Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach came into the game with contrasting results; One won against Saint-Étienne to go to the next round comfortably and the other crashed out of the Europa League losing to İstanbul Başakşehir in a do-or-die fixture.

Though the Foals crashed out of the Europa League in the group stage, they were having a pretty amazing time in Bundesliga, defeating two top-six teams, Freiburg and the mighty Bayern Munich, in the span of a week before visiting Wolfsburg.

This tactical analysis will focus on the tactics of both managers. This analysis will also provide a vivid description of how Wolfsburg neutralised Borussia Monchengladbach.

Lineup

Glasner Oliver constantly switched between four-man defence to three-man defence throughout the season. Against Monchengladbach, Wolfsburg lined up in 4-1-4-1 setup, similar to the setup against Saint-Étienne in the Europa League. However, there were few regular starters brought back to the starting lineup against a strong opponent. Wout Weghorst replaced Daniel Ginczek as the sole striker.

The skipper, Maximilian Arnold replaced Yannick Gerhardt in the midfield. Josip Brekalo was replaced by João Victor in the left-wing and Joshua Guilavogui assumed the central defensive midfield position replacing Elvis Rexhbeçaj. In defence, there were two changes. The regular starters, Jérôme Roussillon and John Brooks were brought back into the lineup as the centre-back and left-back respectively. Koen Casteels assumed his usual role in between the posts.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Marco Rose is often known as a flexible manager, changing the formations and setup according to the opponents and the situations. Rose too went with the same lineup as they did against İstanbul Başakşehir in the midweek clash. The German recalled the regular starters in the lineup. Alassane Pléa and László Bénes positioned themselves in the right-wing and in the hole respectively. Denis Zakaria’s absence meant Tobias Strobl partnered Jonas Hofmann in the middle of the park. Marco Rose just made one change in the defence, Ramy Bensebaini came in for Oscar Wendt

Monchengladbach’s press gone wrong

Monchengladbach generally adopts a high press, man to man approach when out of possession. The press goes relative to the ball i.e. when the ball is on one flank Monchengladbach press inclines to that side when the ball is circulated to the other side the entire pressing block of Monchengladbach shifts towards the other side.

Against Bayern, the Foals started the game with a 4-diamond-2 high press. Later, they switched to a 4-2-3-1 system, out of possession, which gave them coverage in the wide areas as well as blocked the passing lane to the ball carrier.

Against Wolfsburg too, the Foals started with a high press, man-marking approach and reverted back to a similar 4-2-3-1 setup at the later stages of the game.

When the Wolfsburg goalkeeper passed the ball to the left centre-back, Brooks, Monchengladbach striker, Breel Embolo, moved onto him. The Foals left-winger, Thuram, who was blocking the passing lane to the Wolfsburg right-back, Mbabu, shifted from his position to mark the Wolfsburg defensive midfielder, Guilavogui, leaving Kevin Mbabu completely free. Bénes marked Arnold, who dropped deep to open up another passing lane for his defenders. Pléa moved right to keep a tab on the Wolves left-back Roussillon. The double-pivot of Hofmann and Strobl maintained their position. This situation left Wolfsburg with two unmarked players in Mbabu and the right centre-back, Robin Knoche.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Unable to find a passing option on the left-flank, Brooks passed the ball back to his goalkeeper. He instead played a safe pass to Knoche. When the ball was played to the centre-back, Embolo covered the passing lanes to the goalkeeper and the left centre-back. Bénes shifted on to Guilavogui and Thuram moved towards the centre-back. However, Knoche had enough time and space to play a simple pass to Mbabu, who was also completely unmarked.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

As Mbabu received the ball, Thuram shifted his focus on the right-back and even Hofmann left his position in the midfield to converge on him. However, Bénes was not quick enough to block the passing lane to Schlager. Mbabu found a simple passing option in the form of the Wolfsburg midfielder.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

After passing the ball to Schlager, Mbabu continued his run. Hofmann moving up to mark Mbabu was grasping to get back to his position. Schlager passed the ball to the unmarked right-back. Mbabu receiving the ball had a short passing option in Steffen, who had enough space to play it back to Guilavogui.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Committing numbers forward while pressing, Monchengladbach were left short on numbers for defensive duties. Guilavogui again found an unmarked Arnold in the middle of the park. When Arnold had the ball, it was a 4 vs 4 situation, ahead of him. Arnold had enough time and space to carry the ball forward or pass it to the left flank. The Wolves captain passed the ball to Victor in the left-flank, who hit the post from this sequence of play.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Even the Monchengladbach defenders, failed to maintain their shape in order to follow the man-marking approach.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

In one such occasion, the entire 10 outfield players of Monchengladbach shifted to the flank where the ball was in play. The left-back, Bensebaini, moved inwards leaving the Monchengladbach left-flank completely open for Mbabu to attack. Fortunately for the Foals, they were able to get back to the box in time and saved their blushes.

The Monchengladbach players even failed to block the passing lanes to the midfield which they did so brilliantly against Bayern Munich after switching to 4-2-3-1.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

In this screenshot, it is clearly visible what Monchengladbach were doing wrong throughout the game. There were five Wolfsburg players marked. Thuram also made sure he kept a body orientation to prevent a ground passing lane from the ball-carrier (in this case) to the right-back. However, Schlager was completely unmarked and the Wolfsburg midfielder dictated the play.

A thing about man-marking approach is that sometimes the individual skills from the opponent can also get them out from the press.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

In this case, we see Monchengladbach players did enough to block the passing lanes from the right-back. He played a risky pass to Schlager with Hofmann breathing down his neck. Schlager used his cheeky back-heel to go past Hofmann and thus getting his team out of the press and passed the ball to Arnold. From this sequence of play, Wolfsburg scored their first goal.

Monchengladbach press was haywire throughout the match. They struggled to contain Wolfsburg attack in their defensive third or through the middle or even through the flanks. However Monchengladbach set up, Wolfsburg always had answers to it. Monchengladbach took too much of time to press each opposition player. They allowed the opposition players to take a forward touch with no real threat, and there lay Monchengladbach’s all the problems.

Monchengladbach’s change in approach

Monchengladbach couldn’t contain Wolfsburg attacks at all. The Foals were leaving enormous space for the ball-carrier or were leaving the opposition unmarked. To eliminate those errors, Rose reverted back to a more traditional 4-2-3-1 setup, when out of possession, to prevent the ball from reaching the ball-carrier.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

However, when the Foals tried to block the passing lane to the ball-carrier, Wolfsburg started to use the wing especially the left-wing. Out of the 31 possessional attacks Wolfsburg had, 15 were from the left-flank and most of them were in the later stages of the second half.

When Monchengladbach tried to block the lanes to the ball-carrier either Guilavogui or Arnold used to drop down to open up the passing lane and play long balls to the final third.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Here, Arnold dropped down since Guilavogui was ably marked by the Monchengladbach players. Arnold positioned himself as the pseudo-left-back pushing Roussillon up. As he was pushed up, the subbed in Monchengladbach right-back, moved up to mark him. The substitute player of Wolfsburg who occupied the left-wing position, when Steffen was subbed off, attacked the space left by the Foals right-back. Due to this approach, long-balls% of Wolfsburg increased from 11% in the first half to 13% in the second half. The conservative approach of Monchengladbach in the last 20 minutes meant that they allowed 25 passes per defensive actions (PPDA) in the last 15 minutes, which is huge.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Wolfsburg’s defensive setup

Wolfsburg mixed their approach when out of possession, sometimes they would press high, sometimes sit a little deeper and sometimes they would adopt the man-marking approach, but mostly the Wolves sat in a 4-1-4-1 formation when out of possession, preventing any pass through the middle.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Here, the midfield four of Victor, Arnold, Schlager, and Steffen sat compact in the midfield, preventing any passes through the middle. Guilavogui acted as the central defensive midfielder, providing an extra layer of protection, in case Monchengladbach would breach their compact four-man midfield.

Rose likes his wingers to use the half-space or space between the lines and the full-backs to overlap. Oliver did his homework well and asked his wingers to remain compact with the two other attacking midfielders in Arnold and Schlager. It forced Monchengladbach to play out wide, rather through the middle.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

The Wolfsburg midfield kept really compact. Hofmann had no other option but play out wide to Bensebaini.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Even in this case, Steffen remained narrow in the midfield and tried to protect any passes to the half-space, leaving Bensebaini completely free.

Wolfsburg midfielders maintained the same approach in the opposition final third too, when out of possession.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Here, Victor stayed narrow and along with Schlager tried to prevent the pass to the ball-carrier in the midfield. When the ball was played out to the right-back, Victor moved towards him and stayed with him, until he passed the ball back to his goalkeeper.

Occasionally, Wolfsburg would also form themselves in a 4-3-3 setup.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

However the Wolfsburg players set up, the main motto was to prevent any pass through the middle and force the Foals to play through the flanks. It is the reason the average positions of Monchengladbach players occupy more width than the Wolfsburg players.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Borussia Monchengladbach- tactical analysis tactics

Conclusion

Although Borussia Monchengladbach had more possession, Wolfsburg was a better team throughout. The Wolves looked in control of the game and dictated the play according to their will.

Wolfsburg kept a compact midfield with their wingers narrow to the midfielders, rather than covering the flanks. They succeeded in forcing Monchengladbach to play wide and prevented passes in their defensive third through the middle.

Monchengladbach pressing was haywire, they failed to cover the wings, failed to block the passing lane to the ball-carrier, rather they failed at everything when it came to pressing the opponent. The Foals either gave too much time to the opponent to play a safe pass or failed to prevent the ball from reaching to their defensive third through the wings. It was one game Marco Rose would definitely want to forget or would love to show the clips of the match again and again to his players and make them understand what went wrong.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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Nasim Akhtar