Bundesliga MD 29 Preview: Wolfsburg vs. Bayern
Away to Wolfsburg, at home against Leverkusen and then away to Mainz – after the next seven days it will be clear how important the Bundesliga month of May will still be for FC Bayern. One thing is clear: if the Bayern team can keep its five-point lead beyond this week, the championship is as good as decided. The away game at 1. FSV Mainz 05 is followed by a two-week break and then Bayern have their last three games at home against Gladbach, away to Freiburg and at home against Augsburg in leisurely weekly intervals. This run-in should greatly favor the record champions in the season’s home stretch.
Because Leipzig in their last three games have to go to Dortmund, then play Wolfsburg at home and finally Union Berlin away. On paper, this is a tougher run-in, but it is preceded by what semes like an easier English week, in which the opponents are Hoffenheim (home), Cologne (away) and Stuttgart (home).
The air was said to be out of the championship race after the direct encounter of the two title contenders a few weeks ago. But FC Bayern’s five point lead seems more comfortable than perhaps it is. Although Leipzig failed to seize the opportunity to increase the pressure on Bayern with last night’s draw against Hoffenheim, the race is not yet over. Bayern, with their considerably decimated team, still face the challenge to win over the defensively stable Wolfsburg if they do not want the title race to become exciting again. There are still a fair number of matches to play. A loss today would usher in an end to the season as close and tightly contested as it has only rarely been in recent years.
It is mainly up to Bayern how nervy an affair the final weeks of the season will be for them. But this weekend, from a neutral’s perspective, brings with it the potential to reopen the championship race for the second time this season. Bayern were already seven points clear at the top of the table before Leipzig came close again but then lost ground at the time around the match with Bayern. Now Leipzig can stage their second and probably final attempt: Will Julian Nagelsmann’s team manage to carry their recent stability into the final phase of the season?
The double load of having to contest both the DFB-Pokal and the Bundesliga should not negatively affect Leipzig, at least for now. The DFB-Pokal semi-final is scheduled to take place on a weekend, so they will be able to maintain their accustomed weekly rhythm. The final, however, is scheduled for 13 May, i.e. on the Thursday evening before the league match against Wolfsburg the following weekend. If the championship has not yet been decided at that point, that would be a clear disadvantage for Leipzig.
But for now, this is all speculation and taking the second step before the first. Leipzig already missed out on beating Hoffenheim last night and they will almost certainly need Bayern to be defeated by Wolfsburg for the title race to become halfway exciting again, especially given Bayern can now exclusively focus on the Bundesliga after their Champions League exit against PSG.
Flick’s job is to motivate his team for the remaining six games and make the players realize how quickly the title race can become tight again if they are not careful. The game at Wolfsburg on Saturday afternoon may well be more indicative of what is yet to come for Bayern in this regard than many would suspect simply by looking at the table. And Wolfsburg, their opponents? There can be no doubt that they are a severely underestimated team.
Wolfsburg have been flying under the radar all season despite having comfortably sat in the Champions League places in the table for a long time already. After the championship contest at the top, the focus of the media is mainly on Eintracht Frankfurt’s very impressive (4th place) and Borussia Dortmund’s disappointing season (5th place). After that, it is surprising sides like Union Berlin (7th place) that get all the attention.
In any case, it is probably because many fans in Germany still do not pay a great deal of attention to Wolfsburg. With Leipzig and Hoffenheim, there are now other clubs that are a source of friction for those who see their traditional footballing values massively eroded. But maybe it is also a bit because Glasner and his staff deploy a very serious, no-nonsense football that tends to be not very spectacular. Despite a few exceptions, including a 5-3 home win against Werder Bremen and last week’s wild 3-4 defeat at Frankfurt, Wolfsburg tend to stand for minimalist results.
Last season, there were already signs that the “Wolves” under Glasner were trying to place their main emphasis on a stable defense. For a long time, they had one of the best defenses in the league, but then came a phase in which they conceded many goals – six of them against Leipzig alone. The downward spiral was mainly a result of a sustained dip in the team’s form and Glasner’s failure to provide offensive relief.
Too much depended on Wout Weghorst coming up with something special at some point in a match. In the current season, that dependence on Weghorst has lessened somewhat. Wolfsburg have become more flexible. True, Weghorst is still by far the most important striker of the team with 23 goals in 35 competitive games – Ridle Baku (6) and Renato Steffen (5) follow. But Wolfsburg’s style of play has improved in that they have become more versatile going forward and more composed and structured in possession overall.
Wolfsburg’s central midfield in particular is severely underestimated. The triangle of Maxi Arnold, Xaver Schlager and Yannick Gerhardt is on a very high technical level. The three players complement each other very well, always finding the right positions on the pitch with their movements and thus help not only to keep the ball moving but also open up spaces. They also harmonize well with each other out of possession, often managing to keep the upper hand against the opposing midfield.
It is therefore all the more bitter for Glasner that he will have to do without the yellow card suspended Arnold at the weekend. He was often the decisive player in the duels with Bayern – both in and out of possession. In the few good performances Wolfsburg had against Bayern in recent years, it was often he who set his team’s pace and disrupted the opponent’s rhythm to some extent. His absence on Saturday is a loss for which it is almost impossible for Wolfsburg to compensate.
Yannick Gerhardt will probably move back one position an be one half of the double pivot in Glasner’s 4-2-3-1. Maximilian Philipp, who has only collected 694 minutes this season and scored only twice, could then play in the ten position. He scored a goal in the reverse fixture against Bayern.
Since the Hecking era, Wolfsburg have always had a strong wing focus to their game. The problem last season and also in the years before was usually that the quality of the wingers was either not high enough and/or the respective coaches did not manage to integrate them effectively.
This season, too, there were a few games in which it was Wolfsburg’s undoing that they did not have anyone out wide in attack who really stood out. But then Glasner started to use right-back Ridle Baku more often as a right winger. In the last eleven Bundesliga games, the 23-year-old has been directly involved in eight goals. His rise on the right attacking wing has turned out to be a gamechanger for the team. In no other phase of the season were the Wolves as stable as they are now.
Baku already played an important role for Wolfsburg at right-back, but his advancement further up the pitch has allowed Glasner to better balance out the personnel problems in his squad. The German international will surely look to join a bigger club sometime in the future. He has already been linked with Bayern several times. In view of the COVID-19 pandemic and Baku’s appreciation in value due to his consistently good performances, prying him away from Wolfsburg this summer would certainly not be easy. But Bayern would be rather ill advised if they were not at least going to talk to the right-back.
The 21-year-old Maxence Lacroix has already being linked with bigger clubs as well. The central defender is having a great season, having matured into his team’s most stable defender, and has already scored three goals. Alongside the rather inconsistent John Anthony Brooks, he is also an important defensive building block for Glasner, who together with sporting director Jörg Schmadtke has managed to establish a basic stability in the team in the first year and further reinforce it with adding suitable players in the second.
It is quite remarkable how the duo of Schmadtke and Glasner has managed to calm the club down after rumours of an irreconcilable rift between the two had surfaced earlier this season. And this refound stability at the club, both on and off the pitch, will also mean that Wolfsburg will be a very unpleasant opponent for Bayern. This is not at all helped by the fact that the Bayern team will still have to do without Robert Lewandowski. Without his penetration up front, the match has every indication of becoming a gruelling war of attrition for Bayern against a defensively stable Wolfsburg.
Wolfsburg will probably try to force Bayern to lose the ball out of a compact 4-4-2 midfield pressing. With 1091 pressure situations created in the attacking third, the Wolves are currently in 3rd place in the Bundesliga. However, especially against individually strong teams like Bayern they tend to sit a little deeper. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that Glasner will urge his team forward during certain phases of the game. Flexibility in the game out of possession is one of Wolfsburg’s basic strengths. With 2014 pressure situations in the middle third, they also rank 3rd in the Bundesliga.
On the pitch, this could result in a game that looks similar for Wolfsburg as it did for Paris on Tuesday night, only with a little more willingness to run in attack. In other words, a defense sitting deep to provide protection against long balls, but also occasionally pushing out in order to put pressure on the opponent’s defensive midfield, and sometimes advancing even further upfield than that. The capability to do this is one of the main strengths of the Wolfsburg team.
A tried and tested countermeasure, which Bayern used too rarely on Tuesday, is building up with three at the back in order to better keep control during build-up play and not be forced into hasty passes under pressure. Thomas Müller could be overheard yelling across the entire pitch at one point in Paris: “More three-man build-up!” The effect afterwards was limited, however. Nevertheless, Bayern could try to establish control against Wolfsburg by positioning one of the full-backs a little deeper or, ideally, ordering one of the holding midfielders not named Kimmich to sit a little deeper. Why not Kimmich? Because he will be indispensable in higher zones to get a grip on Wolfsburg’s physically but also technically strong midfield.
Kimmich was absent in the reverse fixture, which was clearly evident in Bayern’s play. Lewandowski’s absence will cause problems this time around. However, the last few games also showed that Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting does not harm the flow of the game. On the contrary: the more rhythm the 32-year-old gets, the better he is able to tap into the team’s flow. His link-up play with Müller looks increasingly smooth.
There is no question that Choupo-Moting cannot adequately replace Lewandowski. No one could. The physical presence of the striker, but also the the way he participates in his team’s approach play are sorely lacking. And yet the offensive line around Choupo-Moting is well enough drilled to compensate for the loss, at least at a Bundesliga level. It may be more difficult to adequately replace Leon Goretzka, however. There is speculation that Javi Martínez might start in his place, but he is not the type of player who can bring the dynamism that Goretzka can. Especially against Wolfsburg, Goretzka would have been an important factor in his team’s efforts to draw apart the opponent’s well-positioned lines.
Ultimately, success at Wolfsburg will probably hinge on two factors: How much of a mental setback will the team’s elimination from the Champions League prove to have been? And can the team motivate itself for everyday Bundesliga life the same way it did for the Champions League? After winning the sixth of their titles in Qatar earlier this year, there were one or two games in which the team did not look quite up to scratch, especially in the early stages. It is quite conceivable that something similar could happen this week.
Wolfsburg, in any case, are only one point ahead of Frankfurt after Last week’s defeat at their hands, and even Dortmund could come within five points if they lose again. So there is a lot at stake for the Wolves. Even if Wolfsburg have always looked almost timid playing against Bayern in the past, the overall situation is different this year. It is the duel between a beleaguered league leaders and a third-placed team on the ascendancy. So there is no reason for Wolfsburg not to regard this as a contest of equals. At least for the moment.