December 12, 2017

Köstner and Allofs clean up Magath’s mess in Wolfsburg

Around two months ago, I wrote a piece criticising Felix Magath’s transfer policy and suggesting he might be on his way out of Wolfsburg. Six weeks after Magath’s departure, much has changed both on and off the field.

In the end, Felix Magath found himself caught between the old and the new at Wolfsburg. He was criticised in equal measure for his old-fashioned, disciplinarian man-management style and his willingness to embrace the modern-day obsession with bringing in a raft of new players to cure any ills in a squad. The standard procedure in the Bundesliga today is for a Trainer to look after first-team affairs with a Manager/Sportdirektor (director of football) responsible for acquiring new players that he and the coach see as worthwhile purchases: the fact that Magath insisted on retaining both roles backfired on him, and left the club with at least two spots to fill in his absence. Klaus Allofs’ work will begin in earnest when the transfer window opens next month, but Lorenz-Günther Köstner seems to have settled into his role as interim head coach immediately.

Of course, that might be because he has performed it before, when Armin Veh was sacked in 2010. On that occasion he took over a team in tenth place in January and led them to eighth by the end of the season, at which point he was replaced by Steve McClaren. Whether the club has learned from that doomed appointment remains to be seen, but thus far Köstner has done enough to suggest that he might be deserving of a shot at the job long term. It could be argued that, given he took the helm with the Wolves bottom of the league with one win in eight, he could hardly have made things worse, and it is true that eight games later the club is still only two places above the relegation play-off spot – but, especially after Saturday’s surprise victory, they at least no longer appear to be in disarray.

Stability in selection was sorely lacking under Magath – he was in charge for eight league games this season and selected a different starting 11 for every single one. In contrast, Köstner played exactly the same team in his first five games, and even in the sixth his only change was the enforced removal of the suspended Josué. Tactically, too, there has been more consistency. Magath seemed caught between his preferred 4-4-2 diamond formation and the modern Bundesliga standard 4-2-3-1, and, despite his bloated squad, often forced players out of their comfort zones positionally (Marcel Schäfer in central midfield against Hannover, Diego almost at right midfield vs Bayern). Köstner has drifted between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1 depending on requirements, but crucially has always used the same personnel in positions where they feel comfortable operating. Perhaps most importantly of all, Diego has been let off the leash to become the team’s creative linchpin, and has started to let his prodigious talent unfurl once more. A crucial element in this system is one of Magath’s signings, Ivica Olić, playing on the left somewhere between Diego and Bas Dost up front, where he balances out the freedom afforded to the Brazilian playmaker. Olić’s work rate is key, as he is better at backtracking than any politician and yet is also willing to bomb forward again to join a counter attack. It is also only fair to point out that, now that he’s enjoying his football again, “luxury player” Diego has also done his bit when pressing or an extra man in midfield has been needed.

The result of all this has been mostly unspectacular, but has provided the required stability. Two defensive-minded central midfielders (Josué and Polák) and two workhorses in wide areas (Olić and Hasebe) leave a lot of pressure on Diego in the free role to create and on the centre forward, usually Dost, to provide goals. In theory the full backs (Schäfer and Fagner) should provide the extra link between defence and attack, but in general the back four sits far deeper than under Magath. This has helped to shore things up, but doesn’t help the fluidity of the side. In short: Wolfsburg sit deep, the forward players track back when the opposition have possession and they look to score by direct counter-attacking or from set pieces. When it works it is hugely effective; when it doesn’t, there’s no sign of a plan B.

Nevertheless, Wolfsburg now seem to be doing the basics right, and the players appear happy to be on the pitch again. Diego’s comments after the first match post-Magath: “We weren’t afraid of making mistakes – that was wonderful”, were telling. In addition, the fact that Köstner seems to know what his best team is and plays them in their positions will make life easier for Klaus Allofs as he takes over responsibility for transfers: reports suggest Alexander Madlung will move to Nuremberg in January, and many more will surely follow. However, despite improvements, things are not yet perfect on the pitch. Victory against the champions at the weekend was impressive, but the match swung on a poor refereeing decision and, in general, Köstner’s direct, reactive style is to a large extent reliant on the opposition playing into Wolfsburg’s hands by attacking in numbers and leaving space for the likes of Olić and Diego to expose on the break. Indeed, although Olić missed out on Saturday, this was how victory against Dortmund was sealed. From a wider viewpoint, this could explain why, of the team’s three previous wins under Köstner, two came away from home (Düsseldorf and Hoffenheim) and the other was also against technically stronger opposition (Leverkusen).

However, although it wasn’t clear in the game at the weekend, where the opposition’s attempts to chase the game with ten men meant exposing the space behind their high defensive line was clearly a better option than swinging the ball in from out wide, in recent weeks the new boss does seem to have altered things tactically in a way that makes sense on paper. Since the midfield Doppel-Sechs are happy to sit and provide cover to their centre backs anyway, the full backs could in theory be allowed more licence to overlap in build-up play and either link up with Diego or get more crosses into Dost. And indeed, Schäfer and Fagner had put in more crosses in the previous two matches (29) than in the first five under Köstner combined (26). Only one of the 6’4″ Dutch striker Dost’s seven goals so far this season was a header, but with that kind of service, more will surely follow. For his part, Olić is very much a “right place, right time” player and always happy to tap in a rebound.

In the end, Köstner was the sensible choice to put in charge of a wobbling Wolfsburg, will keep them safe and deserves a chance to show what he can do. What’s more, Saturday’s hard-fought, if somewhat fortuitous, win will only have helped his case. Nevertheless, whether he can take them to where they want and expect to be remains doubtful. Klaus Allofs will be busy clearing out a saturated squad in January, but it seems fair to expect him to be doing his shopping on behalf of a new coach in summer at the latest. If the club can get the right man, they’d probably be happy to do so in the winter break. However, it’s hard to say who that “right man” might be, especially with Thomas Schaaf ruling out a reunion with Allofs and Mirko Slomka finally having extended his contract at Hannover. On the plus side for fans of the Wolves: with expectations somewhat lowered, a talented director of football in place and, most likely, money to spend, it’s not an unattractive job.

Header courtesy of bild.de

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