Oliver Glasner – VFL Wolfsburg – Tactical Analysis

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German football is becoming more and more populated with talented coaches hailing from one of the nation’s noisiest neighbours – Austria. Oliver Glasner is the latest in a long line of stellar Austrian coaches in the Bundesliga, currently leading VFL Wolfsburg to amazing heights in his second season at the club. After much in the way of success with LASK Linz in the Austrian Bundesliga, Glasner joined Wolfsburg in 2019 and led them to a 7th place finish in his first season at the club. This season, the Austrian manager’s taken Wolfsburg to new heights, with the club currently sitting in third place. The Volkswagen-owned club are now set for their best finish in years under the influence of Glasner, with the manager himself linked with some of the top clubs across the country. Here is a tactical analysis of Oliver Glasner’s VFL Wolfsburg in 2020-21.

system of play: 4-2-3-1

In his first season in charge of the Wolves, Oliver Glasner changed his formation on a near match-by-match basis. The 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 were Glasner’s two preferred choices, but the Austrian constantly shifted their plans to suit their opposition’s style of play and quality. This season it’s been the exact opposite. Instead of changing formations every week, Glasner’s found stability in a very direct, high-functioning 4-2-3-1 system. Through this 4-2-3-1, Wolfsburg have achieved the second best defensive record in the league, with only Leipzig conceding fewer goals.

With greater stability in their formation, Glasner’s also stuck to a relatively consistent set of players, with nine men featuring in 25 or more of their 30 fixtures so far this season. Goalkeeper Koen Casteels is the second highest minute maker this season, having only missed one game. The Belgian keeper’s having arguably the best season of his career, conceding just 29 goals in his 29 matches, along with keeping 13 clean sheets. Part of that impressive defensive record is also down to a solid defense in front of him, most prominently the excellent US international John Anthony Brooks. Brooks has been an ever-present at the back through his 28 matches so far, winning over 70% of his duels in the air. He’s been partnered most often by the young Frenchman Maxence Lacroix, with Marin Pongracic battling for a place in the squad. Jerome Roussillon and Paulo Otavio have shared the starting birth at left-back, while Ridle Baku has remarkably turned himself into a versatile right-back this season with Kevin Mbabu another fantastic option. Mbabu’s greater defensive presence has meant that Baku can also fulfill a more advanced position on the right wing, where he’s been particularly effective in working his magic in recent matches.

Yannick Gerhardt’s been another versatile member of the team, even playing at left-back this season, but has been most prominently deployed as a defensive minded ‘number 10’ in the team. Rather than holding a creative role, the versatile German is more crucial to the side out of possession, particularly in their attempts to win back possession high up the pitch. Left wing has been one of the more contested positions, but Josip Brekalo has been the first choice. Maximilian Philipp and Renato Steffen have fought for a place in the side throughout the season, but Brekalo and Gerhardt have been far greater ever-presents.

Speaking of ever-presents, Xaver Schlager and Maximilian Arnold have developed a magnificent understanding this season, scoring a combined 5 goals with 9 assists in the league. They are unquestionably one of the best midfield duos in the league these days, and ahead of them they have one of the Bundesliga’s best strikers, the robust Wout Weghorst. The 28-year old Dutch forward is the only man to play every game for Glasner’s Wolfsburg this season, scoring 20 goals with 7 assists in his 30 appearances so far. So those are the players, but how does Glasner use them to success? Let’s get into more of this tactical analysis.

verticality

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Oliver Glasner’s Wolfsburg play direct, vertical football, with loads of counter attacking and quick transitions. The team operate with a very narrow 4-2-3-1 shape in attack, with all three of the attacking midfielders operating in close proximity to the striker. Positional interchanges may be a frequent occurrence, even between the two central midfielders and the attacking midfielders, as they too love to get forward. Rather than one staying back and one advancing up the pitch, Arnold and Schlager will often both go forward to join the attack at the same time, and may even drift wide as a winger drifts inside, creating new angles for the attack. Both midfielders also love to shoot from distance, and although they haven’t found the back of the net often this season, Schlager and Arnold still have contributed 5 goals and 9 assists so far in the league. Ahead of them, Yannick Gerhardt will often drift left to right as he pleases, and has a more defensive role in the team rather than an attacking one. The wingers are silky smooth dribblers, but often showcase their magic by cutting inside and linking up with the big man up top, rather than holding their width and taking players on 1v1.

With Wout Weghorst up front, it’s obvious why Wolfsburg would want to adopt such a vertical approach. The Dutch centre-forward is magnificent with his back to goal, but can also be excellent in the air, knocking down balls for his teammates, linking up, and then sprinting behind the opposition’s defense as he darts toward goal.

In total, Wolfsburg adopt the joint-third most vertical approach to their attack in the league, behind only Leipzig and Monchengladbach, and level with Eintracht Frankfurt. All of their competitors in this regard are very quick in their attacking transitions, but Frankfurt and Leipzig use more width from their left side, and Monchengladbach prefer to break lines through intense dribbling and running power from their speedy central attackers. Wolfsburg on the other hand are far more direct with their football, looking to play passes into their striker as early as possible and find the quickest route to goal. They are developing into a much more solid possession side under Oliver Glasner, but the Wolves still complete 66 long-passes per game, the seventh highest in the league. All six sides above them complete significantly fewer short passes, which demonstrates that Glasner’s side have more of a knack for understanding when to play long or direct, and when to use their width and play more cautiously. It also demonstrates that their vertical passes don’t always have to be higher/longer balls into the striker, but can also be quicker/shorter ones.

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Everything about Wolfsburg in attack screams energy, and the stats showcase exactly that. Not only have they won the most duels in the league, they’ve also made the most sprints and what the Bundesliga calls “intensive runs.” The leaders in both those categories from a player standpoint are Ridle Baku and Wout Weghorst, neither of whom you would necessarily associate with sprinting. Baku is more of a silky dribbler and Weghorst a target man, but this demonstrates just how quickly Wolfsburg look to attack. The two players are arguably Wolfsburg’s most important attackers, despite Baku playing many of his games from fullback this season. With the defenders and central midfielders often being the most important to the build-up, they’re also given greater freedom to sprint up the field and look to create space for their team off the ball beyond just transitional moments.

build-up

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Wolfsburg’s verticality also extends to their build-up. They don’t just keep possession for their sake of it, instead being very purposeful with the ball in trying to progress up the pitch as quickly as possible, at the right moments. In initial build-up phases, the centre-backs like Brooks and Lacroix will be the two most commonly on the ball, either working it wide to Roussillon and Mbabu, handing it off to Arnold or Schlager to work some magic, or going directly into one of the front fours. Both regular centre-backs and Maximilian Arnold also love a long-ball, completing 14.6 long passes per game between the three of them alone. Having Wout Weghorst up front makes this approach far more seamless, and their narrowness helps the Dutchman to have easy routes to knock the ball onto before he sprints away. Not only do opposition defenses have to worry about his aerial presence, they also can’t afford to neglect those around him, who are likely to pick up the ball after he knocks it down.

This means that the Wolves will often bypass their central midfielders completely, looking instantly for vertical passes into the three attacking midfielders or Weghorst. The wingers may drop deep toward the ball, or the central midfielders themselves may even look to advance higher up the field in behind an opposition’s high press to aid this approach.

Despite this quick build-up, Wolfsburg are also very careful about picking their moments to go long. They still complete over 400 short passes per game, and keep over 50% of the possession, which sits within the top ten in both categories. They can keep possession when they want to, while still recognizing their greatest asset – the big man up top and his ability to engage those around him.

player versatility & positional rotation

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Being versatile has practically become a requirement for members of Oliver Glasner’s team, particularly those in the wide areas. The spine of the team with the likes of Brooks, Arnold, and Weghorst are far less likely to move around, but many others change position on a near match-by-match basis. Glasner has used several wingers as fullbacks this season, rotated several men into the number ten role in behind Weghorst, and constantly changes his wingers and which side they play on. This versatility naturally allows for positional rotation to occur, as the players develop an understanding of several different positions and where to be on the field in different situations.

Ridle Baku’s developed well into a fullback this season, but when he plays right-wing he will often drift inside to get closer to Weghorst and the central midfielders. Schlager may rotate with him to utilize the space on the width, and Kevin Mbabu is also likely to exploit that space as he gets high and wide. The Swiss defender tends to be slightly more adventurous down the right than Roussillon or Otavio on the other side, as the Frenchman in particular will often invert as part of a back-three when Mbabu makes his way forward.

Mbabu’s movement up the field allows Wolfsburg to achieve width down the right, even if they want to maintain a central overload through their central attacking quartet and two defensive midfielders. Mbabu’s completed the most take-on’s in the league this season for the team and can provide a constant threat down the right side for the Wolves if the opposition neglect to track back. Against sides that love to attack down the left with a speedy wing-back like Frankfurt and their use of Kostic or Leipzig with Angelino, the Swiss’ high position often means these dangerous players are often dragged back in defense far more than the team would like, and unable to maintain a constant high position as a result. When Ridle Baku plays as the fullback instead, the same exact functions can be seen as the 23-year-old uses his powerful sprinting and wizarding feet to get by defenders.

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Yannick Gerhardt is another interesting player in the Wolfsburg team, playing left-back, central midfield and attacking midfield for Glasner’s team. The former FC Koln man often helps to lead Wolfsburg’s press from the front, but he is relatively uninvolved in the final third during attacking phases. This more defensive function is unusual for a number ten, but it helps Wolfsburg to win the ball back quickly and have one of their most aggressive pressers as the first line of defense. They can then go on the attack right away, with the wingers in close proximity. Gerhardt’s only scored 2 goals and assisted 4 this season, but continues to be one of Glasner’s first choice number ten’s as a result.

defensive shape

Just as they like to attack, Wolfsburg defend in a narrow 4-2-3-1 shape. Some teams make their 4-2-3-1 become more of a 4-4-2 in attack (see Aston Villa, Leicester), however Wolfsburg maintain their shape throughout. The attacking midfielder and striker are crucial to leading the press, regardless of whether the opposition go left or right in their defensive third. This is one reason why Weghorst completes so many sprints and “intensive runs” and it’s also a reason why Glasner opts for a mobile runner as his number ten like Gerhardt or Philipp, rather than a more creative type like Josip Brekalo or Renato Steffen.

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Wolfsburg may also pick and choose their moments to press aggressively, attempting to stop key individuals from playing out from the back or dribbling up the field at speed, rather than systematically trying to stop the entire opposition’s systematic build-up, like Jessie Marsch’s Salzburg and their pressing philosophies. The one major down-side to Glasner’s narrow attack is that if the opposition are able to effectively work the ball into wide areas, they can create overloads and exploit the Wolves down the wings. Eintracht Frankfurt did so very effectively in the recent 4-3 thriller, and so too did Bayern Munich through long-diagonal passes into the wide areas in Wolfsburg’s most recent defeat. Now with Borussia Dortmund coming up next, the Wolves will need to be careful about how they defend wide areas, particularly given how this is exactly what BVB look to do in attack – create wide overloads. Despite that slight weakness, their narrowness has been very effective this season in helping the Wolves keep 13 clean sheets in 30 matches, conceding just 30 goals in that time.

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Crucially, Wolfsburg win the most duels in the league. They’ve won the most tackles in the division with 17.5 per game, and can claim silver when it comes to interceptions, with 14.2 per game. That energetic vibrancy that they have to their game in attack turns to steel and grit in defense, with the likes of Schlager and Arnold flying into tackles. Twelve different players have made over 2 tackles + interceptions per game in the league this season, which is safe to say, more than any other team in the league. The narrow shape in defense aids in that ability, as opposition sides attempting to break the lines through the middle of the pitch simply can’t find their way through. Then when teams attempt to go wide and utilize powerful runners on the wings, Wolfsburg spring into their most aggressive press at all, and shut it down. This above all else, has arguably been Wolfsburg’s greatest strength this season and a major reason for why they currently sit third place in the table.

concluding thoughts

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VFL Wolfsburg have surpassed expectations this season under Oliver Glasner, climbing to third place in the table and showing no signs of slipping out of the top four despite their recent defeats. Wout Weghorst adds so much gusto and grit to the team up front, but it’s their stellar defense through a very narrow 4-2-3-1 shape that has led them to greater glory this season. Glasner’s use of his players in multiple positions has only increased the intelligence of his players and their use of positional rotations in attack. Meanwhile, the likes of Ridle Baku and Max Arnold are developing into some of the Bundesliga’s best under his influence. If Wolfsburg finish in the top four this season, it will be a remarkable achievement, and one that will surely put Oliver Glasner on the radar of every single Bundesliga club. For now, the Austrian can be very proud of the job that he’s done in the 2020-21 Bundesliga season with VFL Wolfsburg in just his second season in charge.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of VFL Wolfsburg in 2020-21 under the influence of rising Austrian manager Oliver Glasner. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and visit our brand new website – Bundesliga Daily (bundesligadaily.com). Follow @mastermindsite, lead Author @DesmondRhys and @BundesligaTMS on Twitter and Instagram. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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