Groningen managed to claim a place in the final of this season’s Eredivisie play-offs by beating Heracles with the tiniest of margins: away goal difference. After a hard-fought battle, ending in a 3-2 home victory for Heracles, Groningen’s 2-1 win was just enough to secure a place in the final and to maintain hopes of playing in next season’s Europa League preliminaries.
Groningen manager Pieter Huistra had some absentees to worry about in the run up to this important match. Top scorer Tim Matavz has been struggling with his fitness for much of the second half of the season and was absent in this match too. His preferred replacement, Danish Niklas Pedersen missed out too, making Petter Andersson, a nominal attacking midfielder the starting striker today. Behind him Olafemi Ajilore was the preferred advanced midfielder in the consequently applied 4-2-3-1 formation. Young Leandro Bacuna started in an inside right wing forward role.
Peter Bosz had to miss just one of his preferred starting eleven players, but the absence of Willy Overtoom through injury was a hard-felt one. The midfield playmaker tends to pull a lot, if not all, of the midfield strings in the Heracles squad this season and his 17 goals and 7 assists in 37 matches provided a significant part of Heracles’ attacking successes this season. He is replaced by Marko Vejinovic, a different type of offensive central midfielder in the sense that he’s more of the classic enganche type of player, who likes to dictate the game with the ball at feet, rather than Overtoom, who aims to provide an energetic and dynamic input and isn’t shy of finishing moves too.
The first half
Both teams started in comparable formations, although Groningen tends to be described as a 4-2-3-1 and Heracles as a 4-3-3. But both midfields having two holding players in Holla and Sparv (Groningen) and Quansah and Fledderus (Heracles) made for a generally comparable line-up. In a messy opening phase neither team succeeded to dominate and a high foul count led to an interrupted pattern of play, which didn’t help both teams.
The main difference in the early phase of the game was the knock-on effect of the previous tie. Heracles seemed happy enough to see out an expected frantic Groningen opening phase. But this seemed not quite Huistra’s plan. Groningen did commit to the midfield battle, but was patient enough not to waste their energy early on. The resulting game was some sort of stand-off which lasted until Huistra’s first tactical move.
Breaking the stand-off
The stand-off with both units of four defenders and two holding midfielders was broken when Holla committed himself more and more in an offensive role. Until that point Quansah had marked Ajilore quite easily and Sparv did likewise on Vejinovic. As a result, Fledderus and Holla were the midfielders with most freedom to make their choices. As said, the moment that Holla committed himself further forward, which also frustrated Fledderus’ game much more.
The first goal was another product of Groningen’s left flank, which had been mentioned as the best Dutch left flank of the season. Just look at the impressive assist tally of 7 goals and 21 (!) assists in 39 matches for Tadic, powered by the overlapping runs of Stenman. Both players proved crucial in a fluid left flank combination, leading to a well-executed ground combination with striker Andersson who finished the move in style with a curling shot into the far end of the goal.
Second half developments
Just like the opening phase of the first half, where Heracles clearly sat back and absorbed the game, the influence of the aggregate score was all too visible in the opening phase of the second half. Heracles started out with an absurdly high defensive line, perhaps over-executing the half-time instructions, or indeed instructed to play that way. Anyway, they quickly paid the price as Groningen seized on the second opportunity presented by conceding 40 yards of space behind a defensive line while not having full control of the midfield. Ajilore crowned his rare start as an offensive midfielder with a well executed finish from, again, a Tadic assist.
With Groningen now sitting on a two goal aggregate lead and Heracles hardly having been able to provide enough counter play so far, the game felt finished at that point. But the reverse proved true as the game went on. Bosz converted his formation from a 4-3-3 to a 3-3-1-3 by introducing Plet and Rienstra for outside winger Douglas and central defender Van der Linden.
In the final twenty minutes Groningen almost lost their calm, and with that their lead. First they did lose a man as Tim Sparv committed to a challenge that a player carrying a yellow card shouldn’t do. The resulting red card forced Huistra to remove striker Andersson for midfielder Veldmate to restore the balance on the midfield, but this allowed Heracles to play an all-or-nothing offensive game which led to Plet’s 87th minute close range 2-1 header. The remaining minutes passed with both sides filled with adrenaline and suspense, but Groningen successfully defended their one goal lead.
In the end
But Heracles did not find a second goal, which would perhaps be too much given the fact that it took them about 70 minutes to get the right balance between defending a narrow one goal lead (first half) and chasing one goal (opening minutes second half).
Groningen played another hard-fought battle in which they did not help themselves by committing too many early fouls. The resulting 76th minute second yellow card almost cost them in the end, but the fighting spirit that also led to this 10-men situation carried them to the final whistle.