How Defensive Organization Is Powering Wolfsburg’s European Dream
Let’s take a look at how defensive discipline and adherence to Oliver Glasner’s game plan have been vital for Wolfsburg to become legitimate contenders to qualify for the Champions League.
Enjoying a fantastic Bundesliga season so far, which sees them currently sit third in the table behind only Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, Wolfsburg’s consistency, discipline and adherence to Oliver Glasner’s game plan has seen them become legitimate contenders to qualify for the Champions League.
Building impressively on their seventh-placed finish last time around, the Austrian tactician’s tactical acumen and ability to continue to get his message across coherently has seen his team become a real force on both sides of the ball.
Such a hard team to break down due to their defensive organization, this has been an integral hallmark towards their effectiveness.
Typically pressing in variations of a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 or a 4-2-2-2, they’ve been good at stifling opponents both when pressing high and in a medium block, demonstrating how well they can control spaces while maintaining compactness vertically and horizontally.
Brimming with energy and a keen instigator of the press, Wout Weghorst leads by example by pressing the receiving central defender with gusto. In doing so, he crucially curves his pressing so he can use his cover shadow to block the passing lane back to the goalkeeper and the other central defender, which ushers them towards the touchline.
Once this happens, the ball side winger will step to the full-back while the number 10/other forward and midfielders will shift across to track their opposite numbers, ready to close down any potential infield pass. In addition, the full-backs and central defenders will get touchtight to their respective opponents when they drop deep so they have no time and space to turn or execute their actions.
This all parlays to hem in their adversaries so they can either set traps, baiting foes to pass back inside ready to pounce or force turnovers and low percentage long balls when their enemies are hard up against the touchline. The ball far winger and full-back will notably tuck in to keep compact and be positioned to access multiple opponents.
Wolfsburg’s use of cover shadows warrants further mentions, for this helps them deal with being overloaded, thus enabling them to commit one less man to allow them to enjoy a spare defender.
Disciplined, well-drilled and organized, Wolfsburg constantly shift, adjust their defensive line and adapt their positioning depending on the position of the ball and opponents. Remaining concentrated and alert, in combination with their pretty quick defenders and Koen Casteels’ being adept at rushing out to act as a sweeper-keeper, Wolfsburg’s high line works soundly more often than not. Furthermore, by doing a good job of keeping pressure on the ball holder so they don’t have much time to pick out runners over the top, this certainly adds to the success of their high line.
Their intense counter-pressing immediately after they turn the ball over adds to their stopping prowess. Reacting smartly and committing anywhere from two to four players to attack the ball holder and nearby options, they suffocate their targets, hoping to win back possession as quickly as possible in advanced areas. Seeing as they’re compactly staggered within their possession shape, this puts them in an excellent position to spring into life once they lose the ball.
Serving as a fine chance creator for Glasner’s men, once they recover the ball, they can subsequently attack unset defenses who were preparing for a counter of their own. Moreover, even if they can’t force a turnover, their counter-pressing allows them to slow down opposition surges by either fouling or stifling them so they can get numbers back.
Boasting some towering central defenders who read the play and ball flight competently such as John Brooks, Maxence Lacroix and Marin Pongracic, this has meant they’re very comfortable dealing with aerial duels. Not only has seen them deal with crosses, long balls from all over and set pieces but also helped their team win second balls.
Special mentions also should go to ball-winning machine Xaver Schlager, who’s a pressing monster and fierce in his challenges to regain possession, and Casteels in goal, who’s amazingly prevented 7.46 goals this season (the best in the Bundesliga) with his classy shot-stopping and made the most interceptions (50) when leaving his line.
Ranking first in the Bundesliga for duels won percentage (62.3%), second for goals conceded (22), fourth for least shots faced (249), fourth for passes allowed per defensive action (9.67), second for most interceptions (1398) and equal third for XG per shot against (0.124) demonstrate what a well-oiled machine they are in this phase.
Meanwhile, on the offensive end, their nicely devised mechanics have ensured they’re an efficient and dangerous unit. Having one of the premier marksman in the German top flight in Weghorst, who’s scored 17 Bundesliga goals already, he’s led the line with aplomb.
A superb target if his team can’t beat the press and for crosses and set pieces, the Dutchman’s headed threat is a fine asset for the Wolves that helps them in a variety of situations.
The fact he’s so handy with his hold-up play after dropping deep and a fine timer of his runs in behind and into the box duly adds to his threat. The way Wolfsburg instruct their wingers to come infield not only allows their full-backs to surge forward to add width, but it also means they can be in close proximity to combine with Weghorst and their fellow attackers.
With the wingers typically occupying the half spaces, and Weghorst and the attacking midfielder central (often Yannick Gerhardt of late), this means they can engage in slick combination play, plus draw out opponents with opposite movements and shrewd rotations. Due to them populating these dangerous areas, they can impact proceedings in terms of creating chances and by moving into the box to finish them, with their presence in the area obviously strong to attack cutbacks and crosses. The impact of the aforementioned has certainly been heightened by their closeby connections, which has caused marking dilemmas and unbalanced defensive units.
The switches of position don’t stop there, however, for the midfielders interchange with attackers so they can surge forward on penetrative runs from deep that surprise defenders while the wingers often rotate with the full-backs so the full-backs can underlap to let the wingers be isolated 1v1.
With the front four frequently found 4v4 with the opposing back four, this leaves minimal room for error for defenders, as one poor choice or failed assignment can leave them exposed. Wolfsburg have duly done so, with their pinning and drawing of opponents generating room for runners and through the attackers’ knowledge of when to embark on their depth runs. Waiting for the ball holder to have the ball on their preferred foot and have enough time to play the ball, is the cue for them to make their move.
Engaging in some quality up-back-through sequences, this tactic has borne fruit in luring out opponents too for a runner to then exploit the recently vacated space.
Another especially intriguing element has come from Ridle Baku’s explosive diagonal runs across Weghorst, as he uses the big man as a screen to impede his man to gain separation. Edging inside to begin his run in the half or 10 spaces, this means he can get close to his striker to amplify the effectiveness of him as a blocker.
Speedy, intelligent in their movement and adept on the dribble, Wolfsburg’s frontline causes havoc on the counter too. Filling key spaces to stretch backlines, attacking the blindside of defenders and occupying dangerous spaces such as behind onrushing opposition fullbacks and between defenders, they spring into action rapidly.
Giving the man on the ball many options, if they can escape their foes’ counter-pressing, they’re usually ideally placed to conjure something dangerous with two to five men streaming upfield depending on the speed of the transition.
Although they don’t always dominate possession (they are seventh in highest average possession on 51.6%), Glasner has still implemented some good mechanics. Mixing things up in their build up, they either build with the two wide splitting defenders or in a three as one of the central midfielders will drop between or alongside the defenders.
While both options have their upside, the latter option has been most enterprising, especially when Maximilian Arnold is the man dropping. Possessing a sublime passing range and so accurate over any distance, he can put his playmaking skills to good use to connect, construct and animate his team’s moves. The fact he can enjoy greater time and space to assess his options ensures he’s often not under huge pressure to execute his passes.
Passing out in a three chain can also drag out a midfielder to press higher, which can play into Wolfsburg’s hands, as it opens a passing lane or a free man upfield to be found either directly or via a third man combination.
When forming a three, the potential to achieve a numerical superiority to then find one of the outside backs to dribble upfield via the half spaces has been positive. In doing so, opponents will be forced into decision whether to leave their station to close them down or hold their post and let the player keep dribbling before finding an option.
Some extra points of note come from how they’ve manufactured overloads in wide areas to help bypass opponents and open the channels, used the central midfielders to pin markers to open passing routes and generally staggered the players’ positioning so support is nearby.
Arnold’s wicked set-piece taking and shooting powers warrant praise too, for be it from corners, set pieces and whenever he’s in range, his scintillating ball striking and accuracy give Wolfsburg an extra dimension.
Efficient, posing consistent danger and capable of harming their adversaries in many ways, they rank sixth for goals scored (45), fifth for shots taken (339), fourth for most crosses (447), sixth for touches inside the box (519), fourth for deep completions (238) and equal third for most offsides (shows their desire to get in behind).
Structured, tactically astute and full of outstanding players who perform their roles brilliantly, Glasner’s done a tremendous job of getting the best out of this team.
Always a challenging proposition for any team to overcome due to their collective excellence on both sides of the ball, qualifying for the Champions League would be a perfect reward for their terrific season under Glasner’s expert tutelage.