10 matches played and Heracles Almelo are sitting pretty in Eredivisie. Impressive team performances both inside and away from the Polman Stadion have John Stegeman’s side comfortably in 4th place – 2 places better than their highest ever Eredivisie finish (6th in the 2009/10 season) and 10 places better than last season’s finish of 14th. Having only managed 1 season in Holland’s top flight between 1967 and 2005, Heracles are now an established Eredivisie side with this being their 11th straight appearance in the competition. The current season however has seen by far and away their best start: 21 points in 10 matches, smashing their previous best first 10 match record of 14 points in the 09/10 season. The man behind the success, 39 year old John Stegeman, is just in his 2nd season as a football manager having been promoted from assistant manager when Jan de Jonge was sacked by Heracles on August 31st 2014.
Over the Summer the young manager faced the task of filling the huge hole left in his side by the departure of Bryan Linssen to Groningen. Linssen had been a talismanic figure for Heracles, scoring 21 goals in 64 Eredivisie appearances for the club; his goals and assists also made up 38% of the club’s league goals as they just about staved off relegation in the 14/15 season. In his absence Stegeman has seen Joey Pelupessy and Oussama Tannane step up from first team rotation players to key members of his first XI, while also being able to get the best out of maturing young stars such as Wout Weghorst, Mike te Wierik and Iliass Bel Hassani. Along with the individual performers, Heracles spent a Summer focussed around building a strong team based on a solid defensive foundation and a varied offensive approach. A side with a good mixture of youth and experience as well as tactical and technical ability, Heracles have a very balanced squad with a seemingly great team spirit. Tactially, Stegeman has employed a flexible 4-3-3 system; adjusting the system from game-to-game as well as in-game. This has been the key to not being predictable and dealing with many different threats, Heracles have been able to do this expertly so far this season; allowing them to get the best out of the current squad, being an offensive-minded team but still solid at the back with the joint 2nd best defensive record in the division.
The Heracles back 4 and Goalkeeper has remained the same for 9 of the league 10 matches so far (Fledderus missed the 2-0 win against Heerenveen through injury) and for good reason; despite a tough start in the 3-1 defeat to Roda JC, the defence has been in impressive form with Heracles keeping 5 clean sheets so far this season. Stegeman has employed a man marking system when in defence, defenders look to stay on their feet and stick one-to-one with their chosen attacker. The back 4 remains a tight unit as centre backs look to more often work with their corresponding full back in order to make they don’t get isolated in a league filled with talented wingers. Of the tight back 4 it’s often the experienced left back Fledderus who breaks the strong defensive line. The Heracles captain often attempts to win the ball higher up the pitch when Heracles are in a strong position in the match in order to create sustained pressure in the opposition half; he also will step out of defence when looking to break forward and counter attack. In the centre of defence Heracles have a strong partnership of Zomer and te Wierik; the former is an experienced Eredivisie defender who’s game is based on his physicality and ability to sweep in behind the left full back. Zomer has been a key performer in certain matches this season and strong relationship with Fledderus is evident but the one-to-one marking system however has sometimes allowed teams to exploit his lack of pace and tendency to get too tight to his man. Mike te Wierik on the other hand has been simply superb for Stegeman’s side, the 23 year old’s anticipation and strong front foot defending have been key for Heracles this season leading to the CB boasting 2.8 tackles per game, 3 interceptions per game and a huge 8.8 clearances per game. Te Wierik is the other defender in the Heracles system who often breaks the defensive line; his great reading of the game allows him to step out of defence quickly to dispossess the opposition before moving the ball intelligently. A free signing from Cambuur last Summer, right back Droste epitomises the defensive set-up of Heracles: composed, no nonsense and very much in tune with his teammates, Droste has been Mr.Reliable for Stegeman this season. The strongest part of Droste’s game has been his positioning; his standard defensive position staying almost always around 10 yards to the right of te Wierik and a couple yards further forward than the centre back. This of course changes when one player has to engage the ball or track a runner. Heracles have had their issues defending crosses however this season, Zomer in particular prone to getting caught underneath the ball and Castro not being the most imposing of goalkeepers when the ball enters his box.
This video shows a few examples of Heracles defending so far this season:
A key to Heracles performance this season has been the form of holding midfielder Joey Pelupessy. The 22 year old former Netherlands U19 international has been in superb form this season adding defensive stability, intelligent passing and a great work rate to Stegeman’s team. The midfield man has been a huge factor in adding balance and flexibility to the Heracles 11. Only 5 Eredivisie central midfielders have a better interceptions per/game record than Joey Pelupessy’s of 2.3 p/g and only 3 of those midfielders make more tackles per/game than Pelupessy, who’s record currently stands at 2.1 after 10 matches gone. The Heracles man’s ability to win and recycle possession without hesitation is similar to that of Barcelona great Sergio Busquets. Although he’s a long way off the incredible performance levels of Busquets it’s clear that Pelupessy’s intelligence, quick thinking and passing range is a huge asset in Stegeman’s system. He allows Heracles to tighten the game when needed as they did away at ADO Den Haag or expand the game and create a quicker, more offensive approach. The video below shows the variation in Pelupessy’s passing game, from quick forward thinking passing to shorter passes designed to keep possession. Whichever pass is required, Pelupessy’s match intelligence means more often than not he picks the right pass and complete’s his pass quickly and with full commitment.
Going forward Heracles are more effective than spectacular; using a variety of different attacking ploys Heracles have been able to make the most of their attacking talent since the departure of Bryan Linssen. One player who has really stepped up has been attacking midfielder Illias Bel Hassani: the Heracles number 8 has already matched his tally of 4 goals from last season with all 4 goals this time around being opening goals. The 23 year old former Sparta Rotterdam midfielder has played a lot this season very close or sometimes beyond the front man showing great energy, quick link play and goalscoring instincts. Bel Hassani’s all action approach perfectly compliments the more technical and calculated, Thomas Bruns and more disciplined and tactical Joey Pelupessy in the Heracles midfield. Weghorst, meanwhile, has also stepped up. Playing the Target Man role very well this season in a team that likes to play the ball on the floor. Weghorst has displayed a great ability to lay the ball off first time for midfield runners, move off the ball intelligently to open space for the players behind him and has come up with some crucial goals, scoring 5 in 10 so far this season. The striker hasn’t been afraid to run the channels, often running the left channel so Darri can use his great close control to drop into the inside left channel when the team look to build attacks with thought and precision. Heracles look to use quick counter attack or build attacks through clever passing but they are also happy enough to go long towards Weghorst and utilise his aerial abilities when needed – this was shown well in the win over PSV, Heracles struggled to build attacks due to PSV’s impressive early high press so they went long to Weghorst and got players tight around him to push PSV back and build attacks from higher up the pitch.
Heracles have been very strong in offensive transitions this season. So quick when counter attacking they use their width and quick passiing midfielders to provide often a 4-man attack combining pace, width and skilful forwards. Their 4 man counter attacks come in different variations, it can often mean 3 attacking high at once with 1 support player or 2 high with 2 support players or 1 up top (not necessarily Weghorst) and 3 support quickly from deep. The key to being able to counter so well is the team’s commitment, they don’t hesitate in pushing 4 players forward in one go even when leading and look quickly to release, usually Tannane out right or Bel Hassani centrally – their two best attacking players. With Oussama Tannane staying very wide on the right and one of Darri/Bel Hassani or sometimes Fledderus attacking on the left side, Heracles are able to keep great width in their counter attacks and stay quick and direct with the pace and dribbling abilities of Darri, Bel Hassani and in particular Tannane. Heracles were very impressive when counter attacking in the 2-0 victory at home to Twente especially in the 2nd half; with the lead in place they were able to drop deep and look to break against their derby rivals. Another key feature of Heracles attacking play this season has been their distance shooting, quite the norm in the Eredivisie, 46% of their league attempts on goal have been from outside of the penalty area scoring 7 times. Weghorst’s movement and lay off abilities have been a key part in opening the space centrally for players to take shots from inside 30 yards.
The undoubted star of this Heracles team’s early success however has been Oussama Tannne. The 21 year old winger made an explosive start to his 3rd season at the Polman Stadion; taking the place in the front 3 of the departed Bryan Linssen, Tannane has played as a left footed right winger – being a more direct threat than Linssen was. The recently capped Netherlands U21 international has shown glimpses of his undoubted talents in the past but in the early stages of this season has turned from frustrating to extremely effective. Tannane has pace in abundance, brilliant dribbling ability and a great strike; when able to isolate his full back Tannane has shown impressive variation in looking to beat his man and get a cross or shot in. Heracles attacking approach is often built around getting Tannane in a position where he can isolate his full back high up the pitch, often using Darri, Bel Hassani and Fledderus’ strong combination play in the inside left channel to force the opposition over to one side before looking to switch over to the former Heerenveen youngster. In a league filled with talented wingers, Tannane is 9th for dribbles completed per game but only 1 player in the top 10 for dribbles completed has made more key passes per game than Tannane’s 2 (which also sees Tannane as the 9th best in the league for that particular statistic so far this season). Tannane was a key factor in the victories over Twente and PSV despite not registering a goal or assist with his counter attacking ability in particular causing several problems; however the game’s against NEC (scoring a stunning 35 yard free kick and recording an assist) and Cambuur (scoring 4 goals including a penalty he won himself) are where he’s really left his mark this season, the Cambuur game in particular showed his incredible pace and explosiveness and how when he’s on target he’s as difficult as any to stop. The winger unfortunately picked up a knee injury in the dramatic cup victory over Vitesse but Heracles are hopeful that he will return for the match against Willem II.
Strong individual performances have been good for Heracles but this is certainly a team effort, lead by a very shrewd young manager in John Stegeman. The former assistant manager has excelled in building strong communication and discipline in his side whilst taking on young talented players and maturing them quickly into accomplished professionals. He’s certainly not without tactical knowhow either; the variety in their attacking play and defensive stability is the product of hard work on the training ground while Stegeman has made several in-game adjustments that have proved vital. This was displayed as previously mentioned with the switch in tactics vs PSV having struggled against the high press. This was also shown in the win over Twente as Heracles focussed their defensive efforts against the Twente right side where, now Porto winger, Jesus Corona provided a serious threat; Heracles dropping deeper and focussing on set pieces and counter attacks in the second half against Twente was key to sealing that victory. Being strong frontrunners has been a feature of Heracles all season, only once in their ten Eredivisie games have Heracles conceded an equalising goal (the first game, a 3-1 defeat to Roda JC). Heracles game-to-game offensive variety extends beyond when they attack (counter or slower build) but also how they attack in terms of the width used, how many runners in behind and even who’s attacking from where. Heracles are very strong out wide but in the 3-0 win over NEC it was from a more central area where they proved most effective, Tannane, Bel Hassani and Darri playing as a tight 3 in behind Weghorst who made more runs in behind than usual to create space for the trio. A feature used in the wins over Twente and Cambuur was the rotation of central midfielder Bruns and winger Tannane, allowing Tannane to use his explosiveness centrally while Bruns technical ability allowed him to swing over more accurate crosses for Weghorst.
Stegeman will be thrilled with his side’s performances so far this season but knows there is still a lot of work to be done; Heracles must maintain they’re togetherness and identity if they’re to ride their current wave of momentum to the end of the season. A top 6/7 finish and participation in next season’s Europa League is definitely a possibility for the Almelo club. In the short-term Stegeman will be looking at the side’s 7 matches heading into the Winter break with confidence; only Feyenoord away looks on paper like a game Heracles will be lucky to get anything from. They need to keep using their determination, team spirit and other key factors (such as being good frontrunners, offensive variety and stability in defence) to maintain they’re current league status. I’m predicting a 6th placed finish for Heracles a good chance of winning the Europa League playoff, I think Stegeman’s an intelligent young manager who’s ability to get the best out of his players will push his side into Europe and a joint highest Eredivisie finish.