Bundesliga 2019/20: Schalke vs Wolfsburg – tactical analysis
Schalke hosted Wolfsburg in the penultimate round of fixtures in the Bundesliga. The latter could secure European football next season with a victory, while the hosts needed to show an improvement from their performances since the league restart, they were without a win in 13 Bundesliga matches. The game went as expected in regards to form, with Wolfsburg dominating the majority of the match and coming out 4-1 victors, securing them European football in 2020/21.
This tactical analysis will be delving into how Wolfsburg countered Schalke’s attempted direct build-up through their strong counter-press. It will also use analysis to look into Wolfsburg’s build-up in the match and also how their strikers were able to manipulate the Schalke backline. We will also look at Schalke’s latter stage improvements which were ultimately not enough to get them back into the game.
Oliver Glasner set his side up in a 4-4-2 shape. In goal, as usual, was Koen Casteels. In front of him was a backline consisting of Kevin Mbabu, Marin Pongracic, John Brooks and Jérôme Roussillon. The flanks were covered by Renato Steffen and Josip Brekalo; while Xaver Schlager and Maximillian Arnold operated in the centre of midfield. Upfront was Daniel Ginczek and fourth top scorer in the Bundesliga, with 16 goals, Wout Weghorst.
While David Wagner set his Schalke team in a similar shape. Alexander Nübel was in goal and his defensive line from right to left was Jonjoe Kenny, Ozan Kabak, Bastian Oczipka and Juan Miranda. The midfield two was Weston McKennie and Alessandro Schöpf. Daniel Caligiuri and Levent Mercan provided the width for the team. The Strikeforce was Rabbi Matondo and Michael Gregoritsch.
How Wolfsburg limited Schalke’s direct transition through their counter-pressing
It is known that Schalke attempt to play directly in transition and then look to win the second balls higher up the pitch. Wolfsburg were able to limit this through their counter-press, which was especially efficient in the first half where Schalke’s xG was just 0.15.
When they would lose possession, Wolfsburg would immediately counter-press the opposition and if they were unsuccessful and a direct ball was played, Wolfsburg would then press the receiver of the long ball. Their success in this tactic in the first half especially is shown through their PPDA of 9.1 for the match and a greatly impressive 6.5 in the first half. For context, their PPDA average is 10.09 for the season and they are a known for an impressive press.
The above image shows the counter-press of Wolfsburg in action as McKennie of Schalke looks to play directly into Schöpf who is operating high after a Wolfsburg corner. The counter-press from Steffen creates pressure on McKennie though and the American midfielder is forced to play his pass quickly. This created a difficult situation for Schöpf who was also being tightly marked by Roussillon, he ended up losing possession. Wolfsburg would then go onto score their opening goal from the following attack, showing that they did not only limit Schalke with their counter-pressing, but it was important in their own final third success.
This image above shows the counter-press in full flow after the direct ball is played from Schalke. The ball is played directly into Gregoritsch’s feet from deep and straight away three Wolfsburg players are pressing him. This high pressure from the Wolfsburg players stops Schalke attempting to progress the ball quickly and effectively. This play ended in a foul for Schalke, yet it allowed Wolfsburg to get into a defensive shape, which Schalke found difficult to break down.
It was clear that Wolfsburg were looking to find both Schlager and Arnold in their build-up. They did this in two main different ways.
One way was by the dropping of one of them in the build-up into a back three, this would allow them time on the ball and they could look to play forward.
The second way, and the more effective one, was the baiting of a Schalke press in wide areas. Schalke usually have a compact shape, so this baiting of their press from Wolfsburg created space for either Schlager or Arnold to receive centrally.
Schalke’s narrow and compact shape is shown through the average positions of the wide men, Caligiuri (#18) and Mercan (#37). They are extremely narrow throughout most of the game, trying to limit the impact of Wolfsburg centrally. This baiting of the Schalke press was necessary to create the space for their central midfielders.
Here is an example of the first-mentioned way of getting either Schlager or Arnold on the ball in the build-up. Arnold drops into the middle of the defence, creating a back three and allowing higher positions for the full-backs. He then is able to play wide to Roussillon and progress the ball from a deep area.
The second and more effective way of getting the two centre-midfielders in possession is shown above. As you can see Mbabu and Steffen are interplaying in the wide area, dragging multiple Schalke players into this space. A pass centrally is available to Arnold, who then plays a quick pass into Schlager. There is then more space between the lines for a pass into Ginczek due to the wide initial movement from Schalke’s central midfielder, Schöpf. This pass is made and it leads to Wolfsburg’s first chance of the match.
Here is another example of the build-up strategies of Wolfsburg. As you can see in the first image, Schalke are in their defensive shape and look compact, leaving minimal space for the centre midfielders of Wolfsburg to receive the ball.
The second image shows how the build-up strategies of Wolfsburg are effective in creating space centrally. With the ball played out to Brekalo, the Schalke right-back and right midfield press wide and the wide press from them is continued when the Wolfsburg wide man plays backwards to Roussillon. He can then beat the press with an inside pass to Arnold, who is now in space in the middle thanks to the wide build-up and bait of the Schalke press. Wolfsburg can then attack while Schalke are not in a set defensive shape and they are able to score their second goal of the match.
How Wolfsburg looked to manipulated the Schalke backline
Wolfsburg aimed to play into their striker’s feet, with them dropping in slightly. This would lead to the Schalke centre backs being pulled out of position and then space is created behind the defence. They were not entering successful in this approach, but they still created dangerous opportunities through it. Just four of their 11 through passes were successful, showing the limited success they got through this movement.
Here is an example of this movement from the strikers of Wolfsburg. Weghorst drops in slightly and receives the pass from deep, this movement brings the opposition centre-back out of the backline to pressure Weghorst. Ginczek then makes a diagonal run across into the vacated space. Unfortunately, Weghorst cannot find a pass in order for a through ball to be played.
The above image shows a successful play where the approach to exploit the Schalke backline was successful. Ginczek moves into a slightly deeper area and receives the ball, this drags the opposition centre-back with him. A quick 1-2 with Brekalo allows Ginczek to exploit the space created in behind by his earlier movement. The striker goes through on goal and misses, with Weghorst and Roussillon both being viable passing options. Even though Ginczek misses the target, the ability to exploit the Schalke backline was clear.
Schalke’s latter stage improvements
Schalke had some positives to take from the match, with their second-half performance being a large improvement from the first going forward, yet conceding three goals in 13 minutes early in the second half gave them a minimal chance of a result.
The xG dynamics of the match show the second-half improvement from Schalke in the attacking side, with their second-half xG being 0.84 (Schalke=blue line). The reasoning for their improvement was partly due to the counter-press of Wolfsburg having less success in the second half, which meant Schalke’s direct play had more success. It was also due to the impressive direct running from midfield, especially from McKennie, who completed five successful dribbles, the most of any player on the pitch.
Here is an example of Schalke being able to directly progress the ball without quick pressure from Wolfsburg. A direct pass is played into Ahmed Kutucu and John Brooks attempts to press him, yet, he is too slow and in fact, he just opens up space behind him like that which the Wolfsburg attackers were trying to find. Kutucu plays a brilliant pass in behind to Matondo, who finishes past the goalkeeper to score a well-worked goal.
Here is an example of the midfield running which shown some success in the second half. McKennie picks the ball up in a deep area, with two Wolfsburg players attempting to press him greatly. He is able to get past both of them and drive into the open space behind them. He then can get to the edge of the box and is able to find a good pass out wide to Miranda in a wide position, he crosses the ball and Caligiuri is ultimately denied by a brilliant save from Casteels. McKennie’s ability to break the press from Wolfsburg was impressive. The Wolves PPDA for the second half dropped to 9.1, helping to show that Schalke had more success in the second half.
Even though there was an improvement in the second half for Schalke, it was not enough for them to worry Wolfsburg, who already had a healthy advantage in the game early on in the second half.
The game proved to play out as their relative form would expect, with Wolfsburg winning comfortably. While Schalke showed some promise in the second half, their reliance on their direct play means that when teams are able to counter it, they do not have a solution.
This tactical analysis has shown the tactics supplied by both managers in this matchup, Schalke looked to play directly, as usual, however, Wolfsburg dealt with it well for the majority of the game with their counter-pressing. Wolfsburg’s build-up and manipulation of the Schalke backline were clear tactical implements that helped them dominate the match, win 4-1 and secure Europa League qualification for their side.
Schalke are now 14 Bundesliga matches without a win, they have had a terrible second half of the season and will need to win away at Freiburg next week to ensure they don’t go 15 matches without a win in a row, it has been such a surprising drop off for the club who looked to be challenging for the UEFA Champions League places earlier in the season. Wolfsburg will be looking to get a result against Bayern Munich; a difficult task. They will be wanting to finish in the sixth position so that they do not need to worry about the qualification stages for the Europa League. They will achieve this as long as the match the result that Hoffinhiem gets, who are away against Borussia Dortmund in the last matchday of the Bundesliga.