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The German Football Weekly: Issue #10
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Toothless Wolves in Drastic Decline
Where has it gone wrong for VFL Wolfsburg & Mark van Bommel?
9 matches into the Bundesliga season, and we have our first managerial casualty, with VFL Wolfsburg pulling the plug on the van Bommel experiment just 115 days into the Dutchman’s tenure.
Drastic boardroom upheaval and fluctuating performances aren’t anything new at the Volkswagen Arena, but Mark van Bommel’s short reign in the dugout has applied new light to the cutthroat nature with which sporting director Jörg Schmadtke operates.
Following the clubs comical elimination from the DFB Pokal first round, Wolfsburg went on to win all of their first 4 league fixtures, conceding just one goal in the process, and recording a new club record for their best ever start to a Bundesliga campaign. Murmurs of a title challenge were still very facetious, however Mark van Bommel had at least proven his ability to expand on the blueprint Oliver Glasner had installed.
Or so we thought, because just over a month after Wolfsburg were cruising atop the table, Die Wolfen have now slipped to 9th in the Bundesliga, sit bottom of their Champions League group, and have failed to win any of their last 9 matches.
With newly appointed Florian Kohfeldt facing a difficult task at the Bay-Arena this Saturday, let’s take a look at where it has all gone wrong for VFL Wolfsburg in the past 5 gameweeks.
A Start Which Flattered to Deceive
A perfect start to the Bundesliga should have been enough for a riotous atmosphere at the Volkswagen Arena, but even in the face of such optimism warning signs were flashing.
For a start, the 4 matches came against VFL Bochum, Hertha BSC, RB Leipzig, and Greuther Fürth - two newly promoted sides, one which failed to win any of its first three matches, and a Leipzig side which still needs to find itself under Jesse Marsch.
The one goal Wolfsburg conceded across this quartet was evidence of Die Wolfen’s undeniable defensive qualities, but even this is put up to debate with a deeper look into the underlying numbers.
After 4 matchdays, Wolfsburg were outperforming their xGA (expected goals against) by 2.30, the largest over performance of any side in the Bundesliga by some distance.
Couple this with the fact that the only time Wolfsburg registered more shots than their opponent was on matchday 1 when they played 86 minutes with a man advantage, and it becomes clear to see that an inspired goalkeeper and strong defensive setup was one of the only things keeping van Bommel’s side from already imploding in these opening weeks.
But even with a considerable defensive over performance Wolfsburg still managed to score 6 goals across the first 4 matchdays. So how has this side gone from an efficient scoring outfit to one which has failed to find the back of the net more than once in all of its last 8 outings? Good question! And one which leads us swiftly to our second point…
Possession for Possession’s Sake
Whilst Wolfsburg’s defensive collapse can be explained away with a favorable opening fixture list and a goalkeeping over performance, the lack of cutting edge in the final third requires a far deeper examination.
Even across the 24-months of Oliver Glasner, Wolfsburg were far from free scoring, netting 1 or fewer goals in 33 of his 68 Bundesliga matches in charge.
With Mark van Bommel promoting a short passing, possession-oriented approach, many were hopeful that the Volkswagen Arena would see more free flowing football this season. MvB has stood true to his promise with Wolfsburg holding the third-highest possession avg. in the league, - 57.7% compared to 51.4% (8th best last season) - but it’s been far from purposeful production.
This is highlighted in the statistics, with just 31% of the total distance Wolfsburg’s passes have traveled moving forward. No other side in the division has such a low percentage of progressive passes, and it's a massive drop off when you compare it to last season where Wolfsburg were the 13th most forward-thinking side in the Bundesliga.
What this has created is a side which is aimlessly circulating possession in their own third, before impatiently forcing a ball either long into Wout Weghorst, or towards the pacy right-sided duo of Kevin Mbabu and Ridle Baku.
Whereas the transition style under Glasner would put the onus on the opposition to create the game and afford space for Wolfsburg to counter into, van Bommel’s ill-considered possession plans have had the opposite effect: stagnating the game going forward and making Die Wolfen vulnerable at the back.
Mark van Bommel’s attacking revolution has clearly not taken shape, with Wolfsburg’s most recent defeat to SC Freiburg highlighting the deficiencies within the setup. Die Wolfen will rarely penetrate through the center, instead casually playing it around the back before forcing it out wide to either Ridle Baku or Kevin Mbabu. It’s no surprise then that they’ve completed the third most crosses of any side this season (29), but have converted just one of them into a goal.
The Xaver Schlager Effect
Finally we must touch on Xaver Schlager, a crucial figure across the past two seasons who was one of the first, and most expensive, signings in the Glasner era.
The 24-year old Austrian international earned a fine reputation at RB Salzburg, winning the 2016/17 UEFA Youth League under the leadership of Marco Rose, and then cementing a starting spot in the first team across the following two seasons. With a non-stop engine, and forward-first mentality, Schlager embodied the values of a Red Bull midfielder, and was precisely what Glasner was looking for in his quest to implement a transition style at VFL Wolfsburg.
After recovering from an ankle fracture which saw him miss most of the Hinrunde, Schlager quickly showed why Wolfsburg were willing to part with €15.00m for his signature.
Alongside Maxi Arnold, Wolfsburg had one of the most formidable central duos in the division, with both players putting in a tremendous shift out of possession, whilst Schlager’s ability to carry possession forward would provide the perfect partner for Arnold’s impressive passing range.
In Glasner’s favored 4-2-3-1, the Schlager/Arnold partnership became the base with which Wolfsburg challenged for Europe in his first season, and then qualified for the Champions League in his second. Mark van Bommel was looking to rely on this axiom again this season, until disaster struck on matchday 3 when Schlager suffered a cruciate ligament injury.
After 3 convincing victories in which Schlager had excelled in the base of midfield, van Bommel would now be without his Austrian international for upwards of 9 months.
Of Wolfsburg’s 6 goals in their opening 4 league victories, only 3 of them came from open play. One of them is featured above, a product of Xaver Schlager’s immense ability to drive possession forward and find the right moment to unleash one of his attacking teammates.
Forced to look for alternative options, van Bommel initially went with Joshua Guilavogui, but the Frenchman’s pure defensive capacities meant far too much of the attacking burden fell on the shoulders of Arnold.
In more recent weeks he has given a Bundesliga debut to the highly-talented Aster Vranckx, however, despite profiling similarly to Schlager, the Belgium youth international just turned 19 in October and will need time to develop into the responsibilities of Schlager’s role.
Despite the small sample size available this season, Xaver Schlager’s importance to Wolfsburg’s attacking game is clear to see. The Austrian was by far the most direct midfielder amongst van Bommel’s options, and his absence played a massive role in the dip in form which ultimately cost the Dutchman his job.
With the announcement of Florian Kohfeldt on Tuesday, VFL Wolfsburg once again have an exciting young manager with a reputation for attacking football. Though his disastrous relegation with Bremen has tarnished his legacy, we shouldn’t forget that it was only 3 years ago when Kohfeldt was awarded the DFB coach of the year prize, and was being linked to potential vacancies at Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen.
If the 39-year old can retain the defensive structure from Glasner’s era and provide an attacking template which isn’t reliant on transitions, long throws, and set pieces, then we could finally see a Wolfsburg side combining attractive and successful football for the first time since 2014.
Will Florian Kohfeldt be a success at VFL Wolfsburg and was it the correct decision for Schmadtke to let Mark van Bommel go? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter using #BUNDESLETTER
GAME OF THE WEEK:
Saturday 13:30 (CEST): SV Werder Bremen v 1. FC St. Pauli
Though the Nordderby between Bremen & Hamburger SV is the biggest match on the Zweite Bundesliga calendar, it is another side from the North of Germany who are leading the charge 11 matches in: FC St. Pauli.
For a more thorough analysis of their tremendous campaign make sure to check out ISSUE #9, but it’s safe to say St. Pauli are on course for the club’s first topflight promotion since 2010.
On the other side of this fixture we have Werder Bremen, a former topflight mainstay who are now languishing in the second division after suffering their first Bundesliga relegation since the 1979/80 campaign.
The plan was to immediately bounce back, but a fire-sale of talent, limited preparation time, and a late flurry of business have all combined to see Bremen sit in 10th place with almost a third of the season gone - closer to the relegation zone then an automatic promotion spot.
Markus Anfang has a lot of work to do after winning just 1 of his last 5 matches in charge, but there is a growing sense of sympathy for the 47-year old as needless individual mistakes and catastrophic decision-making have cost the Grün-Weißen across the past few weeks.
In fact, of the last 5 goals they’ve conceded, 3 have come within two passes of Bremer possession, whilst the remaining 2 stemmed from a penalty and freekick. It’s all highly avoidable and an extension of the issues which saw Bremen go on that frightful 11 match winless streak which condemned them to relegation.
Nicolai Rapp, one of 3 new signings with over 100 matches in the Bundesliga and/or Zweite Bundesliga, makes a dreadful error to give Darmstadt a 2-goal advantage. The new signings were meant to inject fresh spirit and enthusiasm into the Bremen side, but the likes of Rapp, Lars Lukas Mai, and Roger Assalé have all played into the negative narrative which has compounded over the past 2 years.
Against the league’s most fearsome attack, which has scored 18 goals across its last 5 matches, Bremen will need to eliminate these individual errors if they stand any chance of rectifying their spiraling form.
Bundesliga GOTW: Saturday 18:30 (CEST): Bayer Leverkusen v VFL Wolfsburg
3. Bundesliga GOTW: Saturday 14.00 (CEST): Eintr. Braunschweig v Weh. Wiesbaden