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Royale Union Saint-Gilloise - The Tactical View

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise logo (via Wikipedia)

When football fans think of Brussels from a footballing point of view, most think of Anderlecht which is only natural considering their success. This season that trend has been bucked by newly promoted Royale Union Saint-GIlloise, who top the table with a relatively comfortable seven-point lead over second place Antwerp at the time of writing.

 

 

USG won the 2020/21 Belgian Second Division at a canter, finishing eighteen points ahead of second place Seraing, only losing twice all season. Extraordinarily the Brussels outfit have continued this form into Belgium’s top flight and find themselves in a strong position to enter the title playoffs in first place.

 

Manager Felice Mazzù sets his team up in a 3-5-2, a formation which has become commonplace in recent times. In Anthony Moris, USG have a keeper with impressive distribution which is particularly important for build-up. If an outfield player finds themselves under pressure, Moris is always in a pragmatic position to receive the ball and recirculate play. The Luxembourg number one is a very capable passer at long and short range and possesses a strong long throw that is appreciated by the attackers. Moris has a 75% save ratio thanks to his quick reflexes and his handling


Union have played 2,430 minutes at the time of writing and have four centre backs who have played between 1,300 and 2,000 minutes. Ismaël Kandouss and Christian Burgess have played the most minutes, with Jonas Bager and Siebe Van Der Heyden trailing closely behind.

 

The aforementioned share similar traits, namely the ability to progress the ball by passing or dribbling out of defence. In terms of defensive style, all utilise their height, strength, and aggression, three attributes that play a vital part in the system, knowing that if you aggress at the wrong time space can be left behind you.


Burgess, typically the most central of the back three has stood out this season, constantly leaving the defence to win headers and prevent second balls all while showing his attacking capabilities. Kandouss and Bager operate on the left and the right respectively, acting like half centre-back, half full-back in terms of their positioning. USG tend to make diagonal long passes for their strikers or wing backs, displaying the importance of forward thinking wide centre backs, and therefore allowing for a direct approach when the situation is right.


“Wingbacks” Kaoru Mitoma and Bart Nieuwkoop (and I use wingbacks loosely here, especially in the case of Mitoma) are quite contrasting players. Nieuwkoop is a direct player who will look to cross the ball when possible, while Mitoma is technically gifted and will look to beat his man, commit players, or take the ball to the line, three approaches that can make space. The wingbacks are key in this cog. Both can provide the width that the 3-5-2 needs as it naturally stretches out the opponent and gives the side more space to operate in.

 

USG’s midfield is very dynamic and versatile, something that has caused plenty of problems for multiple Pro League sides. Defensive midfielder Casper Nielsen is an intelligent holding-midfielder capable of keeping the ball moving and finding forward passing options. The Dane is very aware of his surroundings, making him vital in defence and attack, whether that is offering himself for a pass or putting out fires in midfield areas.

 

To the right is Loïc Lapoussin, a reliable presence who plays box to box, providing good long-range passing. The Madagascan oftentimes highlights his outstanding ability to turn at speed and quickly progress the ball. Going backwards Lapoussin makes more interceptions per game than any of his fellow midfielders.

 

Potentially the stand out player in the midfield is Teddy Teuma. The captain is the most attacking of the three. He consistently demonstrates his skills by driving with the ball from deep areas, moving the team forward with his ability to dribble directly, or drifting to the left wing to help create superior numbers and find space in between lines.

 

USG has scored fifty-nine goals after twenty-seven games, thirty-three of which have been scored by strikers Dante Vanzier (13) and Deniz Undav (20). Undav will get most of the credit due to the volume of goals but Vanzier’s work deserves a lot of praise. Vanzier does most of the pressing when out of possession, and in attack habitually takes up a wider position on the shoulder of the right centre back to run in behind and score at an angle or find the cross, one reason for his ten league assists.


In conversations regarding Undav his goal scoring numbers will undoubtedly be mentioned more than anything else, which is fair, he is a striker after all. However, he is more than a goal getter. Undav will drift into the left channel to help link play, typically dragging a defender with him creating space for himself and others. The space that he leaves gives his midfielders time to switch the ball from left to right, normally for Vanzier or Nieuwkoop.

 

Defensively Undav is important, dropping into midfield and man marking the opponents most central midfielder, effectively denying space in the middle of the park. The German’s positioning is excellent, with nineteen of his twenty goals coming from inside the box. It’s easy to see why Brighton splashed out €6M for him in the recent January transfer window, before loaning him back to USG for the rest of the season.

 

Mazzù’s use of the 3-5-2 is intelligent, flexible, and effective. When his team is behind the ball, either the left sided or right sided central midfielder will step up five yards or so in accordance with the ball's location, creating a temporary 5-2-3, refusing space for ball progression. Correspondingly, the right or left sided central defender will step up into the space left the midfielder to restore shape. These principles also apply to the wing-backs, when possession is in a wide area, one wing back will press towards the ball, making the opposite wing-back tuck in, forming an auxiliary back four, these tweaks have seen USG concede twenty-one goals in twenty-five games.

 

In the coming weeks we’ll see if Royale Union Saint-GIlloise can push on and secure a historic 1st Belgian title since their glory years ended in 1935.

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