Sint-Truiden 2019/20 – Plenty of the ball, plenty of problems -Scout Report
When it comes to possession, many of us expect that the top teams in any given league will be the more ball dominant. Stronger sides are expected to see more of the ball, especially as so-called lesser teams will set up in a more defensive way and look to play on the counter. However, when we look at the Belgian Pro League, while we still see the stronger sides at the top of the possession table, we also see Sint-Truiden, a team that finished down in 12th, ranked amongst the top sides in the league.
Yet when we look at the wider data, questions are raised as to what it is that Sint-Truiden do with their possession. How does a team with that much of the ball have a -17 goal difference. They see almost as much of the ball as teams like KRC Genk, who qualified for the UEFA Champions league last season and faced off against Liverpool in the group stages. Changes have already begun at the club. Former EFL and Rangers defender Kevin Muscat was brought in as the manager for the 2020/21 season. Whether he will continue this possession-based football will be interesting to follow.
This tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, will evaluate why Sint-Truiden have not been successful despite seeing a lot of the ball during the campaign. This analysis will look at the tactics used in both an attacking sense, as well as why they conceded 50 goals and were not able to use their dominance of possession to be better in both areas of the game. The final section will look at where Muscat and the club in general need to focus in order to improve results on the pitch.
With the ball
Sint-Truiden typically line-up with a three at the back formation, usually in a 3-4-1-2. While they do use wing-backs in this formation, 39% of their attacks are focused in the central areas. Below we see the possession table for the Pro League, with Sint-Truiden sitting in fifth place with an average of 52.7% per 90. They average the fourth-highest duration of possession with 14.9 seconds. This all builds a picture of a team that like to spend time on the ball and work it centrally in order to create chances.
They are the fifth highest passing team, with an average of 412.62 per 90 at an accuracy of 84%. In terms of passing style, they play the second least long passes in the league, with just 40.24 per 90. This again suggests a side that likes to keep the ball and build attacks from back to front, looking for less direct passes that work the ball centrally.
Other then passing, what exactly are Sint-Truiden looking to do with the ball? It certainly isn’t crossing. The side sit bottom when it comes to crosses per 90 with only 10.34. With 39% of their attacks going down the middle of the pitch, it is no wonder that these crossing numbers are so low. This is something Muscat may want to address to make the attacking output of the side more balanced next season. Sides lining up against Sint-Truiden know that they favour the central areas and can just pack them to make life difficult.
Where Muscat will certainly want to improve Sint-Truiden with the ball is in shots and touches in the box. The side average only 14.01 touches in the box, which is pretty disappointing when you consider how much more possession they have than their opponents. This puts them 13th overall, the exact same ranking they have for average shots per 90. With only 9.65, they are averaging just under one more than bottom side Waasland-Beveren. With an xG of 0.11, they are clearly not taking terrible shots, it is just the frequency of them which is the worry. If Muscat can find a way to create more shooting opportunities for the side, with this xG you would expect them to really improve the amount of goals they score next season.
Against KV Mechelen, Sint-Truiden were 2-0 down with little time to go. The clip below follows a throw in directly opposite that has been worked from left to right. Rather than go route one, the side persists with the possession game. We know that Sint-Truiden like to focus their attacks centrally, and this image gives us a clear indication of that. The player on the ball is cutting inside, and the player in front of him is not looking to move into the space out wide.
In this next image, we see the ball has been worked from one flank to the other. The player in possession has plenty of space to move into and could certainly push forward into a crossing position. However, that is not Sint-Truiden’s style. Furthermore, the striker could easily move into the vacant space to drag defenders away. Yet again, the focus on the central areas of attack means he does not do this. Instead, the ball is fired back into the edge of the box in order to attack from a central area.
Notice in this final image how central everyone is. The player at the bottom of the screen was the player we saw on the far right in the first image, who has now moved into a central area to support his teammates. We see how these players are outnumbered by the defenders, meaning that it would take plenty of skill for them to fashion a scoring chance from this position. In order to create a shot, Sint-Truiden end up recycling the possession to create new avenues of attack, none of which involve players outside of the penalty area width.
Clearly, Sint-Truiden do not always score only in the central areas. They have scored goals this season using width, yet their focus on the central areas coupled with the amount of possession they have makes it easier for teams to pack the middle, as Mechelen did here. This forces Sint-Truiden to recycle the ball to look for different openings. Better sides are able to go through these phases with greater ease to score goals, something Sint-Truiden have struggled with this year. For Muscat, he may wish to spread the focus of the attack more evenly to create more and better chances.
At the defensive end
On the other side of the ball, Sint-Truiden have struggled to keep teams at bay. While they are at the bottom when it comes to interceptions, this can be accounted for by their control of possession, as we see those who also average high possession down at the bottom. Where we do see a change is in pressing intensity. Sides with similar levels of possession rank highly on pressing intensity, apart from Sint-Truiden, who sit down in 14th. Most possession-based sides look to win the ball back and use an intensive press in order to ensure they dominate the ball. Sint-Truiden, with a 350.80 pressing intensity, are the opposite. Data would suggest that they are happy to sit deep when they lose the ball and force sides to play through them.
Another worrying piece of data at the defensive end is shots against. Sint-Truiden allow 15.63 per 90, with an xG per shot of 0.11. Their goals conceded would be far worse if they did not rank as the top side when it comes to shot blocks. With 3.22 per 90 they have an xG blocked of 7.08. This creates so many questions as to how a side who dominate the ball so much give away so many shots, and do not press intensely in order to win the ball back.
In the game against KAS Eupen, we see an example of the press not being intense from Sint-Truiden, and them conceding a goal because of it. Eupen have scored the third least goals in the league with only 28 goals. Yet in this game they managed to easily play their way through Sint-Truiden.
From their own box, Eupen progress the ball with little real pressure from the home side. We see a number of yellow shirts around the ball carrier, but none are closing off passing lanes or forcing the attacker into making a risky pass. He was able to dribble the ball all the way to the halfway line before moving the ball onto the winger.
The winger is given plenty of space on the ball, because the Sint-Truiden full-back is now wary of the forward running left-back of Eupen. We see here that because of the lack of press, the side are now about to become overrun in the defensive areas. The left-back easily escapes the marker, and creates a huge problem for the Sint-Truiden defence. Players have to shift over to cover the ball and the runner, leaving the striker free.
This all leads to what we see below, whereby the lack of press upfront has allowed Eupen to go from their box to the Sint-Truiden box in three passes, with few problems. Both centre backs were taken out of position because of the lack of press at the top. This was by no means a difficult attack to deal with, yet the passivity of the front line puts pressure on the defenders who are unable to deal with it, leading to a simple equaliser for Eupen.
Playing out from the back can also cause Sint-Truiden problems at the defensive end. When we compare their recoveries to other sides, we see that they recover the ball the least out of all Pro League teams. Furthermore, they only recover it 32.73 times on average per 90 in their own third. This makes playing out from the back dangerous, as, when they lose it, it is rare that they win it back.
For example, in the game against KV Mechelen, we see that the press of the away side is about to cause issues with the Sint-Truiden approach. Decision making is a crucial component of playing it out and is the difference between success and failure. Here we see that the Mechelen players have cut off all but one viable avenue, which is a lateral pass to the right wing-back; a risky pass that could go wrong.
In an attempt to make the pass easier, the player in possession attempts to close the gap by dribbling towards the right flank. However, there is a high concentration of Mechelen players that end up swarming the Sint-Truiden player and winning the ball back. Now we see that Mechelen have a clear overload on that side. Thankfully for Sint-Truiden they do not take advantage, but this is just one example of how their possession focused tactics can create defensive problems.
Looking to next season
Muscat has been in an advisory role since the end of 2019, so has seen enough of the side to know what areas need improving. If he intends to continue the possession-orientated approach, there are certainly some areas highlighted above that need to be improved.
At the attacking end, Japanese international Yuma Suzuki was their most potent threat with seven goals in 24 appearances. The former Kashima Antlers player joined last summer and at the age of 24 still has some further development in him. Adjusting to European football is notoriously difficult, so Muscat will be hoping that Suzuki will build on his first full year in Belgium. After Suzuki, the side have struggled to find regular contributors.
Samuel Asamoah is the next top scorer with four goals and one assist from midfield, while departing captain Botaka takes three goals and four assists with him. Adding goals will certainly be a priority for Muscat, however the solution may already be in the side. Sierra Leonean Mohamed Buya Turay was integral to Djurgarden’s winning the Swedish Allsvenskan last season. Turay finished top scorer with 16 goals, yet he failed to make an appearance for Sint-Truiden when he returned from his loan in Stockholm. If Muscat can find a way to get the Sierra Leonean firing, he may well have the perfect option to add goals alongside Suzuki.
At the back, Muscat may wish to develop a more effective pressing game. As we have seen from the examples, the lack of press has allowed the side to give away chances too easily. Allowing the most shots on goal will certainly alarm the former centre back, and it wouldn’t be surprising if those in charge at the club are hoping that his defensive experience will help remedy this.
Playing out from the back is also a major concern for Sint-Truiden, as our example is just one of many where they lose the ball in their own half from being unable to make the right decisions when in possession. Muscat either needs to work on this more to ensure they can do it successfully, or treat it as a situational option that is utilised against certain opposition, while also having a more direct approach up his sleeve for other games.
There will certainly be plenty of interest in Sint-Truiden next season because of Muscat. While much of this will focus on the man himself, there will also be an eye on whether or not he changes the approach of Sint-Truiden next season. Clearly, as this season indicates, there was a problem converting possession into points, which will need to be rectified. The success of the new manager may well hinder on how he adapts the side, either by improving the way they play currently or introducing a completely different style of play.