Frauen Bundesliga 2019/20: analysing VFL Wolfsburg’s tactical dynamism – scout report
As we get into the business end of the season, the Women’s Champions League is returning. One side that will be looking for success in this competition to go along with what should be another year of dominance domestically in the Frauen Bundesliga is VFL Wolfsburg. The German outfit has been a European power for some time now, but have not been able to reach the summit. Since claiming glory in two consecutive seasons between 2012 and 2014, they have been unable to replicate this success. Two final losses have come at the hands of four-time defending champions Olympique Lyonnais since then. This year, however, they will be quietly optimistic over a change in their fortune. Dominating their domestic league, Wolfsburg return to the Champions League in top form.
In this tactical analysis scout report, we will take a look at the German side. Stephan Lerch’s tactics have Wolfsburg playing extremely effectively and efficiently. We will go into the major areas of the side, as well as discussing where they might run into problems as they try and end Lyon’s run of dominance in Europe.
Wolfsburg typically line up in a 4-4-2 formation. They have used this in 44% of their matches in the past calendar year. 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1 can also be seen from the German side through different situations and periods of matches. The benefit of this 4-4-2 system is the flexibility to move into a variety of other systems. The role of Harder in the Wolfsburg side is the key reason why you will see them move in between all three of the formations above in one match. Her ability to play inline and behind a primary striker gives Stephan Lerch an immense amount of tactical flexibility. Be sure to check out Abdullah Abdullah’s scout report specifically focusing on Harder and her role in the Wolfsburg side. Below you can see the 4-4-2 formation and preferred eleven used by the league leaders in Germany’s top division.
As we will discuss in this tactical analysis, Wolfsburg are extremely versatile with their shape. Their squad is adept in playing in various formations and positions within them. This often makes it difficult for oppositions to defend against them. We will look at their pressing structure, along with their attacking and defending shape to see how this flexibility works in matches.
The first area of their game that Wolfsburg’s flexibility benefits them is in their pressing. With the majority of the side very comfortable in various different positions on the pitch, it allows them to press aggressively and still keep defensive cover.
Wolfsburg likes to press very intensely in most situations. The German side have dominated their domestic league on a consistent basis in no small part due to their pressing schemes. Typically, they will have at least five players on the forward line when attacking, and as soon as possession is lost, these players are very quick to react. Immediately these attackers go hunting for a turnover or to try and force the opponent to clear it so Wolfsburg can regain possession.
In Wolfsburg’s typical set-up, they like to overload the wide areas. In the image, we can see above, notice the amount of Wolfsburg players on the right side of the pitch as Leverkusen look to build possession forward. An attempted pass is made into the middle of the park, which is quickly intercepted and played forward, leading to a goal. The German side look to impress instantly as oppositions gain possession in order to win it back as quickly as possible, hoping for a chance like in this situation.
An interesting difference has been seen in the sides’ matches against Bayern Munich. Wolfsburg are usually the side to dominate possession, but in the matches between these two sides, they allow Bayern to keep the ball for large periods of play. Wolfsburg will drop into their 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 defensive set-up and wait in a mid-block as Bayern hold possession in their own defensive third. However, once the ball is progressed into the midfield third, the press is executed. If they are in a 4-2-3-1, Harder steps forward into the forward line and presses the centre-halves. The purpose of this is to get the opponent to play it wide rather than trying to move through the lines centrally. Once this has been done successfully, Wolfsburg look to set up pressing traps in these areas to regain possession.
In the image below we can see an example of this pressing scheme against Bayern. In this first image, Wolfsburg are sitting off as Bayern hold possession in their own final third. They are willing to wait patiently until the ball is progressed, not allowing Bayern to drag them out of their structure.
Harder is essential in Wolfsburg’s pressing game. Her role in this set-up is to identify key passing lanes into the centre of the park and cut them off to force opponents wide. Her work rate in these situations is unbelievably high and is crucial in the success the German side has.
When Wolfsburg are forced into defending, they look to drop into a 4-4-2 formation. This structure gives them an abundance of stability. They keep their midfield and defensive lines right and don’t allow for any room in these areas for opponents to operate.
Typically they do not spend a ton of time in these defensive situations. Even against Bayern, Wolfsburg still look to hold a respectable amount of possession and not allow their opponent to force them too deep. This allows them to keep a strong presence in the match and look to get back onto the front foot as quickly as possible.
When they are being outnumbered in midfield, Harder or the second striker, in general, will drop into this area between the double pivot and striker to create a 4-2-3-1. Her positioning here is often to cut off the passing lanes into these central areas, and her work rate allows it to work to great effect more often than not. Below you can see Wolfsburg set up in this deep 4-2-3-1 formation.
The wide midfielders sit right in front of the full-backs and provide cover. They stay right in these areas until possession is moved into these wide areas, before moving forward to close them down in their pressing traps. Wolfsburg average a passes per defensive action of 7.25 this campaign, which shows their eagerness to spend as little time in this defending phase and get back onto the attack.
In the attacking phase of the game is where Wolfsburg are truly special. They have scored an incredible 74 goals in 16 matches in their league campaign, coming out to an average of 4.625 goals per match. This productivity is a result of the success they have with their unique attacking system that we will go over in this analysis.
As mentioned, Wolfsburg typically set up in a 4-4-2 formation. However, when possession is gained and the side set up in the opposition’s half of the pitch, this morphs into a very attacking system. The biggest alteration comes in the midfield. Ingrid Engen and Sara Gunnarsdottir are regulars in Wolfsburg’s midfield, but their role in the side can differ. Both of these players have the ability to play a very important role in the side, which involves dropping deep in front of the defence. From here, the player looks to orchestrate attacks. With this, the other midfield, who is typically Alexandra Popp or the other of the two that can we mentioned earlier, is given the freedom to get into very advanced positions.
This offers one of the most intriguing parts of Wolfsburg’s tactics. With one of the central midfielders moving forward, she essentially fills in a left or right forward. Then, the second striker, which is typically Harder, plays on the opposite side of this central midfielder just off of Ewa Pajor up top. In these areas, the attacking players look for space in between the midfield and defensive opponent lines in the half-spaces. To aid this, the wide midfielders are tasked with staying in wide positions to force the full-backs to stay with them, rather than cheating inwards in order to cut out this space.
The full-backs are given the freedom to move forward when the opportunity presents itself. Typically, when one moves forward the other will drop in with the centre-halves to add defensive cover. This counter-pressing structure is crucial for Wolfsburg as they look to dominate games in the opponent’s final third. When the full-back gets forward, they look to combine with their wide midfielder and find a pass in behind the defence.
In the image above you can see this system against Bayer Leverkusen. Specifically, you can see Gunnarsdottir holding a position right in front of the defence, which allows Popp to press into the advanced position she is in.
As the play progresses, the Wolfsburg attacker drops into the space between the two deep lines and opens up for a pass. Because of Wolfsburg’s set up and the need for Leverkusen defenders to mark others around her, she receives possession with tike to turn and push forward. She then switches play quickly to the right-wing and a chance is created.
If these channels are not available, they also like to attack the wings before coming inside for crosses. With the inside forwards, they are just as easily able to move closer to the wide areas to progress play as they are to help facilitate this inside. This player will join with the winger and look to overload the opponent’s full-back. Here they will try and make quick one-two passes to get in behind the defensive line.
Possession has been played into Maritz at left-back in the image above. With Rolfo ahead of her at left-midfield, she cuts back infield to give herself options to look for a pass. Here you can see Popp coming into this wide part of the half-space to help create an overload on the defensive line.
Here you can see the pass has been played into Popp. The Leverkusen centre-half momentarily moves towards the ball and that gives Pajor the space to run in behind for Popp to find with a through pass once she receives it.
The matches against Bayern this campaign have provided an intriguing insight into what we could possibly see in future stages of the Champions Leauge. With that, it has possibly shown some weaknesses Wolfsburg must be cautious of as they go head-to-head with Europe’s elite.
A point of some concern comes from their midfield. This was evident in their matches against the second-place side and could be something looked at by upcoming opponents. When Wolfsburg were in possession, Bayern set up in a mid-block and packed the centre of the pitch. This was done for a couple of reasons. Avoiding dropping deep meant that Wolfsburg were unable to set up their attacking structure as effectively as they are accustomed to. The defenders in the initial possession were not given the space to progress forward.
Additionally, maintaining a numerical advantage in the centre of the park was done to try and restrict passing lanes into the forward players. Like we discussed earlier, Wolfsburg uses the inside channels to find their attacking players situated in the half-spaces. With these areas cut out, they were forced to look wide or go long. You can see this in the image below. With Wolfsburg trying to set up in their normal attacking formation with their midfielder spreading out, Bayern put a large amount of numbers in this area to stop them from looking to play through the lines.
Wolfsburg opted to look over the top. Pajor and Harder tried getting into the space on the outside of Bayern’s outside centre-halves. While Wolfsburg’s defenders were able to pick out these passes occasionally, the majority of their attempts were cut out by the Bayern defence, who then went to set back up in their own possession game.
A side that could represent similar issues is Barcelona. The two sides could potentially meet in the semifinals and would present a very intriguing tie. Barcelona put a major emphasis on possession play and winning the midfield battle in their matches.
With a date with Glasgow City in the quarterfinals of the Champions Leauge, Wolfsburg will be confident of their progression in the competition. In the semifinals, a meeting with the winner of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona awaits, before the possibility of a final encounter against Lyon. As we discussed in this analysis, Wolfsburg have plenty of reason to be optimistic about their chances in ending this campaign with success, but they must continue to push forward. A tie against Barcelona would present an interesting encounter for the German champions, who can struggle at times with sides who like to dominate possession and play through midfield.
However, Wolfsburg’s attacking ability make them a side no one will fancy to face. Harder and Pajor up top have formed a dynamic scoring partnership and are doing so for fun at the current moment. Larch’s tactical flexibility has allowed his side to flourish, and they have been incredible to watch this campaign.