A tight first half finished 1-0 to Eupen going into the break and their lead doubled early into the second half. However, defender Junior Pius bagged a brace to claw back a point for Antwerp and maintain their unbeaten record at the Bosuilstadion this season.
Antwerp lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, with Jean Butez starting in goal for the hosts. Former Manchester United man, Ritchie Da Laet, began on the left side of a back three with Junior Pius and Abdoulaye Seck. Club captain Faris Haroun began in a midfield three alongside Cameroonian Martin Hongla and Pieter Gerkens, who arrived from Anderlecht in the summer. Nill De Pauw, also a new signing this past summer, started as the right side wing-back, with Simen Juklerød out left. Manager Ivan Leko opted to start with the vastly experienced duo of Dieumerci Mbokani and Lior Refaelov up-front. Both players have each scored only the one goal in league action so far this season.
Ortwin De Wolf started in goal for Beñat San José’s Eupen team, who started with a 4-1-4-1. Senna Miangue, on loan from Cagliari, got the nod at left-back, with Adriano, a winner of two UEFA Champions League medals at Barcelona, started right-back. Centre-backs Jordi Amat and Benoît Poulain completed the back-four. Jens Cools started in a defensive holding role, with a midfield four of Stef Peeters, Konan N’Dri, Knowledge Musona and Mamadou Koné ahead of him. Bosnia international Smail Prevljak, who arrived on a permanent deal from RedBull Salzburg this past summer, started in the lone striker role for the visitors.
Eupen defensive shape
Antwerp looked to make the pitch as wide as they could with the use of their wing-backs. In an effort to create space for themselves as well as teammates, Juklerød and De Pauw hugged the touchline when Antwerp were in possession. This was especially evident in the first half.
An example of this can be seen in the image. Martin Hongla is on the ball as Antwerp cover the pitch from touchline-to-touchline.
Despite playing with so much width, they rarely got in a position in which they could take any advantage. Their transition from left to right, or vice versa, was slow. Rather than hitting the long ball to speed up the transition, Antwerp preferred shorter passes. This gave Eupen plenty of time to keep their shape and shift sideways with the of the ball. As seen in the image below, Eupen are quick as a team to transition as a unit and limit the space available for Antwerp. The home team had 57% possession. However, much of this was working the ball across the pitch, only to come back the other way due to Eupen’s disciplined shape.
Dieumerci Mbokani, a player who scored 18 league goals last season, was very isolated in the first half. Starting alongside him was Lior Refaelov, a player who’s natural position is as an attacking midfielder. Because of this, he has a tendency to drop deep to find the ball.
The image above shows the situation Mbokani was typically finding himself in. Both Refaelov and Mbokani are circled (Refaelov deepest of the two). With Jens Cools often screening the passing lane into Mbokani’s feet and either Jordi Amat and Poulain touch tight, Eupen kept him very quiet throughout the first half.
Antwerp’s change of formation
A minute before the half time whistle blew, a Ritchie De Laet handball led to Eupen being awarded a penalty. Smail Prevljak stepped up and confidently hit the top corner to give the visitors a 1-0 lead going into the break. Manager Ivan Leko knew something different was needed from his Antwerp side in the second half, so a change to a 3-4-1-2 formation was made. Gerkens moved into an attacking midfield position, with Manuel Benson being introduced on the right-wing as a replacement for De Pauw.
With Gerkens in a supporting role behind Mbokani and Refaelov, the hope was that Antwerp would have more going forward. Early on in the second half, Refaelov continued to drop deep, with Gerkens tending to push high up alongside Mbokani. In Gerkens, Antwerp now had a player who is traditionally a centre midfielder, playing up-front. He is highlighted in the image below playing upfront; the other highlighted player below Refaelov in the deeper role.
The tactical change had little impact on the way that the game was going. With Antwerp now pushing more players on and with no use of wing-backs tucking in, they were punished. A quick counterattack by Eupen penetrated the heart of the Antwerp defence, which was spread very thin. Knowledge Musona broke from the midfield and, with the aid of some poor defending and goalkeeping, made it 2-0 to Eupen.
Another response was needed tactically by Antwerp. Leko took Hongla off and replaced him with Bruny Nsimba. Nsimba, being a natural out and out forward, would partner Mbokani and Gerkens dropped back into midfield. This is a change that finally changed the dynamic of the game for Antwerp.
Nsimba is a willing runner and a player who would play high, forcing the Eupen backline to drop deeper. This, in turn, created more space for Refaelov who was now deployed in his favoured position of attacking midfield. Another player who benefitted from having two out and out strikers on the pitch was winger Manuel Benson. With the Eupen backline dropping deeper, he was afforded more space down the right-wing to take on the left-back, Miangue. He did so with devastating speed on a couple of occasions, cutting inside onto his favoured left foot and releasing two good efforts towards goal. The image below shows the build-up to one of these attempts. As seen, there is plenty of space for the winger to get his head down and attack.
Junior Pius at the double
At 2-0 down, the last 30 minutes presented a ‘nothing to lose’ opportunity for the home team to go out and salvage something from the game. Their willingness to attack and get at Eupen went up significantly, as seen in the image below.
In the second half, their attacks per minute were at 0.71, compared to just 0.29 in the first half. As seen on the image above, this number especially increased in the second final 15 minutes of the match.
Antwerp’s unlikely goalscoring hero came in the form of centre-back Junior Pius. The Nigerian scored both goals to rescue a point for the home team. Unmarked on both occasions, he found himself space to head two goals in the space of 15 minutes. The image below shows Abdoulaye Seck winning a header which found Junior Pius to head home.
Whilst his goalscoring exploits are what will be talked about most, it was, in fact, his defensive display which was very impressive throughout the game. He won 11 of his 13 defensive duels in the game, more than anybody else. He also made two crucial blocks to stop shots from hitting the Antwerp goal. Playing in the middle of the back three meant man-marking Smail Prevljak. He marshalled the Bosnian during the 90 minutes, keeping him quiet and taking the ball off him on multiple occasions.
The image below shows Musona receiving the ball from a wide area. Pius finds himself in a difficult situation, having Musona in front of him and Prevljak free behind him. Instead of diving in, he positions himself excellently, sitting right in between the two. As Musona swivels to try and get a shot off, the centre-back quickly senses the danger to get touch tight and win the ball. This was typical of his performance throughout the game.
Pius will be disappointed in the manner that he and his teammates lost their clean sheet in this game. A penalty given away for a handball was something the Nigerian was able to do little about. However, he will hold his hand up to the combined defensive efforts of himself, Seck and Jean Butez that could have been much better to prevent Eupen’s second goal.
Eupen will be very disappointed to have let a 2-0 lead slip away. They had chances to add to their tally but failed to do so. However, on the face of it, Antwerp also deserved their point from the game. They fought hard to get back into the game and they could easily have claimed all three points towards the latter stages of the game. Antwerps xG in the game was 1.41, with Eupen’s xG just marginally higher at 1.43. This stat would suggest that a draw for the two teams was a fair result.
The draw does not do a whole lot for either team’s standing in this season’s Pro League. Eupen are again on the road this weekend, facing a very difficult fixture away at Anderlecht on Sunday. Ivan Leko’s men will be hoping to make it three games unbeaten as they travel to Kortrijk on Friday evening.