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Examining Heracles’ strong start to the Eredivisie season

By: Andy Cooper

Key takeaways

– Emphasis on reducing possession and being solid defensively
– Pressing opposing teams higher up the pitch
– Being direct when winning possession and utilising wingers effectively

After a strong start to the season, Heracles Almelo have been the Eredivisie’s surprise package so far.

At the time of writing, Heracles sit fourth after 10 games, level on points with Feyenoord. This has coincided with major changes off-the-field, with a new Technical Director and Head Coach in place.

At 35, Mark-Jan Fledderus became the youngest Technical Director in the Dutch top-flight following his appointment in March and after back-to-back 10th placed finishes, he recruited Frank Wormuth as Heracles’ new boss in the summer.

Together, Fledderus and Wormuth have overseen a significant change in approach and if they can maintain their early season form, it could result in a return to European football for the club following a three-year absence.

Investment in youth

During the summer, Heracles undertook a major squad overhaul, with 15 players leaving (including five who played over 50% of total league minutes) and 14 coming in.

The average age of the new recruits was just 22.7, with all but one coming in on free transfers. Nine have seen action in Eredivisie so far, with five featuring regularly.

Abandoning a possession game and keeping compact

In an earlier blog, Michiel Jongsma highlighted how PSV changed their playing style last season, sacrificing possession and adopting a more counter-attacking approach.

During 2017/18, Heracles had the third worst defensive record in Eredivisie, conceding 64 goals. Whilst they have retained the same 4-3-3 shape from last season, they too have sacrificed control of possession and focused instead on being more solid defensively.

Eredivisie possession statistics per 90: Heracles Almelo

Season Possession Poss. In Att. Half Touches Passes
2017-18 49.6% (9) 45.2% (12) 624.5 (6) 422 (7)
2018-19 43.1% (16) 38.6% (15) 562.3 (15) 350.3 (16)

League rank in brackets

Heracles’ emphasis on being difficult to break down is further highlighted by the number of passes they are attempting when the scores are level, which ranks them bottom of all Eredivisie clubs.

Eredivisie 2018/19 possession statistics per 90 based on game state: Heracles Almelo

State Possession Poss. In Att. Half Touches Passes
Tied 40.6% (16) 35.0% (16) 177.3 (17) 106.5 (18)
Ahead 43.3% (12) 39.3% (14) 336.0 (7) 209.3 (9)
Behind 48.3% (14) 47.1% (13) 347.7 (6) 232.3 (6)

League rank in brackets

Although still conceding on average two goals per game, this change of approach has resulted in Heracles conceding four fewer shots per 90 and reducing their xG against by 0.2 per 90.

Further metrics suggest that defensively they are operating tighter and pushing teams to play in front of them – their opponents are averaging 5.8 fewer touches in the Heracles penalty area and the number of defensive duels they have won in their opponent’s half has also increased from 6.6 to 9.4.

Engaging an effective press

Using the Opta sequence framework, the average starting point of a sequence can offer a good indication as to whether a team likes to press.

This season, Heracles’ sequences are starting 2.7 metres further up the pitch and the number of sequences starting in the attacking third has risen by 12% (33.7 compared to 29.71), highlighting how they are looking to win the ball higher up the pitch.

Another useful proxy for measuring pressing is the average number of passes per defensive action (PPDA). During this season so far, Heracles’ PPDA has dropped 0.9 to 11.9 per 90, reinforcing their more aggressive approach without the ball.

Winning possession and being direct

The sequence framework also suggests that Heracles are adopting a more direct approach when they win possession.

Total passes per sequence, per 90: Heracles Almelo

Compared to last season they are having a higher volume of sequences, however nearly two-thirds of their sequences end after two passes. Their average sequence time has also dropped, but they are getting the ball forward at a slightly faster speed, playing into the channels. 

This is highlighted by the pass maps of two of their central midfielders, Mohammed Osman and Alexander Merkel. When attempting long passes in the middle third or attacking half, they are looking to get the ball into wide areas and Osman in particular has been particularly effective. As well as having a high completion rate (80%), over two thirds of his passes are ending in the attacking third.

Pass Maps: Long forward and sideways passes from middle and attacking thirds

Being clinical in front of goal

Heracles have also shown a big improvement in the volume and quality of chances being created. As well as creating more Opta-defined big chances, a higher volume of goal attempts have been on target (45% compared to 36%) and more shots have been taken inside the box.

Heracles Almelo: Eredivisie shot data per 90

The performance of the club’s top scorer this season, Kristoffer Peterson, mirrors the team’s overall improvement. Looking at his shot map, we can see that the left winger is not only attempting more shots in the box compared to his first 10 games of last season, but his chances also have a higher xG probability, as demonstrated by the size of the circles.

Kristoffer Peterson shot maps: First 10 games of Eredivisie season

Increasing the tempo from wide positions

Both Peterson and Heracles’ other winger, Brandley Kuwas, are very direct players, averaging 5 and 4.5 take-ons per 90 respectively.

When we look at just the Heracles sequences which they are directly involved in, the team’s direct speed increases from 1.7 to 2, which indicates that the team look to attack more quickly when either winger has the ball.

Whilst Peterson has been clinical in front of goal, Kuwas has been more productive in relation to creating chances, averaging 1.87 per 90.

However when we compare Kuwas’ touches from last season, we can see that as well as taking fewer touches overall (47 to 63), he has been touching the ball far less in the defensive half, which suggests that he is being asked to play higher up the pitch.

Looking ahead 

In a relatively short period of time, Heracles have made key changes to their play, which has enabled them utilise their wingers more effectively through playing more directly, with less emphasis on retaining the ball and looking to win it back higher up the pitch.

However, they face two potential challenges if they are to maintain this form.

Firstly, will teams now adapt, play deeper and allow Heracles more of the ball and force them to change their approach? Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, can their attacking players continue their current performance in front of goal?

As things currently stand, there are overperforming on their xG – scoring 24 goals compared to a projection of 18.17, which still ranks them 4th on xG in the league.

At the other end of the pitch though, Heracles are still conceding on average two goals per game and their xG against (19.29) ranks places them 4th lowest in Eredivisie. Therefore if their goals scored total reverts back to their xG projection, they may struggle to maintain their current form over a full season.