve a reasonable pass completion, leading to short possession spells and not the best of entertainment.
With around fifteen minutes played Groningen tried to take matters more in their hands. They played a more pressing came, at the cost of conceding more space at the back. But while Groningen did not create much danger, Heerenveen used this new found space to some effect.
First-half tactical change
Ron Jans is generally known as a man with a hands-on approach and this was shown in his first half substitution. Still somewhat of a taboo, a first half tactical substitution, brining on Koning for overrun right-back Janmaat did succeed in limiting Heerenveen’s right-sided problems. Roy Beerens was clearly instructed to track back more too, limiting Stenman’s offensive play.
The second half
Immediately after half-time Groningen’s aerial set piece danger was illustrated by Granqvist’s fourth Eredivisie goal. His header from a Dusan Tadic inswinging corner found the net to put the home side 1-0 up.
Unexpectedly this did not bring any comfort to Groningen’s game. Heerenveen started pressing by advancing midfielders Grindheim and Vayrynen and Groningen’s defensive midfielders were unable to find their passing targets anymore. It was quite clear that Groningen misses outlet options as both striker Matavz and man-in-the-hole Pedersen played a rather flat game.
After substituting Vayrynen for Djuricic, who is a more offensive midfielder, Heerenveen switched from their 4-1-4-1 to their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Djuricic did succeed in finding some space between the lines of the Groningen defensive and his through-balls created a few chances here and there. Groningen’s lack of defensive outlets meant that they had to resort to an ugly defensive game, hoping for a quick break on their long ball clearances. However, lacking true pace in their attacking line-up or on the bench, this was never quite likely to occur.
Nearing the end of the match Ron Jans clearly indicated his switch to a one-on-one back line and Heerenveen lined-up in what was effectively a 3-3-4 formation after captain Breuer was sacrificed for extra striker Fazli. Throwing men forward was the recipe towards the final minutes of the game, but Groningen managed to hold on to their narrow lead, nicely symbolized by young full-back Kieftenbelt’s cheering after clearing a ball from the goal line in the final minute.
In the end
In the end it was a poor match if not for the tension induced by the close score line. Heerenveen still looks like a disjointed team at the moment. Tall striker Dost is clearly unhappy with the lack of quality crosses that the inside wingers provide while wingers Assaidi and Beerens need their striker to join in ground combinations and through balls aiming to use their dribbling skills and pace. Today their choice for a 4-1-4-1 made things look even worse, although from a rational standpoint this approach in an away match against an in-form opposition playing a 4-2-3-1 seems very much justified.
Groningen will definitely take this. Winning the Derby of the North, taking three points from a team that was regarded to be a rival to their ambitions to qualify for European Football this season. Manager Pieter Huistra most certainly made his debut as a manager in impressive fashion, providing Groningen with their best season start ever, despite already having played Ajax, PSV, AZ and Twente.