How Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s tactics have guided KAA Gent to the verge of the Championship playoffs and into a European quarter-final – tactical analysis
When looking at the Belgian Pro League table with only a few match weeks to go, in 4th place sit Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s KAA Gent side, with the club above current champions Club Brugge. They are also into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa Conference League, where they will face Premier League side West Ham United.
Gent have also been an entertaining side to watch this season, with the club being the third-highest scorers in the Belgian top flight, boasting a rather prolific attacking trio of Gift Orban, Hugo Cuypers and Hyeon-seok Hong. They have also become solid defensively as the season has progressed, which has played a part in them currently occupying the last championship playoff position.
This tactical analysis will take a look at the tactics of Hein Vanhaezebrouck this season, and we will analyse these tactics to see how he has gotten such a great tune out of his squad this season.
Since returning to Gent for his second spell in charge, Hein Vanhaezebrouck has preferred to set his side up in some variation of a back three formation, usually a 3-4-1-2, as the image above shows. However, this formation will alter slightly throughout the course of the match, with it becoming a wider 3-4-3, or becoming a 3-5-2 with the #10 dropping deeper into midfield.
Vanhaezebrouck has proven to be rather flexible tactically, with these formational switches throughout the course of the match showing he is able to adjust if something changes from the opposition. These formations also allow for Gent to play more fluid attacking football, with the wide midfielders being very attack-minded, though they will drop back to help in defensive moments.
The use of a 3-4-1-2 also allows Vanhaezebrouck to utilise his three most impactful attacking players this season (Orban, Cuypers, and Hong) all at the same time, with the three forming a great attacking partnership and contributing to a large number of Gent’s goals this season.
In the following sections of this tactical analysis, we will take a look at a couple of Vanhaezebrouck’s tactical philosophies which have led to success for the Belgian side this season.
Quick one-touch attacking movements and emphasis on vertical play
One thing that Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s Gent side have done to relative success this season is quick one-touch attacking movements to get through opposition defences quickly, as well as prioritising playing the ball vertically in these moments. The wide midfielders will push high and wide when Gent are building up play from the back, allowing them to stretch the opposition’s back line or receive the ball in space to drive forward and send balls in from the wide channels.
In the central areas, the ball is looking to be passed first time, which allows Gent to quickly carve through opposition defences and progress the ball into the final third at speed.
The image above shows the progressive passes from Gent this season, with the ones highlighted in pink entering the penalty area. As the graphic illustrates, Gent are constantly looking to play the ball vertically, rarely wanting to play sideways or backwards when in possession. In fact, Gent have completed the most progressive passes in the Belgian top flight this season, with 2,657. They also have the highest number of progressive passes completed per 90 minutes, with 77.11.
The image above shows the typical shape that Gent have when they are in possession in the attacking half of the pitch. As previously mentioned, the wing backs act much more like wide midfielders, with them pushing up onto the last line and looking to stretch the opposition’s defence. The shape will occasionally become a 2-3-5, with one of the outside centre-backs for Gent pushing into midfield to become an outlet pass to play wide and escape the pressure centrally at times. An example of this is shown above, however, the ensuing pass is not played into the space in the wide channel.
Though it does not happen in this particular phase of play, if the ball was to be played out to this progressing centre-back, Gent likely would have had an overload situation in the wide channel. The defender would have been able to drive forward with possession and either created a 2v1 or 3v2 overload, depending on what the Union Saint-Gilloise defence would have done. What this example does still manage to illustrate is the intention of Vanhaezebrouck when his side is in possession, prioritising playing vertically and progressing the ball into the attacking third.
The image above shows an attacking phase of play from Gent’s recent match against KAS Eupen. As mentioned, Gent look to play vertically quickly, looking to utilise one-touch passing to progress the ball into the final third as quickly as possible. This is exactly what happened in this phase pictured above. This is the first part of the attacking move, with the ball reaching Hugo Cuypers with his back to goal after a deflected pass off a Eupen defender finds him. He takes one touch and is able to play it to the progressing South Korea U23 international Hyun-seok Hong.
The Gent players also are able to move into the attacking half quickly, which helps to facilitate this type of attacking style by offering multiple options for the player in possession to quickly find. In this example, Malick Fofana is making a run beyond Hong in the wide channel, club captain Sven Kums is making a run centrally, and AC Milan and Napoli transfer target Gift Orban is on the shoulder of the last defender looking for a ball to be played over the top.
The image above shows the ensuing pass that Hong chooses to play to keep progressing with the ball. The ball is played over the top towards the run of Orban, who is 1v1 against the opposition centre-back with the Eupen fullback caught out of position in a more advanced area. This allows the Nigerian striker to make the run off the blind shoulder of the defender, with him able to latch onto Hong’s pass sent into the space behind the defence. After a couple of touches, he is able to get a shot off at a tight angle, which is saved by the goalkeeper, giving Gent a corner less than thirty seconds into the match.
Another thing to note is that Hong’s pass was played with his first touch, with this quick incisive ball movement allowing Gent to catch the Eupen defenders out. This type of quick, vertical ball progression allows Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s side to create chances often during matches, leading to them currently being the third-highest scorers in the Belgian Pro League.
Something that was highlighted by the data viz graphic above on Gent’s progressive passes is that a large amount of those originated from the wide channels. The image above shows an example of this quick ball progression that leads to it being circulated out wide. In this attacking phase of play above, the ball is played centrally to Orban, who plays the ball first time back to Julien de Sart. The other Gent attackers, Cuypers and Hong, slide towards this channel, which allows Gent to overload the opposition defence, forcing them to slide. As a result, when de Sart receives possession, he is able to turn and play a switch of field ball to the onrushing Fofana who is unmarked on the far side.
The next image above shows the resulting ball that is played to Fofana on the opposite side. The wingback is allowed plenty of time and space to take the ball down and progress into the penalty box, as the opposition defenders shifted to prevent the overload from Gent. The attacking trio of Gent are then able to progress into the penalty box to become options for a cross from Fofana. The attackers are able to layer their runs well, with Cuypers running towards the front post, Orban running centrally, and Hong making a run towards the back post area to attempt to latch onto an overhit cross.
This layering of runs allows Gent to have attackers in all the areas of the penalty box, enabling them a higher possibility of latching onto the cross in one of these zones. In this example, the ensuing cross from Fofana is overhit, with it being retrieved just before it goes out for a throw-in. While this attacking phase does not result in a chance, it once again illustrates the way Hein Vanhaezebrouck wants his Gent side to attack. This quick and incisive attacking style allows Gent to catch opposition defences out, whether that be playing the ball vertically in the central channels, or chance creation through the wing backs out wide.
Emphasis on counterpressing and defending from the front when the ball is played backwards
When looking at Gent from a defensive perspective, it is hard to look past their ability to counterpress and defend from the front. It is hard for opposition sides to build up from the back against them, but it is more dangerous when they look to put their back to the forwards when in possession and play backwards. This initiates the press of the forwards, with Hugo Cuypers, Gift Orban, and Hyun-seok Hong being very capable on this side of the game.
The data viz graphic above shows the pressing ability of Gent, with their 638 counterpressing recoveries in all competitions one of the highest totals of any Belgian side. This also goes along with their 380 high regains and 141 dangerous recoveries. This highlights the success that Gent find when they are able to put pressure on opposition defenders, with them being successful often at either winning back possession or forcing a defender into an errant pass.
The image above shows an example of this pressing ability from Gent to almost force the opposition goalkeeper into an error. In the phase of play above, the ball is played backwards from the fullback into the feet of the goalkeeper. Orban is able to quickly close the goalkeeper down, which forces him to take a touch forward before picking a passing option. Other than playing the ball long, the only realistic option is the player dropping into the space in the penalty box, with Hong following close behind. Hugo Cuypers does well to angle his run to prevent the goalkeeper from escaping the pressure by playing the option out wide.
As a result, the ball is played to the defender dropping into the penalty box, with all three Gent forwards closing down the defender. Unfortunately, what should have become a turnover and a very good chance of scoring for the Belgian side, the defender was able to turn away from the pressure and dribble out of the Gent press. While in this instance it did not work, this strategy of baiting passes from the opposition backline has led to many turnovers in advanced areas for Gent to pounce on.
The image above shows another example of the Gent counter press activating once the opposition puts their back to the attack in order to play backwards. In the phase of play above, the defender putting his back to the forward line triggers the Gent press, with Orban putting pressure on the centre-back from behind. The movement of Cuypers cuts off the passing lane back to the goalkeeper, eliminating the pass-back as a potential option. Noticing that the only realistic option is to play centrally, the rest of the Gent side pushed up to put pressure on the opposition, forcing a potential opportunity for a turnover in an advanced area.
When it comes to the defensive side of the game for Gent under Hein Vanhaezebrouck, the Belgian manager wants his side to be aggressive when possession is lost in advanced areas, with Gent looking to win possession back quickly and aggressively to create goal-scoring chances on transitional moments.
As this tactical analysis has shown, Gent have once again become a potential title challenger under the tutelage of Hein Vanhaezebrouck.
The Belgian side are on the verge of a return to the title playoffs, along with still being in the hunt for a European trophy, as they face West Ham in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa Conference League. While it is unlikely they will win either competition, they will likely be an intriguing side to watch for the rest of this season.