OH Leuven is one game away from being promoted to the Belgian Pro League. The second division side, owned by EPL side Leicester City, has been desperately trying to return to the Pro League since their relegation in the 2015/16 season. Leuven was brilliant in the opening half of the season, winning the first stage to qualify for the play-off. However, they were disappointing in the second stage, finishing fifth overall and winning only five games.
While league top scorer Thomas Henry has caught the eye, 25-year-old midfielder Mathieu Maertens has been a goal scoring force instrumental in Leuven having a chance at promotion. The Belgian has contributed eight goals and two assists this season. Maertens joined Leuven in the 2017/18 season from Pro League side Cercle Brugge, who themselves are owned by Ligue 1 side AS Monaco. Maertens is entering the prime of his career and if Leuven fail to get promoted this season, he may have to move in order to play at the higher level he is clearly capable of.
This tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, will use data and match footage to produce an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses in Maertens’ game. We will look at how he is used in the tactics of Leuven and explain why he should be playing at a higher level.
With eight goals this season, Maertens sits fifth overall in the goalscoring charts for the season. He has exceeded his xG of 6.22 for the season and has an impressive average for a midfielder of 0.29 goals per 90. Maertens has achieved this by getting in the right positions to take a high volume of shots. He has attempted 61 shots this season, again placing him fifth overall in the league. He averages 2.18 per 90, with an xG per shot of 0.1. Clearly, alongside Henry, he is a goalscoring threat for Leuven.
Data would suggest he is looking to score more often than he is looking to create chances for other Leuven players. He is only averaging 0.68 shot assists per 90, which may explain why he only has two assists this season, around his xA of 2.82. Furthermore, Maertens’ xA per 90 is only 0.07, far lower than those around him who have also only managed two assists this season.
Looking at the data, a pattern of goal scoring positions for Maertens begins to emerge. He has scored five of his eight goals with his right foot, with the majority of these coming from the left hand side of the box. Within the Leuven tactical setup, Maertens operates as the left central midfielder, which would explain why most of his shots come from that side. Even though his partner Keita is willing to sit deeper while he attacks, Maertens still focuses on the left hand side of the pitch.
For example, in the game against Lommel SK, who themselves have an English link, being part of the Manchester City Group, we see Maertens in a deep position as the ball is being advanced. We see that Leuven have two players in forward positions, as well as a wide left midfielder, who the defence would expect to fill the gap on that side.
However, as we see from this next still, it is Maertens, not the wide man, who has made the forward run and receives the ball. He is given too much space and, following some fancy footwork, finds the net. For Maertens, he enjoys when Leuven focus an attack on the right hand side, as he can benefit from the space it creates. He is relatively quick so can beat opposition midfielders to the space and exploit the gaps in the defending lines to take shots. From the above graphic, we can see that this tactic has been relatively successful in presenting Maertens with shooting opportunities this season.
While going forward Maertens is clearly a threat, as a central midfielder, he is expected to contribute at the other end as well. He usually operates alongside the more defensive-minded Keita, who is there to provide defensive stability during attacks, and he is still an active member of the defensive tactics of Leuven. As a side, Leuven only averages 45.6% possession, the second lowest in the division. Hence, defending is an important aspect of the side’s tactical set-up.
Stats wise, Maertens is averaging 6.7 recoveries per 90 alongside 3.49 counterpressing recoveries per 90. Both of these figures put him in the low 20’s league-wide when it comes to these metrics. In terms of defensive duels, the young midfielder is averaging 6.81 at a 56.02% success rate.
As we see from the below graphic, Maertens is recovering the ball in nearly all areas of the pitch, however, he intercepts and recovers the ball mainly in the central third. This is also the area where he also does much of his counterpressing, which accounts for over half of his overall recoveries.
When we look at his defensive duels in Leuven’s own third, we also see that he focuses much of his defending on the upper left hand side. This explains more about the tactics of the side as well, as even though he is usually part of a two-man midfield with Keita, he is doing his defending in what is more of a left-wing position than a central left position. Taking into consideration the lack of ball possession Leuven look to command, Maertens’ defensive duel positioning indicates that they are looking to allow opposition into their own third, before getting midfielders like Maertens to win the ball back on the edge of Leuven’s third and spring a counter-attack.
What this all suggests is that Maertens is a reasonably good defender, however, any side interested in adding him to their club would need to ensure that there is a more defensive-minded partner alongside him.
Maertens’ technical ability certainly passes the eye test. He has quick feet to escape dangerous and difficult situations that other players would usually end up losing the ball in. In terms of dribbles per 90, he is averaging only 3.89 with a success rate of 61.47.
Maertens is by no means an explosive dribbler who uses pace alongside technical ability to go past his man. While he does have good acceleration, he uses his quick feet to create space and then move the ball forward, or even just to get out of tricky situations. The advantages this ability of Maertens gives Leuven is that it either helps transition the team from their own or the middle third into the attacking third or in some situations wins them a foul and relieves pressure.
For example, in the game against Union Saint-Gilloise, Maertens attempted nine dribbles, of which six were successful. Many played out as the one we will analyse below. Maertens picks up the ball in his own half and is confronted by two Union players. His quick feet allow him to exploit the small gap in between those two players. As we also see, behind Maertens there is another Union player. With three around him, he was in a tricky situation, which could have resulted in a turnover of possession if it wasn’t for his quick feet.
Maertens’ dribbling ability in this situation also drags another Union player into a one on one situation after he took the other two players out of their defensive positions. The Union player is forced to foul Maertens, as he again uses his quick feet to go past him. If the Union player hadn’t brought Maertens down, we see that there would have been a three on two advantage for Leuven. Maertens would have taken three defensive players out of the attacking phase and given his side an advantage.
This ability to escape difficult situations would be important for a player like Maertens if he moved into higher leagues. Furthermore, it also contributes to his ability to score, as his quick feet allow him to create space in the box to get shots away.
Maertens has steadily been improving over the last few seasons, and this looks like it should be his last in the second tier of Belgian football. In order to further develop, he should look to move into the Belgian Pro League, as he is clearly one of the strongest players in the Proximus League. If Leuven manages to win promotion, it will be interesting to see if he can provide the side with as many goals as he has this season, and have a similar impact on the side at a higher level.