Hannes Wolf is one of the up and coming managers in German football and the 37-year-old Bochum native has been given the keys to Hamburger SV in their drive for promotion. At such a young age, Wolf isn’t considered in the same class as a Julian Nagelsmann and former Schalke manager Domenico Tedesco. Nevertheless, a student of the game who emphasises on being astute in defence and emphatic going forward. This head coach analysis looks at his Hamburg side structurally and the issues his team has had at set-pieces.
Wolf’s career so far
As a player, Wolf’s career isn’t something to write home about. Languishing in the lower tiers of German football playing for a variety of clubs like SW Essen and ASC 09 Dortmund. His playing career ended in 2016 but at that stage he was more a part time footballer if anything with life as a manager on the cards.
In the 2009/10, Wolf joined the set-up at Borussia Dortmund as an assistant coach to Theo Schneider. A season later the Bochum native was in charge of the U19’s where he had some modest results before being moved to Borussia Dortmund II in the Regionalliga midway through February. A tricky initial spell with the U19’s and the second team saw Wolf shifted to the U17’s where he had great success between 2011 and 2015.
Wolf in that stretch would win the U17’s championship twice and helped develop the likes Christian Pulisic, Felix Passlack and Janni Luca Serra. All who are now carving out respectable careers with Pulisic earning his big move to Chelsea in the summer. Wolf would return to the U19’s for one more complete season and once again coming away with the silverware. Three trophies in five seasons saw Stuttgart make their move.
At Stuttgart, Wolf came into a relatively broken situation. A side that had just been relegated and the supposed saviour in Jos Luhukay fleeing after less than three months in charge. Needing to regalvanise the group, Wolf implemented a strong defensive structure that insistent on a defence first mentality. It worked as Stuttgart were able to gain promotion back to the Bundesliga.
However, in the Bundesliga, the Cinderella story would turn into a Greek tragedy. Midway through the 2017/18 season, Stuttgart were forced to sack Wolf after admitting to the board he had lost the dressing room. A bold statement to make but one making his position untenable.
Away from the game, Wolf did some broadcasting for German television during the World Cup but still had the desire to get back into management. In late October of this season that chance would come when Hamburger SV sacked Christian Titz and brought in the 37-year-old. In 18 matches, Wolf has steadied the ship somewhat with Hamburg sitting in the automatic promotion spot.
His contract runs out at the end of the season; promotion back to the Bundesliga should see Wolf an extension.
Since joining Hamburg, Wolf has used the 4-1-4-1 as his preferred formation and it’s one that has welded great success. At his time in Hamburg Wolf has only failed to win four games in all competitions with three of those coming on their travels. The importance of protecting a young defensive core with a brut in defensive midfield and a flat four has become increasingly important over the course of the season. The formation is quite fluid with one of the central midfielders, namely Lewis Holtby or Aaron Hunt will tuck into defensive midfield to aid Mangala defensively. But also to receive possession and get the attack moving.
Hamburg play a variety of different ways without possession but generally, we don’t see it as much. Wolf’s side are the leagues best in possession but it’s important to gain an understanding of how one of the best teams in the league defends when holding a lead as well what they do structurally.
Here we see Darmstadt play from a throw in and already we see a weight in numbers approach forcing the visitors to play back. Plenty of man marking happening on the closest side of the pitch forcing Darmstadt to try to make a switch. Wolf’s side can move centrally if Darmstadt doesn’t move the ball quickly.
In just three seconds, Hamburg have moved their defensive line close to halfway. Pierre-Michel Lasogga is the furthest player up the pitch and is lightly pressing the ball carrier. Bakery Jatta on the far side has the most ground to make up to ensure that Darmstadt can’t switch.
Now we see a clearer picture of Hamburg’s defensive structure with possession in the middle of the park. It’s very narrow and is more of a 4-2-3-1 with Hunt dropping deeper. Wolf looks for his side to remain compact without possession and playing tight down the middle ensures Darmstadt must stretch them out defensively. However, by giving away the wider areas Hamburg can be caught by a long diagonal ball play out wide.
In this scenario, Marcel Franke plays the ball out wide to Marvin Mehlem who has plenty of time. Hamburg don’t see the danger in the middle third with focus on defending their defensive third of the pitch. The wide players in Jatta and Khaled Narey drop deeper with Berkay Özcan remains closer to halfway.
This play eventually ends up in the hands of Julian Pollersbeck. But with such a relatively inexperienced defensive pairing, Hamburg are prone to being stretched with quick ball movement.
Ball Retention/Offensive Structure
As mentioned earlier, Hamburg are a ball playing team and have showcased that throughout the course of the season under Titz and Wolf. What we’ve seen under Wolf is a very patient game, happy to keep possession for long periods and wait for the defence to crack. Switching the play consistently until space opens up, then they go for the attack. A good example of this was against St. Pauli where ball retention and being patient in possession can lead to an inviting opportunity.
Both centre half’s in David Bates and Rick van Drongelen are very comfortable playing on the ball. With the pairing, we see both play an influential role in building up play and creating the right sequence for Hamburg to go forward. The Dutchman in van Drongelen has possession and already we see the opponents in St. Pauli sitting deep with five men at the back. We also see structurally that Hamburg in attack for this scenario is in the 4-1-4-1. Van Drongelen will play the ball to Bates as play continues
Bates enters his attacking half and now St. Pauli will look to press the Scottish international. He has two options on whether to play the ball out wide to Gotoku Saki or try and play through the middle. By playing through the middle, Hamburg can make a couple of quick passes and expose St. Pauli’s defence. Bates will play the ball to Hunt who is making himself as an option.
As the play develops Hamburg are starting to expose the spaces in the middle. Vasilije Janjičić is on the receiving end and now Mangala has space to exploit. Sami Allagui is only pressing when the defenders have possession and Marvin Knoll is drawn to Janjičić who is about to receive the ball.
Mangala is able to take possession with time and space and can go at the St. Pauli defence. This scenario ends in a turnover for Hamburg, but you can see that through patience in the early build-up Wolf’s side can attack the opposing defence with ease.
Problems Defending Set-Pieces
It’s very rare to see a team that is solid defensively be so inept at defending set-pieces and Hamburg has become that team. This season, Hamburg have conceded 29 goals this season which is the second best in the 2. Bundesliga behind Union Berlin. Yet despite this, a whopping 14 goals have come from set-pieces which is 48% of their goals given up this season. That’s equal worst in the league with Duisburg. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples as to why Hamburg are so vulnerable at set-pieces.
Our first look comes against Arminia Bielefeld, a fixture Hamburg would go on and lose 2-0. The opening goal is from a set-piece with a man to man approach adopted by Hamburg. Two man wall with everyone picked up except Reinhold Yabo but he won’t play a role in this play. Douglas Santos is protecting the space in front of Pollersbeck in case the ball is played towards the front post. This will give Hamburg the man advantage and allow Santos to clear.
As the Arminia players make their runs we see all of them dart towards the space Santos is covering. The Hamburg defenders still remain tight to their opponents.
Andreas Voglsammer (#21) is able to get a little bit of breathing room from his opponent Mangala who almost expects Santos to tuck in. Mangala makes his movement towards the space Santos had protected earlier.
However, that moment of assumption becomes costly for Hamburg as Voglsammer is able to put enough contact on the ball to deceive Pollersbeck into his bottom corner.
Again, another free-kick and we see Hamburg playing a high line from the 18-yard-box. Pollersbeck likes to be off his line and this allows Hamburg to be more aggressive in their set-piece defending.
All Hamburg players are virtually on the defensive line with no wall visible. Only five Kiel players are in line to contest the free-kick. Kiel defender Dominick Schmidt in the bottom right of the picture is loosely marked by Mangala.
As the ball comes in Schmidt gets the jump on Mangala with the ball heading toward the penalty spot. Pollersbeck who would normally be in a good possession to collect has chosen to backtrack to his line. Lee Jae-Sung is running into the penalty area unmarked.
Schmidt heads on goal completely unmarked and draws a good save out of Pollersbeck. However, all the Hamburg defenders are caught ball watch with the untracked Lee in a dangerous position.
Lee is able to bundle the ball home from close range and give Kiel the lead.
Whilst it’s evident that Wolf is one of the brightest minds going around in the German game, he is yet to succeed at the highest level. At Hamburg, he has the opportunity of rebuilding the fallen giant of the north and through a stubborn defence, Wolf has been able to get Hamburg back on track.
However, if Hamburg do go up this season can Wolf keep them up? Or will it be déjà vu once more for the Bochum native?