Matchday 10 of the Belgian Pro League matched up Jess Thorup’s KRC Genk with his former employer KAA Gent. Both clubs are giants in Belgian football, but they have both been going through rough patches this season, and at the time of this match starting, both sat in the bottom half of the table.
Gent and Genk are both on their third managers of the season. Gent have gone from Jess Thorup to László Bölöni to now Wim de Decker. Genk started the season with Hannes Wolf in charge, then Domenico Olivieri, and currently Jess Throup. This match turned out to be a very good battle of tactics between the two managers, with Genk coming out on top 2-1. This following tactical analysis will analyse some key tactics used by both sides.
Wim de Decker lined his Gent side up in a 3-4-1-2 formation. Sinan Bolat started in goal behind a back three of Nurio Fortuna, Micheal Ngadeu-Ngadjui, and Andreas Hanche-Olsen. Sven Kums started alongside former Bayern Munich player Niklas Dorsch in central midfield. Alessio Castro-Montes and Milad Mohammadi started as wing-backs. Roman Bezus played in a #10 role, sitting behind the front two of Laurent Depoitre and Roman Yaremchuk.
Jess Thorup stuck with the 3-4-3 formation that brought him 3 points against Sporting Charleroi one week prior. Danny Vukovic started in goal behind a Colombian back three of Jhon Lucumi, Carlos Cuesta, and Daniel Muñoz. Jere Uronen and Joakim Mæhle played as wing-backs, with Patrik Hrosovsky and Kristian Thorstvedt starting in central midfield. Bastien Toma and Theo Bongonda started either side of Paul Onuachu.
Genk’s Defensive Line
One thing that Thorup set Genk out to do from the start was to play a high line. This enabled Genk to be more aggressive out of possession and also to play offside traps on the Gent forwards. This also is a very risky strategy, with it being easier for Gent to play one line-breaking pass and be in behind the Genk defence. This tactic from Throup was one that he utilised for most of the first half, but it altered slightly in the second half.
Above is the high line mentioned above that Genk played for most of the first half. As a back three in possession, this formation became a back five out of possession, with Mæhle and Uronen dropping back into more defensive roles. Also, Depoitre and Yaremchuk are operating in between the three centre-backs which makes this high line a dangerous tactic to employ.
For the majority of the first half, Genk used the high line tactic well, with not a lot of dangerous balls attempted to be played in behind the defence. However, in the second half, Thorup switched the way that the defensive line played, as Gent held the majority of possession throughout the match, 62% to be exact. Below shows how Genk lined up defensively in the second half.
In the second half, Thorup set his defensive line up deeper, as Gent grew more into the match and gained more possession. This allowed Genk to have a solid defensive shape in the second half and allowed them to absorb the Gent pressure until they were able to hit on the counter. While Thorup did not operate using this defensive line in the match against Charleroi the week prior, his utilisation of it during this match was able to pay dividends for Genk, as they left the Ghelamco Arena with all three points.
Gent Exploiting the Left Flank
This match was a very busy match for Gent’s Milad Mohammadi. The left side of the field was the side that Gent continuously attempted to exploit, with Mohammadi being the main target down that side. The main reason that Gent seemed to choose this side to attack the most was the positioning of Joakim Mæhle. Mæhle is a very attack-minded player, and will often be caught out defensively at times.
As the attack pattern chart for Genk shows, the left side was where 63% of their attacks originated from, with an xG of 0.75 originating from this side, as well as Gent’s only goal of the match. They also caught Muñoz out as well down this flank, so Wim de Decker was able to spot a flaw on film that his side were able to exploit well. Below are some examples of this during the match.
Here, Genk are still operating with their high line and lose possession in a dangerous area in the middle third of the field. Muñoz is caught ball watching and Mæhle is caught out of position in midfield. This allows Mohammadi to make a very good run in behind. The ball is played to him, and he is able to drive to the edge of the 18-yard box. He then is given the time to be able to pick out a teammate in the box, and while Gent do not score, they create a very good chance as a result of this open space on the left flank.
This was a constant throughout, and even when Genk did away with the high line for most of the second half, this space was still able to open up regularly.
This sequence of play from Gent results in a goal for the home side. Kleindienst is being pressured by Thorstvedt and Lucumi (who leaves the back three). As a result, Mæhle is forced to operate as a de facto centre-back for the time being. He then gets caught ball watching, which allows Mohammadi to make an unmarked run in behind the Genk defence into the 18-yard box. This then results in Mohammadi playing a cut-back pass inside to Castro-Montes, who is able to convert and make it 1-0 to Gent midway through the first half.
This all stems from Mæhle being caught ball watching. With Kleindienst being marked and pressed by two Genk defenders, Mæhle should have been more aware of his surroundings and tracked the run of Mohammadi in behind. He doesn’t, and as a result, Gent were able to put themselves into the lead.
This is another occurrence in the second half where Genk lose possession in a dangerous area in midfield. As a result, the back line of Genk is staggered, and they are not able to get back into a defensive shape quick enough. The ball is once again played out to the left to Mohammadi, who has acres of space in front to run into. This resulted in a very good chance for Gent, but nothing more. The ball ends up being played into the box by Mohammadi, but it is deflected out of play for a corner.
This match was one that was dominated by Gent, and Wim de Decker must be ruing the missed chances by his players. De Decker had the perfect tactical game plan to counter Thorup’s defensive shape, and is unlucky to not leave this match with at least a point.
Theo Bongonda’s Involvement
Theo Bongonda had a very good game off the right-hand side of the Genk attack. The former Celta Vigo player, who has been linked previously with Liverpool and Chelsea, thrived in this counter-attacking system that Jess Thorup set Genk up in. He was able to use his pace and awareness to make good runs in behind the Gent defence, and also worked hard defensively as well. He was rewarded with a goal for his performance and was one of the best players on the pitch during this match.
In this phase of play above, Hrosovsky has the ball for Genk and is driving forward towards Gent’s defensive third. He is being pressed by a Gent midfielder and plays a ball in behind for Bongonda to run on to. He makes a great run behind the two defenders, but Hrosovsky plays too heavy a ball and the goalkeeper is able to get to the ball first. This chance results from Bongonda noticing the space in between the two Gent defenders and runs into it.
Another thing that helps this attack is that both Gent defenders are also caught ball watching, so no one is able to pick up the run of Bongonda in behind. This does not result in a goal for Bongonda, but it shows that he was able to find the spaces in between the defenders, and he eventually was able to get his reward.
In the phase of play above, Bongonda is able to finally get his goal. Hrosovsky plays a great ball over the top and Bongonda is able to head it into the back of the net past Bolat. What makes this goal great is how Bongonda was able to find the space in between the Gent centre-backs. At 1.77 meters tall, he is not the tallest player in Gent’s attack. What allows him to score from this free header is his positional awareness. He notices that the Gent players are not trying to close him down when the ball comes in, as they are anticipating the ball going to Onuachu at the far post.
This allows Bongonda the time and space to be able to leap high enough to get a perfect header onto the ball. While he excelled in the attacking phases for Genk, it was his work defensively that helped his team a few times as well.
Defensively, Bongonda has a very good work rate. This instance above shows this work rate in action. Gent are on the attack and starting to gain more momentum in this match in the closing stages. Bongonda notices an opportunity with Gent in possession and presses the player. He is able to win back possession for Genk and they are able to hit Gent on a counter-attack. This also precedes the counter-attack that Genk score the winning goal from. Bongonda is able to use his quick thinking to sense an opportunity to pounce. While most Genk fans will know Theo Bongonda as someone who is a very technically gifted attacker, he can also put in a shift defensively.
This match at the Ghelamco Arena turned out to be a very entertaining tactical battle between two talented managers. While Jess Thorup was able to prevail at his old stomping grounds with this new team, this analysis shows that Wim de Decker has many positives to take away from this match. His side are starting to play better and gel under his leadership. While de Decker’s side walked away from this match empty-handed, their performance was very positive. Gent are next in action on Thursday in the UEFA Europa League against Hoffenheim, while Genk play host to Eupen on Friday in the league.