After the first five games of the 2022-23 Bundesliga season, VfL Wolfsburg are winless and have just two points. It was somewhat reminiscent of their start to the season before, under the short-lived management of Mark van Bommel, except they actually won a game. Instead of parting ways with coach Niko Kovac early, which happened to Van Bommel after just 13 games, Wolfsburg sporting director Marcel Schafer said they are sticking with the former Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt boss.
What followed was a run of 13 games with just two defeats including six wins and 22 goals which put them back in the race for European places. How have Kovac’s tactics evolved from the start of the season to now, and why are Wolfsburg looking miles better than they did last season?
Controlling the wrong philosophy
Last season’s appointment of Van Bommel forced Wolfsburg to change their style of play with little time and structure to do so. Oliver Glasner’s wins were built on solid defence, consolidation and transition — pillars of his Red Bull coaching background — but they were still able to play in possession. Van Bommel’s ideas, however, were entirely about possession, with the focus on slow ball circulation.
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The Dutch manager had no previous experience to prepare him for this difficult task. This has thrown the whole season into disarray, with the season already seen as wasted, players confused about their roles and Van Bommel’s replacement, Florian Kohfeldt – who shared a similar possession-based approach – struggling. to pick up the pieces.
After two mistakes in the selection of the head coach and the controversial director of football, Jorg Schmadtke, left the job, Wolfsburg can finally work to correct what they did wrong. The appointment of Kovac, whose philosophy is very similar to that of Glasner, was a step in the right direction.
When Kovac came in, he implemented a combination of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 with a clear focus on how the team could play without possession. He began to work on improving his team’s strength behind the ball so that they could defend a strong ball in the middle to force the opposition. As soon as they win the ball, they can use their fast players for quick transitions.
While you could see more progress and stability, the start of this season was as unsuccessful as the last with a few minor issues derailing the team. This included an unbalanced formation in which Wolfsburg used three asymmetric backs and a transition period that accommodated the level of intensity required.
“It actually takes six to eight weeks for the body to respond properly,” Kovac told NDR about his players’ adaptation. “This is a process that should develop over several months or years. We are at a good stage, but more is possible.”
Despite the lack of success and bad feelings around Lower Saxony, Kovac continued to work with the faith of the Wolfsburg board and more importantly, the players. Wolfsburg won their first few games, which had a negative effect on their results. When Kovac’s team took advantage of this unique metric, it helped his football style and turned into success.
Now, they top the Bundesliga table for runs per game and rushing, but why does this matter? Alone, it is not, but for a team that has a philosophy based on intensity, it will be important to defend in a mixed way, closing the transition games (a pass or a pass that helps the team to change directly), pressing the opponents in particular. ah, blocking passing lanes and defending to disrupt opponents. These are now all things that Wolfsburg do well, and their improvement results in the improvement of these parameters.
All good runs must come to an end, however, and a 10 game unbeaten run came to an abrupt end in a 2-1 defeat at Werder Bremen last weekend. Ironically, this loss was again beaten by a long run by Bremen. It also highlighted another area where Wolfsburg need to improve if they are to stay in contention for the top four: possession tactics. The circulation of the ball is still slow, which allows the opposition to defend low if necessary, and it is difficult for them to create any numerical advantage in order to overrun certain areas to create chances. scoring goals.
Despite this, Kovac’s appointment sets up a Wolfsburg team that has lost its way following Glasner’s departure. With Kovac winning the DFB-Pokal and Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Munich, respectively, his skills should be enough to get Wolfsburg closer to where they belong: European competitions.