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Being a football hipster is serious business with knowledge about the young starlet making waves for a non-mainstream mid table side often a prerequisite rather than a feather in the cap. To further enhance your, perhaps, burgeoning reputation as a true hipster, Outside of the Boot is on hand to provide an in-depth guide to some of the less celebrated teams around Europe. In this edition of the series, Miles Olusina has a look at Feyenoord.
Holland, the birthplace of Total Football, has been a powerhouse in world football since it burst onto the international scene as a nation in the 1970s. When thinking of La Oranje, world renowned players such as Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten spring to mind for many football fans. Their club sides have also left an indelible mark on the European and world game, the most prominent examples being the 3 consecutive European Cups won by Ajax from 1971-73 and PSV’s treble winning season in 1987-88 under Guus Hiddink.
However, the success of the two super clubs Ajax and PSV has led to another of Holland’s most prestigious sides being somewhat disregarded on the map of European football. Feyenoord Rotterdam, founded in 1908, is Holland’s most successful club behind Ajax and PSV with 14 league titles and 12 KNVB cups to its name. It can also lay claim to being the first Dutch team to win the European Cup after its triumph in 1970. Over the years it has been home to some of football’s most recognizable names, including Johan Cruyff, as well as Robin van Persie, Henrik Larsson, Jon Dahl Tomasson and the current manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
Still awaiting a first league title since 1999, the men from Rotterdam ended the season in a respectable 3rd place, although finishing a whopping 21 points behind eventual winners PSV. For much of the season, they looked be genuine title contenders, breathing down the necks of the league leaders until an atrocious 7-game losing streak saw them drop off to 7th place before a late season recovery saw them rise swiftly up the table to 3rd and snatch automatic qualification to the Europa League. Their disappointing title bid was compensated, however, with a victory in the KNVB cup final over FC Utrecht.
Currently at the helm is former Holland great Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who spent four years as a player and later four more years as the assistant manager to Ronald Koeman and later Fred Rutten before taking the reins at the start of the 2015-16 season. He joins a long list of former Dutch players looking to make a name for themselves as coaches at the top level, some of whom include Dennis Bergkamp, Jaap Stam, Frank & Ronald de Boer, the aforementioned Ronald Koeman and Clarence Seedorf.
At just 41 years of age and in his first season in management, he can be forgiven for being fairly inexperienced when it comes to being in the hot seat. That said, aside from the disastrous losing streak mid-season, he gave a very good account of himself in his first season on the job, finishing one place higher than his side did the previous season in 3rd place and also experiencing his first taste of silverware with his triumph in the KNVB Cup.
Feyenoord tend to set up in a 4-3-3 shape on paper, although their shape tends to vary situationally based on the phase on the game. They have on occasion opted for completely different shapes altogether, favouring a flat midfield four in more important games as they did against Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena and in the KNVB Cup final against Utrecht. This allows them a more malleable and fluid shape as players within the midfield are able to orient themselves towards the attack as well as the defense. For example in the Cup final against Utrecht, there was a balancing act with both wide players where Vilhena on the left would orient himself towards the midfield and attack while Karsdorp, a natural right-back would align himself with the back 3 of Kongolo, Botteghin and Van Beek.
When opting for a more defensive approach as was seen in the game away at Ajax, they would deploy half-space oriented wide men in Vilhena and Toornstra who would come in centrally from wide areas in order to create an overload in midfield and a more compact shape.
Feyenoord are set up here in a narrow 4-4-2 medium block with Ajax in possession in midfield. The shape has been fairly staggered to further reduce space between defensive and midfield lines and create compactness, increasing their ability to create overloads. Both wide men have deviated from their positions out wide giving Feyenoord a 4v3 advantage in the centre of the field. This facilitates their chances of winning possession and makes them more difficult to break down.
Normally their defensive approach would be predominantly zonal but this would vary based on the situation. The wide players would press aggressively when the ball reached the wing, responding to triggers they would vacate the defensive block in order to force a defensive transition. They also employ a man-oriented approach on occasion when an opposition player makes a vertical run. However this is predominantly used by the pivots, in this instance, El Ahmadi and Renato Tapia.
They typically aim for as high a defensive line as possible which logically deteriorates the likelihood with which the opposition can create dangerous chances around their goal and also the ground they have to cover when engaging in attacking transitions. However a high defensive line coupled with a lack of substantial pressure on the ball, a common occurrence when Feyenoord are in the defensive phase, leads to problems.
The Ajax left back is in possession here and Toornstra leaves the midfield line to initiate pressure but due to his narrow positioning, he does not have access to the Ajax man. Another Ajax player is seen making a vertical run into the CB-RB channel which was opened up by Karsdorp who separated from the defensive line to support Toornstra in case he was beaten by Dijks or the Ajax teammate in the half-space in Toornstra’s cover shadow makes a run in behind him.
The narrow shape did have positive effects when they were in their attacking phase, and in fact led to their only goal in this game when Toornstra and Vilhena indented to combine for the goal. Toornstra is in possession and is being pursued by the Ajax defender who is reluctant to follow him all the way so as to not disrupt the defensive organization of his team. He lays it off to Vilhena in the half-space and follows him to provide a passing option. He receives the ball again and slots it home from just outside the box. The further him and Vilhena moved in centrally the more apprehensive the Ajax full backs were in tracking them as the wide areas would be vacated, allowing overlapping runs from Karsdorp and Kongolo. Instead they simply allow the Feyenoord ‘wide men’ to roam between the lines unattended which ultimately led to the goal.
When involved in games they are typically expected to dominate, it is common to see a much more proactive approach from Feyenoord in and out of possession. Against top teams such as PSV and Ajax, they appeared to be more reliant on attacking transitions and set pieces with an approach focused more on avoiding defeat. When a defensive transition would occur their reaction was also quite passive; instead of a counter press they would often delay the opposition counter attack by one of the front men pressing, albeit without much aggression, while the rest of the team would form the defensive block.
This differed in the game against Excelsior, for example, where they pressed with much more vigor and dominated possession with much more regularity. The 4 most advanced players would position themselves vaguely in relation to an opposition player so as to block his passing lane, meanwhile the forward player closest to the ball would lead the press and force him into passing with haste and hitting the ball long where the Feyenoord midfielders or defenders would be prepared to win the second ball.
The ball has just been won by Eljero Elia who proceeds to strike the post with his shot. In this phase the defender receives the ball from the goalkeeper but has no options which can be used to bring the ball into the next stage of possession. The front three players have maintained manageable distances from the opposition passing options so as to have access in case they can be found with a pass. Kramer (centre) has the other Excelsior player in his cover shadow while still having access to the other centre back.
Typically the front three would occupy very high positions on the pitch, giving a substantial amount of depth to the attack. This proved beneficial in the defensive transition phase, allowing them the ability to press the opposition back 4 without having to cover large distances. Being positioned on the shoulder of the opposition defence facilitated their ability to attempt to make vertical runs to penetrate the opposition back line. The opposing defenders would more or less be forced back as they would have no choice but to either retreat or keep their line at the same height to avoid being breached.
Their primary source of attacking however was the excessive use of the wide areas. Similarly to the image above, they usually aim to create combinations in wide zones and create overloads in order to draw in opposition players, which in turn makes them unable to defend the cross. They have formed a triangle out wide which should attract the Excelsior midfielders who want to avoid this area of the field being exploited by the Feyenoord midfield. The attackers then move into the box, looking to latch onto crosses provided for them by the full backs. It comes as no surprise that a large number of assists in the side came from right-back Rick Karsdorp, who finished the Eredivisie season with 10 to his name, an absurdly high return for a full back.
The increased depth provided by the forwards had the knock-on effect of creating space between the lines for the Feyenoord midfielders. They did so in this instance for Dirk Kuyt – who was playing in a withdrawn midfield role at the time – allowing him to find room in the 6 space. El Ahmadi drifts forward in possession, causing the Utrecht midfielders to rush from their position in order to put him under pressure. The back 4 would be expected to push up in order to maintain the vertical compactness of the team, however the positioning of the forwards and Kramer in particular, does not permit this as they run the risk of a through pass being played and the opponent being one on one with their keeper.
The excessive depth of the forwards did cause some issues though, particularly in the 1st and 2nd phases of Feyenoord’s possession game. This was made worse by the static movement at times of Vilhena and El Ahmadi who often failed to break free from the marking of the opposition midfielders, causing the centre backs to simply play the long pass. In the rare occasions that they did lose their markers, they were often devoid of options as the wingers were too high to offer any viable short passing lanes.
This image provides another example of Feyenoord’s disjointed positional structure. El Ahmadi is positioned too close to Vilhena, failing to take advantage of the space between the lines. They appear to be occupying too similar a space, which ultimately limits the variability in passing options. Should the ball reach El Ahmadi from the full back, he will more or less be in the same space had the ball been passed to Vilhena instead. A better option would have been to move further up the pitch into the red zone, giving his team greater connectivity across the field. Dirk Kuyt’s vertical run only gives his side more disconnections, further stretching the gap between the midfield and attack.
Feyenoord’s transfer activity this summer can be considered rather quiet, with the signing of FC Copenhagen striker Nicolai Jorgensen for €3,500,000 being their most high profile transfer. In addition, the acquisition of former Middlesborough goalkeeper Brad Jones from NEC on a free transfer is sure to provide some competition for Kenneth Vermeer between the sticks.
At 6’3, Jorgensen is more than capable of providing an aerial threat and providing knock ons for the vertical runs of Dirk Kuyt from right wing/central midfield. He seems the ideal signing for this side that lacks the domineering presence in the air to complement their long ball approach and win headers in the 18 yard box. He has proven to be a capable goalscorer, finishing as the second highest marksman in the Danish Superliga with 15 goals.
In my opinion, I still feel they are lacking certain personnel in midfield. Judging by their inability to effectively circulate possession in deeper areas, it is clear that they are still missing the presence of Jordy Clasie, their wonderfully gifted deep-lying playmaker who left for Southampton in the summer of 2015. He provides the link between the midfield and attack through his intelligent movement off the ball and ability to recycle possession which is sorely being missed by this Feyenoord side.
Dirk Kuyt – With 19 goals to his name and 23 in all competitions, the 36-year-old former Liverpool forward is enjoying something of an Indian summer at Feyenoord, who he rejoined from Fenerbahce last summer. His role in the side is somewhat of a peculiar one, but when considering the versatility he has shown over the years, even being deployed at right wing-back on a few occasions in his career, it seems quite plausible.
He spent most of the season on the right wing in a wide forward role as opposed to that of a traditional winger, he would often be seen providing depth for his side in attack and would look to latch onto balls into the 18 yard box. It was very rare to see him dropping into midfield to contribute to deeper ball circulation.
His side was very reliant on his goal-scoring prowess and continued to deliver even when moved to a deeper midfield role which on paper seemed absurd but proved effective as he drifted between the lines, operating in a very advanced position despite his withdrawn role. There is no doubt that his instinct inside the box and his ability to finish off chances was instrumental to their 3rd place finish. He finished the season with a shot accuracy percentage of 56% and an impressive 30.2% conversion rate.
Eljero Elia – Arguably Feyenoord’s second most influential player last season, Eljero Elia was the creative hub of this side, creating more chances than any other player in the team with 46. Throughout his career he has always had the reputation of being a superb dribbler and showed it last season as he completed 73 take ons, the fifth highest in the Eredivisie in total. His resistance to pressure as a result of his wonderful balance and agility allowed him to evade challenges with ease and isolate opposition full backs, who were reluctant in giving him an excess amount of space. This in turn created space for other teammates and proved effective time and time again.
He also chipped in with a respectable 8 goals in 31 appearances in total, proving he is capable of being a goal threat as well as a creator.
Terence Kongolo – 22-year-old Terence Kongolo was an absolute rock at the back for his side last season, delivering on all the promise he had shown as a youngster with a string of top class performances at full back and at centre back. His role was key in providing balance in the back 4 as his more adventurous counterpart Rick Karsdorp was often making forays into the opposition half. His athleticism was a key component of his fine displays last season, as he was capable of covering ground very quickly and making recoveries in defensive transition when his side lost possession; as a result it was very rare to see him caught out when his team did not have possession of the ball.
His stats exemplify his brilliant performances this campaign, as he ended the season with 66/116 tackles (57%) completed, 52/70 (74%) aerial duels, proving to be an aerial presence as well as a competent tackler, and an impressive pass completion rate of 82%.
Rick Karsdorp – The Feyenoord youth product came on in leaps and bounds this season, making a significant impact from the right side of defense for his side. An ultra-attacking full back by nature, he complements perfectly the more reserved Terence Kongolo on the left and proved to be one of the most creative players in this Feyenoord side with 43 chances created and an astonishing 10 assists in all competitions.
His defensive contribution is also fairly decent with an average of 1.9 tackles per game and 1.7 interceptions per game. At just 21 years of age, time is very much on his side and having been called up twice for the national team, there is no doubt that he will soon be appearing for the Netherlands in the next year or so.
After a respectable finish in the Eredivisie despite the horrendous 7 game losing streak, this Feyenoord side has shown a great amount of potential. Fans have every reason to be optimistic about the next few seasons especially with talented young manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst at the helm. If they can hold onto him and avoid their top players being poached by other top European clubs, they will be more than capable of breaking the current duopoly of the league and playing against Europe’s very best in the next season or two.
Written by Miles Olusina
Read all our 2016-17 Hipster Guide articles here.