Last Saturday, an intriguing Dutch Eredivisie match took place between high-flying AZ Alkmaar and lowly Sparta Rotterdam. The former are staking their claim for third place – behind PSV Eindhoven & Ajax Amsterdam yet in front of some big names like Feyenoord and Utrecht. On the other end, Sparta have struggled massively in their second consecutive top-flight season, finding themselves bottom of the table with most of the season having been played. It would take a fantastic effort from the visiting Sparta to take a point in Alkmaar, but the match was a lot closer than expected.
AZ’s Balanced Setup
One could look at any AZ Alkmaar match and understand immediately which country they reside in. John van den Brom’s side play with the measured possession style of an Ajax side, combined with the tenaciousness and directness of league leaders PSV. Their strength lies in their front three, consisting of target man Wout Weghorst flanked by Iranian star Alireza Jahanbakhsh on the right and new signing Oussama Idrissi on the left. Alireza is usually the focus of AZ’s attention (11 goals, 8 assists), but it was inverted-winger Idrissi who took the plaudits on Saturday.
AZ’s young, attack-minded midfield trio is led by Guus Til (20) making runs up front, with Fredrik Midtsjö (24) and Teun Koopmeiners (19) operating in deeper roles. The fluidity of the three caused major problems for Sparta’s lackluster pressing; Til was able to clear space out in the midfield while Koopmeiners often moved high up the pitch to create advantages. We can see below how Guus Til (red circle) distracted defenders to allow Idrissi to cut inside. As mentioned before, Idrissi’s incisive dribbling was a major threat when he was given space.
For all of the attention given to AZ’s attack and midfield, it was the defense – more specifically the full-backs – that played a major role on the night. Left-back Thomas Ouwejan, another youngster, and right-back Jonas Svensson spent most of the 90 minutes in Sparta’s half of the pitch. This not only formed an added passing threat on AZ’s flanks, but it also served as a pressing asset. Ouwejan and Svensson pinned back Sparta’s wide players, which was just about the visitors’ only attacking outlet.
Sparta Attempt to Contain
Recently-appointed Dick Advocaat has done little to bolster Sparta Rotterdam’s survival attempts, with the historical club remaining pinned down in 18th. If AZ look like a typical Dutch club, Sparta are one of the few who do not. Advocaat set his side up with a 5-3-2 that remained relatively structured throughout the match. The wing-backs, as mentioned, were largely ineffective going forward due to AZ’s exemplary pressing in wide areas. The three midfielders, marshalled by Ryan Sanusi, man-marked their opponents for much of the night. Unfortunately for the visitors, this meant that space was opened up in other areas, such as the left half-space for Idrissi to exploit.
In the example below, we see that AZ are carrying the ball forward through left-back Ouwejan, who was phenomenal on the night. Since Sparta’s midfielders are occupied with their man markers, Ouwejan has space to run into and time to think about his next plan of action. Sparta’s back line of five leaves little room to exploit between defenders, but quick passing moves easily led to an isolated opportunity for Idrissi on the left flank multiple times.
Since Advocaat decided to play with five defenders and committed his midfielders to man-marking, there was very little the two strikers could do in terms of pressing up high. In the next example, we see Michiel Kramer position himself to cover-shadow the left-back, Ouwejan. However, since fellow striker (on loan from AZ, nevertheless) Fred Friday is occupied in a wider defensive position, the only pressing aid for Kramer is midfielder Deroy Duarte. Yet, since Duarte is committed to man-marking Koopmeiners, we are left with a hole in the Sparta press. All it takes is for Idrissi to drop deep in the left half-space for a simple pass to be played to advance the ball.
This lack of pressing ability from Sparta, combined with AZ’s supreme technical skills, meant that the home side controlled the flow of play throughout the match. In fact, van den Brom’s side maintained a phenomenal 76% possession (per WhoScored)!
19’: Sparta Take Lead from Dead Ball
From what you’ve read, you may be quite surprised to know that the struggling visitors actually took the lead in the nineteenth minute. There’s really not much to say about the goal from a corner kick besides the fact that Sanusi’s cross to defender Julian Chabot was extremely well taken. The 6’4” (1.95m) German youngster was simply too much to control in the air. Michel Breuer and Fred Friday ran towards the near-side of the box, which opened up some space for Chabot to challenge Pantelis Hatzidiakos in the air.
44’: AZ Equalise
After pushing forward for the rest of the half, AZ Alkmaar finally got a much-needed goal. Nothing really changed in terms of their plan of attack – they simply kept working the ball down the left flank until space opened up. Alireza Jahanbakhsh moved to the left earlier in the play to create an overload, which eventually led to midfielder Teun Koopmeiners finding himself in space. He played a ball over the top to marauding left-back Thomas Ouwejan (below), who looked up and found himself with an advantage.
Since Idrissi had dropped deep to combine with Koopmeiners, he dragged a Sparta defender with him. As you can see above, Ouwejan has a plethora of options. Instead of dribbling to the byline, he decides to make a short pass to the advanced Guus Til. Out of the picture, Idrissi is making a run back into the field of play after dropping deep. The defense has little time to react to his overlap, and all Til has to do is play a simple through ball in behind the defense. Idrissi squared the ball to Wout Weghorst for the equalizer right before halftime.
Narrow Sparta fail to Contain
At halftime, Sparta striker Friday was substituted for winger Ilias Alhaft, but the game plan didn’t change much. They still set up in a narrow defensive block, focusing their attacking efforts on long balls towards Kramer. The narrow formation gave free range for AZ to work the ball down the flanks. For much of the match, Ouwejan had immense space down the left side before he was challenged. As seen below, Sparta were clearly trying to restrict space inside the centre of the park. Unfortunately for them, all the home side needed was some space on the flanks to create passing opportunities.
The second half also saw AZ use the right flank a bit more, with Jonas Svensson proving a magnificent overlapping partner with Alireza. The Norwegian full-back created a few opportunities for himself in the box as a result of his overlaps.
Despite this domination, AZ had nothing to show for much of the second half. Til missed a few golden opportunities, while Weghorst failed multiple times to grab his brace. As the half wore on, Advocaat clearly felt a bit more confident in his side and decided to try a high-press a couple times (with little success).
86’: Idrissi Wins it for Alkmaar
As the final ten or so minutes of the match ensued, AZ pushed forth with even more velocity than before. Overlapping fullbacks sent in dangerous crosses and more bodies were pushed into the box. Oussama Idrissi missed a phenomenal opportunity near the six-yard box, but he made up for it only minutes later.
AZ built up from the back, with little sustained pressure from Sparta’s first line of defence. Centre-back Stijn Wuytens passed to an open Idrissi, who’d drifted so deep that he was nearly on the halfway line. Watching the build-up to the goal (seen below) was reminiscent of a vintage Michael Jordan play. Clear everyone out of the way and let the man dribble at his defender. Idrissi, in true Mike fashion, bypassed a hapless and lacklustre Sparta midfield with absolutely no tackle attempt. Sanusi, who had dropped into a largely defensive position, failed to tackle the speedy forward. One more dribble to evade the central defender and a quick, low shot: AZ win. Sometimes it’s as simple as an isolation play.
Takeaways for Sparta
The Eredivisie bottom-dwellers fought adamantly to stave off defeat in Alkmaar, but in the end AZ’s dominance on the flanks was too much to handle. Dick Advocaat set his team up for failure, in a strange way, by allowing his opponents so much space to operate out wide. Ouwejan and Svensson were a constant threat running into the midfield, something that teams like Ajax or even Pep Guardiolas Manchester City preach from defenders. Most importantly, the wingers – especially Idrissi – had a field day in terms of receiving the ball. Idrissi made it look easy to attain 119 touches (WhoScored), the second-most of any player on the night, by simply dropping deep at times.
If Sparta Rotterdam are to stay up this season, which is certainly not out of the picture yet, Advocaat needs to look at the defensive side of the game. Kramer and Friday are good forwards and will get goals when afforded the opportunity, but the way AZ were allowed to walk all over the flanks is no way to set yourself up for success. Perhaps it was simply a bad match-up to begin with, or perhaps a formation change is in store.
Takeaways for AZ Alkmaar
In what was a concerning result until Idrissi’s late goal, AZ dominated against a grind-it-out side. Clearly, as previously mentioned, the strategy of working the ball wide was a good one. According to @11tegen11 on Twitter, AZ accumulated nearly 4 expected goals. Ouwejan and Svensson looks like a full-back partnership for the future, and Oussama Idrissi has finally announced himself on a bigger stage after a move from struggling FC Groningen. Despite the close scoreline, there are only positives to take away from this performance in tactical terms.