Despite my original interest in the Europa Conference League when it was first announced, I must admit that I haven’t tuned in to its matches that often. But a few weeks ago, I decided to open up a Tottenham-Vitesse stream as I was doing some busy work. That decision paid off. I was treated to a young Dutch side — famed for providing Chelsea academy prospects with valuable first-team experience — totally outplaying a struggling Spurs side (yes, Nuno’s 4th-to-last game in charge), and eventually defeating them 1-0.
What has stayed with me from the match, bar the surprising outcome, is a lone quirk in Vitesse’s tactical setup. Their best and most technical player was wearing the number 10, unsurprisingly enough. Yet of all positions he could possibly play in their fluid 3-4-3, he was playing as the central center-back. He spent his night picking out passes at all angles and gliding past Spurs attackers as if they weren’t there.
That player is Riechedly Bazoer. Many of you will probably know the name. Once a highly touted midfield prospect from the PSV and then Ajax academies, he has failed to find a home due to a series of injuries and “attitude incidents” — until now. Having just turned 25, Bazoer is in the midst of a career renaissance at Vitesse.
About a year ago, Vitesse’s then-assistant coach Joseph Oosting suggested that Bazoer be deployed as a center-back, and more specifically, as a libero. Though a skillful box-to-box midfielder by trade, his primary responsibilities became sweeping up in behind the rest of the team, and serving as the catalyst in attacking transitions. The Dutchman’s technical qualities, physical prowess, and high football intelligence saw him become a natural in the role, one that we rarely see in modern football.
The select few that have used a variation of the role at the top level in recent times have done so to make the most of transitions and counter-attacks, rather than being overly concerned with possession. Antonio Conte’s use of David Luiz at Chelsea and Tuchel’s current use of Thiago Silva are two examples that come to mind immediately. Luiz’s and Silva’s responsibilities are diminished relative to Bazoer, however. They have less of a license to roam and get forward.
In Bazoer’s case, he doesn’t play at that very top level. Vitesse competes in the Eredivisie, and doesn’t qualify for European competition every year. They are by no means this fabulous, free-flowing side. That being said, they do adhere to principles of the “Dutch way,” attempting to play positive, or dare I say, total, football.
And Bazoer is at the heart of it all. From center back, he attempts an incredible 10 progressive passes per 90 minutes, (data courtesy of Wyscout). Not only does this demonstrate a reliance on him in buildup play, but it shows Bazoer’s willingness to thread the needle. His influence is further reflected in where he pops up on the pitch — everywhere (see heatmap and touchmap below). He is given license to roam forward as a threatening playmaker from deep, often combining for one-twos with teammates around the area.
Within the first few minutes against Spurs, it was clear that Bazoer was going to be the star of the show. He won back possession off a Spurs clearance by heading the ball calmly to himself, while simultaneously holding off Dane Scarlett (below)…
… He then carried the ball into midfield, where he ran into Dele Alli. Bazoer dropped his shoulder and accelerated upfield…
… Before zipping a ball between the lines to Loïs Openda, giving him space and time to turn and attack.
These situations kept occurring. Vitesse would constantly recycle possession back to Bazoer, who would prance his way forward and completely unlock the Spurs press. Spurs’ narrow set up left them vulnerable out wide, in those half spaces just in front of the full backs. Seven minutes later, the same pattern repeated itself…
…Although this time, as Winks and Lo Celso adjusted to cover the wide pockets Bazoer had just unlocked, the Dutchman fizzed a ball into his striker’s feet.
Spurs found it impossible to mitigate Bazoer’s influence on proceedings. He demonstrated such ease and composure that it didn’t necessarily matter whether there was pressure on him or not.
The positions he took up to find space didn’t seem so deceptive or confusing, but they utterly bewildered Nuno’s men. When Vitesse built from the back, Bazoer would push into midfield, leaving the goalkeeper to act as the sweeper (below). Bazoer constantly found space when moving forward into these pockets (ones we usually associate with a lone defensive midfielder, such as Busquets or Jorginho) just in front of the defensive line. Spurs’ attacking midfielder (Dele Alli) couldn’t predict where Vitesse’s number ten would be.
In the second half, when Spurs finally started to adjust, Bazoer would float to the right side, swapping positions with right-sided center back Danilho Doekhi (below). From this position, he could find the striker to feet, the wing-back down the line, or the holding midfielder just to his left.
It had been a while since I’d seen a player dictate the first two phases of play for 90 minutes the way Bazoer did against Spurs. It had been even longer since I’d seen someone do it from the central center back position.
This is what makes Riechedly Bazoer’s role so distinctly unique.
This role as the “free man” isn’t as simple as it sounds. The player must possess a certain level of tactical and positional understanding in order to avoid ever getting caught out of possession. Frankly, it would scare most players off. Bazoer’s sheer quality has resulted in being afforded a longer leash by his coaches. He’s allowed to make mistakes, because – really – no one is perfect. For a “center back,” he only completes 86% of those progressive passes (wyscout) I mentioned earlier. Bazoer spends every game taking risks and trying things.
Bazoer’s teammates visibly deferred responsibility to him in possession. Even when afforded time, space, and potential passing lanes, they would lay the ball off to him – knowing he would do more with the ball. This also occurred in transition, most notably when the side wanted to take a quick free kick (below: you’ll notice Bazoer switch on immediately and race over to take the kick). It was clear Vitesse wanted to make good use of Bazoer’s excellent passing range.
The role of libero is one that originates from close to 100 years ago, and owes its popularity to the rise of the Italian catenaccio and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer. Both of these expressions of the libero were founded in providing solidity in defense – as a sweeper. The player gracing the role was often the best and smartest player on the team. He would collect loose balls and quickly kickstart counters through surging runs and long balls.
Below is a clip of Franz Beckenbauer vs. the Soviet Union in the 1972 Euro Final (captioned with some advanced stats football fans were definitely paying attention to back then). I may be jumping the gun and making myself look a fool here, but I felt the same emotions watching this clip as I did watching Bazoer conduct possession— bar the quality of the Soviet pressing.
As football has continued to evolve tactically, many sides are adopting the back five. It gives extra stability at the back, while providing natural width and verticality. But not all back fives are the same. Some are inherently more defensive than others. Personnel and principles matter far more than just a teamsheet formation. Two players playing in the same position can (and often do) fulfill two entirely different roles. This also applies to the center backs. David Luiz and Thiago Silva are smooth operators more than anything else, while Riechedly Bazoer has far more attacking tendencies and responsibility.
The reality is that there are so many ways to execute a back five and to find advantages on the pitch to create danger for the opposition. Vitesse, and Bazoer, are simply doing so in a way that nobody else is.