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Team Performance

Pressing, Possession and Set-Piece Prowess: How Club Brugge Returned to the Pro League Summit


With Club Brugge still awaiting official confirmation of the Pro League’s decision to award them the 2019/20 league title, Philippe Clement has to wait at least another week before knowing if he holds the distinction of coaching back-to-back championships with two different clubs.

By: Andy Cooper

After leading Genk to the 2018/19 title, Clement’s Brugge sit 15 points clear of their nearest rivals with one game remaining of the regular season, conceding more than 50% fewer goals per 90 minutes compared to the previous campaign.

Whilst tightening the team up defensively, Clement has also instilled a more possession-based approach this season, together with a few tactical tweaks, which has resulted in a greater attacking influence from a number of key players.

We have drilled into the numbers to identify the key factors behind their successful campaign so far.

Regaining possession high up the pitch

At the start of the season, Clement looked to set his team up in a different shape than that of his predecessor, Ivan Leko, by adopting a back four with a lone target man. However, as the season has progressed, he has reverted to a set-up similar to that utilised in 2018/19, with three centre backs and two up top.

Based on positional data, a compact 3-5-2 has been Brugge’s most common shape this season, with a defensive midfielder sitting deep in front of the centre backs.

Club Brugge have adopted a 3-5-2 shape for 1440 minutes during the 2019/20 Pro League, averaging just under 50 minutes per match.

Clement has also made significant changes in personnel, some of which were enforced following the summer departures of Wesley and Marvelous Nakamba to Aston Villa and Arnaut Danjuma to Bournemouth. Centre back Stefano Denswil and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat were another two first-team regulars who moved on, joining clubs in Serie A.

As a result, Brugge have completely reorganised their back line, with Brandon Mechele being the only remaining centre back from the previous season. He has been joined in the back three by 6-foot-4 Simon Deli, recruited from Slavia Prague whilst Clinton Mata, who played as a right wing back throughout 2018/19, has played the majority of his games as a right-sided centre back.

In his new role, Mata has proved to be an active defender, proactive in winning the ball back. Based on the games he has played in central defence, he ranks first of all centre backs in the league for ball recoveries per 90 (8.1) and fifth for interceptions (2.1), whilst also being involved in more duels than any other centre back, with a success rate of 63%.

Nakamba’s replacement, Éder Álvarez Balanta, has added an extra bite and tenacity to the Brugge midfield. After joining from Basel, the Colombian has made more tackles per 90 than any other player in the league, and also leads the Pro League for ball recoveries.

As well as the new recruits, the area where Brugge have made the most impact defensively has been in their intent to win the ball back high up the pitch.

Under Leko, Brugge were already a high pressing team, ranking second for sequences starting in the attacking third and recording a Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) output of 9.2, the second lowest in the league. As explained here, a low PPDA is a useful proxy for pressing.

Under Clement, their PPDA has dropped further, down to 9.1, and their average sequence starting point, 49.5 metres from their own goal, is nearly a full metre higher than the second-highest team.

These numbers are backed up further by the Stats Perform Playing Styles framework, which highlights an increase in the volume of high presses during transition and an increase in tempo.

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At player level, if we look at defensive actions occurring solely in the attacking half, five of the league’s top-10 players for interceptions per 90 minutes are Brugge players, with four also making the top 10 for attempted tackles.

As a defensive unit, Brugge have conceded fewer shots from open play this season (6.5 per 90 minutes) compared to the previous campaign’s regular season (8.3). In total, their open play shots conceded have been worth a collective 0.5 xG per 90, which is comfortably the lowest in the league.

They have also only conceded just once all season from corners and free kicks played into the box, having conceded five times in 18/19. However, their xG conceded from these situations has actually increased, which suggests that despite their improved record, they could be considered somewhat fortunate not to have conceded more.

Mignolet’s impact between the posts

Following a nine-year spell in England, Simon Mignolet returned to Belgium last summer and has enjoyed one of the strongest campaigns of his career.

In addition to keeping 16 clean sheets, Mignolet has only conceded 11 goals (excluding penalties and one own goal) despite facing shots where he would have been expected to concede nearly 21 goals, according to Stats Perform’s xGOT model. This gives him a total Goals Prevented output of 9.7 for the season, more than any other keeper across Belgium, Holland and Europe’s big-five leagues. Crystal Palace’s Vicente Guaita is second with 9.6 goals prevented.

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In addition to his shot stopping prowess, Mignolet’s all-round game compares favourably to that of his predecessor as first-choice keeper, Ethan Horvath. Compared to Horvath’s outputs from the 2018/19 regular season, Mignolet has successfully dealt with more crosses and offers another dimension to a keeper’s game, by being quick to come off his line to clear from danger.

Totals based on regular season appearances only.

Adopting a patient approach, before camping in the final third

Under Clement, Brugge have seen an increase in their share of possession and the total number of passes completed per 90 minutes, 434.1, which compared to 387 during Leko’s final season.

This approach is also reflected by Stats Perform’s possession and sequences framework, which highlights how they are moving the ball forward less directly this season whilst completing more sequences of at least six passes.

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Their main passing outlet for the past two seasons has been Hans Vanaken, who under Leko typically drifted out into wide areas on the left to receive the ball. Since Clement has taken over, he is getting more involved across the pitch. As well as dropping deeper to pick up the ball inside his own half, he is also getting on it in more advanced central areas as well, combining with captain Ruud Vormer.

Across all central midfielders in Belgium, only one player has had more touches in the final third than Vormer this season and to reinforce Brugge’s sustained threat in advanced areas, they have recorded 20% more touches in the opposition box compared to 2018/19.

In addition to their main forwards, Krepin Diatta, playing on the right-hand side, has also looked to penetrate the box and averages over 36 touches per 90 in the final third, substantially more than any other wide player in the league. A switch of wings from last season has also paid dividends for the Senegalese international, whose take-on success has jumped from 40% to 60%.

Diatta’s attacking influence is reflected in his positive net Possession Value output (PV+) for the season, which credits a player’s contribution to possessions and how they increase their team’s probability of scoring from that possession as a result of their on-the-ball actions. His 0.13 net PV+ per 90 ranks second in the Brugge squad, behind only Siebe Schrijvers, however the former Belgian U21 forward has played fewer minutes during the campaign, making a number of appearances from the bench.

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Exploiting set-piece opportunities

Brugge have more than doubled their goalscoring output from set pieces during 2019/20, with goals from free kicks and corners accounting more than 25% of their total goals output. No other top-flight team across the big-five leagues or Holland have scored more than Brugge’s 16 set-piece goals this season.

Brugge have been boosted at set pieces by having two first-team regulars over 6-4, Deli and Vanaken, who have contributed over a third of their set-piece goal attempts between them. Vanaken has scored three times and Deli twice.

One of the reasons for Brugge’s strength at set pieces is the quality of delivery provided by Vormer. Over the past three seasons, the 31-year-old has generated an expected assists output from corners and free kicks of 11.2, the highest of any player across the big five, Netherlands and Belgium. In total, he has contributed 17 set-piece assists during this period, including six this season, which is unmatched by any player across these leagues.

A lethal central midfield combination

As well as combining to provide a set-piece threat, Brugge’s two central midfield stalwarts, Vormer and Vanaken, have provided their side’s main creative and goal-scoring threats from open play as well.

Vormer has enjoyed his most productive season in relation to open-play assists and xA. As highlighted by the pitch map below, he has been particularly productive when making a similar run from the edge of the box between the opposition central defender and left back, before drilling the ball across the six-yard box for a teammate to convert. In total, he has averaged 3.7 touches per 90 in the penalty area, compared to 2.7 the previous season.

Whilst taking fewer shots per 90 compared to 2018/19, Vanaken is still Brugge’s joint leading scorer from open play, recording his best open-play xG per shot ratio since joining from Lokeren in 2015. His shot maps from both campaigns display similar shooting tendencies, but there are noticeably fewer low-probability attempts from beyond 12 yards out this season.

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A glimpse into the future

Whilst the summer signings of Mignolet and Balanta have helped strengthen Brugge defensively, another summer recruit, David Okereke, has enjoyed a promising opening campaign after joining from Serie B side Spezia for €8 million.

Despite only making 13 starts, the 21-year-old striker has matched Vanaken’s open-play scoring output, exceeding his xG. Perhaps more significantly, he has the best xG per shot output of any player who has taken at least 30 shots in the league this season (0.22), which indicates he has a tendency to get into high-quality scoring locations, which is backed up by his shot map below.

Okereke also ranks in the league’s top 10 for through balls per 90 during the season, so whilst it’s early days, it may indicate there is more to his game than just finishing.

Smart recruitment and tactical tweaks pay dividends

The combination of a more patient approach in possession, combined with a desire to win the ball back early high up the pitch, have been two of the major factors in Brugge’s success this season.

In addition to a more robust defence, boosted by new recruits, Brugge have also exploited the prowess of Vormer’s set-piece delivery to maximise their threat from set pieces, utilising the height they possess.

Whilst senior players have played a major part in the club’s success, it is also worth noting that they had three attacking players aged 22 and under – Okereke, Diatta and Emmanuel Dennis – who have all played over 1,000 league minutes.

Together, these players have contributed 30% of the club’s total xG output, so a mix of youth and experience have all played a part in the title being on the verge of returning to the blue and black half side of Brugge for a third time in five years.