Hallerlujah and brilliant Barazite dazzle for delightful Utrecht
One thing that has become clear this season is that FC Utrecht are an entertaining team with a lot of potential. But although the Galgenwaard side look better organised defensively and make more structured attacks under Erik ten Hag, they are hindered by a lack of cohesion, which is to be expected with such a youthful side.
There is also a typically FC Utrecht aspect to their inconsistency, however. This is a club which suffers an inevitable extended decline almost immediately after every strong season.
A perfect example of the side’s erraticism and inconsistency came in Sunday’s 4-2 win over Heracles. Although the first-half against the high-flying Almelo side included an Utrecht red card and a Heracles goal, it was a fairly atrocious 45 minutes. The second period, or rather just the final 30 minutes, were much more exciting and effective from the home side.
That Utrecht played the entire second half with 10 men and never looked like it speaks a lot about how well drilled they are defensively and how they maintain their shape. Their pressing of the Heracles back line dropped as they sat in their own half off the ball, this ensured the visitors’ attacking style was exploited for how aimless and futile it really was. They were unable to find a way through as they were happier knocking the ball around the backline nonchalantly, as if they were at a backyard party instead of a tough Eredivisie match.
Ten Hag’s men, on the other hand, have a much more fluid but coordinated way of advancing. Technical, quick, plentiful and well directed, there is a clear gameplan in the way they move forward.
Yassin Ayoub (21-years-old), Bart Ramselaar (19), Patrick Joosten (19) and Sean Klaiber (21) all play a key role in Utrecht’s threatening attacks, but there are two key protagonists who not only make them much more threatening, but also a joy to watch.
Sebastien Haller and Nacer Barazite have shown to be quite an interesting front two. The Frenchman joined on an initial loan deal from Auxerre in January and impressed with 11 goals and five assists in 17 appearances. He then made the move permanent in the summer and while Utrecht still faced a struggle holding onto him beyond the transfer window, they were able to resist the interest of English clubs.
Haller has been just as effective this term, with his first 13 league games including 10 goals – a figure which becomes less impressive when you realise five of those have been from the penalty spot. However, to chastise or limit the 22-year-old striker to just being a penalty specialist is unfair. He has good technique and is sound in the air, while his positioning makes him a solid attacker for Utrecht.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the team’s attack, though, is Barazite and his incredible rise. The 25-year-old left Netherlands at just 16 to join Arsenal and an obscure path via loan spells at Derby and Vitesse followed by periods at Monaco and Austria Vienna led him to turn up at the Galgenwaard. That he was unfit and out of form was bad enough, but his situation was exacerbated by him being played in a role not suited to him. Missing the second half of last season to injury only hut him more.
This season, the two have been paired together, with Haller leading the line and Barazite a roaming supporting player involved in so many aspects of the team’s build up play. He has been a bit of a revelation and so many aspects of his playing style make him such an interesting player.
The 6’2” forward has a soft touch and lovely control. Once he has the ball, it is difficult to dispossess him because of his technique and smooth movement. It helps that just one of his dribbles tends to have more shimmys than an iconic Ol’ Dirty Bastard track.
His passing opens up a lot of chances for Utrecht, while his finishing has been more effective this season. Crucially, he seems to have developed a neat partnership with Haller as well as those around him.
The two combined perfectly to bring Utrecht from behind to beat Heracles on Sunday on what was a massive occasion – a match dedicated to David di Tomasso, who died of a heart attack while playing for Utrecht 10 years ago.
Barazite’s equaliser on Sunday was a wonderful example of an intelligent attack which is well drilled and orchestrated. An immense understanding used effectively under a sound gameplan. It was beautiful, telepathic and, dare I say, somewhat erotic. It was fitting, then, that Haller was the one who set him up. Only to see Barazite return the favour for the 3-2 goal later on – with a cross directly on the head of the striker.
“It seemed like it was meant to be. As if it was all directed from above,” Ten Hag said of his side’s revival, perhaps alluding to the spirit of Di Tomasso or a divine being, but with Barazite’s first goal, it did look like there was some masterful puppetry involved.
The former Bayern Munich II coach is lucky to have an attack consisting of such talented individuals, but what’s key is that he has developed a concise strategy in the way they attack. Their focus has a healthy mix. While they seem to look for efficiency more than anything else, they like to make use of the width offered by Klaiber on the right side, who likes to send crosses in and opens up a lot of chances from that flank. However, Ramselaar and Ayoub are more focused through the middle, as is of course Haller. Barazite is also a central player, but will occasionally go wide.
This all combines to create an Utrecht team which is calculated and difficult for defences to keep track of. They are not trigger happy or wasteful at all, nor are they one-dimensional in any way.
Ten Hag’s side are one of the most interesting to watch this season. The Barazite-Haller partnership will grow and become more effective if they can hold onto the latter for some time, but they are already exciting to watch. As for the rest of the squad, there is still a lot of improving to do and many of the players are still developing individually and as a team, which has its own issues, but the joy will come in watching them do so.