Pascal Jansen at AZ Alkmaar 2021/22: the former Jong PSV boss thriving in his first senior management role – tactical analysis
When Pascal Jansen was installed as interim boss at AZ Alkmaar in December 2020 after the dismissal of Arne Slot, not many knew what to expect from the former Jong PSV boss. Jansen finished the season well with AZ before it was cancelled due to Covid, with him being rewarded a new contract as a result. Though they were knocked out of the Europa Conference League by Norwegian side FK Bodø/Glimt in the round of 16, Jansen has the Alkmaar based side sitting in 5th place in the Eredivisie, six points behind former manager Arne Slot’s Feyenoord side. This successful season from AZ is on the back of losing key players in last summer’s transfer window; with both Myron Boadu and Calvin Stengs moving to France, joining AS Monaco and OGC Nice respectively. Club captain Teun Koopmeiners was also sold, joining Serie A side Atalanta. Last season’s starting goalkeeper Marco Bizot was also sold, joining French side Stade Brestois.
They recruited well in the summer and put their trust in Jansen, and he has repaid them. The club look destined to qualify for Europe again next season, where they will hope to progress further. This tactical analysis piece will look at the philosophy of Pascal Jansen, as well as some of the tactics that he has employed to great success so far this season.
Creating space in the wide channels in the final third
When it comes to attacking sequences for AZ Alkmaar under Pascal Jansen this season there has been a heavy emphasis on utilising wide play in the final third, with crosses into the box being the typical end result. So far this season, AZ have attempted the third most crosses in the league with 509, while averaging 16.29 per 90 minutes. The most important statistical figure however, is the accuracy of these crosses. 40.9% of the attempted crosses from AZ have been successful, the best in the Eredivisie.
This section will take a look at these attacking sequences, and illustrate the off the ball movements of the AZ players to create space in the wide channels.
This attacking phase above from AZ’s recent match against FC Twente shows an example of utilising the off the ball runners to create space for crossing opportunities. In the image above, Håkon Evjen is making an underlapping run inside of fullback Yukinari Sugawara. This run attracts the attention of both the Twente fullback and central midfielder, who expect Sugawara to send a through ball in behind the defence to find Evjen. However, Sugawara instead sends a very good cross into the box, just missing the head of Dani de Wit, who was unmarked near the penalty spot. These off the ball movements are able to create the space and time for either the fullback or wide CAM’s to cross, which illustrates why AZ have the best crossing accuracy in the Eredivisie.
The image above from AZ’s match against Vitesse shows the types of movements that the AZ players make while in possession to create space in the wide channels. Owen Wijndal is in possession and has the space to cut inside. At the same time, Karlsson drifts wide left, while both Pavlidis and de Wit drift more centrally, dragging the Vitesse players over with them. This allows Sugawara to find himself unmarked in the wide channel to make a run in behind the defence. Wijndal subsequently plays the pass to Jordy Clasie, who finds the run of Sugawara with a switch of play. He then plays a dangerous cross into the box towards Pavlidis, which forces the defender to clear out for a corner. These off the ball movements and switches of play allow AZ to create chances from wide positions, and is what makes them a dangerous side when allowed to cross into the box in the final third area.
This attacking sequence above leads to an AZ goal, and illustrates exactly how they look to create and exploit space in the wide channels. In this phase of play above, Wijndal tucks inside to become almost a defacto central midfielder, which allows Karlsson to be isolated 1v1 with the opposition fullback. Pavlidis makes an in-to-out run into the penalty box and positions himself near the penalty spot. As a result, Beukema is able to play a long ball over the top of the opposition defence and into the wide channel where Karlsson is making a run into. The defender circled in red between Karlsson and Pavlidis gets stuck in two minds over whether to help mark the run of Karlsson in the wide channel; or help with Pavlidis’s run and as a result, just drifts towards the edge of the 18-yard box in no mans’ land. Karlsson is able to get onto the end of the long ball and cross to Pavlidis, who is able to hold the ball up before turning and firing past the goalkeeper.
As a result of the constant off the ball movements and rotations of the AZ players, they are able to create space in the wide channels to manufacture successful crossing opportunities, and as a result, goal-scoring chances. These differing strategies of creating space in the wide channels are able to keep opponents guessing where the movements will come from. The crossing accuracy shows as well that the AZ players are not trying to constantly send balls into the box from wide areas; rather, they are selective in their crossing to make the best possible goal-scoring chances from them.
This next section will take a look at the pressing structure that Pascal Jansen has implemented at AZ; with an in-depth look at how the tactical setup is constructed.
The image above shows a typical pressing sequence by AZ when the opposition defenders are in possession in their own final third. It is not a heavily aggressive pressing system, instead one that relies on man-to-man marking, as well as quick closing down once passes are played to force the opposition into turnovers. In this pressing sequence, the Vitesse defender in possession plays the pass to the midfielder who drops into the pocket of space. Once the pass is played, this triggers the press. Both Dani de Wit and Vangelis Pavlidis quickly close the receiver down; with de Wit using an angle that prevents the pass being played to the Vitesse player moving into a wider position. This forces the receiver to quickly play a pass back to his goalkeeper, who is rushed into a clearance by the onrushing Pavlidis. As a result, AZ are able to win a throw-in near midfield.
Above shows another example of this pressing structure, once again from AZ’s match against Vitesse. Once again, the pressing is triggered when the goalkeeper passes the ball out to the defender. This initiates the press from Sugawara, who forces the defender to play the ball back to his goalkeeper. This pass then triggers the press of Pavlidis, who forces the goalkeeper into a poor clearance, and allows AZ to win back possession near midfield.
This example from AZ’s match against Twente once again shows this man marking structure when pressing. In this phase of play, the pressing is triggered once the ball gets played to the fullback near the corner flag. This triggers Pavlidis to put pressure on the ball receiver, and as with no free options to pass to; he is forced to clear the ball out of play. As a result of this press, AZ are able to win a throw-in in the opposition’s half, setting them up for a possible dangerous attacking sequence.
Though the pressing structure implemented by Pascal Jansen at AZ is not the most aggressive, like Jürgen Klopp’s at Liverpool, it is still able to force the opposition into errors. While the press does sometimes fail and the opposition get through it, with fewer players engaging the ball carriers, it allows more opportunity for AZ to win back possession before the opposition reaches the final third.
Role of the goalkeeper during build-up
This final section will look at AZ’s build-up play, with the role of the goalkeeper, Peter Vindahl, being crucial to how they look to play out from the back. Pascal Jansen’s style of building out from the back needs a goalkeeper who can play with the ball at his feet, and Vindahl is just that.
This image above shows an example of how AZ like to set up during build-up phases starting with the goalkeeper. The two centre-backs will stay on the edge of the six-yard box with the two fullbacks going a little higher but keeping the width. The two deeper lying midfielders will also drop deep, which drags the opposition players deep, allowing the goalkeeper to play a long ball to Pavlidis, who is isolated 1v1 with the defender behind him, allowing him to hold-up the play while awaiting the arrival of his teammates pushing up the pitch. Because of the deeper positions of the opposition players during this phase, there is a large gap between the midfield and defensive lines, which Vindahl is able to exploit by dropping the ball into that space.
Here again shows how key Peter Vindahl is to what AZ try to do with their build-up play. Once again, the backline is positioned the same as before, with the double pivot of Clasie and Midjtsø positioned a bit higher up. Vindahl is put under pressure from the pressing Vitesse forward, but he is able to once again drop a perfect ball into the space between the lines to Pavlidis; who is able to gather possession and start the AZ attack from the halfway line.
Once again, this image shows the quality that Vindahl has to be able to drop a ball into the vacant space between the lines to find Pavlidis. In this phase of play against Twente, the backline is in their normal build-up phase positions, with Martins Indi and Wijndal out of the picture. Vindahl has the option to play the ball short if he chooses too, but the movement of the midfielder dropping deeper allows Vindahl to once again play the ball over the top into the vacant space to find Pavlidis.
This section has shown how key Peter Vindahl is to how Pascal Jansen wants AZ to build out from the back. While AZ also like to play it short to the centre-backs and build up that way; having a goalkeeper like Vindahl who is good with his feet opens up other options as well.
In his first full season in charge of AZ Alkmaar, Pascal Jansen has proven himself in his first senior management job, as this analysis piece has demonstrated by going over some of his tactics. With many key players leaving the club last summer, AZ were able to recruit well, and Jansen was able to gel the squad together nicely. With Erik ten Hag close to leaving Ajax for Manchester United in the summer, it would not be surprising if Jansen found himself linked to the opening in Amsterdam.