After the first five matches of the 2022-23 Bundesliga season, Wolfsburg are winless and have just two points. It was somewhat reminiscent of the start of the previous season, under the short stewardship of Mark van Bommel, except they actually won the game. Rather than letting go of coach Niko Kovac early on, which happened to Van Bommel after just 13 games, Wolfsburg sporting director Marcel Schaeffer said they have stuck by the former Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt manager.
What followed was a 13-match spell with only two defeats, including a six-match winning streak and a 22-goal scoring run, that put them back in contention for the European spots. How have Kovac’s tactics evolved from the start of the season to date, and why do Wolfsburg look so much better than they did last season?
Untangling a flawed philosophy
Van Bommel’s appointment last season forced Wolfsburg to change their playing style with little time and structure to do so. The successes under his predecessor Oliver Glassner had been built on a tenacious defense, strength and transfers – pillars of his coaching background at Red Bull – but they were still capable of playing in a professional style. However, Van Bommel’s ideas were based entirely on possession, with an emphasis on the slow spin of the ball.
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The Dutch manager had no previous experience to prepare him for such a rigorous undertaking. This threw the entire season into disarray, with the preseason considered lost, players confused about their roles and Van Bommel’s replacement, Florian Kuhfeldt – who shared a very similar possession-based style – struggled to pick up the pieces.
After two missteps in selecting a head coach and the controversial resignation of their director of football, Jörg Schmadtke, Wolfsburg can finally begin to right the wrongs they’ve made. The appointment of Kovac, whose philosophy was closer to Glasner’s, was a step in the right direction.
When Kovac came in, he implemented a mixture of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations with a clear focus on how the team should play without possession. He began working to increase his team’s intensity behind the ball so that they could defend with a medium-high press to force their opponents wide. Once they have won the ball, they can take advantage of their quick players in quick transfers.
While you may see improvement and more stability, the start to this season has been just as unsuccessful as the past with many small issues hampering the team. This included an unbalanced build-up pattern in which Wolfsburg used three unequal players and a transitional period to get used to the level of intensity required.
“It certainly takes six to eight weeks for the body to react properly,” Kovac said. NDR adapting his players. “This is a process that should evolve over several months or years. We are at a good level, but more is possible.”
outperform the opposition
Despite the lack of any victories and the familiar bad feeling about Lower Saxony, Kovac remained in his position with the faith of the Wolfsburg board of directors and most importantly, the players. Wolfsburg’s opponents had outplayed them in the first few matches, which had a negative effect on their results. Once Kovac’s team gained the advantage in that specific metric, his football style and turnaround helped him win.
Now, they lead the Bundesliga table in sprints per game and intense sprints, but why is this so important? On its own, it isn’t, but for a team that has an intensity-based philosophy, it becomes vital in executing defense in a compact form, closing off substitutions (passes or passes that help the team change sides horizontally), pressing opponents individually, blocking lanes. Pass and defend in a way that confuses your opponents. These are all things that Wolfsburg are doing well now, and their improvement in results corresponds to the improvement in these metrics.
However, all good runs must come to an end, and their 10-game unbeaten streak came to an abrupt end with a 2-1 defeat by Werder Bremen last week. Funnily enough, in this loss they were again beaten in running distance by Bremen. It also highlighted another area that Wolfsburg needs to improve if it is to stay in the race for the top four: tactics in possession. They still circulate the ball slowly, allowing their opponents to defend in a low block if needed, and they find it difficult to create any numerical advantage in order to overload certain areas to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Despite this problem, Kovac’s appointment sealed a Wolfsburg team that had lost its way after Glasner’s exit. With Kovac a proven Bundesliga winner and Bundesliga starter with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Munich respectively, his tactics should be enough to bring Wolfsburg closer to what it once was: in European competition.