The fourth and possibly crucial match of the Champions League Group stage meant an away match for reigning Dutch champions Twente at the hands of German side Werder Bremen. Having lost in Bremen by no less than 4-1 during last year’s Europa League knockout phase, memories of shattered European football aspirations are still very much vivid among the fans of the Eastern Holland side.
Only two weeks ago these teams faced each other in Enschede, playing quite a disappointing match where both sides mainly aimed not to lose the match. A 1-1 final score was perhaps the best reflection of the on-pitch performance. Twente took a very cautious approach, even playing at home, leaving attacking midfielder (and natural striker) Luuk de Jong on the bench and opting for a formation not dissimilar to the 4-1-4-1 Preud’homme used last weekend in their 0-1 victory away at PSV.
In their previous match, Werder Bremen did, for a change, not go in head over heels and patiently looked for attacking options from a base of two holding midfielders in a stable 4-2-3-1. Upfront, Wesley and Hunt were given quite some positional freedom and made good use of it. But it was only until former Twente player Marko Arnautovic entered the pitch that the game sprung to life. After a rather ‘out of the blue’ opening goal for Twente, it was the Austrian striker who deservedly equalized for Werder.
In today’s match Twente missed their two controlling midfielders Janssen and Brama through injury. Veteran midfielder Landzaat showed his excellent form in replacing Brama during the past weeks and right-back Rosales is drafted into the Twente midfield to complete the double pivot.
Werder fielded an on paper rather familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, but played centre-back Prödl on right-back and creative midfielder Wesley in the left full-back position. Captain Frings formed the centre-back partnership with Per Mertesacker. Especially interesting was the pair of Ruiz and Wesley, two creative players by nature.
The first half
The match started out with Werder, as expected, taking up very advanced positions, often fielding all their outfield players in the opposing half. Both full-backs took up very advanced positions on their respective flanks and on top of that, even one of the centre-back looked to connect to the midfield too. While sometimes this would overload the midfield, the dynamism of Hunt and Marin in Werder’s attacking midfield prevented this from happening.
Twente, meanwhile, was forced to retreat deep in their own half, but did create several big scoring chances from incisive breaks. Unfortunately Mark Janko could only show his lack of pace on most of these occasions. Also, Chadli’s wasteful shooting did not help.
Most of their Eredivisie matches, Twente succeed in creating their chances through the middle, but today, lacking important passing skills with both Brama and especially Janssen out, the centre midfield was below standard. Particularly Rosales’ first half passing accuracy of 4 out of 11 attempts personified Twente’s midfield problem. No single players succeeded in completing more than nine passes in the first half, leading to an overall passing accuracy of 47% (!). You don’t need too many math skills to figure that stringing a few passes together and looking to create an attack is virtually impossible with that kind of passing stats.
Although Twente did not get their own game running, they did succeed in keeping Werder out of their own box. Crosses, mainly coming from the right flank, where Prödl put in an excellent effort, and dangerous free-kicks won by Hunt on the left flank formed Werder’s main source of attacking danger in the first half. But apart from Pizarro hitting the post on an exceptional attack through the middle, their goal scoring threat was easily matched by Twente’s quick breaks.
The second half
No personal or tactical changes meant that the second half carried on like the first half did. Werder’s danger consisted of curling sideline free kicks and Twente looked to seize upon one of their breaks. But Twente came no further than hitting the post through Nacer Chadli, in a move that slightly resembled their goal against PSV last weekend.
From a tactical standpoint, Werder did change a vital element to their game. While in the first half they limited the playing field, effectively controlling space by positioning their defensive line on the halfway line, in the second half they chose a deeper stance, drawing Twente onto them and looking to take advantage from Twente’s generally overrun midfield. Although not only opening up spaces for themselves, Werder did manage to create an even more open and free-flowing attacking game.
Thomas Schaaf wouldn’t be Thomas Schaaf if he wouldn’t come up with another attacking chance. Taking off holding midfielder Bargfrede and introducing Marko Arnautovic meant that with about half an hour to play Werder played a 4-1-3-2 formation, committing five players to their attack.
With the match potentially going either way it was a moment of technical brilliance where Bryan Ruiz controlled a running ball with his backheel, forcing Thorsten Frings into a cynical foul and a subsequent red card. Werder continued their attacking path in a 3-2-3-1 formation, but quickly paid the price. Nacer Chadli took full advantage of the space opening up on Werder’s half and saw his deflected shot hit the back of the net with only ten minutes to go. A few minutes later it was Luuk de Jong who finished to match by scoring 0-2 from a header.
In the end
In fact this match, as so often is the case with Werder, could have gone either way, but as also is so often the case, did not go Werder’s way in the end. Committing five players to the attack may steal the hearts of large parts of the football fan community, it does not deserve to steal their minds. There would have been smarter ways to take advantage of Twente’s shortcomings in midfield. By opening up space in withdrawing their defensive line, Werder played into the hands of Twente who succeeded in completing almost three times as much passes in the second half as they did in the first half. The technical skills of Bryan Ruiz and the pace of Chadli proved enough to score the winning goal in the end.