Mitchell van der Gaag — Excelsior years

Manchester United have employed Erik ten Hag as manager of the first team. There has been said and written enough about Ten Hag, but he is not coming alone. Alongside him, Steve McClaren and Mitchell van der Gaag have joined the Manchester club. Especially the latter hasn’t been explored too much by the broader public, and that’s why I’m writing this analysis.

In this analysis, I will look at the Portuguese influences on his managerial/coaching approaches, his defensive qualities, and his impressive coaching period at Excelsior Rotterdam during 2016–2018.

Portuguese influence

Mitchell van der Gaag did his UEFA C and B in the Netherlands but managed to do his UEFA A and UEFA Pro in Portugal. And, that’s where the difference is quite noticeable. While in the Netherlands, learning to coach is focused on problem-solving, in Portugal Van der Gaag learned to adopt, adapt and improve.

In Portugal, it’s more based on learning from experts. Experienced coaching comes from learning from experienced coaches while learning from being together with other coaches. In that way, you take lessons from those coaches and you take what you think is important from them.

Defensive qualities

To be able to properly defend, that’s a true art form. Defending is an art, but in different defensive situations, different solutions are applied. Taking from the Portuguese approach, the field can divided in three different thirds:

The idea of defending learned by Van der Gaag in Portugal is that you clear everything that comes in the red zone. No build-up, but only clear the ball and make sure the ball is out of that zone.

That’s not something required in the modern game but has lead Van der Gaag to a fundamental truth. Football isn’t one way or the other, it’s a pragmatic game and in some situations, you need to clear balls. In others, you need to play out from the back.

According to Van der Gaag, a defensive organisation is the foundation of every successful team. We will see how he did that with Excelsior.

Tactics at Excelsior Rotterdam 2017–2018

Excelsior is relatively small club and whenever they are in the Eredivisie, it’s all about survival. Now defending is so much more than just clearing balls as what I have shown you above, but in terms of playing a defensive style of play in the Eredivisie — clearing balls is a big part of it. It all depends on the quality of your players. When the opposition does press high and aggressively, playing out for the back is only for the players with a certain amount of technique and pace in their actions. These are usually not found in the bottom half teams in the Eredivisie. That’s the pragmatic approach from Van der Gaag.

Having been very successful in attack with Belenenses and getting promotion to the Primeira Liga in Portugal, the approach with Excelsior should all be about defensive organisation.

He was very successful in his way of approaching games at Excelsior, leading them to a 12th and 11th place in the Eredivisie table, but in this piece, we will mainly focus on his tactics in the 2017–2018 season.


Van der Gaag sees the formation of a team as a starting point for the team, because it can’t change quite often. In the 2017–2018 season he used the 4–2–3–1 formation 76% of the time.

4–2–3–1 in possession

The 4–2–3–1 consisted of a back four of Fortes-De Wijs-Mattheij-Karami with a double pivot of Kool-Faik. The double-pivot was quite interesting as both players can be considered as playmakers and more of natural 8s or 10s, rather than 6s. The attacking midfield consisted of wide midfielders Bruins and Elbers, who both had different roles. Messaoud was the attacking midfielder and Van Duinen was the sole striker.

The 4–2–3–1 in possession often changed into a sort of 4–2–2–2, with Bruin inverting to the midfield and Messaoud going wider to the right. Van Duinen would leave his striker position and move to the left flank, while Elbers would assume the striker role.

The formation would change when the ball was lost and the transition would occur.

When the ball was lost, Excelsior usually defended in a 4–4–2 formation. This meant that #10 Messaoud joined Van Duinen in a two-strikers system. Bruins and Elbers dropped deep to join the double pivot and form a 4-man midfield. The defence and the midfield would play close to each other in order to leave little space in between the lines.

At some moments, the formation in defence would even become a 4–5–1. This meant that Koolwijk dropped down to the defence and became the third central defender. In doing so, he left space in the double pivot, which was then filled in by Messaoud, who dropped. Van Duinen was the sole striker in this formation.


The thing with a defensive organisation is that you try to play from your defence. In other words, the defensive organisation should be solid and when you attack it should be direct, in order to not disturb your defensive organisation. Excelsior did this with playing Van Duinen up top and letting him be the holding player. The ball needed to be controlled just long enough for other people to progress on the pitch.

This can also be seen in the game against Willem II. Van Duinen drops very deeps, but drags defenders with him and allows the attacking midfielders to progress on the pitch. Bruins will go into wide area on the right, while Messaoud in the middle will go to the penalty area, anticipating a cross.

The long ball is important to be direct, but even when pressing the shape of the three players is maintained. Van Duinen presses the player on the ball and gets possession of the ball. After that, Messaoud immediately moves forward into the penalty area, while Faik remains available for passing. In doing so they can move forward with pace, but still have options going forward.

In the image above you can Excelsior in their game against VVV-Venlo in the Eredivisie. The direct passing style does suit the direct approach by Van der Gaag. In just two passes he sets the full back up for a cross. The central defender passes to the inverting and dropping wide midfielder. In doing so, Garcia opens space for a run down the line for right back Karami. In just a few touches and movements, Excelsiors opens up play in the middle to the final third. Faik and Koolwijk assume their positions and stay there, in order to make sure the rest-defence is maintained.

In a slightly more advanced situation against VVV-Venlo we see how the unit of three midfielders stays conservative in the middle third, while Van Duinen has dropped and claimed the ball. Right back Karami has advanced and is a good option for Van Duinen to pass the ball to.

What’s interesting here is that two attacks up top, are the two wide midfielders/wingers who have inverted to attack an eventual cross from the right flank. The idea is that from this moment on, two or three touches are needed to come to a goalscoring opportunity.


We have seen how Mitchell van der Gaag constructs his attacks or wants to come to goalscoring opportunities, but how does his team portray themselves in the defensive phases of the game? How does he make sure the opportunities are kept to a minimum?

Here you can see how Excelsior try to defend with four people as a unit and move toward the player with the ball. Ball-oriented marking. In this instance against Ajax, they try to do that in order to isolate Huntelaar, who likes to play between the lines.

In the image above you can see how deep the two defensive lines defend to make sure Ajax has as little chance to be successful. The defence is usually 4–4–2 or 4–5–1, but in this instance, it’s a 4–4–1–1 formation, as Messaoud is marking Ziyech here.

In the game above you can see how the two defensive lines are deep and making sure the Heerenveen players are covered well. This means that there is an 8v4 overload from Excelsior. With Messaoud pressing the player on the ball, the progression of this attack is made more difficult.

In this game, we see how NAC on the break as Excelsior need to transition to their defensive shapes. As you can see the back four remains intact, and the midfield consists of three players initially, but they are positioned in a way that the defensive capabilities of Excelsior are favoured.

What will he bring to Manchester United?

Van der Gaag is a very strong defensive-minded coach. He will focus and improve the defensive lines and will make sure it’s not only based on theories but will make it pragmatic. He believes in a personal approach and will talk with the players concerned, getting to know them and giving them the motivation to give it everything.

He is a talented coach who knows the differences between winning trophies, developing young squads and fighting against relegation. This experience in defending will prove to be of a vital part of Erik ten Hag’s management of Manchester United.


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