VfL Wolfsburg gave its own fans and haters of FC Bayern Münich hope for about the first thirty minutes in their home match at the Volkswagen Arena. But thirty minutes of hope is certainly not enough to take even a point from Bayern at this stage in Die Roten‘s Rückrunde victory tour as presumptive Bundesliga champs.
Moral of today’s story?
Take away Bayern’s strong left flank and they’ll still beat you. That is, Bayern doesn’t have strengths – just strength.
Form and Lineups
Bayern entered this game with a four match winning streak in the Bundesliga and two months of clean sheets (December 14th at Gladbach was the last time they’ve conceded a goal). Meanwhile, Wolfsburg entered the game with a streaky run of two losses, two wins, and a draw in Bundesliga play.
In a battle of 4-2-3-1 teams (the Bundesliga’s de facto line up right now), both sides made changes from last weekend’s Bundesliga play. Bayern started Mandzukic and Müller in attack instead of Gomez and Robben, while starting Gustavo in place of Martinez in the defensive midfield. Finally, van Buyten started instead of Boeteng at right centerback. So Bayern mostly field a top shelf lineup, even with the mid-week Champion’s League clash against Arsenal looming. Across the pitch, Wolfsburg (certainly featuring less mercurial line-ups since the sacking of Magath) made only two switches from last week: Olic instead of Perisic and Makoto Hasebe for Fagner.
Despite the loss, VfL boss Dieter Hecking must be happy with starting Hasebe, who, along with Naldo’s great marking, did wonders in containing Bayern’s usually rampant play along Die Roten‘s left flank. This part of the pitch was the only major game-long bright spot for VfL. For Bayern, van Buyten and Gustavo first seemed to struggle in holding down their corner of the pitch, misplacing passes and looking nervous on the ball. However, system took over. And Bayern looked like Bayern soon enough.
Bayern started with the shakes. Within the first five minutes, four of their passes were picked off, including three deep in their own right corner, where early on VfL’s Olic and Schäfer pressured van Buyten and Gustavo, who looked rushed and nervous. Meanwhile, VfL pressed Bayern all over the pitch in a very Dortmund-esque way; Wolfsburg challenged most Bayern ball touches (VfL ended up with three yellow cards by halftime!) and used defenders to step into potential passing lanes. For the first half at least, VfL had a decent imitation of Dortmund’s vaunted “gegenpressing” game. Van Buyten seemed especially affected by VfL’s pressure. For instance, around 27′, Neuer and van Buyten passed the ball back and forth a number of times – van Buyten seemed reluctant to play a pass forward, while Neuer seemed eager to force van Buyten to pass anyway. Finally, van Buyten made his pass into traffic. It was intercepted. VfL crossed the ball in, narrowly missing Bas Dost in the box.
Offensively, Wolfsburg relied on flank play and crosses into the box. However, they only connected on 1 of 11 crosses in the first half, 8 of which came from Bayern’s right flank. On the other hand, Bayern didn’t manage a touch along their feared left flank until 10′. Indeed, VfL managed to severely restrict Bayern’s space on this side of the pitch through halftime, forcing Bayern to play along its right flank and through the central midfield. On a day of better luck, VfL’s crossing strategy might have been enough to take a point from Bayern.
In the heatmap above, also notice Bayern’s high level of activity in its own right corner where it was both pressed and forced to start most its attacks from. In general, Bayern wasn’t allowed to play its most comfortable game (i.e. attacking through Schweinsteiger, Alaba, and Ribéry). Indeed, the latter’s touches were quite limited in the first half. At one point, he was cutting into the middle just to get ball touches.
However, Bayern is certainly not a one trick pony. Robbed of its most fertile attacking channel, Bayern eventually settled into the pattern of Schweinsteiger shepherding the attacking through the middle and right flank. Chances appeared, as Bayern laced passes together atop the box. You could sense the match’s narrative evolving. Finally, they scored a wonder goal. Kroos took a free kick on the left corner of the box, which was deflected/headed off Schweinsteiger onto the loving boot of a Mandzukic bicycle kick. Tor. Wolfsburg never recovered their pressing game and finished the half shakily on the ball.
The second half featured Bayern enjoying more possession (about 55% to VfL’s 45%; although not as much as Bayern is accustomed to getting in the Bundesliga), while VfL struggled to create quality chances; Wolfsburg could really only continue its crossing strategy, trying another 10 in the 2nd half. In one ten minute stretch, they took four shots, but none were dangerous. Wolfsburg rushed its shots as soon as shooting lanes appeared around Bayern’s goal.
Defensively, VfL continued mostly to close down Bayern’s left flank. Yet Bayern still moved in from the middle and right flank, creating dangerous runs in front of Wolfsburg’s goal. A few times, Bayern seemed just a step behind creating a number of dangerous shots of goal opportunities.
Perisic came on for Olic at 64′, while Helmes came on for Vieirinha and Fagner for Träsch at 74.’
VfL’s only real chance came at 75′ when Dante earned a yellow card for an aerial challenge on Dost just outside the box. Diego struck a beautiful free kick, forcing a leaping Neuer to make a fantastic finger tip save, deflecting the ball to Perisic. With the goal at his mercy, Perisic shanked an admittedly difficult put back attempt. Wolfsburg never really threatened again.
Robben came on for Ribéry and Timoshchuk for Kroos at 79′. Finally, Gomez came on for the beat up goal-scoring hero Mandzukic at 82′. As play became a bit more open and frantic, at 91′ Bayern caught VfL on a nasty counter, as Müller curled a beautiful pass over Wolfsburg’s high backline to a streaking Robben, who – just onside – easily scored in a 1-on-1 scenario against Benaglio from the goalpost’s left side, tucking the ball into the far post.
In a losing effort, Diego is probably’s Wolfburg’s “MoM” (man of the match). He led VfL with 62 touches, was a leader with 30 passes and 13 challenges. He also logged 11.5+ km. Diego completed 89% of his passes, most of which were fairly long balls across heavily trafficked parts of the pitch. Finally, his touches around the box provided VfL’s only real threatening play.
Meanwhile, Schweinsteiger was Bayern’s “MoM,” even if you removed his assist header/deflection on Mandzukic’s golazo. Basti was indefatigable. He led Bayern with in all three categories: 103 touches, 74 passes (van Buyten, Müller and Kroos were his most common targets) , and 12+ km covered. His passing chart for the game demonstrates the ubiquity of his distribution on either flank (but especially Bayern’s right flank in this match), while “action areas” chart demonstrates his presences in conducting Bayern’s offensive from both the middle and right side of the pitch:
Even more impressive, however, he led Bayern with 19 challenges (6/9 on tackles and 4/5 on aerial duels). Schweinsteiger embodied his characteristic passing distribution, but also dominated Wolfsburg with his physicality. A crushing blend.
The match’s interesting numbers:
- Possession: Bayern 53%, Wolfsburg 47%.
- Shots on goal: Bayern 8, Wolfsburg 8.
- Yellow cards: Bayern 2, Wolfsburg 5.
- Challenge success rate: Bayern 53%, Wolfsburg 47%.
- Total passes: Bayern 425 (84% successful), Wolfsburg 252 (80% successful).
- Total tackles: Bayern 18/23, Wolfsburg 27/30 (!).
- Aerial Duels: Bayern 19/28, Wolfsburg 9/28 (!??).
If you are a Wolfsburg fan, Bayern hater, or simply hoping for more narrative drama at the top of the Bundesliga, then this was a frustrating game, simply because VfL looked so capable of playing ball with Bayern – especially with that press during the game’s first 30 minutes. Yet Bayern was too much everything by the match’s end. However, Bayern fans should still be a bit nervous about Bayern’s ability to handle pressure in their back third, because Die Roten just don’t look comfortable having to make quick passes from their back four.
However, for those who love the sometimes nauseating “who is better than who” conversations of sports talk radio, I think you have to say that Bayern is simply a better team than Dortmund right now. Bayern has so many attacking channels that depriving them of their most dangerous one (the left flank) makes little difference. Plus, teams simply cannot score against them right now. And besides, Bayern did manage to survive the press – something Dortmund cannot say after their disaster against HSV last weekend.
No matter what, Bayern still finds ways to score goals and menace in front of the box with their breathtakingly fast lacing of passes and runs. Bayern is imperial. As a Dortmund supporter, I can only stand and applaud. For the sake of Bayern’s historic run we are witnessing in the Bundesliga, I can’t help but praise the greatness of this side.
Data and visuals derived from Squawka.com, WhoScored.com, and Bundesliga.de.
Photo courtesy AP
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