Two high-flying teams went into this match that turned out to be the fierce battle that was expected beforehand. With two team playing a very comparable formation and playing style, this was a match to be fought out quite as a straight match-up of the qualities of the players involved and Groningen managed to come away with the win, their ninth in a row at their home stadium, and became the first team to keep AZ from scoring in an Eredivisie match this season.
Debutant manager Huistra keeps on compiling results in record-breaking fashion with Groningen. Based on a consequently applied 4-2-3-1 system he favours to stick to the system and have his players use their versatility to perform in different roles rather than adapting the system when players are missing through injury or suspensions.
Against AZ right wingers Van der Laak and Enevoldsen missed out due to injuries and Gonzalo Garcia Garcia, generally more of a central trequartista type of player, was drafted into the right winger role. One more substitution had to be made: Darryl Lachman replaced the suspended Maikel Kieftenbeld at right-back.
That’s right, two team with the same formations in this match, although AZ have adopted this system at a later stage in the season, and achieved much more success with it than with their overambitious hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system, which demanded too much from the wing backs and led to a weakening in defense.
AZ enters this match with a nearly full-strength squad. The only missing first team regular would be left-back Klavan, who got ill on the day of the match. Nick Viergever made his second start of the season.
The first half
Groningen had the upper hand in terms of possession in the first phase of the game, but AZ’s solid four men defense, aided by the double pivot of controlling midfielders Elm and Schaars, took a deep stance and sat out the pressure quite comfortably during the first ten minutes.
But already in the twelfth minute Groningen managed to open the score. Dusan Tadic showed his skill by creating space for the inside low cross and Tim Matavz expressed his excellent finishing skill with a one-touch control of the ball and a clinical finish.
An early goal like this is certain to be a match changer and in this game Groningen initially took heart from their early goal and kept on dominating the game. Based on the excellent defensive positioning of midfielders Holla and Sparv, both full-backs regularly ventured forward to link-up with the wingers. Garcia and Andersson, both skilled central playmakers, frequently switched positions, making it harder for AZ to man-mark them. A final aspect where Groningen took the upper hand in the first half was the aerial dominance at the back. A chalkboard showing the headers Groningen won in their own half would have been nice here. AZ likes to play quite direct balls to their physically strong striker Graziano Pellè, who features as a target man at times. Frustrating this preferred playing style did Groningen good in the first part of the game.
AZ in need of a plan B
AZ wouldn’t be one of the Eredivisie’s better teams if they would base their game on just this direct playing style. They quickly adapted to Pellè not being able to win the balls that were aimed quite directly at him and started circulating the ball to the wingers instead. Both Martens and Holman took a wider stance and looked to receive the ball at feet.
Now able to control possession better, AZ grew into the game halfway through the first half. Groningen, sitting on their lead, initially withdrew a bit and managed to limit AZ’s danger to long range shots in this period.
During the final fifteen minutes of the first half Groningen manager Huistra, visibly annoyed with the lack of pressure applied by his team, direct his defense to a more advance line and had his midfielders chasing AZ’s possession. Although Groningen’s players upped their work rate, AZ possessed the technical quality and the speed of passing to play around their opponents regularly.
With Groningen unable to hold onto possession and AZ unable to convert their, often own half, possession into fluid attacks the game panned out to half time with a 1-0 score line.
The second half
The screens below illustrate the pattern of play at the start of the second half. This is a situation where AZ managed to successfully apply a direct passing game around Groningen’s pressing attacking midfielders. The first screen shows AZ’s defense in possession with Groningen’s attacking midfelders applying pressure. Instead of recirculating the ball through the goalkeepers, the ball is passed long and, as illustrated in the second screen, man-in-the-hole Wernbloom is positioned quite close to striker Pellè and manages to win the header leading to AZ’s attackers outnumbering Groningen’s defenders for once. The move ends with Holman hitting the bar with his chip over Luciano.
The game saw an increase in the number of fouls as well as more physical intensity. AZ’s frustrations grew and Groningen’s midfield, led by an excellent hard-working Holla, rolled up their socks to defend their narrow lead. As a reflection of their choice to defend their narrow lead Huistra replaced technical playmaker and winger for a day Gonzalo Garcia Garcia with another defensive midfielder: Nigerian youth international Femi Ajilore. The climax of Groningen’s physical hard labour was Sparv’s red card for a vicious foul in the 78th minute.
A bombardment of crosses and direct balls into Groningen area followed, but AZ did not create the equalizer. In the final minutes frustrated central defender Moreno saw a red card too and AZ’s resistance broke down. Groningen even managed to put the 2-0 on the scoreboard from a last minute counter attack. It was that man Matavz again.
In the end
Groningen put in an excellent hard-working effort to come away with the win in a roughly balanced match. AZ will feel hard done, but has itself to blame for consistently playing the same direct game against Groningen’s tall centre-backs who hardly lost any aerial battles to striker Pellè.