The expectations were high at the start of this season when FC Utrecht started its European adventure. After a summer filled with interesting incoming transfer deals and the appointment of a new top level manager, the club started the new season with big ambitions. The qualifying rounds of the Europa League were the first hurdle to be taken. Unfortunately, the club had a false start with the elimination by Zrinjski Mostar from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Their focus quickly switched to the Eredivisie. Eleven points out of 7 games may not be the start they aimed for, but based on their underlying xG figures, they deserved more. Can FC Utrecht battle for 3rd place in the league with AZ, Vitesse and Feyenoord?
Let’s start with last season’s results. How did FC Utrecht perform on their Key Performance Indicators?
Many of the indicators in the 2018/2019 season were around 6th or 7th best in the Eredivisie. Offensively, some indicators were disappointing: they were only 10th in number of shots on target (4.7 per game) and 0.099 xG per shot was very mediocre, given that 9 teams did this better.
Defensively, the figures were better, which is a characteristic the sty of play of their former manager Dick Advocaat. They made sure that only 69% of the opponent’s passes in their own half succeeded. They had the highest tackle success rate in whole of the Eredivisie (66%) and won 57% of their defensive aerials. FC Utrecht was 5th best in all these statistics.
A striking statistic, however, is the number of interceptions, blocked passes and defensive actions. These were the lowest of all teams in the Eredivisie (34 per game) and are somewhat in line with their conservative style of defending. This is highlighted even more by their 12.3 passes per defensive action, which was the third lowest of all teams.
Ultimately, this way of defending was very successful, as it resulted in only 4.3 shots on target against and 1.26 xG against per game (5th in the Eredivisie).
The performance of FC Utrecht last season is in line with the final position in the league. Based on their KPIs, Utrecht was the 6th best team in the Eredivisie (left figure above). In the simulated Eredivisie table (right figure above) we see that their 6th place is entirely in line with expectations. This simulated table is generated by simulating all matches 10000x using the xG figures of every match. After that, the chance of winning for the home or away team, or the chance of a draw, is calculated. Based on these odds, points are awarded to each team per game (xPts, expected points). The sum of the expected points is used to determine an expected rank (xRank).
Squad remained mostly the same
FC Utrecht already had a strong team last season. Players like Klaiber (5 assists), Gustafson (11 goals, 8 from the penalty spot), Willem Janssen (76% successful tackles) and Kerk (3.1 successful dribbles per 90 minutes) were among the top 10 – 20 best players in their position in terms of their statistical performance.
Of the players with more than 1000 minutes played, Gavory, Letschert and Bazoer have left the club on a permanent basis and Bergström has been loaned out. With 3097 and 2632 minutes played respectively, Gavory and Letschert were regular names in their lineup, while Bazoer and Bergström both played just over 1000 minutes.
Letschert and Bergström will be missed. Both players, like Janssen, were among the 20 best defenders in the Eredivisie, partly caused by the fact that they both wer ramong the most difficult players to dribble past: fewer than 30% of the dribbles succeeded against them.
Gavory was the full back with the highest number of successful crosses last season (2.2 per 90 minutes), which earned him 6 assists. He has left FC Utrecht for Standard Liège, but with Guwara they already had a someone ready to take over.
To replace the other players who left, and Dick Advocaat, FC Utrecht has been very busy last summer.
Van de Brom and Maher: two great incoming transfers
At the end of last season, FC Utrecht announced their first two major acquisitions. John van de Brom, AZ’ success coach, was appointed as the new manager. In his years at AZ he played very attractive football. Sometimes it even looked like AZ might even be able to compete with the top teams in the league, but they were almost never able to beat Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord in direct encounters.
At first one would say that a step to FC Utrecht is a step back for Van de Brom. At the same time, he shows also he dares to accept the challenge to bring FC Utrecht to an higher level.
Adam Maher followed Van de Brom from AZ. Maher may no longer be the great prospect he once was, but his performances are still very solid.
Based on the graph above, we can conclude that FC Utrecht bought one of the best midfielders of last Eredivisie season. When you compare all midfielders who played at least 1000 minutes on the relevant statistics for a midfielder shown above, we see that only Frenkie de Jong and Daley Blind do better than Maher.
He particularly excels in bringing the ball forward: his 10.1 progressive passes per 90 minutes are the highest of all midfielders. Progressive passes are successful passes that start outside the final third of FC Utrecht and end within the final third. Because he focuses primarily on bringing the ball forward, he is less involved in actions further down the field. Nevertheless, his shots assisted (1.8) and deep completions (8.2) are still well above average.
His xG figures show a similar picture: he only has an average number of xG + xGA per 90 minutes, but is often involved in attacks that result in a good chance (0.65 xG buildup).
Defensively, he also puts in his two cents with 8.8 successful defensive actions (tackles or defensive aerials, corrected for possession of the ball) per 90 minutes.
With Dalmau FC Utrecht brings in a top striker
In addition to Maher, Utrecht also brought in Adrián Dalmau. The striker of Heracles Almelo caught the eye last season with his good performances. While Feyenoord missed the opportunity to buy him and is currently looking for a good alternative for Jørgensen, FC Utrecht took their chances.
They considered Dalmau an upgrade on Dessers, who went the opposite way to Almelo. Dessers didn’t actually do a bad job, but in the limited minutes he got, he failed to convert his good xG figures into goals. Is that bad luck or lack of quality? Based on the graphs above, you could conclude that FC Utrecht has acquired a better version of Dessers.
With Dalmau, they have a player which might boost their mediocre xG per shot of last season. With 0.249 xG per shot, Dalmau was the best of all attackers in the league. Considering that he doesn’t shoot on target that often (2.7 times per 90 minutes), he looks able to choose his shots well.
On the basis of last season we know that he will contribute to goals for FC Utrecht, either by scoring them himself or by assisting them. In 31 games at Heracles, he scored 19 times and provided 5 assists. That translates to 0.75 goals or assists per 90 minutes played. This is in line with his 0.72 xG + xGA per 90 minutes played, which suggests that his performance of last season is not above expectations, but that he really has skill.
Compared to the rest of the squad, Dalmau is a real upgrade for FC Utrecht. Their player with the highest xG + xGA per 90 minutes last season was Dessers with 0.65. After him came players with considerably lower figures such as Bahebeck (0.49), Venema (0.48), Kramer (0.47), Kerk (0.46) and Tannane (0.43).
At the start of the current season, Dalmau wasn’t match fit yet, but in his first two games he immediately showed what he can do: he scored in both games. At the moment he is cruising on 3 NP (non-penalty) goals from 11 NP shots in 275 minutes (0,73 NP xG per 90).
Hoogma as a reinforcement in defense
The squad was already very solid at the back last season and with the addition of Justin Hoogma they will try to maintain that level or rather improve on it.
Based on last seasons data, we see that Hoogma makes few errors and fouls. He has an above average succes rate in tackles (70%) and defensive aerials (64%), while he does not undertake these actions often. His passive defensive style is also reflected in his low number of interceptions, blocked passes and defensive actions (3.8 per 90 minutes), which fits well in FC Utrecht’s defensive style of last season.
He might not be the best ball playing defender, but with Maher and the other midfielders in front of him, he will not be tasked with building up and only has to bring the ball to more creative players.
Last season Hoogma was a decent defender, but based on data of the first 5 games in the 19/20 season, Hoogma looks like a great addition so far!
Can FC Utrecht compete for 3rd place?
FC Utrecht has had a good summer and continued doing well after summer in the league. The latter is not yet fully visible in their results, but if they manage to produce the same xG figures – which are the third best in the league – they will start getting points in order to reach their desired third place.
The team is doing particularly well offensively: only Ajax has produced more xG so far (19.06 vs. 14.32 at the time of writing after 7 games played). Players like Maher and Dalmau therefore already seem to be adding what they were supposed to: creativity and goals. In addition, the development of a player like Kerk also contributes to their good performances.
Willem Janssen and Klaiber are good defenders who were already part of the solid defense last season and with Hoogma they seem to have added a very solid defender who should be fully capable to replace Letschert and Bergström.