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Hannes Wolf | The former Dortmund coach making waves at VfB

Modern day German football has become synonymous with young aspiring managers and a high pressing style. Roger Schmidt set the platform for this mini revolution with his loud metal football, super fast and eye catchy style during his stints at Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig. Jurgen Klopp, Hassenhuttl, Domenico Tedesco are some of the managers who rely on pressing high up the pitch and unsettling the opponents. One such manager who has come to fame recently is Hannes Wolf, currently at VfB Stuttgart.

Vfb Stuttgart are one of the most famous football clubs from Germany with a respectable trophy cabinet. The club have won 5 Bundesliga titles, most recently in 2006-07 and three DFB Pokal titles. However since the turn of the decade, the club have fallen down to mediocrity and have struggled more often that. When results go out of hand, managerial changes are bound to occur and this process repeats continuously. Vfb Stuttgart were caught in this vicious cycle changing more 9 managers from August 2013 to September 2016, when Hannes Wolf was appointed with the club in the Bundesliga 2. Hannes Wolf did a great job leading Stuttgart to the Second Division title and hence promotion.

Story of Hannes Wolf

Born in Bochum, Hannes Wolf started out as a striker playing for various youth teams and in the minor leagues. After realising that a career as a football player wasn’t going to do any good for him, Wolf turned to coaching and management. He started out as an assistant (player-coach) to Theo Schneider at SGE Ergeste and ASC 09 Dortmund. After these stints, he joined Borussia Dortmund as a youth coach. He became the coach of Dortmund U-19 in July 2010 managing till February 23,2011. He then managed Dortmund u-17s and Dortmund 2 before joining Stuttgart in September 2016. Hannes Wolf led Stuttgart back to the Bundesliga in their first attempt winning the second division whilst also creating a brand of football that the Bundesliga 2 would not forget easily.

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Hannes Wolf is known for his development of youngsters. Julian Weigl, Christian Pulisic and more recently Benjamin Pavard have all prospered under Hannes Wolf’s tutelage. Christian Pulisic’s dad Mark credits Wolf for helping Christian acclimatize to new surroundings. Mark said, “Most important was Wolf. He helped Christian get accustomed to his new life, as a coach and friend, both on and off the field.”

Wolf was Dortmund U-17s manager when Pulisic moved to north Germany, and a very successful one at that. With the U-17s he won 2 league titles in 2014 and 2015; then, for good measure, he also won the league with the U-19s after moving up the ladder the following year. Wolf’s early years at Dortmund were filled those title successes but ultimately, his most lasting legacy might well be the unearthing of players like Pulisic.

Jurgen Klopp has a huge influence on Hannes Wolf. In 2009, he attended a gala for the local sportsman of the year, at which Klopp was a guest. The Dortmund manager knew of Hannes Wolf by reputation and requested him to join Dortmund and soon Wolf was installed at the Westfalenstadion.

“[Klopp] changed everything,” said Wolf. “We worked together for six years and I was able to see his training, to be part of it. I saw everything. It’s difficult to say in words how much [it influenced me], because it’s not only about understanding how training works, but everything to do with the club. He was always helping me — there was a lot of brilliant input for a young coach at this time. It was an unbelievable experience and a big part of me.”

When Thomas Tuchel replaced Klopp at Dortmund in 2015, Tuchel further guided Wolf, who took elements from both men while trying not to “copy” either blatantly. The three are still in continuous touch but their respective career paths mean lengthy discussions of tactics and philosophies are not feasible

“I try to understand what they do, then bring things together for my style or working,” says Wolf. “It’s a lot of ideas but with my own voice and own language. Both [managers] are a big part of it, but I try to do it in my own way.”

Wolf is not a typical modern coach implementing a particular style and staunchly sticking to it. Rather Wolf sets his team to be more fluid — pragmatic, even — and to be adaptable depending on the circumstances. Modern in his own way, Wolf is a coach that is capable of being reactive and adjusting his team in accordance to the situation and the opposition in question.

Wolf, just 36 years old, has already proved that he is one to thieve under pressure and matching expectations. He was hired when Stuttgart were barely inside the top half of the table and yet, cometh the season end, Stuttgart had comfortably qualified to the top tier thanks to Wolf’s excellence. Stuttgart did have a capable squad of getting promoted, but at the time of Wolf’s appointment, they were largely under-performing and it was entirely down to Wolf that they were able to qualify to the top division ever so comfortably.

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The one impressive thing that has to be accredited to Wolf is the fact that he has won the championships thrice with the youth squads- twice with U17’s and once with the U19’s, after having been promoted based on his work with the U17 squad. This is reminiscent of Pep Guardiola and how he climbed up the rung in his managerial endeavor as he was successful with the Barcelona B side. The styles could not be more contrasting and this is no way a comparison between the two either, but it works in Wolf’s favor that he has proven himself at the youth level and been mighty successful at it too.

A winning mentality is essential for any manager and Wolf has got it in abundance already. It is an ingrained trait that has seen so much success for Wolf. While Stuttgart are in the bottom half of the table, hovering ever so closely to the relegation zone, they have been one of the biggest underachievers in Germany and the results do not speak of the actual state of Wolf’s side.

Tactical Breakdown

Hannes Wolf sets Stuttgart to play an unorthodox 5-2-2-1 formation with more focus on setting pressing traps for the opposition. When in possession, it becomes a 3-1-2-1-3. What separates 5-2-2-1 from a 5-3-2 is the more offensive alignment of the players. There is one player less before the defense and one man extra in the high pressing zones. He is versatile and tinkers the formation a bit and is also known to use the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 at time, based on the opposition.

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Basically when the ball is in the middle, the side is overloaded. This helps to constantly circulate ball on the right side, which can be used for a key moment or give massive space for the left sided attacker. Interestingly this positional shift can also lead to an overload on the other side, the left which is created by the movements of the three central players. This makes the whole system fluid, intuitive and hard to counter. Andreas Beck has the license to bombard forward at will in this system, playing virtually as a winger providing width and diagonal movement. Gentner’s ability to hold space and also maintain width helped Andreas Beck in this aspect.

Wolf is versatile when it comes to setting up his team. It can be said that he makes a tweak almost every other match wherein he makes changes specific to the opposition. The general focus is to set up with a proper structure and press the opposition passively within a stable block. A 4-4-2, especially during last season, when they were in Bundesliga 2 was also seen, that frequented between a 4-2-3-1 based on the players used.

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Wolf makes use of a three man defense and a double pivot in front of the defense that consists of a ball winner and an all action midfielder. The two wing backs are expected to contribute in all the phases of the game. The front three is generally fluid with a lone striker operating off two 10’s that look to exploit the space. The 10’s are focused in shifting towards the ball near side and are not focused on providing width primarily. Rather, they look to occupy the ‘zone 14’ or help in running the channels.

Stuttgart usually close the center. After passes to the site was then started; the six could be kept well in the cover triangle in the front triangular structure leaving them no option but to pass to the full back. This chain allows Stuttgart to keep the game in the opponents’ half. This is not to say that Stuttgart press aggressively high in the opponent’s half as they usually set camp in a mid-block.

Hannes Wolf makes use of pressing, directing play towards the flanks and outnumbering the opposition there, wherein the striker, the ball near 10 and central midfielder all help in blocking the center, shifting laterally to the wings aggressively when the ball is played there.

The trigger is usually a fullback receiving in a poor body position. The Stuttgart players do not hound the opposition in a frenetic fashion, rather holding their position and adjusting themselves accordingly. This can be useful when the opponent is capable of resisting the press and play quick combinations to gain access to the middle or final third. That being said, Stuttgart do not cover the far side entirely well and leave it a bit exposed, something that can be expected from a team that positions itself densely in the ball near areas to press and win the ball back.

The in game movements from Stuttgart are also very good. Ascacibar and Gentner are generaly tasked with sideways movements that help open the passing lane to a forward positioned 10. This is done when the centre back in possession is carrying the ball forward. Benjamin Pavard’s ball playing capabilities complement this as he can find a line breaking pass with this movement from the midfielders in front of him.

The above is a great example of exploiting the man orientations in the opponent while also bringing the best out of the players at disposal. Creating chances and having a stable buildup by manipulating both the opponent and the players at disposal is something that Hannes Wolf seems to have figured out well.

Another interesting feature in Wolf’s setup is the use of his full backs. They act as auxiliary presence in the half spaces or the center, although not in the false fullback role that Pep Guardiola’s sides are known for. Dennis Aogo, currently the first choice left back for Stuttgart is usually tasked with providing the width when played as a wing back. However it is not uncommon to see him occupying his half space in build up while also presiding there when the attack is down the right flank.

The system is position based rather than being man oriented. The strikers and the two number 10s behind him on the either side half-spaces usually form a triangle over their opponent 6. This allowed them to react to movements in all directions. Respectively, it was even hardly possible for the six to start meaningful movements, because just exactly the possible alternative areas – centrally behind, left, right – were already occupied by the opponent

Stuttgart’s 3-4-2-1 is wider and deeper than a conventional 3-4-2-1 used by Chelsea etc. This tweak from Wolf is done in order to make the double 6s form the first line of gegenpressing but also gave an additional man to it who had to support the defense and act quickly rather than go into the opposition box for constant pressing.

Stuttgart have a very versatile manager in their hands that does not shy away from shaking things up a bit. It has to be said that he has been excellent in nurturing talent with the likes of Ascacibar and Pavard hugely benefiting from playing under Wolf. Add to this the likes of Pulisic back from his Dortmund days and Takuma Asano last season, Wolf is a really good coach that can develop talent. He has also brought the best out of the likes of Dennis Aogo, who seemed to never hit it off and Holger Badstuber finally enjoying a consistent run, Hannes Wolf is as close to the complete package as they come these days. All this at 36 years old, one has to stand up and take notice of this young manager who is showing abundant potential and signs that he will make it to the top level soon enough.

Wolf has created a very stable and formidable tactical philosophy at Stuttgart but its prolonged success and how it works when superior opponents are played remains a question. Wolf has proved himself to be the one of the best young managers around and this bodes well for German football.

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