Unbeaten in eight: How Mark van Bommel is transforming Royal Antwerp – tactical analysis
At the beginning of the 2021/22 season, Mark van Bommel was hired as the new manager at Wolfsburg, but his spell in charge there did not last long. Now, van Bommel finds himself managing in Belgium, with him being hired by Royal Antwerp before the start of the 2022/23 season. The early results are promising as Antwerp are unbeaten in all of their competitive matches since the Dutchman took over, with them currently being top of the Belgian First Division A with four wins from their first four matches.
This tactical analysis piece will take a look at Mark van Bommel’s philosophy, as well as a couple of early tactics and trends that are beginning to develop as he makes his mark on this Antwerp side.
Build up play
When it comes to the style of build-up play that Mark van Bommel has implemented during his short time at Antwerp so far, it has varied at times. This section will take a little look into some trends that are starting to develop in Antwerp’s build-up play under the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona player.
The image above shows an example of one form of build-up play Antwerp look to use when they are building out from the back. In this build-up phase, Antwerp’s goalkeeper has just played the ball out to former Tottenham Hotspur defender Toby Alderweireld. Antwerp’s three midfielders drop deeper into the defensive third, which as a result drags Eupen’s players into these more advanced attacking positions.
This results in Eupen’s lines getting stretched, opening up space between the midfield and defensive lines. With this space opening up, Alderwiereld is able to play the ball over the top to the feet of the forwards. Though van Bommel does not always utilise this route one style, it is an option depending on whether they can drag the opponents into these favourable positions.
The image above shows an example of Antwerp’s build-up sequence when the opposition is sitting deep and they are allowed to play out from the back. Antwerp’s right back tucks inside to form a back three, with the left back given the license to push forward and join the attack. The defensive midfielder also stays deeper, which allows a diamond to form and give Antwerp the 4v3 numerical superiority in the central area of the pitch. The attacking lines get forward and tight, allowing them to pin Eupen’s backline back and give them the freedom to build play out without getting pressed by the opposition.
The image above shows an example of Antwerp’s build-up rotations, similar to the previous example. Once again, the right-back has dropped in to form a back three with the two central defenders, with the defensive midfielder dropping in to once again form a diamond, as well as a 4v2 numerical advantage in the centre of the park.
Again, the opposition midfield line is dragged deeper, which opens up the space for the playmakers of Antwerp to move into. This allows the space forward for the ball to be played into, opening up the attacking channels for Antwerp to hit.
As this section has illustrated, the style of build-up play utilised by Mark van Bommel at Antwerp so far this season has varied at times. While it may take some time for a definitive style to become evident, the early results are promising.
Emphasis on the wide players
So far during his short time in charge of Antwerp, Mark van Bommel has opted to set his side up in a 4-3-3 formation. This has meant that a lot of the attacking impetus has arisen from the wide attackers. Though playing centrally is something else that Antwerp has done with success so far this season, it is playing into the wider channels where they have done a better job of hurting teams. This section will take a more detailed look at van Bommel’s use of the wide players in his attacking system, and the success that it has so far generated.
The image above shows that type of route one football that van Bommel has looked to utilise at times this season, trying to work to the strengths of a 4-3-3, the wide attackers. With Mechelen not looking to press the ball, it allows time and space for the central defender who plays a long ball into the wide channel, allowing the wide attacker to run onto the pass.
Unfortunately, the ball is slightly overhit, with the winger just able to get to the ball, but the ensuing cross is sent out of play behind the goal. Though this attacking sequence did not lead to a goalscoring chance, it still demonstrates the danger that attacking the wide channels can cause opposition defences.
Another example of van Bommel’s use of the wide channels during the attacking phases of play is shown above. This image shows an instance of the fullback becoming inverted during the attacking phase of play, with the wide attacker hugging the near-touchline to keep the attacking width. Also, notice how one of the central midfielders shifts out wide to the left, becoming the de facto left-back and providing cover for the fullback pushed forward in an inverted position.
As this phase of play progresses, the ball is played out wide to the winger, who then drives forward into the box, as the inverted fullback is able to open this space out wide. This comes as a result of the defender being dragged narrowly to help prevent the ball from being played into this channel.
The image above shows the use of movement in Antwerp’s attacking phase of play to open the space out in the wide channels for the attackers to move into. This phase of play above shows a good example of this occurring, and how it ends up leading to a really good attacking move for van Bommel’s men. The ball is currently in possession of the right-sided central defender, who has shifted wide, with the right back dropping in to form a back three. The left winger drops into a pocket of space in midfield, which drags the opposition defender with him as a result. This then allows the striker to move into the space in the wide channel left vacant by the defender, with the ball played into his feet in the space. The attacking move is able to progress, with the ball switched before Antwerp eventually wins a corner.
As this section has been able to illustrate, there has been a large emphasis so far on the use of wide players in van Bommel’s system with Antwerp. This has so far yielded great dividends, with Antwerp having one of the better attacks in the league, as well as having four wins from their first four matches of the new campaign.
The last thing that will be looked at is the defensive solidity of this Antwerp side. Through the first four matches of the season, Antwerp have only conceded two goals in the league, the best in the Belgian First Division A. When looking at Antwerp’s defensive record through their first eight competitive games of the season, they have still only conceded two goals. With that in mind, the following are a couple of examples of Antwerp’s defensive shape.
The image above shows an example of the aggressive defending style that Antwerp have utilised under van Bommel. They look to force the ball into the wide areas, as shown above, and then look to quickly close down with two defenders, forcing the opposition player in possession into either a turnover or a misplaced pass.
Another thing to notice in this defensive phase of play is that the two other opposition attackers are also 2v1, allowing Antwerp to have numerical superiority in and around the penalty box. This in turn limits the number of chances that opposition attacks have, as well as allows Antwerp to more easily win back possession in these dangerous areas of the pitch.
The image above shows the numbers that Antwerp get back into the defensive third of the pitch, more specifically, the penalty box, quickly. In the phase of play above, Mechelen looked to counter quickly. However, they were outnumbered eight to three in the area. Getting numbers back quickly is another defensive strength that van Bommel has implemented at Antwerp, with them being a hard team to counterattack against due to their defensive work rate as a unit.
When it comes to the defensive phase of play, Antwerp are currently the best side in the league, with the former Milan midfielder doing a great job so far in charge of the side that has finished fourth in the Belgian Pro League the last couple of seasons.
This tactical analysis piece has been able to do a little bit of a dive into the tactics that Mark van Bommel has started to implement during his short spell in charge of Antwerp so far. This analysis has been able to show the three different phases of play and how Antwerp operate in them, as well as some tactical changes that the Dutchman has made since he has taken charge. While it is still early days, the future is looking bright for Royal Antwerp under Mark van Bommel.