Hein Vanhaezebrouck at Gent 2021/22: 6 wins from 6 and into the Belgian Cup final – tactical analysis
From August 2020 to December 2020, KAA Gent went through three different permanent managers. Jess Thorup, Laszló Bölöni, and Wim de Decker all were managers of the club during that ill-fated time. After de Decker was sacked, Gent turned to a familiar name, Hein Vanhaezebrouck, who managed the club for another spell a few seasons before. After a slow start to his second spell in charge, recent form for Gent under Vanhaezebrouck has been spectacular, with the club winning its last six matches in a row in all competitions, bringing the club to within three points of the Championship playoffs and into the Belgian Cup final.
This tactical analysis piece will take a look at what Vanhaezebrouck has been able to implement at the club, which will be able to give good insight into his philosophy.
Best defence in the league statistically
When looking at the basic defensive stats for teams in the Belgian league this season, most will look at the goals conceded tally to rate how good a defensive unit is. Gent have conceded 28 goals this season, the second-lowest in the league behind Union Saint-Gilloise (24). However, when doing a deeper statistical dive, one can find the stats to back up Gent having the best defence in the league. The league average for total shots against this season is 366.17, Gent’s is 268, which ranks first in the league. For shots against per 90 this season, the league average is 11.34, Gent’s is 8.3, once again the best in the league. This section will go into more detail about how Vanhaezebrouck sets his side up defensively, and what makes them such a tough unit to break down and play through.
Hein Vanhaezebrouck favors a 3-4-1-2 starting formation at Gent, with this formation shifting in the defensive phase to a 5-3-2, as shown above. Hjulsager, the #10, drops deeper into midfield, splitting the two central midfielders while giving Gent an extra man in the deeper midfield areas. The back five stay tight and compact, which forces the opposition to play the ball out into the wide areas. The defensive unit also shifts and moves towards the ball as one, not allowing any gaps to open up in their defensive shape. While Gent may not be the highest scorers in the league, this compact defensive shape has allowed them to consistently keep clean sheets, with their 11 in the league this season being joint second-most. This, partnered with their above-average league scoring record this season has helped them to be within touching distance of the Championship playoffs.
While being a compact defensive unit is the main thing that Vanhaezebrouck prides his side on, they also will look to close down the opposition in the wide areas, suffocating them and forcing a turnover. The phase of play above shows a prime example of this in action. Zulte Waregem are in possession near the far touchline. Four Gent players look to engage, making it a 2v1 against both Zulte Waregem players. As a result, the ball is turned over and Gent are able to start breaking on a counter-attack. Another thing to notice is that the Gent defensive line still has a numerical advantage over the opposition if the ball were to break to an opponent player. This results from at least one of the forwards for Gent getting involved in the defensive phase as well, with every outfield player having to play a part defensively in Vanhaezebrouck’s tactics.
This phase of play above shows the type of marking that Gent look to implement if possible when dangerous crosses are looked to be played into their six-yard box. Notice how both of the central attacking options for Club Brugge are man marked by two Gent defenders each, making it almost impossible for a Club Brugge player to get onto the end of the ensuing cross. This type of marking however does not come without its possible consequences, as the player at the far post and on the edge of the 18-yard box are unmarked. In this situation, the ball was played in towards the six-yard box, which one of the first Gent defenders was able to easily head away, preventing a goal-scoring opportunity. Though this type of defensive marking can be dangerous at times, leaving men free in potential goal-scoring opportunities, this has not deterred Vanhaezebrouck from consistently implementing it.
The phase of play above shows another cross sent in from the wide area by Club Brugge. This crossing opportunity originates from a quick throw from Brugge, hoping to catch the Gent defenders out. However, the opposite happens. Even though the throw-in to cross only took a few seconds, Gent still had a 4v2 numerical advantage in the 18-yard box, with the cross being easily cleared away by one of the Gent centre backs. This is able to demonstrate the concentration that Gent have when they are defending, with them not having many lapses in concentration that result in mistakes from a defensive standpoint.
From both a statistical standpoint, as well as from just watching Gent’s defensive setup under Vanhaezebrouck; it is quite easy to see why they are one of, if not the best defensive unit in the Belgian Pro League this season.
The Tissoudali-Depoitre partnership
So far this season, Gent have had a just above average attack in the league, with their 46 goals so far this campaign putting them seventh in regards to goals scored. Over half of those goals have been scored or created by Vanhaezebrouck’s favoured front two, Laurent Depoitre and Tarik Tissoudali. Both players have slightly different skill sets, allowing them to dovetail nicely with each other, which has been evident so far this season. Tissoudali has 14 goals and 4 assists, whereas Depoitre has chipped in with 9 goals and 3 assists. This equates to these two being involved in 30 of Gent’s 46 goals this season.
The skill sets of the two forwards differ, but these differences allow the system that Vanhaezebrouck likes to use thrive. The phase of play above shows a good example of these two differing skill sets. Tissoudali, being the more mobile of the two, will often drop deeper into midfield and press the opposition player in possession, as shown here. Depoitre will often stay further forward and keep the backline honest. This also allows him to use his ability to hold-up play, while also being the option looked for by the goalkeeper on long goal kicks due to his superb aerial ability.
The phase of play above shows a perfect example of what this partnership can do to generate goals and good goal scoring opportunities. Tissoudali is played the ball from a wider position, but cuts inside, allowing the wingback to push forward and make an overlapping run. Tissoudali flicks the ball into the path of the wingback and proceeds to make an underlapping run into the penalty area towards the near post, attracting the attention of the Club Brugge wingback. This allows the time and space for a cross to be sent in towards the back post, where Depoitre is waiting. He is able to make a run past the defenders and head the ball easily past former Liverpool ‘keeper Simon Mignolet in the Club Brugge goal. While it may not always be one forward assisting the other, they do indirectly create goal-scoring opportunities for each other.
When it comes to opponents attempting to play out from the back, both of the forwards are heavily involved in trying to force a mistake in a dangerous area. The phase of play above shows a great example of this in action. The RFC Seraing goalkeeper is attempting to play the ball out to his centre back just outside the 18-yard box. Because of the time he is taking to do this, Depoitre presses the goalkeeper and closes him down, forcing an errant pass. Anticipating the mistake forced by Depoitre, Tissoudali is able to step in front of the pass and intercept it, which allows him to score one of the easiest goals he may ever score. This is able to illustrate the understanding the two forwards have with each other; along with the mistakes they are able to force opponents into making.
The phase of play above is able to illustrate how the two have almost a telepathic understanding when it comes to each other’s intentions. Tissoudali is the more advanced of the two, so he decides to attempt to make a run in behind the defence for his teammate to play the ball to. Depoitre, anticipating this decision, drops deeper into midfield, attracting the attention of the Seraing defender circled in red. The other defender marking Tissoudali is ball watching, so he is able to make an unmarked run in behind. The Gent player in possession plays a perfect ball through, which Tissoudali scores.
While they may not always be assisting goals for each other, the understanding that both Tarik Tissoudali and Laurent Depoitre have with each other illustrates why these two work so well together. While they may not be on the same level as say Donyell Malen and Erling Haaland at Borussia Dortmund, Hein Vanhazebrouck has two very good strikers that he can rely on.
In his second spell in charge of Gent, Hein Vanhaezebrouck was asked to steady a ship that had started to veer off course. As this analysis has shown he has most certainly accomplished that, and now is looking to steer Gent back into the top four of the Belgian League. Gent’s only league title came in the 2014-15 season, in Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s first spell in charge of the club. While this season may be too much of a stretch for a late-season title run, the future looks bright for Gent under the Belgian.