Feyenoord’s goal scoring problem is collective, not individual

Only two Eredivisie teams have created more chances than Feyenoord so far this season, but five sides have scored more goals than Fred Rutten’s men. While perhaps playing the league’s best football, the lack of goals, and thereby wins, is why Feyenoord will once again not win the league title. Many have blamed striker Colin Kazim-Richards for their inefficiency up front, but the problem is collective, not individual.

Dominating, but not winning

On Sunday, Feyenoord totally dominated against Ajax in the Amsterdam ArenA. The team created more chances (12 versus 5), had more shots (20 versus 5), more crosses (40 versus 8), more possession (57% versus 43%) and won more aerial duels (60% versus 40%). Kazim-Richards was alone up front against Ajax goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and had a great one on one chance, before Jean-Paul Boëtius came close when faced with almost open goal. But still, after 90 minutes, the score line read 0-0.

It has been the same story over and over again for the Rotterdam side this season. In the home game against Ajax earlier this season, they outclassed their perpetual rival. But it was the capital club who, after a stunning free kick from Ricardo van Rhijn four minutes in, took the three points. Feyenoord created huge chances, but didn’t score. And against PSV in late December, it was again Feyenoord who dominated against a title contender, but it was PSV who won the game after a last second goal by Memphis Depay. Feyenoord scored three goals, but created more chances – and should have scored them.

Criticism on Kazim

Now much of the criticism on Feyenoord’s lack of goals have been pointed to striker Colin Kazim-Richards. The Turkish international, who was brought in on a one year loan deal from Bursaspor in August, was not the big name Feyenoord fans had hoped for. In prior seasons, Feyenoord fans were delighted with the services of strikers in the form of John Guidetti and Graziano Pelle, both easily netting more than 20 goals a season. But after Pelle followed Ronald Koeman to Southampton, Feyenoord were unable to sign a worthy replacement. Bas Dost was too expensive and Napoli did not want to loan out Duvan Zapata (yet). In the end, it was former icon Pierre van Hooijdonk who tipped Kazim-Richards to Feyenoord. The only problem: he had never played as striker before.

Yet the former Galatasaray player doesn’t deserve all the criticism he received. Yes – he should have scored the big chance in front of Jasper Cillessen on Sunday and also in the return game in De Kuip, and the conversion of big chances to goals should be improved, but when comparing his goal scoring efficiency to Pelle, he’s not doing that bad. As Dutch data-analyst Tijs Rokers explained on NOS Radio 1 on Sunday, last season, Pelle needed 117 attempts to score 21 goals, an efficiency of 18%. This campaign, Kazim-Richards so far had 44 attempts, netting 7 times. His 16% efficiency is not that far away from the much loved Italian.

Kazim’s efficiency is especially not that bad when you consider that under new coach Rutten, Feyenoord’s style has changed. Under Koeman, the team had the security of Pelle as a targetman striker. More often than opting for beauty, defender Joris Mathijsen used the long ball to reach the Italian. He then kept the ball on his feet or chest, eagerly waiting for midfielder Lex Immers to connect, or wingers Ruben Schaken and Boëtius to make themselves available. It was a quite easy style of playing, asking not too much from the midfielders Jordy Clasie and Tonny Vilhena when attacking, and limiting the build up to the long ball in many cases.

In that sense, the departure of Pelle was a blessing in disguise, because it forced Feyenoord to change adopt a new way of playing, with reserve striker Mitchell Te Vrede not having the same ability to hold up the ball. When Kazim-Richards finally joined the team, Rutten was still fine tuning the style. Eventually, after Jens Toornstra was signed from Utrecht and Karim El Ahmadi returned after two years at Aston Villa, he made some drastic changes. Toornstra, originally a midfielder, was used as a right forward.

The importance of the right flank

In the Eredivisie away game against Go Ahead Eagles, for the first time, Rutten let Feyenoord play the way he wants it: a fluid, high tempo combination style, with an emphasis on positional playing. Three days after losing to the Eagles in a cup tie, Feyenoord now outclassed them and won 4-0. Kazim scored (from outside the box), and so did Toornstra. The summer signing now plays in a role that is mostly unknown yet in the Netherlands, but could be compared with Thomas Müller’s raumdeuter role at Bayern München. Toornstra looks for open spaces all across the field and is hard to defend, because he doesn’t stick to the chalk lines, like more traditional right forwards in a 4-3-3. Moreover, in the building-up, Toornstra plays as a fourth midfielder. The 25-year-old turns up everywhere on the field: sometimes even behind offensive right back Luke Wilkshire. His pace and work rate are big advantages for Feyenoord: in few seconds time, after combining with midfielders Clasie and El Ahmadi, Toornstra can be found up front, creating chances.

It’s telling that, even without a deep lying right forward, 22.1% of all chances were created from the right flank, comparing to just 12.1% on the left wing. So far, Toornstra has created 36 chances for Feyenoord this season, and scored 5 goals. Traditionally a midfielder, as a right forward he is combining his strengths as a midfielder (combinations, passing, vision) with offensive qualities such as good crosses, and, importantly, goals.

The strength of the right side is completed by Australian wing back Luke Wilkshire, who returned to the Eredivisie from Dinamo Moscow. He has created 26 chances so far this season, 12 more than left back Miquel Nelom. When signed, much criticism was pointed to Feyenoord for signing the then 32-year old. But so far, he’s done great at forgetting Daryl Janmaat. On average per game, Wilkshire creates more chances (1.73) than his predecessor (1.20) and has more key passes (1.53 to 1.03). He is exactly the kind of offensive right back Feyenoord needed to replace the now Newcastle player.

But whereas the right side is effective in creating chances, despite lacking a traditional right forward, the left side is Feyenoord’s offensive weakness this year. With Boëtius starting the season in poor form, Elvis Manu was used as a left winger. He will forever be remembered for his last minute winner against Zorya Lugansk in the Europa League qualifier, putting Feyenoord for the group stages, but his efficiency is legendary. Manu has created 15 chances this Eredivisie campaign (11 less than right back Wilkshire!), and out of 25 shots, he scored just 3 goals. On average, he delivers 0.8 key passes a game, compared to the right-back’s 1.53 and Toornstra’s 2.36.

With Manu recovering from an injury and Boëtius slowly getting back to his best, most significantly seen when he took on three Sevilla defenders before assisting Toornstra’s opening goal, Feyenoord’s left side should get stronger. With the left forwards only delivering 12.1% of the team’s total chances, it is one of the core reasons for the lack of goals. This problem is partly caused by Vilhena being stuck on the bench to make way for El Ahmadi. The summer signing is having an excellent season so far and is very important in Rutten’s combination play, but is mainly a defensive stronghold. In attack, Tonny Vilhena is more dangerous: he creates more chances, has more assists, key passes and his shots are more accurate. Last season, playing as a No.8, Vilhena scored six Eredivisie goals. So far, El Ahmadi has scored only 1 in 13 league games. Vilhena was the right switch between an offensively weak left back (either Bruno Martins Indi or Miquel Nelom) and winger Boëtius. Although El Ahmadi is strengthening Feyenoord defensively, the attacking qualities of Vilhena are greatly missed and thus the left side is weaker.

Where’s Immers?

Another explanation for the lack of goals is the changing role and possible form crisis of Lex Immers. The attacking midfielder has never been without criticism since he arrived at De Kuip in the summer of 2012, but has under both Koeman and Rutten been an unquestioned starter. Playing with Graziano Pelle, football was easy for Den Haag born player. He just had to connect with the striker, playing closely behind him and wait for the ball to come to him, then either passing to the wingers, or having a shot at goal. Last season, his shooting accuracy was 58%. This year, it is just 34%. Last season, he scored 0.37 goals per game on average, while this season no more than 0.25. Moreover, he creates less chances (1.69 against 1.78). And while shooting more from inside the box (1.94 against 1.69), last year scoring from inside that area was significantly more successful for him, netting 0.28 of his goals from there (this year: 0.19). Is Immers struggling with a form crisis or is Rutten’s positional playing too fast and too hard for Immers, lacking speed and football intelligence?

Collective problem, collective solution

To conclude, it is too easy to point all criticism for the lack of goals to striker Kazim-Richards. His efficiency could, and should, get better, but with him creating 24 chances so far this season (almost more than Mark Uth and Michiel Kramer together), he is important for Feyenoords fluid positional playing. Considering that Kazim’s efficiency is not much worse than Pelle’s, to score more goals, Feyenoord should simply give Kazim more chances to do so. While the right flank is doing good in this, the left flank is lacking both the creation of chances and, eventually, goals. Players like Immers, Boëtius and Manu should reach out for a higher efficiency, both in terms of assists and goals.

Feyenoord’s goal scoring problem is collective, not individual, and therefore in need of a collective solution: strengthening the left side, putting a bigger emphasis on offensive development of Miquel Nelom, creating more chances for Kazim to score, and putting a more dynamic player like Vilhena, Achahbar or Karsdorp at Immers’ spot. With the chances for the Eredivisie title gone, now is the right moment to start experimenting, developing and improving Feyenoord’s beautiful style of playing and tactic of this season. If Feyenoord succeeds in this, and combines its domination with more offensive efficiency of not just Kazim, but all offensive players, it could turn into one of the best and complete sides in recent Eredivisie history.

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