Article by Ben Griffis
The 2021 Belgian Cup (Beker van België / Coupe de Belgique) was contested by Standard de Liège and KRC Genk. Genk came into the match after finishing in 4th place in the regular season’s league and qualifying for at least some European competition next season. Standard finished the regular season in 6th place, meaning they play 3 other teams in a round-robin format with the top of those 4 teams earning a Conference League qualification phase berth. The winner of the Cup automatically earns a spot in the Europa League group stage.
Standard’s road to the final included two 1-0 wins against Eupen and Club Brugge and a 1-1 draw won by penalties against Kortijk, along with a 4-1 victory to 2nd-division Seraing. Genk’s victories included a 2-1 against Anderlecht, 4-1 against Mechelen, and 1-0 against Sint-Truiden, along with a forfeit by 3rd-division Tessenderlo because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The match pitted Genk’s veteran manager John van den Brom against Standard’s young manager and former player, Mbaye Leye. Leye has only been a manager since taking over Standard Liège on December 30th, 2020, after being an assistant manager in the 2019/20 season. Leye has won the Cup on 3 occasions as a player—once with Standard in 2011—while van den Brom has won the Belgian Supercup twice and the League once while in charge of giants Anderlecht. Van den Brom was a part of the Ajax squad, which lifted the Champions League in 1995. Neither manager is a stranger to silverware, but Leye is only 4 months in to his managerial career with a 7-4-4 record in the league and celebrating only his 20th match as head manager of a club.
Standard Liège’s Buildup and Attack
Standard Liège lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond on paper, but in buildup became a 3-6-1 as the fullbacks became wingers, Cimirot dropped between the center backs, and the three remaining midfielders formed a box with Balikwisha dropping deeper. After Cimirot was subbed off, Gavory usually slotted into the back three instead of Carcela.
This shape allowed Cimirot to play the ball up to the high fullbacks or Klauss, who was always in line with Genk’s center backs. A key pattern with Standard’s buildup was long balls—switches from one side of the field to the other, or balls from Cimirot to Klauss or the fullbacks up top.
This 3-6-1 shape enabled Standard to play through the half-spaces, which they did with ease in the first half. Klauss would usually shift to the ball-side half-space, creating 2 triangles with him, the fullback, and two midfielders. While overloading the half-space and wings in the middle third, Standard then attempted to move the ball centrally in the attacking third via passes to a player standing at the top of the box. In the first half, Standard Liège refrained from crossing the ball. In the second half after falling behind, however, Standard Liège started crossing more often. This resulted in Muleka’s goal.
While Standard could play around Genk’s initial 4-2-3-1 defensive shape using their 3-6-1, the 3-6-1 formation opened up vast amounts of space behind the high fullbacks when Standard lost the ball. In the first half, Ito and Bongonda were unable to use this space as Standard held the ball most of the time and left Genk rushed and wasteful when they had the ball. Ito and Bongonda successfully exploited this space early in the second half for Ito’s goal—an assist from Bongonda after winning the ball back in midfield. Bongonda passed the ball into space between the fullback and center back, allowing Ito to run free and pick his spot.
Once Cimirot was subbed off in the 66th minute, Standard Liège’s attacks became more rushed and less structured. After falling 2 goals behind in the 80th minute, all but the center backs and Gavory pushed up trying to find a goal, which only came via a cross from the left wing to Muleka who did very well to head the ball into the top corner. Given the importance of the fixture, Standard Liège sacrificed form and shape for attack. Genk, luckily for Standard Liège, took few risks after scoring their second and tried to burn time running on the wings rather than try for a third and risk opening themselves up for an equalizer.
Standard Liège’s Defense
Standard defended in a roughly 4-4-2 diamond shape, but many times Cimirot joined the defenders to form a 5-4-2. Standard Liège pressured Genk players constantly, but without over-committing. They aimed to be bodies in the way of Genk’s ball progression, forcing their opponents to make hasty and poor passing decisions or run into a Standard player nearby. Standard Liège effectively smothered Genk in the first half, but were found out in the second half when Genk played shorter, smarter balls without dwelling on the ball. Klauss pressed the back line and Vandevoordt intensely the whole match while Balikwisha/Muleka were available to help when the ball moved out of the back line.
While Standard’s defensive pressure was effective in the first half, they did not adjust in the second half when Genk played around their press. The defensive shape was effective if Genk had time to build up, but Standard Liège’s defensive transition was poor and allowed space for Ito and Bongonda to receive balls from deep or layoffs from Onuachu.
A second major weakness for Standard’s defense was the sheer size and strength of Genk’s striker Onuachu. Onuachu won what felt like every ball when he backed into his marker. Genk passed the ball from anywhere on the field to Onuachu, who then laid it off to a sprinting Ito or Bongonda or played it back to an advanced midfielder. Standard did not seem to have a counter for Onuachu’s size. This is how Genk scored their second goal—a long ball from the keeper which Onuachu headed behind the fullback and center back (another Standard Liège weak area) for Bongonda to run onto and score.
Standard’s defense was not tested much in the first half, but fell apart when tested in the second half. A lack of an effective counter for Onuachu paired with a poor transitioning shape spelled danger from the beginning. When Genk finally warmed up after halftime, Standard had no chance of winning. Standard’s frustration built over the second half, culminating in Sissako’s straight red for a frustration challenge on Bongonda in additional time.
Genk’s Buildup and Attack
Genk were certainly a different team in the first half than the second. In the first half, they had a low tempo and kicked the ball up to Onuachu, hoping to lay it off to a midfielder. When Genk tried to play from the back in the first half, Standard smothered them and forced poor decisions, poor passes, or a pass back to Vandevoordt. Most players pushed forward, isolating the center backs and Hrošovský or Heynen, who dropped deep to receive a ball from the center backs.
In the second half, Genk played much smoother, bringing players closer to the ball instead of marooning them near Onuachu. This tweak allowed Genk to get around Standard press and move the ball into space.
A key component to Genk’s attacking play was the free movement of Ito. Ito, while starting on the right wing, rarely stayed there. He drifted inside behind Onuachu many times, and other times he and Bongonda would switch positions. When Ito moved off the right wing, Genk left that area of the pitch vacant, which caused confusion in Standard’s back line about who would pick up the extra man. This created a lopsided pitch for Genk, but not for Standard since they cannot vacate Ito’s side of the pitch entirely with the threat of Muñoz running from deep. Ito and Bongonda’s free movement was critical to Genk’s attack and their victory.
As previously noted, Genk’s goals came from exploiting both of Standard’s key defensive weaknesses. Ito’s goal took advantage of Standard’s poor defensive transition shape. Bongonda slotted a ball into the space behind Standard’s right back, Siquet, on the counter to release Ito. Bongonda’s goal took advantage of Standard’s inability to cope with and defend Onuachu. Vandevoordt hoofed a long ball to Onuachu who headed it on to Bongonda running past Siquet—again, into space behind a fullback.
Genk’s second half was drastically different from their first half, and van den Brom’s changes in the attacking phase gave Genk the victory. A quicker-tempo, smoother passing game allowed the ball to reach Ito and Bongonda, who were causing issues for Standard’s defenders. Better understanding of where space was for Ito and Bongonda allowed the wingers and Onuachu to combine for deadly attacks. Standard were seemingly unprepared to adjust their shape and tactics in the second half.
Genk initially defended in the 4-2-3-1 shape that they attacked with. The two deeper midfielders would drop into the back line when Standard had the ball on the wings near the box, and would press the ball carrier in the center of the pitch. Early on, however, Genk recognized Standard’s 3-6-1 buildup, and Ito and Bongonda drifted inside while Thorstvedt moved up with Onuachu, creating a 4-2-2-2 shape. This shape allowed Genk to mark every Standard midfielder, their fullbacks, and put two players to press their back 3. Further, the 4-2-2-2 shape was easy to transition into and out of the 4-2-3-1 attacking shape. The 4-2-2-2 helped to smother Standard’s possession and allowed for easy countering to exploit their weaknesses.
Genk did not pressure Standard as intensely as Standard pressured Genk. Van den Brom preferred to use his players’ positions to quell Standard attacks. As seen in the diagram comparing Genk’s 4-2-2-2 and Liège’s 3-6-1, few Standard players were open and passing lanes were effectively cut. This effective and strong defensive structure meant Genk did not need to sacrifice shape for pressure. This defensive tactic worked, as Standard could not move the ball in the second half. Standard’s only goal came from a great cross and an even better finish—hardly the center backs’ fault. The crosser—Carcela—however, should have been closed down. This is one of the few times that Genk’s shape alone could not stop Standard’s attack.
Standard tactically won the first half, and Genk won the second half and—more importnatly—the match. Standard were the better team in the first half, executing their buildup and defensive plan well, but were very sloppy when the ball got into the final third and couldn’t capitalize on their dominance. Genk improved a lot after halftime, while Liège remained in their same shape with weaknesses. Standard weren’t able to keep the ball as much in the second half, so their defensive weaknesses showed even more. Standard’s two fundamental weaknesses were both exploited by Genk in the second half for goals.
Ito and Bongonda rotating and shifting around into space stifled Standard, as did Onuachu’s sheer strength. Once Standard started crossing into the box instead of trying to pass their way into it they netted a goal but it was too little, too late. Great tactical tweaks from Genk saw them deservedly win the Cup. Liège had an interesting buildup shape but could not transition into defense to cover the shape’s weaknesses. Finally, Genk’s 4-2-2-2 shape in defense effectively countered Standard’s 3-6-1 attacking shape, leaving Standard searching for passes in the second half.
Genk deserved to win the game by employing better tactics and adaptability, and did just that. Mbaye Leye will have learned a lot from this match to take into the future. For only his 20th game as head manager, his tactics had several strengths. However, a couple major weaknesses overshadowed the positives. John van den Brom’s adjustments had game-changing effects, which led Genk to a 2-1 victory over Standard to claim the 2021 Belgian Cup and at least a place in the Europa League.
King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels, where the match took place.