On matchday 19, both VFL Wolfsburg and Hertha BSC Berlin wanted to make up for their disappointing defeats one week ago. While Wolfsburg ranks in the no man’s land of the Bundesliga table, Hertha’s only priority is to stay in the league. With both teams struggling to score goals throughout this season, a very close and even match was to be expected. Although the Wolves were the more active team over most parts of the game, Hertha could eventually celebrate a win thanks to a last-minute goal of Dodi Lukebakio.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine Wolfsburg‘s buildup and point out why they struggled to create high-quality chances. In addition to that, we will also take a closer look at the scoring opportunities of both teams from a statistical point of view.
Oliver Glasner deployed a 4-3-3 and made two changes compared to last week. Robin Knoche replaced John-Anthony Brooks at centre back while Renato Steffen was chosen over Daniel Ginczek on the right-wing.
Hertha played a 4-2-3-1 which resembled a 4-4-2 out of possession, with Marko Grujic stepping forward. After their heavy defeat against Bayern Munich, Jürgen Klinsmann made four changes in his lineup. In defence, Maximilian Mittelstädt was given preference over Marvin Plattenhardt and Niklas Stark replaced Dedrick Boyata at centre-back. Besides that, Per Skjelbred partnered with Santiago Ascacibar as a double pivot instead of Vladimir Darida and Marius Wolf occupied the right-wing replacing Davie Selke.
Wolfsburg in possession
In terms of formation, Wolfsburg were – on paper – playing a 4-3-3. However, in possession, they were morphing into a 3-2-5 or 3-4-3, depending on the role of the full-backs. Glasner’s approach involves pushing both full-backs aggressively forward on the overlap to become the fourth and fifth forward.
In their buildup, it’s usually Joshua Guilavogui who drops deep to make it three at the back. He positions himself either between the centre-backs or on the right side. The full-backs push up high allowing the wingers to move inside and occupy the half-spaces. Maximilian Arnold and Xaver Schlager are in the centre to offer passing lanes and prevent Hertha from starting counter-attacks.
As you can suppose, it’s not an easy task to break down a deep and compact defence. Wolfsburg’s main problem in creating quality chances was their lack of creativity, movements, and accuracy. Although they did occupy the half-spaces, their game was too static with too many players sitting on the same horizontal line. Beyond that, considering how much time they had on the ball without being pressed, a pass completion percentage of 79% is nothing you can be proud of.
However, as we will see now, you don’t necessarily have to be very innovative in your passing to generate something. While Hertha tried to narrow the field and stop Wolfsburg from playing through the middle, the home team tried to expose the defence through the flanks. In the example below, we can see Wolfsburg in a 3-4-3. Roussillon recognizes the space in front of him, as Brekalo occupies the right-back, and makes a progressive run.
We can see a very similar sequence below. This time, Brekalo drops deeper into the midfield and forces his opponent to follow him. Consequently, this move opens space on Hertha’s right side, which is used by Roussillon. While the intention of this diagonal ball was good, the execution wasn’t, which points back to the lack of accuracy.
Moreover, there were also occasions during the game, where Wolfsburg were able to find space in the centre. In this instance, Hertha’s defence consistently shifted to their left side, opening up space for Arnold in the centre. Nevertheless, Arnold needed too much time to control the ball and eventually, he shot again from long range. Which looked like a promising situation first ended up causing no danger for Rune Jarstein.
Hertha’s focus on defence
It came as little surprise seeing Hertha sitting very deep and compact while trying to narrow the field. After the match, Klinsmann justified this approach. He explained that they have to adjust to the situation, that they find themselves in. Whether or not you like this approach, one has to give him credit for it. If you distract the match against Bayern, Hertha only conceded five goals in six games under Klinsmann.
As aforementioned Hertha’s 4-2-3-1 resembled a 4-4-2 out of possession. Klinsmann’s side mainly defended as a low block within their own half allowing almost 23 passes per defensive action. They showed no intention of pressing Wolfsburg high up the pitch but minimizing the spaces Wolfsburg’s attackers could occupy within their own half. Since the two defensive lines closed down passing lanes into the centre of the pitch, this worked quite well for most parts of the game.
As the sequence goes on, Joshua Guilavogui is about to play a long ball over the top. When Hertha’s defensive line realizes that, they immediately drop a bit deeper to prevent any attacker from making an unguarded run. It is also important to note that all defenders have an open body posture that enables this reaction.
Despite their solid defensive tactics, Hertha showed barely any offensive structure. On the one hand, this was due to Wolfsburg’s intense press, that left Hertha with little time on the ball. On the other hand, Hertha lacks players, who can progress the ball and resist such a press. Apparently, the strengths of the likes of Skjelbred or Ascacibar are more against the ball than with it.
Therefore, Hertha’s preferred way of progressing the ball was through their full-backs. In the example below, we can see that the full-backs position themselves higher up the pitch to offer a diagonal passing lane. Besides, Hertha’s double pivot use a diagonal staggering to provide a short passing option for the centre backs or the goalkeeper.
With Wolfsburg pressing high, Berlin tried to avoid any risks of trying to play out from the back. Consequently, when the diagonal ball, was not possible, this resulted in many long balls under pressure. That’s apparently not a very popular stylistic element but it allows a team to quickly overcome the midfield and go for second balls. When Hertha won these second balls, they tried to attack through the flanks, preferably the left, to eventually cross the ball.
Quantity against quality
When looking at the stats, we can see that Wolfsburg outshot Hertha by more than twice as many shots. However, this match was a perfect example of the usefulness of xG. While Wolfsburg pulled the trigger from almost every position, Hertha were more sensible in that perspective. Eventually, it was Berlin, who amassed a higher xG-value: 1.14 – 1.72.
If we dig a bit deeper into it, these stats raise the question of whether it is more effective to have a few very good shots than a multitude of poor quality shots? Wolfsburg’s strategy was like barraging the opposition goal with a host of long shots, hoping one will eventually find its way into the net. More than half their shots came from outside the box with only one shot having an xG of more than 0.1. Hertha BSC chose a different path by prioritizing the creation of high-quality chances over high quantity.
Whether or not this was a deliberate strategy of any of those teams, which I doubt, it shows that a high volume of shots can be misleading. In principle, studies validate the philosophy of prioritizing rare high-quality shots over an abundance of low-quality attempts.
As shown in this analysis, Hertha used very defensive and destructive tactics allowing almost no high-quality chances. In the end, it was a mix of luck and efficiency which enabled an important win. Thanks to this win, Hertha are now five points clear of relegation and will try to extend this lead on Friday against Schalke.
On the contrary, Wolfsburg were incapable of overcoming Hertha’s defensive structure due to a lack of creativity and accuracy. Wolfsburg have now lost seven out of their last ten games and show a worrying trend. Therefore, the pressure on head coach Oliver Glasner is growing. Their next chance to prove themselves will be against Paderborn on Sunday next week.