“Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles” is a famous saying by Sir Alex Ferguson. Although his statement can be debatable, there is no denying the importance of defence for a title-winning team. FC Midtjylland’s journey this season seems to be in acceptance with the famous gaffer’s statement. They have conceded the least number of goals this season with just 14 league goals in the regular season with the next best being Aarhus GF at 28, double the amount. Head coach Brian Preske has drilled his team to be a defensive machine.
Formation and structure
Midtjylland this season have predominantly gone with the 4-2-3-1 formation, using it in 64.5% of the games. They have also shifted to a 4-3-3 formation in some matches against good teams like Nordsjaelland and they play an additional central midfielder instead of Andres Dreyer (CAM). Earlier in the season, they went with a flat 3-5-2 formation which gave them good defensive stability but going forward it didn’t help them much to dominate games. This is due to the presence of just two forward options. The wing-backs who are supposed to provide the width were not given much freedom to go forward. The central midfielders too had to perform defensive duties. Hence they could only commit 3-4 men at maximum to go forward. This took a hit when they lost to Rangers in the Europa League qualifier with 7-3 aggregate. We can see how they lined up in those matches in the image below.
Talking about their 4-2-3-1 structure, the defensive part of their system is taken care of by two centre-backs, 2 full-backs and 2 defensive midfielders. Unlike most of the modern-day full-backs, Midtjylland’s full-backs do not push forward to support the attack at times. They stay behind and provide stability to their defensive side. This allows one of the CDM to join the CAM in the attack. The structure is given in the following diagram.
Midtjylland’s preferred centre-backs are A. Scholz and Erik Sviatchenko, who is also the captain. Aged 27 and 28, respectively, both have immense experience playing across Europe. Scholz has played for Club Brugge in the past and Sviatchenko has played for Scottish PL giants Celtic. Both have been integral to Midtjylland’s defensive success this season. Both of them complement each other with their strengths. Scholz is a typical modern-day centre-back who is very comfortable on the ball. While Sviatchenko is much more of a hardcore defender who likes to engage in duels and tackles. They resemble the famous Manchester United centre-back partnership, Vidic-Ferdinand during their prime.
When it comes to aerial duels/90, Scholz averages 3.02 aerial duels and Sviatchenko averages a whopping 7.66 aerial duels. Scholz, though, has more defensive duels/90 (4.46) than Sviatchenko (4.04). We can see the comparison of the two stats in the chart below.
Even when it comes to the number of interceptions/90 and successful defensive actions, Sviatchenko outperforms Scholz in both categories. Scholz averages 9.55 defensive actions whereas Sviatchenko averages 10.16 defensive actions/90. With respect to the interceptions, Scholz averages 5.27 interceptions/90 and Sviatchenko averages 7.04. The comparison is given in the chart below.
Let’s compare their defensive stats with that of the league. The chart below shows that Sviatchenko is there in the top half of performing exceedingly well above league average in both interceptions as well as defensive actions category. He also has won more aerial duels than someone like J. Gertsen and F. Ibsen.
As said before, Sviatchenko dominates the defensive categories but that doesn’t mean Scholz is bad defensively. But only when we look at the attacking attributes, we can see the importance of Scholz. Being a right-footed player, he plays in the left centre-back position due to his ability on the ball. His ability to maintain possession under pressure adds immense value to Midtjylland’s defence. Defending these days is not just about engaging in tackles or duels, it also means the defenders should be conservative when they are on the ball by keeping possession. This helps teams to close out games in the dying minutes, where a goal can hugely impact the result.
Scholz’s ability on the ball cannot be overlooked as given in the chart below. He averages 0.48 smart passes/90 whereas Sviatchenko averages just 0.12. His ability to break the lines and move the ball into the final third is also another important attribute of his. He averages 9.03 passes/90 into the final-third along with 0.81 through passes/90.
They have also won league-high offensive duels (68.21 per 90) at a rate of 40%. This shows their ability to protect the ball under pressure and keep possession at crucial junctures. Scholz has been an integral part of that by protecting the ball under pressure. Scholz’s ability to maintain possession and play safe has been vital to Midtjylland’s defensive success. When under pressure, he is an able player who helps his team to maintain possession. He has a better dribbling success % than Scholz, with 54%. He also plays 11.54 progressive passes and 4.17 back-passes/90. But it should also be noted that Sviatchenko is not that bad on the ball and is pretty decent on it. He has attempted 42 progressive passes and completed 32 of them (72%).
Comparing his passing metrics with the league’s centre-backs, he is there with the league-best. He has performed well above average in both progressive passes/90 and smart passes/90, given in the chart below.
Both the centre-backs have been proactive in dealing with the oppositions this season. There is a saying that goes around the football world which tells us that a forward should be optimistic about taking a chance whereas a defender must be pessimistic about every play that happens around. So a defender must seek to mitigate a threat even before it has grown to be a huge one. Sviatchenko and Scholz are both similar and in this way, they help Midtjylland to avoid the threat from the opponents at the earliest.
In the above image, we see that the opposition player (circled in the first image) plays a pass forward. When the opposition forward receives the ball, Scholz steps out, marks him tightly and intercepts the play. This ensures the ball has been cleared from their first third immediately. In the following image, we can see the areas where they have won most of their defensive duels. The chart is for the last five matches of Midtjylland and it contains recoveries only in their third. Those areas where they have won most of their duels are just at the tip of their third.
We can see that most of them are won in the wings as those are the places the opponent targets during counter-attacks. Most of them are won by the centre-backs who step out to defend those. It tells us that the defenders do not go for tackles or duels later in the box and deal with it right away at the earliest.
In the below example, we can see that before the cross arrives into the box, Scholz checks his opponent. He makes note that a couple of players are bombarding into the box. So in the second image, he clears the ball out of the box ensuring safety.
Stepping out of the line and clearing the first line of danger is an important aspect of defending these days. We can see Sviatchenko coming out of the line, indicated by the arrow, to clear the danger.
Full-backs these days play a huge role in a team’s attacking phase. Take an example of Liverpool, the chief creators for their forwards are the duo Arnold-Robertson. Midtjylland, on the other hand, tends to keep their full-backs in a much more defensive position. This is to offer safety during transitions that sees the likes of attacking quartet and a CDM (4-2-3-1) given the licence to go forward. The full-back duo for Midtjylland this season has been Paulinho (LB) and Joel Anderson (RB). In the following image, we can see their average positions in their final league season match. The full-backs are circled red and we can see their positions much deeper than the likes of Evander (No.10) and Dreyer (No. 36).
At times they also play as an inverted full-back by tucking inside and playing alongside CDM Frank Onyeka. In a match against Randers, the position of Anderson is more central instead of being on the wings.
Looking at their stats, Anderson averages 6.27 defensive duels/90 and 9.22 successful defensive actions/90. He also has a success rate of winning duels at 63.52%. Paulinho, on the other hand, has averaged 4.71 defensive duels/90 at a rate of 47.62%. He has also completed 7.07 defensive actions/90. About the number of interceptions/90, Anderson has recorded 5.01 and Paulinho has recorded 4.49.
Comparing them with other full-backs of the leagues, we can see that Anderson has performed well above average but Paulinho falls short of the likes of other full-backs defensively.
Although Midtjylland uses Paulinho mostly as a defensive full-back at times, he is given the chance to progress forward and overlap in the wings. In the chart below, we can see the progressive passes vs progressive runs/90 of all the full-back in the league.
Paulinho makes 8.98 progressive passes/90 and 1.57 runs/90 whereas Anderson makes 10.29 passes and 1.22 runs/90. From this, we can say that both play progressive passes well above the league average. Though both do not make many progressive runs as they both have less than league-average in this category, Paulinho makes more runs than Anderon indicating his tendency to overlap at times. He has attempted many more crosses (0.56) into the box than Anderson (0.39), as given in the following chart. Also, he has 0.11 assist/90 whereas Anderson 0.04. But we can see that Anderson has made more smart passes (0.55) than Paulinho (0.45), playing similar to a quarterback at times.
Whenever Paulinho goes forward to overlap, Midtjylland’s players orient themselves such that they are not caught in transitions. In the image below, we can see that Scholz has moved to the left-back position temporarily. This means that Onyeka has moved back and taken Scholz’s place.
This flexible system has proved to be very successful for Midtjylland and has helped them to keep more clean sheets and concede the least amount of goals than any other team this season. They have conceded just 14 goals in the regular season with an xG against of just 23.4, both being the least among the other teams. Their outperformance of xG can be attributed to their goal-keeper Jesper Hansen’s exploits on the pitch. The 35-year-old veteran has been key stopping goals for the opposition.
Defensive midfield duo
The duo of Evander and Frank Onyeka has done wonders for Midtjylland this season. While one of them acts as a box-to-box midfielder, joining attacks when possible, the other stays back. The importance of Frank Onyeka has gone unnoticed, under the shadow of Evander, but he has been among the best midfielders in the league. Refer to this article about his importance.
The red point in the above chart denotes F. Onyeka. We can see that he is among the league’s elite when it comes to defensive attributes. His ability to break up play and launch an attack is similar to his compatriot Wilfried Ndidi. He averages 12.67 successful def. actions and 5.94 interceptions per 90 this season. As mentioned before his presence gives the like of Paulinho to join the team in the final third. Evander has also been great this season defensively. Although he does not possess numbers like Onyeka his stats are good for a box-to-box midfielder. He averages 7.24 successful def. actions and 3.33 interceptions per 90 this season.
This is Onyeka’s recovery map this season. We can see a lot of counter-pressing recoveries and most of them have come in the opponent’s half. This has been key to Midtjylland’s mitigation of opposition’s threat during transitions. He has been vital in clearing the danger even before its formation. He has won 6.87 counter-pressing recoveries/90, which is among the best in the league. He has won an average of 8.95 defensive duels/90 and has a success rate of 60.4%. An important thing to note here is that he has won most of his duels in the Zone-14 (45.5%). This is an important area where the opposition looks to create havoc. Avoiding threats in this area is key to any successful defence. We’ll see more about the counter-pressing later in this scout report.
Evander has also played an important role in shielding the defence and launching attacks. For an attacking midfielder, he has done pretty well in racking up recoveries. He has 6.7 recoveries/90 with 3.97 of them being from counter-press. His recoveries have not only been key to Midtjylland shutting the opposition but also it has paved way for them to create chances.
Defending from the front
Midtjylland’s defensive success should not only be attributed to the defenders and midfielders. The forward line should also be given credit for their success. Midtjylland as a team press from the front and with high intensity. This is characterized by them having the least PPDA (7.84) among the other teams. They generally press with a high block early in the match with a high defensive line. Shifting to a mid-block depends on the scoreline or tactical change.
In the example above, we can see the high press that they employed in their match against Nordsjaelland. This high press gave Nordsjaelland no time to play out from the back, which they usually do, and they resorted to long balls in the match. They usually employ man-man press across the pitch especially in the wings to recover the ball. We can see this in the image below.
In the below image we can see the areas of the pitch where they have made most of their recoveries. We can see the final third and the middle third being much darker compared to their own-third. This implies that they have recovered more than the league average in these positions and have always been on the front foot. 17% of their recoveries have been in the final third (highest in the league). While 43% of them have been in the middle third (joint-second). The quality of their high press can be inferred from this chart.
Teams that press high and efficiently generally employ counter-pressing. Midtjylland is no stranger to that, as we have seen in the previous section, as they look to recover the ball immediately after they lose it. This allows them to catch their opponents off guard and immediately counter-attack. We can see an example of that in the image below.
After losing the ball from a corner, they immediately try to press and recover the ball just before the opponent’s D-box. This makes it difficult for Nordsjaelland to counter and they eventually turn the ball over to Midtjylland.
We discussed before that Midtjylland likes to maintain a high-block, this means that they press as a unit. With that, they also have a compact structure in the midfield leaving very little space centrally.
In the above image, we can see their 4-3-3 structure. As said they leave no space centrally and are well compact. Importantly the distance between their forward and defensive line is around just 10-15 m. This aids them well when they press the ball and also during counter-press. This small distance also helps them with setting offside traps for the opposition player runs.
In the above image, we can see that when the Nordsjaelland player is trying to play a ball to the forward making a run. The Midtjylland’s defence has maintained a high line and is moving forward hence. We can see that Scholz (first image) checks behind his shoulder (white arrow) to see if a player is making a blindside run. After checking the moves a couple of steps back to drag the forward into the offside position and then suddenly moves forward along with the defensive line to play him offside. This is possible not only due to the player’s intelligence but also the system they have been drilled with.
There is nothing that is deemed to be 100% perfect. Every system will have its share of problems and downfalls. Midtjylland’s compact shape in the middle can be stretched sometimes. Since they leave huge spaces in the wings, stretching confuses the full-backs. They either have to protect the half-space from through passes or man-mark the winger in the wide space. If an opposition winger can occupy such spaces and beats his marker then it could easily cause potential danger.
In the example above, we can see how their defence is stretched by Nordsjaelland’s forward. The wingers stay wide (blindside of full-back) dragging the full-backs while the centre-backs are pinned by the centre-forward. This happens when a full-back is in a dilemma to leave huge spaces centrally or in the wings. In the example below, we can see them playing compact and once again a player is left in a huge space on the blindside of the right-back. A simple pass to him was played and he was able to score goals.
Midtjylland’s domestic success and a potential title win can easily be attributed to their defence. Despite not being the most free-scoring team in the league, their defence has helped them to shut down matches and win with ease. A place in the next UEFA Champions League season is right at their door if they can overcome a few matches in the championship round and maintain their points gap from Copenhagen. It would be interesting to see their new adventure among Europe’s elite.