The champions’ new groove: PSV turn to dominance over counter-attack
Despite winning the Eredivisie title by a landslide last season, Phillip Cocu is looking to implement a new style of play this term with PSV. In the Eindhoven side’s last match, against Feyenoord, the new system worked well. The change in style consists of a dominant high pressure game instead of a style based on quick transition play, coming mostly from their own half. One of the goals lying behind this change is the ambition to create one style of play that will be used throughout the whole club. One of the intended effects is a smoother assimilation from youth players into the first team squad, an admirable, but daring move. The club could profit from this the following years, and maybe for a long time, but it will only work if the new style of play is perfected.
In recent years, PSV was mostly known as a team which plays pure transition football, and also one which relies heavily on the individual skill of the most gifted players. To keep spaces on the pitch limited they often regrouped in their own half, keeping pressure off their defenders, who had a few flaws in their defensive game. At the same time, it proved to be a system which worked out quite well for their quick attacking wingers, Memphis Depay and Luciano Narsingh. After winning possession from their opponents, PSV often found their attacking players in the other half within a few passes. With the ball up front, the individual qualities of inverted winger Memphis (22 goals) and centre-forward Luuk de Jong (20 goals) were decisive.
This year, PSV’s style of play is different, because Cocu wants to dominate games. He wants his team to be a possession based side, without losing their lethal speed in transition. Preferably, he wants PSV to reach the final third in just a few passes. Inherent in PSV playing a possession-based style on the opposing half is that, when losing the ball, it enables them to press the opposing team higher on the pitch. De Jong starts pressing immediately as high as possible and their defensive line moves up quite a bit compared to last season.
Data proves that PSV are pressing with more intensity than last term (see the graph above). This process started at the end of last year’s campaign, somewhere around matchday 28. The high pressing game can be deduced by a few components. One of them is De Jong pressing the goalkeeper. Another component is marking the opposing centre-backs, or pressing them aggressively when they get possession through the keeper (see video below). The intention of the high pressing game isn’t necessarily to win possession in opposition territory – PSV want to force opponents into playing long balls because they lead to turnovers.
Against Feyenoord, the benefits of the new playing style of PSV came to the surface. The Rotterdam side constantly tried to build up through their central defenders, or defensive midfielder Marko Vejinovic. These tactics didn’t work out well for them, as the three players were constantly closed down by PSV’s attacking three. Feyenoord were not capable of resisting the pressure, resulting in many turnovers on their own half, or badly placed long balls directed at their attackers.
The build-up process of PSV is mainly in the hands of Andres Guardado, early in the attack he drops low (mostly between the left centre-back and left full-back), to distribute the ball to the midfield. Knowing this, it could hardly be a surprise to hear that the Mexican is the most successful passer at PSV (272 in total, 82% success rate). The only player in the Eredivisie who has made more passes is Ajax’s centre-back Jaïro Riedewald (292). When Guardado isn’t free, Davy Pröpper or Adam Maher drop low to receive the ball. For a side that prefers to build-up through a passing game, goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet chooses remarkably often for a long ball aimed at De Jong. It seems a fair decision, because he is ranked third in the Eredivisie when it comes to headers won, and by doing so he is crucial in keeping possession in the opponents’ half or final third after a long ball.
A crucial role in Cocu’s strategy is laid out for PSV’s full-backs, Jetro Willems and Santiago Arias. They are supposed to cover the whole side and in doing so provide De Jong with crosses. Willems especially seems cut out for this job. His performance of last year’s campaign was remarkable as he picked up 13 assists –seven of them were finished by De Jong, like this one in the home game against Ajax last April. In the last home game, Feyenoord couldn’t cope with the upcoming full-backs, best illustrated by the rare sight of an Arias goal.
Despite the new tactical plan Cocu still wants his team to reach the opponent’s half as quickly as possible. In the ideal situation his team circulates the ball quickly to find their wing backs or wingers for a cross or a through ball. Another novelty is the wingers changing sides. Last season, Narsingh was forced to stay on the right wing, resulting in the same predictable move over and over: he tried to pass his opponent and give the cross. With Maxime Lestienne replacing Memphis in the first team squad, the plan seems to be to switch sides. The first home game against FC Groningen, in which Narsingh scored a brace, is a good example of this new tactic. It worked well against Feyenoord, when Lestienne created some chances coming from the ring wing. Narsingh, on his part provided the assist for the Arias-goal, coming in from the left.
When recovering the ball, PSV are still looking for the quickest way to counter. Against FC Groningen this resulted, unfortunately, in many long balls instead of the lethal counter attacks through the wings as we saw last year. Among other things, this was caused by the defensive work of Lestienne and Narsingh, who had to chase Groningen’s wing-backs all the way down to their own penalty area. At the moment of ball recovery both of PSV’s wingers where not in an attacking position.
Introducing a high pressing game needs instruction and organisation. In other words, in the coming period Cocu has the chance to prove himself as a tactician. High pressure means lots of space behind the defensive line. Many defenders struggle this. FC Groningen exposed this problem in the Johan Cruyff Schaal, prior to the season. They launched their attackers many times by long through balls behind PSV’s defensive line. Left wing-back Simon Poulsen struggled the most, and he was eventually subbed for Joshua Brenet. Centre-back’s Jeffrey Bruma and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin also had some difficulties with the space behind them.
Another aspect that needs improvement is the pressing itself. The coordination in the adjustment between the lines is crucial. Otherwise there is the risk of PSV being ripped apart. The attacking players are eager to press, meanwhile the defenders feel more further back. The result is a midfield in danger when the opponent slices through the first pressure wave. The fact that Adam Maher and Davy Pröpper are both attack-orientated midfielders leaves PSV even more vulnerable. All of the above may lead Cocu to instruct PSV to fall back from time to time. When fatigue kicks in, or when they are ahead, PSV have the habit of regrouping in their own half.
The video clip above exposes the weaknesses of the current PSV side. Due to the high number of PSV players in front of the ball (including two midfielders), SC Heerenveen is able to build the counter attack right through the centre. Only one through ball was needed to get Luciano Slagveer in front of Jeroen Zoet. The latter was the only reason it didn’t lead to a goal.
There is another way to argue PSV’s defensive vulnerability, statistics. Sander IJtsma (@11tegen11) calculates the Expectes Goals (ExpG) value for matches played: the amount of goals to expect according to the quality and frequency of the created chances by each side. In the two away games PSV played this season, their opponent had a high ExpG-value. ADO Den Haag created chances that normally would lead to 1.4 goals, and SC Heerenveen ended the match at 1.89 goals. Those numbers are really not title favourite worthy.
If PSV continues to go down this road, it is inevitable that they are going to concede goals, too many goals. This situation is quite comparable to the start of last year. At that time PSV were very weak defensively. Cocu’s solution was to build a more defensive style of play. The team reduced the amount of space behind their defensive line to cover their weaknesses.
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) August 11, 2015
As mentioned before, the mean reason to introduce the new playing style is to create a PSV-style of play, all over the club. In order to lose their “buying club” image, PSV is shifting their focus to young players with high potential market value. Their ultimate goal is to have many players in the first team squad who were, partly, developed at their youth complex, De Herdgang. When asked about this, general manager Toon Gerbrands told Voetbal International: ”We make no distinction between two worlds – academy and first team squad – but we fully integrate them wherever possible. De Herdgang is one world, with a single way of thinking.
PSV are trying to smoothen the path from youth academy to first team. This is the reason Phillip Cocu is starting to create a new identity with a new style of play which should be implemented throughout the whole club. Cocu sees developing an identity, marked by style of playing, as a crucial factor in making the academy a profitable project.
As we speak, the identity of PSV is a bit unclear as it depends on the philosophy of the reigning manager. The development of a distinctive style of play sounds like FC Barcelona (and although they don’t like to admit it in Eindhoven, like Ajax). At those clubs the same philosophy and style of play have already been common goods for a long time. Both clubs are non-stop football player producing factories. It’s fair to say that PSV’s aspirations are ambitious.
It has to be seen in the next few weeks whether Cocu actually dares to cling on to the new style of play. It seems tempting to fall back on the successful formula of last year, a counter attack style of play. The first team squad contains a few very fast attackers, which makes it possible to fall back to disguise the limitations of the back four. On the other hand, a relapse into old habits would be in conflict with the long term vison, which was repeatedly advocated by Cocu himself in the media. Full credit for Cocu if he’s patient enough to perfect the new style of play, but when results don’t come, the pressure will grow fast.
For more Dutch football, listen to our podcast BeNeFoot Eredivisie podcast. This week Peter and Michiel discuss Oranje and the upcoming matches in the Eredivisie.