AZ Alkmaar, 2019-2020; Feyenoord, 2020–
It is a sign of the impact he has had in only two jobs as a head coach that, less than four years after stepping into his first role at AZ Alkmaar, Arne Slot has found himself one of the most sought-after managers in Europe. The Dutchman’s reputation has soared in two seasons at Feyenoord, where in 2022/23 he led them to their first Eredivisie title in six years – and only their second this century.
Slot moved into coaching in 2013, after a playing career as a midfielder spent entirely in his native Netherlands. He joined AZ Alkmaar as assistant to John van den Brom in the summer of 2017, and then stepped up to take the number-one job two years later. When the 2019/20 Eredivisie season was abandoned due to Covid in April 2020, AZ were second in the league – behind only Ajax, and that only on goal difference.
Chosen to succeed the much respected Dick Advocaat at Feyenoord in the summer of 2021, Slot led the team to the final of the inaugural Europa Conference League in his first season. There, they would lose narrowly to José Mourinho’s Roma despite dominating in terms of both possession and chances. The progress didn’t end there, of course, as Slot followed a third-place league finish in his first campaign with that impressive run to the title in his second. Another defeat to Mourinho and Roma, this time in the Europa League quarter finals, failed to dent Slot’s rise. Along with Erik ten Hag, he is at the forefront of an exciting new generation of Dutch coaches.
In the 2019/20 Eredivisie season that was ultimately abandoned in April 2020, Slot’s AZ Alkmaar ranked second only to an Ajax team managed by Erik ten Hag for average possession. The double pivot Slot used in his preferred 4-2-3-1 structure was key to this. Teun Koopmeiners and Fredrik Midtsjø operated behind the opponents’ first line of pressure, often working the ball around to the team’s advancing full-backs.
In order to create space for the versatile attacking unit ahead of them, especially on the AZ right, the double pivot would also drop into the back line. This created central pockets of space through which they could progress play, but also enabled more consistent advances from the full-backs and, of course, guaranteed cover if possession was lost.
With Feyenoord, Slot retained both the 4-2-3-1 shape in possession, and the double pivot at its heart. Rather than dropping into the back line, however, the likes of Orkun Kökcü and Mats Wieffer operated close to the centre-backs but primarily beyond their opponents’ first line (below). They used short passes to bounce the ball around opposing pressure, often in third-man combinations, in a way not unlike Roberto De Zerbi uses his double pivot at Brighton.
Regular full-backs Marcus Pedersen and Quilindschy Hartman would remain deep in the build-up, but then support in more advanced areas as play progressed up the pitch. Here, the double pivot would support underneath to restart attacking moves or switch play. With Feyenoord’s right-winger often moving inside to support the number 10 earlier than the equivalent in Slot’s AZ team, the resulting midfield box could overload opposing central-midfield trios. This gave the double pivot the opportunity to break lines centrally as well as dominate the ball in the first phase of the build-up.
At AZ, Slot’s double pivot supported underneath the main attacking quartet of number 10, two wide attackers and centre-forward. The full-backs started deep and wide, to eventually support with delayed runs as the front four narrowed. In the 2019/20 Eredivisie season, full-backs Jonas Svensson and Owen Wijndal provided 44 per cent of the team’s crosses.
On the left, right-footed winger Oussami Idrissi – who again teamed up with Slot in the 2022/23 Feyenoord squad – initially held his width longer. From there, he would look to cut inside on his right and shoot, or combine with his central teammates. In that 2019/20 season, the Moroccan ranked joint-third for dribbles, while also often pushing higher to join Myron Boadu in the front line.
On the right, though, there was much more interchange between left-footed right winger Calvin Stengs and number 10 Dani de Wit. At times, both would play inside, almost as two number 10s (below). This gave right-back Svensson much more space to advance into earlier in attacking moves. As well as numerous crosses, the Norwegian provided a significant number of key passes to break opposing back lines.
Slot used a similar attacking structure at Feyenoord, with the double pivot supporting right-side rotations. These movements occurred earlier than at AZ, however, and with better passers in central defence the team managed more combinations between the lines and were more equipped to break more compact blocks.
Crosses continued to feature heavily on the right side, with the rotations between Pedersen and Javairô Dilrosun or Alireza Jahanbakhsh creating both crossing opportunities and passing lines into the number nine – usually Santiago Giménez or Danilo. Idrissi operated in his familiar role off the left, dribbling inside and frequently combining with number 10 Sebastian Szymanski. The Polish playmaker often moved to the left inside channel, allowing the right winger to invert even further.
During his time at AZ, Slot favoured an organised and purposeful press – often using the winger and full-back pairing to jump aggressively when opposing teams sent the ball wide. This would leave a back line of three, with the double pivot screening and covering ahead of them. The number 10 pushed across to support this wide jump, often pressing the opposing pivot player closest to the ball (below). The centre-forward supported this pressure by locking play one way and ideally preventing the ball between the opposition centre-backs.
The double pivot were extremely aggressive without the ball, often jumping to press very high. Here, the player on the far side of the ball had licence to leave their covering role and move towards opposing midfielders. This led to more regains in midfield – Koopmeiners and Midtsjø both ranked in AZ’s top three at defensive duels – but it did leave gaps in midfield if their regain attempts failed. The team also left gaps in the inside channels if their high-pressing full-backs failed to recover back in time.
At Feyenoord, Slot has employed more variety in the front line when pressing. Despite setting up in the same 4-2-3-1 shape, he has at times included an extra player, pressing high with a front three – both man for man against a back three or against a back four.
Here, the number 10 would jump high alongside the central striker, with one of the two wingers moving higher for longer periods without the ball. The trigger for this was usually the number nine jumping to force the ball one way, more often than not to the Feyenoord right. The number 10 would push forward to press centrally, with the left winger then joining the press on the opposite side. This extra player in the front line gave Slot’s Feyenoord a much stronger threat on goal in the event of any high regain.
Slot’s teams don’t overcommit to the high press, however. If such opportunities aren’t available, they are comfortable dropping into a more reserved block. At AZ, the wingers worked back to offer deeper support alongside the double pivot in a 4-4-1-1 defensive shape. Here, the number nine and 10 alternated who would pressure the centre-backs and who covered access into the midfield pivot.
Although now in a more reserved block, the AZ full-backs still jumped out to apply pressure in the wide areas. Right-back Svensson, for example, was among the highest-ranked for defensive duels in the 2019/20 Eredivisie. Cover inside the jumping full-back would primarily come from the closest of the double pivot – a defensive strategy Mourinho often uses – or, when needed, the now much deeper winger.
Feyenoord also use a more reserved block when required, although Slot would still encourage aggressive pressure from within that block – and also allow for intense pressing in the wide areas. The versatile Lutsharel Geertruida, who can play both centre-back and full-back, has been ideal in this role, with Pedersen another strong dueller at full-back.
The covering double pivot would be supported by withdrawn wingers in what becomes a 4-4-2 block (above), with number 10 Szymanski joining the central forward in the front line, as opposed to the staggered 4-4-1-1 at AZ. Kökcü and Wieffer are adept at covering any wide jumps from the full-backs, but also flexible enough to defend as a central-midfield pairing – the midfielders have been Feyenoord’s two highest duellers in the 2022/23 title-winning season.
Slot’s achievements in a relatively short career as a head coach have established him as a manager capable of testing his skills in a more competitive league than the Eredivisie. Both in and out of possession, his teams have proven an interesting and effective watch. It would be fascinating to see if, like his countryman Ten Hag, he could transfer that to the Premier League.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice