Article by Ben Griffis
The 2021/22 Belgian First Division A (named the Jupiler Pro League for sponsorship reasons) began on Friday, July 23rd with an energetic game between Standard de Liège and KRC Genk. The match—a rematch of the 2020/21 Belgian Cup final which Genk won—set the tone for what should be an entertaining season.
Outside of this match, the two promoted teams—Union Saint-Gilles and RFC Seraing—will contest local derbies in Brussels and Liège with Anderlecht and Standard, respectively. This season is also the first time in 18 months that a healthy number of fans can attend. As long as fans can remain in stadiums, this season should be an interesting one to follow.
For this season, Standard and Genk both kept their managers from the previous campaign. Mbaye Leye begins his first full season in charge of Standard after being promoted from assistant manager on December 30th, 2020. John van den Brom is in a similar situation at Genk, having taken over on November 9th, 2020.
Standard de Liège have only signed one player so far, Aron Dønnum from Vålerenga in Norway, while selling Zinho Vanheusden to Inter Milan and Michel-Ange Balikwisha to Antwerp for a combined €22 million. Leye has replaced these players by promoting several youth players from their academy. Few further arrivals are expected for Standard because they’re in a difficult financial position—hence the need to sell two important players from last season. They will focus on youth this season, but are lucky to have several high-quality prospects.
Genk, however, have made several signings this summer. Mike Trésor joined from Willem II, Carel Eiting from Ajax, Mujaid Sadick from Deportivo La Coruña, and Simen Jukelrød signed on a free transfer from Antwerp. Several players have left Genk this summer, such as Mats Daehli, Jere Uronen, Casper De Norre, and Zinho Gano, for a combined sum of €4.3 million.
Last season, Standard finished 6th in the regular season before losing two and winning one in the Play-Off II group of teams placed 5-8. Genk, meanwhile, finished 4th in the regular season before winning two and drawing one in the Play-Off I group of teams finishing 1st-4th. Both teams made it to the final of the Belgian Cup where Genk beat Standard 2-1.
Here’s how Leye and van den Brom lined their sides up for an enticing round 1 matchup:
Before diving into the analysis, here are a few tactical highlights of the match.
- Mbaye Leye’s effective halftime tweaks: quicker counter-pressing and a higher attacking tempo using the wingbacks.
- Klauss’s holdup play: Standard were able to use João Klauss as a pivot to move the ball from defense into the attacking third.
- Heynen’s importance to Genk’s attack: when Cimirot started closely marking Heynen in the second half Genk lacked effective ball movement.
- Preciado and Ito’s connection: Standard had a troublesome time coping with both Ito and Preciado down Genk’s right wing. Many chances came from Ito after the move started with Preciado.
Standard de Liège Buildup and Attack
In buildup, Standard employed a shape close to a 3-1-4-2. Gavory and Siquet pushed up with the wide midfielders while Cimirot dropped back in front of the center backs. Klauss and Muleka were free to roam side-to-side and form triangles with the wingback and midfielder on their side.
When the ball was on one side of the pitch, most players shifted over to that side. The exception was the far-side wing back. He would make runs from deep into the open space vacated by Genk’s defenders, shifting with Standard’s players. As Standard played through their left flank often, Siquet received plenty of long switches, especially in the second half. Players like Cimirot, Gavory, and Raskin would look to switch the play to Siquet, allowing him to run into Genk’s third.
A major attacking pattern Standard Liège used in the match was getting the ball to Klauss and using his strength to hold it up before laying it off to a player making a run. While Standard used this tactic in both halves, it was more important in the first half. I the first half, this allowed Standard to bypass the midfield, which Genk were effectively pressuring. In the second half, however, Standard’s higher tempo allowed Klauss to be the pivot point from defense to Gavory or Siquet running behind the lines instead of a direct ball to Gavory or Siquet.
Standard’s attacking tempo was somewhat low in the first half, but very high in the second. After halftime, Standard’s players attacked with more intensity and purpose, playing more long balls into space, particularly for the wing backs. They also played one-twos in and around the box to find a player in open space for a close shot or cross. While the one-twos weren’t clinical, coupled with their varied use of long through balls, their second half attacking tactics made it difficult for Genk’s defense to win the ball and take control of the game.
Laifis’s 69’ goal came from not only a well-placed corner but also from Laifis recognizing Genk’s weakness. Genk were zonally marking the box for the corner, so Laifis recognized that if he made his run at the right time, he could be unmarked when he jumped. He ran from the penalty spot to the near post corner of the 6-yard box, with the only runner tracking him blocked off by Klauss. Bongonda was in front of the ball and couldn’t jump high enough to affect Laifis, giving him a free header which he did not miss. Thus, Konstantinos Laifis—who doesn’t score very often—becomes the first goal scorer of the 2021/22 Jupiler Pro League even when last season’s top scorer, Paul Onuachu with 29, was on the pitch as well.
A final point to note about Standard when in possession is their structured shape behind the ball. All three center backs remained back and in line when the ball was in Genk’s third. They didn’t stray too high up the pitch and, when they used a high line, remained together and one midfielder was close to them. This aided their defensive transition when Standard lost the ball, as Genk were unable to counterattack with a numbers advantage or take advantage of major gaps. This structured shape was crucial to Standard’s ability to smother Genk’s attacks in the second half.
Standard de Liège Defense
While defending, Standard’s 3-5-2 became a 5-3-2 when Genk were close to Standard’s goal, with Gavory and Siquet dropping in line with the center backs. There were gradients in the wing backs’ positions, which were interesting to watch throughout the match. Their resting positions were roughly determined into the third of the pitch Genk were in. When Genk were in their own third, the wingbacks were in line with the midfielders. When in the middle third, they were roughly between the midfield and center backs line. In Standard’s third, the wingbacks were in line with the center backs to form a strong back 5.
Standard’s lines were tight while defending, allowing little space for Genk’s midfielders to play. In the first half, Standard were less rigid, but Leye changed this in the second half in order to take command of the match and not allow Genk to play. This was effective, with the match’s stats mirrored in the second half—Standard had the shots and possession instead of Genk.
A key defensive tactic Mbaye Leye used was man marking. When Genk built up slowly from the back, Standard’s players closely marked a player, with two center backs marking Genk’s major goal threat Onuachu. Once Genk began playing at a higher tempo or in the middle third, Standard stopped man marking, except for Cimirot. Cimirot marked Heynen for much of the second half, especially when he dropped back near the center backs, forming a 5-2-1-2. Cimirot tried to force Genk to play through another player instead of Heynen. The figure below shows Standard’s marking and defensive shape in more detail.
In the second half, Standard closed down Genk’s players both quicker and with more intensity. Leye recognized Genk had a free run of the pitch in the first half, so he countered their threat with a higher pressing tempo. This was very effective, as Standard were able to stifle Genk’s players and take control of the game.
Standard’s biggest defensive weakness was their inability to deal with Junya Ito’s threat. Ito was too quick and technical for Standard’s defenders and midfielders and wreaked havoc multiple times throughout the match. Ito got past defenders, beating them with pace or skill, and either made a dangerous cross or cut inside to a more dangerous position.
Standard’s other weakness was dealing with Preciado and Arteaga’s runs down the wing. Standard’s use of two wing backs but no wingers meant there was only one player resting on the wing, compared to Genk’s two players. Down Standard’s left flank there were major issues, with Gavory unable to defend against both Preciado and Ito without help. This help dragged another player out of position, opening up the midfield for Genk. However, defending with a 5-3-2 and tight lines did allow Standard to smother most Genk attacks when they moved central, having a numbers advantage in the middle of the park in Standard’s third.
While Standard’s shape hurt their ability to counter Ito and Preciado’s threat, it helped their transition back to attack. They were able to quickly spread the pitch and release one of their wingbacks into space on the wing, or play a long ball to Klauss who would typically have just one player marking him in transition, if any. This allowed Standard to counter quickly and effectively.
Genk’s late equalizer came from a lapse in Standard’s defensive concentration. At the top of the box, Dessers starts a one-two and is played in behind the defensive line. Standard switched off after Dessers passed back before running to the touchline, leaving them in a rugby-style diagonal line, allowing Dessers to cross across the face of goal with no problems. Bongonda had made a run before Standard’s defenders, so he was first to the ball and scored. Dessers was a critical substitute, as he made in impact on the game whereas Onuachu could not. Onuachu probably would not have been in Desser’s position or playing a one-two into the box, so van den Brom’s decision was the correct one and paid off.
KRC Genk Buildup and Attack
Genk built up at a relatively high tempo for much of the match, preferring to get the ball forward rather than passing aimlessly between defenders and the midfielders for too long. Their 4-2-3-1 shape transformed into a 4-1-2-3 often, but with high fullbacks. Ito and Bongonda typically sat fairly narrow and near Onuachu, leaving space for Preciado and Arteaga to run into.
An attacking pattern van den Brom instructed his players to use often was to move the ball to Preciado on the right flank, where he would run at Standard’s left wingback Gavory. Once in the attacking third, Preciado cut inside with the ball as Junya Ito ran wide. This created two options for Genk, depending on what Standard’s defenders did. If a defender followed Ito, it opened up space for Preciado to either continue his run or pass to a player in the center of the pitch, which was normally loaded with Standard players. If nobody tracked Ito, Preciado could pass to him and let Ito dictate the attack with dangerous dribbles, crosses, or cuts towards the goal.
Heynen typically dropped back in front of the center backs, as the image above shows (#8). He rarely dropped in line with Sadick and McKenzie to form a back 3, but looked to receive the ball before turning and bringing it up the pitch or playing a pass out to a player on the wing or half-space. Heynen was forced to move around more as the game progressed because of Cimirot’s marking, which hurt Genk’s buildup and was a factor in them losing control of the midfield after halftime.
Ito played many crosses into the box in the first half, leading to several chances but no goals. His threat was coupled with Bongonda and Trésor’s threats for a shot, but again, this led to no goals in the first half. While several shots and headers were on target, Arnaud Bodart did well to save all of them. In the second half, the biggest constant threat came from Ito and his crosses, but there were fewer of them because Genk had difficulties playing around Standard’s press.
In the second half Standard were able to diffuse most of Genk’s attacks with their pressure and shape. To counter this late in the half, Genk tried to play quick one-twos around Standard’s players when possible. While not always effective, this tactic led to Bongonda’s late equalizer. As mentioned earlier, Dessers played a one-two and was set free behind Standard’s defenders. He then plays a quick ball across net to Bongonda who buries it from close range, earning Genk a much-deserved point—a fair result on the night.
Overall, Genk’s most dangerous moves came from Ito and Preciado, players that Gavory and Standard struggled to contain even in the second half. However, Genk needed to find a response to Standards increased dominance of the game in the second half. While they got an equalizer in the end, most of the second half they couldn’t play around Standard’s shape and marking of Heynen. Van den Brom should look closely at the second half to find where his team can improve in these situations—perhaps starting with varying long balls to the wing and one-twos like Standard played.
KRC Genk Defense
Genk defended in their 4-2-3-1 shape for most of the match, but of course van den Brom instructed the wingers to drop back with the midfielders in their defensive third. The players tried to quickly close down the ball in the first half, but were relatively slower in the second half, partly because of Standard’s ability to switch the play to an open player. However, Genk were able to effectively negate Standard’s play in the first half by using multiple players to close down the ball and force a turnover through a tackle or poor pass.
In the second half, only one player closed down the ball, and switching which player was closing down only occurred when Standard passed. Because of this, Genk players would be out of position and one pass could open up large areas of the pitch for Standard, enabling their ability to use possession. Genk players needed to have better communication on when to switch pressers, or continue their double-pressing like they did in the first half to good effect.
Genk’s defensive transition worsened throughout the match, especially in the second half as frustrations grew due to losing the ball more frequently. The players were slow to counter press and form back into a defensive shape, which was an issue when only two center backs were behind the ball and the fullbacks up the pitch. This lethargic transition aided Standard’s quick long balls into space for their wingbacks to start counters, but luckily did not lead to any goals directly.
For Standard’s corner goal, Genk were zonally marking the area, with only a couple players left to track any runners. Van den Brom gambled his players would be better able to focus on the ball coming to their area than tracking their runners. However, this failed, as Laifis had a free header over the shorter Bongonda, who ended up being the man closest to the ball and Laifis.
Overall, Standard and Genk opened up the Pro League season with an incredibly entertaining match. It was a game of two halves, with Genk running the first half and Standard the second. Mbaye Leye’s halftime tweaks—particularly his instructions to smother Genk’s play—led to their domination of the second half. Genk’s goal came from one of the few times Standard switched off and couldn’t stop a devastating one-two to release Dessers into the box to set Bongonda up.
While Mbaye Leye will be disappointed his side couldn’t top their strong second half with a victory, a draw was fair for the night. Genk ran wild in the first half, letting loose 13 shots and having free roam of the pitch. John van den Brom will need to work on ways to counteract the high level of pressure Standard put on his players in the second half. While Genk are favorites for a title push this season, van den Brom will need to work out how to take control of the game when things go south.
Thus, this match was the perfect opening game for both Standard de Liège and KRC Genk. Standard won the tactical battle, having effectively changed their approach at halftime to put themselves in charge of the game, but Genk could still use their quality to snatch a draw at the end. Both managers will have gained plenty of valuable information from this match that they can use to work on both their weaknesses and strengths.
Standard de Liège’s stadium, Stade Maurice Dufrasne, where the match was played
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