Reigning Eredivisie champions Twente were defeated by the previous champions, AZ. This all happened in a much debated game, played out in pouring rain, bringing all the excitement that may be expected when these two teams are involved, and more. Twente received their second red card of the season after Douglas lost control near the end of the first half. Their first red card of this season? Indeed, Douglas, against AZ at home, in the first half, with the same referee, Ruud Bossen. Twente went on to lose that game 1-2 too… So after Twente being the only team unbeaten by AZ in their winning 2008/09 Eredivisie campaign, this year AZ is the only team to beat Twente twice.
AZ’s successful switch to the 4-2-3-1
Both teams set out with an ambitious single holding midfielder formation, only to see them forced to give up on those plans a few games into the season. AZ started out with an ambitious hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formation where both full-backs took turns of advancing into wide midfielder roles and the remaining three defenders moving sideways to form a temporary three men defense. While this should give AZ the edge on the doubled-up flanks, paying relatively less attention to the centre of the pitch posed insolvable problems, as exposed during their early season games against 4-2-3-1 formations such as the Kazakh side Aktobe in the second half of the home game or Excelsior’s compact 4-1-4-1 system.
Realizing this, Gertjan Verbeek shuffled his formation around in order to double up on the holding midfielder, effectively turning the formation into a 4-2-3-1, now playing Rasmus Elm in a more conservative role beside deep-lying playmaker Schaars, preventing him from getting overrun. And after a hugely disappointing three points from their first five matches, AZ then went on to win 40 points from their next 20 matches using this stable 4-2-3-1 system.
Another interesting development in AZ’s tactics has been the installment of the wide playmaker. Originally much depended on the central midfield playmaker, the man-in-the-hole, in Holland often called ‘the number 10’ in line with Louis van Gaal’s and Ajax’ influential nineties coaching philosophy. In response to that, many teams fielded the double pivot, placing an extra holding midfielder in front of the central defense in order to limit space for the central playmaker. This helped to prevent the single holding midfielder from getting overrun when the central playmaker was assisted by a striker dropping deep or a deeper midfielder making a run forward. In response to the fashionable double pivot, many teams were forced to shift their creative players wide.
In AZ’s formation the offensive creativity is provided by Maarten Martens, playing from the left wing. He is given a reasonable amount of positional freedom by the offensive nature of the AZ left full-back, proving the necessary width when he drifts inside. This allows him to avoid the crowded central area of the pitch , but dictate AZ’s offense from the left wing.
Twente’s similarities with AZ
Just like AZ with Verbeek, Twente started the season with a new manager, as Michel Preud’homme took over from Steve McLaren who left for Wolfsburg during the summer. And Preud’homme initially went with the 4-3-3 formation that was so successful for Twente during the 2009/10 season. But just like Verbeek at AZ, Preud’homme had all sorts of difficulties to prevent Brama from getting overrun in the centre of the pitch. Missing the intelligent positioning and decision making of Kenneth Perez in the central midfield area left Wout Brama with a double task in the defensive midfield role.
Being the most conservative of the midfield three, he played the role of ‘destructive’ midfielder, but was expected to build-up play too. Switching to a system with a second holding midfielder relieved Brama from his constructive tasks, allowing him to break down the opposition’s play, and allowed Janssen the role of deep-lying playmaker. As an added bonus it allowed to play both talented Luuk de Jong (in the advanced midfielder role) and new signing Mark Janko (in the lone striker role).
At present Twente alternates between their 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations, which can be easily discriminated by the inclusion of Brama, Janssen and Landzaat in the 4-3-3 formation and the two of Luuk de Jong and Mark Janko in the 4-2-3-1 system used today.
And, to draw another parallel with AZ, the concept of offensive creativity on the flanks holds true for Twente too, as their playmaker Bryan Ruiz plays from the right wing, often drifting inside, supported by a very offensive wing-back role by Roberto Rosales.
For this particular match, Twente’s in-form left winger Nacer Chadli started from the bench, after Twente’s demanding confrontation with Russian side Rubin Kazan. United States international and AC Milan loanee Onyewu makes his fifth consecutive start at left-back.
AZ misses playmaker Martens due to an ankle injury and plays young Icelandic winger Gudmundsson on the left flank, who teams up with his national team mate Sigthorsson in the striker role. The latter scored no less than eight goals in his previous seven matches, largely because of his five goals in the 6-1 win over VVV.
AZ clearly dominated the opening phase of the game. Twente’s ball retention was simply not up to the task , too many tackles were lost and the pass completion rate was dramatically low. The three short days in between the tough battle with Rubin and the long travel the week before clearly didn’t help here.
With Janssen and Brama having trouble carrying the ball over the midfield line under quite some AZ pressing, playmaker Ruiz decided to help out by dropping very deep. His good intentions, however, increased Twente’s problems as they lacked another passing outlet with Ruiz dropping that deep.
AZ striker Sigthorsson played an impressive game against Douglas, regularly winning tackles and even headers. The young Icelandic international made good use of his movement, pace and agility and formed a dynamic focal point of AZ’s midfield passing.
From bad to worse for Twente
AZ’s opening goal, in fact an unlucky own goal by Janssen, was a matter of time and things got worse and worse for Twente as Douglas proved unable to control himself. The Brazilian hit out at Wernbloom, attempted to assault referee Bossen upon being shown the red card and had to be escorted off the pitch by his team mates. Just a few minutes later Twente lost another influential player as Ruiz was unable to continue, suffering from left knee problems that kept him sidelined for a few months earlier this season. Bart Buysse replaced him, moving Onyewu to the central defense. Twente otherwise kept their formation intact which implied a 4-2-2-1, which due to Ruiz’ free role was close to what was already in effect before the red card.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, with Twente bravely battling back into the game by advancing their holding midfielder to full central midfield roles, referee Ruud Bossen called a temporary stop to the game because of abusive and insulting vocal chants from the Twente fans. While Preud’homme and his players seemed outraged and had a tough time controlling their emotions, Verbeek seemed to use this break as a tactical time-out. He brought Falkenburg for Elm, substituting a conservative for a more offensive midfielder.
A second red card and more drama to it
And just as AZ started to take matters into their own hands again, a second red card followed. Nick Viergever could easily have been given a yellow card for a push on Luuk de Jong, but Bossen judged it as a cynical foul and sent him off. With both teams reduced to ten men now, both managers made several substitutions, Twente in chasing the game and AZ answering and thereby turning into a counter-attack 4-4-1 formation.
Twente ended up with a completely unbalanced 3-2-4 formation, desperately trying to overload AZ’s penalty box. And on one of those crosses Luuk de Jong managed a beautiful finish into the top corner for the final minute equalizer.
But as if there hadn’t been enough suspense and Twente drama yet, it was still AZ winning the three points as Erik Falkenburg managed a 93rd minute winner after sloppy marking in Twente’s vacated defensive line.
In the end
Much attention after the end of the game went to the dramatic scene of the red-carded Douglas and the abusive chants leading to a suspension of play, but underneath that a true football battle was fought. Both sides kept adapting to the developments on the pitch and in the end Twente had a hard time keeping their cool in circumstances where luck wasn’t always on their side.