Bayern 2-1 Wolfsburg: Heartbreak for McClaren as Schweinsteiger strikes late

August 21, 2010

The starting line-ups

A tremendous fixture to open the new Bundesliga season – the champions from the last two seasons going head-to-head – and it turned out to be a wonderful game.

Bayern continued to use their 4-2-3-1 formation that brought them such success last season, with some notable modifications. Holger Bastuber moved to centre-back, with the promising Diego Contento starting at left-back. Toni Kroos has returned from a loan spell at Leverkusen and played behind Miroslav Klose, meaning Thomas Mueller played the right-wing role he thrived in at the World Cup.

Steve McClaren left out Zvjezdan Misimovic, the player with the second-highest number of assists in the Bundesliga last season, because of disciplinary reasons and opted for a defensive-minded 4-1-4-1 system, that saw Josue acting as the holding player, and debutant Cicero Santos ahead of him alongside Sascha Riehter. Another new signing, Mario Mandzukic, played on the left wing.

It’s difficult to emphasise how much Bayern dominated the first half. Wolfsburg spent most of the opening period simply trying to get out of their own half, as the home side were content to keep the ball, Spain-style, without looking to penetrate the Wolfsburg defence too often.

Bayern’s double pivot of Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweingsteiger was the main reason for their dominance – they took it in turns to drop deep, and always made themselves available for a pass. The Bayern full-backs pushed on well in advance of the central midfielders, whilst Daniel van Buyten often stepped up to become an additional option in midfield.

Wolfsburg midfield problems

McClaren clearly wanted to ‘match’ Bayern in midfield – not in terms of matching their formation, but in deploying his midfield in the ‘inverse’ shape to Bayern’s, so each Bayern midfield was tracked closely. Josue took care of Toni Kroos, who had a quiet game, whilst Cicero and Riether looked to track van Bommel and Schweinsteiger if either attempted a forward run.

This worked reasonably well defensively, because despite Bayern having around 70-80% possession for much of the first half, they had few chances, and only scored one goal. When it came, it was wonderful – Mueller drifted in from his right-sided position to exchange passes with Kroos, before taking the ball on with his first touch, and volleying left-footed across Diego Benaglio into the far corner. It was a good, subtle example of how full-backs can be effective going forward – Philip Lahm’s movement forward was not a rampaging run, but he took up a right-wing position, allowing Mueller infield to strike.

That was an exquisite goal, but Wolfsburg were weathering the storm at the back. Their problem was that their ‘matching’ in the centre midfield was a problem when they tried to have a spell of possession themselves, because each of their midfielders was in close proximity to a Bayern player. They struggled to break forward with any real conviction and didn’t create a single meaningful chance in the opening period.

Bayern were defending well with a highish defensive line – not wanting to let Dzeko get into the penalty area to receive crosses, and van Buyten could be seen enthusiastically telling his fellow defenders to push up quickly whenever they cleared the ball. Their possession football was wonderful to watch – in the five minutes before half-time they had 89.1% of the ball – and Wolfsburg stood off in their own half and hoped for half-time, but they only had a one-goal lead.

The second half sides, after Wolfsburg's change in shape

Wolfsburg change shape

McClaren changed his shape completely at half-time, withdrawing Peter Pekarik (who had an awful first half against Franck Ribery, and was on a booking) and introducing Misimovic behind Dzeko. This meant that Riether dropped in at right-back, and Wolfsburg’s shape changed from 4-1-4-1 to 4-4-1-1, with Josue and Cicero playing roughly alongside one another.

This changed the game completely. Dzeko, who cut a dejected figure in the first half, was more lively and happier to be supported closely by Misimovic. Wolfsburg had five very good opportunities within the first ten minutes of the second period, with the new front two both guilty of missing presentable chances. Bayern’s full-backs had become so used to playing exclusively attacking roles in the first half that they left their centre-backs exposed, and Wolfsburg had 2 v 2 and even 3 v 2 situations that they didn’t make the most of.

The theoretical problem with shifting to a 4-4-1-1, with Misimovic very high up the pitch, is that it gives you one less player in the midfield zone. But the change in shape helped Wolfsburg retain possession more easily for two reasons. Firstly, it meant that they had something more like a double pivot themselves, and one of the two holding players was always available for a pass (compared to the first half, where van Bommel was always on Cicero). This shift from McClaren is similar to how Arsene Wenger moved Abou Diaby deeper in Arsenal’s game against Liverpool in February, which moved him away from Lucas, and allowed Arsenal to retain the ball more easily.

Secondly, the introduction of Misimovic means that Bayern’s central midfielders had someone to worry about behind them, and Schweinsteiger, the game’s best player in the first half, had less room to manoeuvre and played deeper, in a more defensive role.

Wolfsburg scored in the 55th minute with their sixth chance of the second half – six more than they’d had in the first. It was a simple goal – Misimovic sent in a corner, Dzeko rose highest and nodded in. Wolfsburg more than deserved their point.

In the later stages of the second half, the game was much more conservative and scrappy – Wolfsburg broke up the play with 25 fouls in the match (compared to Bayern’s six) and there was relatively little in the way of goalscoring chances. Bayern kept their formation, Wolfsburg kept theirs, and tactically there was little of interest – though van Buyten’s moves forward stopped thanks to the presence of Misimovic.

A point seemed a fair result, but Bayern stole the points in stoppage time – Ribery, quieter in the second half, cut inside onto his right foot and sent a beautiful deep cross into the penalty area, which Benaglio misjudged, and Schweinsteiger steered in at the far post from a narrow angle.


An interesting case study in the midfield, with Wolfsburg’s first half 4-1-4-1 having problems keeping possession, but the 4-4-1-1 giving themselves more time on the ball in deep positions, and worrying Bayern’s central midfielders far more with the use of a central playmaker.

Despite the defeat and the awful first half display, McClaren can take some positives from the way Wolfsburg dominated the start of the second half – and in terms of the ‘clear cut chances’ score, Wolfsbug were well on top.

Bayern’s first half may point towards a Spain-style possession-based game more than last season. Although they kept the ball well, Kroos and Miroslav Klose had disappointing games as Bayern struggled to involve them in build-up play. They were fortunate to get the victory, but it was the sort of last-gasp win that eventual champions always record.

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