Phillip Cocu is gradually becoming one of Europe’s top coaching prospects with his ability to nurture talent and his growing tactical nous. He has made subtle tweaks and experiments this season as he looks to strike the right balance in games which has led to qualification to the last 16 of the Champions League.

  • By Chaka Simbeye
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When Phillip Cocu joined the club in 2013, he had contend with a changing of the guard with top class players leaving and being replaced with precocious young talents. After some struggles in his first season followed by a title-winning second season, he seems to have found his way as a manager. He cuts a calm, brooding figure on the technical bench as he meticulously prepares his team before a match while he is gaining plaudits for his tactical expertise. His PSV side are top of the Eredivisie with a 7 game winning streak while also preparing for the Champions League last 16 matches against Atletico Madrid.

PSV’s title chase is gaining pace as his team is beginning to gel as the club made some impeccable buys to replace the likes of Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum. However, the unsung hero is Cocu who continues to show his tactical nous. The Eredivisie is a safe-haven for the traditional 4-3-3 system as most teams in the league deploy it regularly but Cocu has shown a willingness to stray and experiment. In the Champions League away match against Wolfsburg, the Dutch coach played a 4-4-2 diamond in order to fit Andres Guardado, Jorrit Hendrix, Davy Propper and Adam Maher into the same team. It was a system that was meant to negate the German’s activity in midfield while allowing PSV to dominate the wide areas.

The first half went according to plan but in attack PSV looked disjointed as Luciano Narsingh was forced to play in a second striker role. As a naturalised winger, his main instinct was to drift out wide and leave his partner Luuk De Jong isolated in the centre which made PSV one dimensional and easy to close down. Although PSV had managed to close down Wolfsburg well in midfield, their fullbacks who were Joshua Brenet on the right and Simon Poulsen on the left were forced to push forward in order to give PSV more options in attack. However, these two aren’t PSV first choice fullbacks and aren’t as good as Jetro Willems and Santiago Arias at creating and maintaining the balance between attack and defence.

It was also bizarre that Cocu chose not to man-mark Max Kruse and Julian Draxler in the game. In the second-half, Wolfsburg picked away at the spaces PSV left in the fullback positions with Bas Dost and Max Kruse getting the all important goals as wide-men Dani Caligiuri and Draxler proved influential in the home side winning 2-0.

Although the match did not pan out as planned, it was intriguing to see Cocu willing to alter his lineup in order to adjust to the strengths of his opponents and it was a sign of things to come. In an important away match against Manchester United in the Champions League, Cocu set his team up to go for the draw in order to take hold of their destiny going into the final match of the group stage at home to CSKA Moscow.

PSV allowed the Red Devils to have possession but sat in a rigid 4-5-1 shape forcing United to pass away the game. United did have close chances through Lingard and Martial but it was mostly smooth sailing for PSV throughout the game. In the latter stages of the second half, Louis Van Gaal brought on Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young in order to add more impetus to United’s attacking play. Cocu duly switched to a 5-4-1 with three centre-backs to curtail Fellaini’s domination in the air and a midfield four to force Rooney deeper for the ball and strip Manchester United into hit and hope tactics. PSV drew the game without conceding and found a system that would serve him well.

PSV have only suffered one loss in the Eredivisie but their weakness has been dropping points at the latter stages of games against smaller sides as they lose their concentration. In matches against Feyenoord away and FC Twente at home after the winter break, we have seen Cocu switch to a 5-3-2 in order to maintain their leads but still threaten teams on the counter as Feyenoord found out for the second goal they conceded at De Kuip.

However, PSV faced a real test against their former coach Erik ten Hag’s Utrecht outfit in the KNVB Beker. Ten Hag’s side are well drilled at pressing and controlling the spaces in midfield and have a good spine to the team. In the match, Utrecht allowed PSV to have majority of the possession while tightening the central channels and closing down PSV’s attacking players who failed to create clear-cut chances. By the end of the first half, PSV were 2-0 down at home as their defenders failed to contend with the physique and mobility of Sebastian Haller and their midfield failed to track runners like Bart Ramselaar. PSV failed to break down Utrecht and were carved open on the counter resulting in them being knocked out of the KNVB Beker.

PSV would face Utrecht again in the Eredivisie at the Galgenwaard two days later but this time Cocu would tinker with his lineup and formation. Instead he played 3-5-2 with Santiago Arias and Florian Jozefzoon as wing-backs while Gaston Pereiro and Luuk De Jong played together up front. PSV’s back three were well drilled and handled the threat of Ruud Boymans and Haller with consummate ease in the first half while Utrecht’s midfield were outgunned and over-run by PSV’s midfield. PSV found space after turnovers as Utrecht struggled to deal with PSV playing the early ball to De Jong up front who was heavily involved in the two goals. In the first goal, Utrecht found themselves outnumbered on the flanks as Arias played a ball into De Jong and continued his run as De Jong found him with a deft pass for the Colombian to score. The second included some poor defending by Utrecht who were caught in a whiplash of PSV’s midfield numbers and an early ball to De Jong was nodded down and found it’s way to Van Ginkel who slotted in.

The second-half would see Utrecht giving more in the final third as they were unlucky not to score, hitting the crossbar and forcing Zoet and his defenders into blocks on a number of occassions. This was the biggest presentation of Cocu’s tactical ability as PSV went from a naive performance into a commanding one in a matter of days as Cocu also showed an intimate knowledge of his squad as they won 2-0.

“After the deserved defeat last Thursday we made some adjustments. We have seen how FC Utrecht could play the best and that has excellent unpacked.The goals are the cases we have paid attention to the training,” said Cocu post-match to the PSV website.

“In the first half I saw an excellent PSV. In it we had no chance. We had a lot of problems with walking people and unfortunately we could not bring what we could bring last Thursday,” said ten Hag.

In their most recent game, PSV dominated and edged out one of the most devastating counter attacking sides in the Eredivisie in NEC Nijmegen. They won 3-0 as they always had enough men behind the ball not to be vulnerable to breaks and were patient as they wore NEC down. PSV have only got seven clean-sheets in the Eredivisie this season and managed to get consecutive clean sheets for only the second time this season as they now sit atop of the Eredivisie. PSV also have their best players coming to the fore as Narsingh who struggled with form and injury in the first half of the season now has 4 goals and an assist since the turn of the year, Guardado who should return soon had 5 assists in four games, Marco Van Ginkel has two goals in his first two Eredivisie games and Willems got an assist against NEC in a performance where he made 15 crosses and the most ball recoveries with 10 in a performance Cocu labeled as ‘Typical Jetro’.

PSV are growing in confidence and are becoming a more mature side as their performances are beginning to show. This weekend they have a match against third placed Heracles where Andres Guardado is expected to return before the first leg of their Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid. In this match, they will be without top scorer De Jong who is serving a suspension and Cocu will have a chance to pit his wits against one of the most tactically savvy coaches in Europe,Diego Simeone. Cocu will know the task at hand very well and it will be intriguing to see how one of Europe’s top managerial prospects will set his team up.

Chaka Simbeye (69 Posts)