In a first leg of what many expected to be a tight affair, ADO trashed Groningen and went on to win 5-1, thereby virtually securing their win in this season’s Europa League qualification playoffs. Groningen conceded the midfield to ADO by playing a formation bordering on 4-2-4 against ADO’s compact 4-3-3. In turn, ADO played to their strength very well and consequently circulated the ball to the feet of wingers Kubik and Verhoek. In the end, a weak performance by Groningen goal keeper Luciano did the rest.
ADO went into this match without their suspended first choice striker Dmitri Bulykin and his preferred replacement Charlton Vicento. Instead Van den Brom played Lex Immers, who had been drafted from his offensive midfield role into the striker position on numerous earlier occasions this season. The vacated spot in ADO’s central midfield was filled in by advancing versatile defender Ramon Leeuwin into central midfield, making place for Christian Kum in central defense beside captain Timothy Derijck.
Groningen also started without their preferred first choice striker. Tim Matavz, still believed to be on his way to Napoli next season, still struggles with his fitness, therefore Petter Andersson made another start in the striker position, just like in Groningen’s last match, the home win over Heracles in the EL playoffs semi final. Thomas Enevoldsen saw his energetic substitution performance from that match rewarded with a start at the right inside winger position.
Groningen’s main absentees must have been Danny Holla and Tim Sparv, who developed into an excellent defensive midfield partnership. Holla misses out through a hamstring injury, while Sparv is suspended after his second yellow card in the hard-fought Heracles match.
The first half
The first ten minutes saw a dominant ADO, while Groningen patiently sat back and absorbed their opponent’s pressure for the moment. But around that time the game was suspended for nearly a quarter of an hour due to technical problems with the stadium lights. A break that was well used by Pieter Huistra to direct his team to a more offensive stance. Groningen re-appeared with a higher back line (which ultimately cost them a goal later on) and more offensive intentions.
Overall, ADO clearly dominated the first half, playing excellently though their strengths: the wings. Nearly all midfield balls were played out wide, into the feet of Kubik or Verhoek, who clearly had the better of Kieftenbelt and Stenman. Ironically, their opening goal came via a rare attack through the centre of the pitch. Groningen was paid for letting the pressure on ADO’s midfield slip for a moment, as Immers laid the ball off for Radosavljevic, who had escaped the attention of an overly advanced thinking Leandro Bacuna. Radosavljevic’s excellent through-ball played Toornstra in behind Groningen’s defensive line and the midfielders finished off nicely.
In the build-up to that goal, several of Groningen’s key issues in this game were illustrated. Bacuna took a very optimistic offensive stance, pressuring almost beside striker Andersson, which seemed out of line with the more conservative stance taken by the rest of the team. As a result, Groningen’s formation turned from a compact 4-2-3-1 into a stretched 4-2-4, which left space in midfield that was well exploited by ADO’s narrow midfield three of Radosavljevic, Toornstra and Leeuwin.
In possession, Groningen had their problems too. They hardly succeeded to connect more than four passes in a row, partly due to the aforementioned 3v2 ADO-dominated midfield, but also due to the absence of both Holla and Sparv, who are excellent passers of the ball. Although the Eredivisie does not provide data on pass completion, my guess would be that the both of them are among the best passers in the league when it comes to pass completion, which is a vital ingredient in the holding midfield role.
Second half changes
Huistra attempted to fix the first half issues by replacing right-back Kieftenbelt, who was clearly dominated by Kubik, with Virgil van Dijk, but he failed to address the midfield issues, where ADO continued to dominate.
After a short spell where Groningen seemed prepared to fight back into the match and their fighting spirit won a few tackles in midfield, ADO took advantage of a horrible kick by Groningen goal keeper Luciano, who placed the ball straight into Toornstra’s feet. On the resulting long range shot by Immers Luciano gave up a central area rebound, which was fired in by man-of-the-match Jens Toornstra, who whose run, again, was not tracked by Ajilore.
Despite a short surge of hopes for Groningen, when Ivens scored a close range header from a Dusan Tadic corner (his 22nd assist of this season!), ADO ran out clear and deserved winners with a score line as high as 5-1.
The story of the first half continued as Groningen gave up too much space in front of their back four and was punished for playing with a higher defensive line in search of the much needed away goal. First Immers won a ball in between Groningen’s central defenders and later on he also proved instrumental in ADO’s fourth goal by winning a header off Granqvist. Toornstra won a subsequent tackle off Ivens in Groningen’s box and fired in through the legs of Luciano. Ultimately, Ramon Leeuwin increased the pain for Groningen as he fired in from long range and saw his effort being deflected in the back of the net by Luciano.
With the danger of overexerting the same point over and again, Groningen’s midfield errors cost them the game, and with that, the possibility to crown the club’s best first half of a season ever with a qualification for European Football. Playing attacking midfielder Leandro Bacuna mainly beside striker Andersson did not fit with the (appropriate) more defensive stance taken by the rest of the team.
As a result, Groningen’s midfield effectively consisted of only Hiariej and Ajilore, who replaced Holla and Sparv in that area. ADO easily dominated that department with a close midfield three consisting of Radosavljevic, Leeuwin and a particularly excellent Jens Toornstra. They consequently succeeded to circulate the ball to wingers Kubik and Verhoek, who exploited their pace and crossing skills very well.
The resulting 5-1 home victory should ensure qualification for the qualification rounds of the Europa League, where ADO will (probably*) follow the footsteps of Utrecht, whose 2010/11 season started back in July already.
* In the past 10 seasons of EL and CL knock-out football, none of eleven teams losing the away match 5-1 went on to qualify from that tie.