At the time of writing, after four Bundesliga fixtures, Wolfsburg are top of the table. It is somewhat of a surprise to see them there, given Oliver Glasner’s departure and Mark van Bommel’s appointment. They have seen off VFL Bochum, Hertha BSC, RB Leipzig, and SpVgg Greuther Fürth, scoring only six goals in these games, but conceding just one. In their opening Champions League fixture against Lille, they were unable to continue their 100% record but still refrained from conceding once more, with that fixture finishing 0-0.
Wolfsburg aren’t the most exciting team in the league and their goals scored compared to the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich (13 each) or even Bayer Leverkusen (with 12) backs that up. They’ve had a rock-solid defence this season and a keeper in Koen Casteels who has performed admirably. This much is evident from their xG against of 4.07, clearly showing they are overperforming with just one conceded thus far. In fact, the expected points table only has them in fifth place with 6.1 points. Yet, Wolfsburg are the only side to have four wins from four so far. This tactical analysis will give an insight into their tactics under Mark van Bommel.
They operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the ins and outs of which will be discussed in finer detail as this tactical analysis develops. However, their most common starting line-up, in terms of personnel, can be seen in the image below taken from a fixture against Hertha BSC.
Both Kevin Mbabu and Jérôme Roussillon are permanent fixtures at full-back, as is the ever-impressive Maxence Lacroix in the right centre-back position. Big American centre-back John Brooks is generally preferred at left centre-back, although new signing Sebastiaan Bornauw has and will continue to be used as an alternative.
In midfield, the combination of Xaver Schlager and Maximilian Arnold has been minimally preferred to having Joshua Guilavogui involved in a pairing with either. Lukas Nmecha has also appeared on either side of the front four but generally, Renato Steffen and Ridle Baku have been used either side of the close 10-CF partnership: Maximilian Philipp and Wout Weghorst.
Starting as they build from the back, Wolfsburg operate with a standard staggered double pivot, with the near-side pivot dropping slightly deeper, as would be expected. Van Bommel is happy for either pivot to rotate into the backline during build-up too, whether that’s into a position outside the centre-back partnership—with the central-midfielder operating in the half-space and allowing the full-back to push high—or simply just to drop between the centre-backs.
We can see a picture demonstrating a standard build-up shape for Wolfsburg in the following image, with the left centre-back in possession. Note how the near-side pivot, who is marked closely, leaves that direct open space in front of the left centre-back free, should an attacker positioned further forward look to drop deep to receive a line-breaking pass.
Wolfsburg are patient in possession and will happily circulate the ball from side to side, waiting for the opening to play forward quickly and securely. When they do have the option to break lines, they will do so with swift, one-touch passing football to get the ball into one of the front four as quickly (and securely) as possible.
They will structure possession in wider areas with a diamond-like shape, which we can see in the next image. The right centre-back plays inside to the near-side pivot, with the right-back out wide and the right-winger at the head of the diamond. They can use this structure to draw the opposition defence over and leave open passing lines further forward. In this example, right-winger Baku draws the left-back forward and right-back Mbabu can break the lines and bypass Baku.
Weghorst is the recipient of Mbabu’s pass and Baku immediately spins off ready to provide a short passing option for the centre-forward, whilst Philipp pushes forward from his ten position to offer an option in behind.
When building from the back, Wolfsburg operate with a relatively defined block of six and a block of four, with the latter composed of their attacking quartet. This ensemble of attackers operates very close to one another with some consistency. Once the ball is played into one, they can overload the centre of the pitch and combine in quick sequences of passes, with one player at the very least making a run in behind as this combination ensues.
Wolfsburg’s backline is confident breaking lines with forward passes but when their central midfielders drop into the backline themselves, as alluded to earlier, they will look to punch the ball directly into the front line too. As these passes are played, Wolfsburg will have attackers from their front four making runs in behind, with one of the midfielders offering a short passing option in front of the ball-carrier, and with an option out wide too. They immediately have this variety of options around the ball and this structures their swift attacks.
Phillip will initially start high and close to Weghorst, almost appearing as an orthodox front two. However, he will drop deep to offer options in between the lines. Interestingly, van Bommel wants either a central midfielder or even his left-back as is occurring in the following example, to push forward. In doing so, the centre-back marking Philipp can’t go with him into a deeper area without leaving space for the Wolfsburg player pushing forward to occupy freely. If the centre-back stays to prevent the arriving attacker from taking this space, then Philipp is free to receive.
Once Philipp makes this move to get in possession, Wolfsburg’s attack will spread wider. As Philipp has the ball, he is able to quickly move it out wide and Wolfsburg can advance their attack from this wider position with the winger in plenty of space. Weghorst’s positioning is also worth noting, given that he initially starts offside.
This prevents the forward from being tightly marked as play advances. By starting offside, he can’t be marked man-to-man and he will play himself onside as the ball moves forward. We can see the kind of space Weghorst is able to generate with this tactic in the next image. Given his aerial ability, this is a smart move from the forward.
In general, Wolfsburg push a high number of players forward; specifically, they overload the central channel and the 18-yard box. A number of Wolfsburg’s goals this season have come from players like Nmecha and Weghorst managing to get a shot away in a congested penalty area following a cross or through pass.
In attacking transition, Wolfsburg look to break forward as soon as possible, with players driving forward into any space afforded to them as soon as the turnover occurs. Weghorst isn’t slow by any means, but van Bommel has surrounded him with quick, direct attacking players who thrive on swift counter-attacks. On transition, the ball-winner will look for a nearby pass option with that player ready to drive forward and progress the ball immediately.
Their midfield options of Schlager, Arnold or Guilavogui are all talented ball progressors, with Schlager, in particular, adept at finding a through pass in a tight gap. Wolfsburg will have their attackers look to find the spaces between the opposition defence but their full-backs are equally aggressive in pushing high and wide to ensure there is a simpler option available to the ball-carrier should they not feel confident playing through such a tight gap, as shown in the next image.
Even in the case of the ball being turned over by someone positioned further forward than any of the aforementioned central midfielders at the point of the turnover, the process is the same. The likes of Baku and Steffen, as well as full-backs Mbabu and Rousillon, are all direct in possession and talented when driving forward.
Any of these quick breaks will be supported well, with van Bommel’s side reacting quickly to the attacking transition. Weghorst’s movement is intelligent too. Knowing the ball-carrier will be able to draw a defender forward as they dribble up the pitch, Weghorst will look to position himself on the shoulder of this defender. He waits for the last moment to spin off, creating space for a through pass as the defender goes to engage the ball-carrier.
Out of possession
In defence, Wolfsburg have a relatively fluid shape, loosely operating around a 4-4-2 shape. Their back four will spread relatively wide compared to the midfield and attack in front of them, where they look to maintain central compactness and prevent any easy central forward passes for the opposition.
Whilst Weghorst certainly leads the line, his role with Philipp is interchangeable, given the close proximity of the two. Aside from pressing goal-kicks, they have a line of engagement around 10-15 yards from inside their own half, and when one presses the ball-carrier, the other will drop in, as the analysis below demonstrates. They look to keep the opposition pivot covered where possible, whilst they focus on pressing in this central channel, with the wingers expected to press the opposition full-backs.
If they can force the opposition to play backwards from this position, Wolfsburg will continue to steal ground whilst still looking to prevent forward passage.
When the ball is played wide in this moment, Wolfsburg can be very aggressive. The front two will man-mark either centre-back, with the winger pressing the full-back and Wolfsburg’s own full-back pushing forward to mark the nearest forward pass.
This can lead to Wolfsburg having a 3v3 at the back, as seen in the following image, but given how comprehensive this pressing shape is in ensuring there is no way out for the opponent, this doesn’t become an issue and they can turn over possession in high areas to devastating effect.
As the front two stay central, Wolfsburg’s wingers will sit slightly ahead of the central midfield two, anticipating a pass out wide.
They are aggressive in pressing these passes, and as they step, the far-side centre-forward will drop in to mark the pivot and provide balance to the midfield.
In the next image, the winger steps forward but is bypassed with a ball out wide to the wing-back. If the winger is played past like in this image, then the full-back will step forward and the near-side central-midfielder will simply rotate into the backline to cover them.
Wolfsburg’s front two will continue to keep compactness with their midfield even as the opposition play well into the Wolfsburg half. Their press will still be aggressive, even in this lower position, with the winger stepping forward, and the near-side central-midfielder pushing forward to man-mark any kind of supporting run coming from the opposition midfield. The two far-side midfielders will simply shift across, and with the compactness of the front two, this kind of aggressive press from their midfielders doesn’t leave wide-open spaces in the midfield to be exploited.
It remains to be seen whether Wolfsburg can keep up their fast start but most cynics would suggest an easier start to the season in terms of fixtures has perhaps elevated them slightly, and there isn’t the squad depth to truly compete. The expected points table would suggest that even with a slightly easier opening four fixtures (other than RB Leipzig), Wolfsburg have perhaps been lucky to be where they are in the league standings.
However, what we can see with this Wolfsburg side is that they are a highly organised defensive team, with a simple, aggressive, but effective pressing system, and the ability to hurt teams in possession and in transition with quick, direct attacks. Their attacking unit of four is well-balanced with a traditional target man in Weghorst, an intelligent ten to play off him in Philipp, and quick wingers who are comfortable operating in narrower positions as they are in more traditional wide areas, like Baku, Steffen and Nmecha.