May 27, 2017

Wolfsburg oust Manchester United from Champions League

In what was perhaps the UEFA Champions League game of the season so far, Wolfsburg knocked mighty Manchester United into the bowels of Europa League with a 3-2 victory.

We, the general public, should apparently be surprised.

  • MU are worth 391 million Euros, more than double the value of VFL Wolfsburg.
  • The Red Devils are supposed to feature bigger stars (Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis, David De Gea, etc.) with “more European experience” (as my match commentators, former United players Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves, kindly reminded their audience every five minutes).
  • They have Louis van Gaal, a tactical genius, who got to spend over 100 million pounds this off-season.
  • They were drawn into an “easy” group with CSKA Moscow, PSV Eindhoven, and the VW Wolves.

What could go wrong?

The opponents in green. That’s what.

If you have been paying attention, you should NOT have been surprised at the performance of Wolfsburg Tuesday. Here are some statistics to show you just how good they have been.

  • Their loss over the weekend to Borussia Dortmund (on a last-minute winner by Shinji Kagawa) was their first Volkswagen Arena in 18 months!
  • They are third in the Bundesliga in possession with 58.7%, behind only BVB and Bayern.
  •  After 15 games, they’ve conceded the third fewest goals (17).
  • With 83.7% die Wölfe are second in pass accuracy.
  • They are second only to Dortmund in aerial duels won.
  • According to Who Scored.com’s analytics, Wolfsburg are third in team rating with 6.96.

In retrospect, the signs for a VFL victory were posted early. What was only a pleasant surprise in their 2-1 loss at Old Trafford, a game Wolfsburg dominated in the first half with goals like this, hit me like a ton of bricks sometime in the early moments of the game: WOLFSBURG are more TALENTED than United.

The excellent folks over at Goal Impact agree, with their numbers FAVORING Wolfsburg 139.1 to 134.6.

manu numbers vfl numbers

If you don’t like numbers, I present to you their second goal from Tuesday, as scored by Vieirinha.

What Julian Draxler does to none other than Bastian Schweinsteiger (one of the best midfielders of the last ten years) should not be legal.

Had Barcelona been the team scoring that goal, YouTube, Twitter, and every other social medium would have exploded from the wave of gushing praise for it.

After the explosion, let’s quickly give some more praise to VFL with a three-part positional breakdown.

Diego Benaglio was blameless for the two goals against, as his defense hung him out to dry on the first and outright headed the ball over him for the second. Otherwise, the former Swiss international made some brilliant point-blank saves to deny Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial.

The back four, despite conceding twice among a bevy of chances and 16 shots allowed actually played fairly well. Losing the excellent left back Ricardo Rodriguez only 14 minutes in hurt, but his replacement Marcel Schäfer did well, while Christian Träsch was his usual workmanlike self at right back. In the center, Dante was great in distribution (leading the team with 61 passes) and had five clearances. The man of the match was Dante’s fellow member of the over-30 club in central defense, Naldo, who had two goals from set pieces, putting strikers to shame with the first one. Naldo also had eight (EIGHT!!) clearances, four interceptions, three blocked shots, and won 71% of his duels, including 75% in the air. They did lose Martial badly for the first MU goal, and the Frenchman’s pace was giving the duo headaches all evening.

In midfield, Joshua Guilavogui, the goat in Saturday’s loss for allowing Mkhitaryan to dispossess him 25 yards from goal just before the game-winner, scored a near-disastrous own goal that gave the English side some hope. Julian Draxler was wizard-like in creating the second goal; Maxi Arnold and Vieirinha were pestering United with their speed, passing, and overall creativity. Facing the 100-million quartet (according to transfermarkt) of Mata, Fellaini, Memphis, and Schweinsteiger, the Wolfsburg trio (worth 42 million) was dominant for much of the match.

Up top, Max Kruse was ever-dangerous, as he occupied the opposing defense with menacing runs. His partner, World Cup winner André Schürrle, had his quintessential Schürrle game – missing a glorious chance in the opening minutes, yet creating many other opportunities and wreaking havoc with his physicality and aggression. It’s scary to imagine what Wolfsburg would look like if he learned to finish consistently.

Overall, a wonderful display from the Wolves, as they earned all three points and proved that they were the best team of the group.

Finally, while I don’t want to be the 457th person to lament on the elimination of Manchester United, (there are plenty other excellent sites for that, as few nations are capable of reaching the heights of self-flagellation that the English manage), but here are four quick points;

  • Louis van Gaal got outcoached by Kicker magazine’s coach of the year, Dieter Hecking. Sure, the Dutchman and Manchester fans can complain about the squad being decimated  by injury (perhaps they should have spent those millions a bit more wisely?), but the German side lost world-class midfielder Kevin De Bruyne (to MU’s crosstown rivals) and Ivan Perisic (to Inter) over the summer and are actually somehow better.
  • United’s “experienced” players are actually semi-washed up (looking at you Basti and, of course, Rooney), and/or not the answer (you really expect Michael Carrick to “pull the strings” in a 2015 game?)
  • As others have noted, Fellaini is an absolute monster in the air, but he’s a 20-minute player, not one who should be going 90. Oh, by the way, he was dispossessed six times yesterday; no other player had three.
  • From those two previous points, it’s painfully obvious that Manchester United, for the 250 million pounds spent over Van Gaal’s 18 months in charge, don’t have a quality box-to-box midfielder in the squad!
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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at www.bundespremierleague.com. Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL