Can Magath’s tactics save Wolfsburg from relegation? A study of the midfield diamond

Introduction – Back to basics

Magath arrived at Wolfsburg two weeks ago and immediately noted the lack of physical fitness in the side.  Notorious for his strict training methods and disciplinarian managerial style, Magath immediately dusted off the medicine balls and began a rigorous training regiment to prepare his players for the difficult relegation battle in the final weeks of the season.

In his first game in charge against Stuttgart those methods nearly paid off for Magath if it was not for a last minute equalizer from Stuttgart defender Niedermeier.  It was already visible against Stuttgart that the squad’s recent motivation issues had turned a corner.  After all, what better motivation does a team need than to avoid the wrath of a disciplinarian like Magath on a Monday morning after a poor performance over the weekend?

Next up was a Frankfurt side just as eager to beat the drop.  Both sides have statistically been the worst sides in the league after the break and needed the points rather desperately.  Once again, Wolfsburg showed a proactive performance and were lucky to finish with a point after going down a goal and having to chase the game for most of the match.  Helmes’s poor finishing prevented Magath from collecting his first win but the indicator of progress was very evident and the Wolves are on good track to avoid relegation.

Tactical transition – addressing the problems

Magath was quick to bring out his favorite training toy - the medicine ball.

Against Stuttgart Magath lined up with a peculiar 4-1-2-2-1 formation with the Brazilian Josue anchoring the midfield and Diego and Cicero playing off lone striker Grafite.  While their performances improved they still struggled to create goal-scoring chances consistently.  Scoring has been one of Wolfsburg’s biggest problems this season and a lone striker formation does not seem like an adequate solution to this problem.  Teams do not survive relegation by defending but rather by scoring goals so Magath needed to make changes quick.

In addition, Magath needed to shore up one of the leakiest defenses in the league.  On paper Wolfsburg have a formidable backline but the managerial change at the beginning of the season, long term absence of new signing Arne Friedrich, Kjaer’s debut season and the serial relocation of Riether left them rather vulnerable.  Only 6 sides conceded more than Wolfsburg and the constant change of formations between McClaren and Littbarski did not help matters.

Back to the Future – The return of the midfield diamond

Two years ago when Magath managed Wolfsburg to their first ever league title he employed an effective diamond formation that optimized the personnel he had at his disposal.  That formation enabled players like Misimovic to break assists records and Dzeko and Grafite to be the most most potent striker partnership in Bundesliga history.

Against Frankfurt, Magath returned, or at least attempted, to the formation that was so successful in his first spell with the Wolves.  He returned Riether to his natural right back position while partnering Grafite with January signing Patrick Helmes up front.  In midfield Magath continued with Josue as the anchor but reverted to the midfield diamond he so often used in the past.  Diego was the natural choice for playmaker while Cicero and Polak filled in on the left and right respectively.  Ideally this was supposed to allow Riether and Schäfer room to provide width while making more effective use of the ball in the middle of the pitch as well as provide the strikers with proper service.  In some ways it worked and in other ways it did not. On one hand, the fullbacks were very much involved in Wolfsburg’s play.  As a matter of fact, besides Diego and Josue, no players were involved in more plays than Riether and Schäfer but problems existed elsewhere.

Wolfsburg's formation against Frankfurt using average player positions.

The tactical failings

Separation between midfield and attack very apparent, Diego (#28) failed to link up play.

The problem that Wolfsburg faced had to do with the fact that they could not hold on to the ball for long periods of time and consistently lost it.  While Wolfsburg dominated possession and shots on the goal there was a clear disconnect between midfield and attack, something that the formation was supposed to address.

The biggest reason for this failing was Diego’s positioning and movement.  When Magath last used this set up at Wolfsburg he had a more classic playmaker in Misimovic available.  Misimovic knew when to drop off and not step on the feet of his strikers.  His biggest strength was the link up not with only the strikers but also those playing behind him.  Diego on the other hand combined with Josue, Polak and Cicero only a combined 15 times.  At times Diego was playing more advanced than both of his strikers and while that is something expected of a player like Diego it may not necessarily work within this given formation.

Cicero, Polak and Josue lost the ball a combined 25 times while Helmes and Grafite were some of the least involved players on the pitch.  Diego himself lost the ball almost as much as those three players combined (24).  There is a happy medium when it comes to linking up with the midfield and attack and Wolfsburg, despite outplaying their opponents, did not necessarily find it.  In other words, Diego’s advanced movement and positioning broke off the delicate balance of the diamond and therefore the purpose it is meant to serve.

It must also be said that Helmes is no Dzeko and Grafite lost the dynamism that made him top scorer two years ago.  Helmes’s wastefulness and Grafite sluggishness add to their issues but no doubt that as strikers they are heavily reliant on what occurs behind them.

Conclusion

All that said, Magath did manage to get his team to perform better but with talent in the squad that should be a formality.  The logic of returning to what worked two years ago is sound.  In a sense it is the functional solution to Woflsurg’s troubles this season but details have to be rectified within that structure to make it effective.  Wolfsburg still struggled to put their chances away and allowed Frankfurt to get ahead of them.

It remains to be seen how Magath will react.  Surely it is worthwhile continuing to trust in this formation if the necessary adjustments are made.  If that is done right Wolfsburg have every chance at remaining a Bundesliga side for the upcoming season.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

4 Comments

  1. Absolutely. Which is why he struggled at Porto, Juve and so far at Wolfsburg. Also why we never saw his true potential in the little time he appeared for the National Team.

  2. I think that’s a great point, Cris, about Diego. He seems to be the type of player that prospers when the team is structured to take advantage of his talents than trying to fit him in another mold.

  3. Thank you.

    I think Benaglio is a pretty good keeper and Wolfsburg has a defense that should be a lot better than it is. I think Magath will sort it out. The’ve already improved in that department.

    Also think now that Magath must find a way to build this side around Diego because unlike Misimovic 2 years ago he requires a game plan that caters to him similar to what he had at Bremen.

  4. Nice breakdown. Basically, it seems as if the formation Magath brought into the Wolfsburg DNA was fighting against the 4-2-3-1 McClaren was trying to force it into. Think a new keeper would help for next season? Wondering if Benaglio doesn’t communicate with his defenders well enough or sometimes doesn’t boss his space.

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