Expectations, before the group stage began, had been that Napoli would take the first place in Group F and that the second place would be a contest between AZ Alkmaar and Real Sociedad. Arne Slot’s AZ were one the most exciting teams in last season’s edition of the Eredivisie, finishing on equal points with rivals Ajax. This season, they have struggled more in the league, already 10 points behind with one fewer match played.
In the UEFA Europa League, the expectations for a team with the stature of AZ should be to progress from the group stages. This season, however, they are in a fiercely contested group with three teams all intending on making it to the final stages. Real Sociedad had an almost equally good last season with only the final part of it letting them down and, in the end, they did not have the chance to play in the UEFA Champions League.
They have retained their most important players from last season, however, bar loanee Martin Ødegaard who went back to his parent club, Real Madrid. He was replaced by none other than David Silva, a player who not only can improve the team but lend invaluable experience alongside plenty of young and exciting players. In La Liga, the Basques are in excellent form, topping the standings with 23 points after 10 matches played.
In this tactical analysis, the initial part will look at the tactics of both teams. Then, the analysis part will closely examine the ways that AZ were able to play through the press of La Real with quick, short passes, how the Basques struggled to play through the middle and finally how they could have reacted when regaining the ball to better counter against a counter-pressing AZ.
Slot lined up his team in a pretty usual way – a 4-4-2 which saw Marco Bizot continue in goal, further displaying that the goalkeeper spot in the national team is not settled. Ahead of him, the centre-back pairing of Pantelis Chatzidiakos and Bruno Martins Indi continued as before. The usual suspects, Jonas Svensson at the right full-back and Owen Wijndal at the left completed the back four for AZ this evening.
Midfield consisted of Calvin Stengs on the right and Jesper Karlsson on the left, with Fredrik Midtsjø and Teun Koopmeiners in the middle. Up top, Dani de Wit joined Albert Guðmundsson to complete the starting 11.
La Real lined in a slightly more unusual manner than what they normally do. On paper, it looked like a 4-1-3-2 but in-game it was highly flexible in terms of the positioning of the midfield players in and out of possession.
Álex Remiro was once again the man chosen between the sticks. With Andoni Gorosabel at right full-back out, Joseba Zaldua started his third match in a row. In the centre of defence, the team had Aritz Elustondo and Robin le Normand. Veteran Nacho Monreal continued from his left-back position.
In defensive midfield, Martín Zubimendi took up a starting position with Mikel Merino ahead of him. On either side of Merino, Mikel Oyarzabal and Adnan Januzaj started from the left and right respectively. Ahead of them all, Alexander Isak and Cristian Portu led the line.
Penetrative Dutch play
AZ have under Slot become known as a possession-based team that utilise a mixture of short and medium passes in their intricate play to progress the ball through the opponent’s pressing structure. Inviting the opponent high up the field to take advantage of the spaces that appear, their dynamic positioning sees players from different starting positions finding themselves open between the lines.
The midfield will often start relatively high in open play build-up from the back and rather arrive in space to receive and play through than stay there. Both Midtsjø and Koopmeiners are well suited to this with great timing and abilities in shielding, ball carrying and playing through to teammates arriving in space.
The image above shows how, despite arriving at high speed with more difficulty to control the ball, the dynamic positioning allows Midtsjø to receive with three meters open space. This gives him enough time to pick out the pass to play through the first pressing line of La Real. Svensson at right-back recognises the behaviour and starts his run to get out of Isak’s cover shadow before the pass is played, therefore arriving precisely in the ball path.
Midtsjø and Svensson, both Norwegians, have excellent communication on the right half of the field. Not only have they played together three full seasons at AZ, but they also played together in Rosenborg BK for three years before that too.
In the image presented above, the same play has continued for five more seconds. Svensson was able to find Stengs with a diagonal pass centrally between the lines, who again switched play to Karlsson on the left. He was able to exploit the 1v1 with Zaldua before cutting it back and under for the overlapping Wijndal. Midtsjø was central to starting the play, and he is also the one to end up on the end of the angled cross from Wijndal.
As a combination of all the different movements from the AZ players and the 1v1 engagement of Karlsson, the space Midtsjø arrives in is relatively large for this part of the field. Just a poor finish from Midtsjø is what kept the teams level here.
For the majority of the match, Midtsjø and Koopmeiners took turns dropping deep to progress play. With Bizot in goal, they also have a keeper that can play over the press and find either one of the wingers or strikers. A normal solution, in this case, was a long ball to Guðmundsson who laid it off to De Wit who either ran behind or waited below.
La Real progress down the flanks
La Real’s answer to the front two press of AZ was to drop Zubimendi between the centre-backs, allowing them to go wider and have easier access to the half-spaces and flanks. As the image above shows, AZ keep the centre lane very tight. Normally, Stengs on the right flank would stay higher up alongside his midfield teammates, but here he dropped deeper to help Svensson with controlling Nacho on the left side of La Real’s structure.
The 3-3-4 structure of La Real in possession did not prove to be a source of many good chances for the team. They were not able to take advantage of the extra man they had centrally (6v5), despite Merino often staying in the middle and occupying five players as above.
What often happened was that they played out on the flanks in these situations, but the continuation from there was mainly individual actions or runs. Rarely did cooperative movement patterns occur with several players, and they were not able successfully take advantage of the 1v1s they created out wide.
AZ had an interesting adaption to La Real’s wide 3-3-4 structure. When we got closer to the halftime and they were in a deeper block, they dropped both wingers down to help the load on the full-backs. Oyarzabal and Januzaj both stayed high, further pressuring the backline of AZ.
Here though, La Real continued to often play wide, despite the numerical advantage here was virtually gone against the 6-2-2 structure. A solution to this could have been to instruct the centre midfielders (marked black/peach) to go wider in the half-spaces in the hopes of opening up the middle for deep, vertical passes from the centrebacks to Isak or Portu. They could then lay them off to either Oyarzabal or Januzaj waiting in the half-spaces.
Counter the counter-press
AZ in the counter-pressing situations are very compact, both horizontally and vertically. They are well-rehearsed in these situations, and La Real became subject to several occasions of intense counter-pressing to quell their possible counter-attacks.
That said, it was not impossible for La Real to counter-attack the intense counter-pressing of AZ this match. There were small tweaks the team could have done to bypass the pressure with few passes, then launching dangerous counters against a team that leaves a lot of space on the far side especially.
Above is the first example this analysis will look at. The black dotted line is the pass that was taken, while the blue and green paths are possible solutions that could have resulted in counters. As the image shows, instead of moving towards the ball, Merino (blue path) should move laterally and open up the passing lane to Nacho. Receiving and turning with his first touch here would let him see all the space Januzaj has.
Adding to this, if Zubimendi (green path) had taken three to four steps backwards he could have helped to open up the field and also find either Januzaj or Portu behind him. Thus, in this scenario, it is mainly the possible receiver’s decision-making that is hurting the team.
Here is another possible start of a counter that is wasted, but this time it is the decision-making of the ball-carrier. Instead of laying it off to his teammate below, Oyarzabal has a moment of panic and clears the ball long. If he laid it off with a simple pass and Zaldua on the right-back moved further out, they could follow the green path and have possible access to a counter through the run of Portu.
All in all, it was an interesting match to follow, especially with the structural changes Slot made to his AZ team in response to the tactics of Real Sociedad. The lack of ideas to solve the problems the 6-2-2 structure presented meant that La Real struggled to create a lot of good chances. With AZ having several shots from dangerous positions and one hitting the crossbar, Real Sociedad can perhaps consider themselves lucky to come away from this match with a point and a clean sheet.