Wolfsburg 3-1 Dortmund: Wolfsburg comfortable despite rarely dominating
Jurgen Klopp waved farewell to Dortmund with a defeat in the German Cup final.
There were few surprises in Dieter Hecking’s team selection. Andre Schurrle continues to be left on the bench ,with both wide players in good form.
Timm Klose has displaced Robin Knoche at the heart of Wolfsburg’s backline, while Naldo – who had been an injury doubt – was fit to start alongside him.
Jurgen Klopp’s final team selection was roughly the players he’d picked most frequently in this disjointed campaign – with one exception, as Erik Durm got the nod over Lukasz Piszczek at right-back.
Otherwise, the team was expected, and broadly in the 4-2-3-1 system Klopp has favoured at Dortmund.
This was an unusual cup final – it was action-packed and end-to-end, with a succession of goalscoring opportunities. Wolfsburg didn’t ever force spells of strong dominance or pile pressure on the Dortmund defence, but instead were extremely efficient with their use of the ball in the second ‘quarter’ of the game, when they effectively won it.
Dortmund started as the dominant side, and would have been delighted to realise Wolfsburg were defending high up the pitch. The theme of the opening 15 minutes was Dortmund getting in behind Wolfsburg extremely easily, generally with the pace of either Marco Reus or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The strange thing here was that it didn’t even appear a deliberate tactic from Dortmund – they weren’t hitting long balls in behind for Aubemeyang to chase, they were simply getting into favourable positions between the lines and Wolfsburg’s defensive positioning invited them to poke an extra pass through.
The opener was an interesting example, when Shinji Kagawa found himself on the right, and chipped a cross over the Wolfsburg’s centre-backs for Aubameyang to convert. In isolation, you wouldn’t say this was an example of Dortmund getting in behind Wolfsburg, but in combination with various other chances, Hecking’s side seemed to be playing too high up the pitch.
Dortmund should have scored more than one goal from these situations, with Reus unusually off-form in front of goal.
Arguably the most interesting tactical feature of Dortmund’s play was their shape without the ball, and their attempted pressing. They kept a medium block, with Kagawa and Aubameyang dropping back and preventing Wolfsburg’s centre-backs from playing the ball into the two central midfielders, who are both comfortable in possession. For long spells this was successful, and while Wolfsburg enjoyed plenty of possession in the first half, a significant proportion of this was simply the centre-backs playing safe passes to one another, or hitting the ball out towards the full-backs. Klose, in particular, saw lots of the ball, and overall Wolfsburg’s four defenders were their four most frequent passers.
They struggled to play passes into Luiz Gustavo or Max Arnold, and these players had little impact when Wolfsburg had possession. However, Wolfsburg’s trump card was the fact they were able to bypass midfield and play the ball into the forward duo instead. Bas Dost moved towards play and was capable of holding up the ball and waiting for the wingers to get forward and offer support, while Kevin De Bruyne was typically brilliant with his movement to find space either side of the Dortmund midfield.
This has been a truly sensational campaign for De Bruyne. He managed 20 league assist, more than anyone else in Europe (and consider that the Bundesliga season is four games shorter than other major European leagues, too) as well as ten goals – a truly brilliant record. You don’t manage those statistics without being excptional in possession, of course, but De Bruyne’s major quality is the intelligence of his movement, and that’s particularly important in a system like this.
Wolfsburg play a very structured, almost compartmentalised 4-2-3-1 system with little switching of positions. This was particularly obvious in this match, in comparison to a fluid Dortmund, where Reus was looking to become a second centre-forward, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan a second number ten. Wolfsburg’s wide players are difficult to categorise – not pure wingers, not inverted wingers, not wide forwards. They’re energetic and usually stay wide until the last moment, and sprint up and down the pitch, protecting their own full-backs, then putting pressure on the opposition full-back. In addition, the holding midfielders usually stayed in position, often to cover for when the full-backs moved forward. This means a lot is expected of De Bruyne, as he needs to connect the entire side, forming triangles to link the wingers and Dost, in particular.
De Bruyne does this brilliantly. His lateral movement into the channels, usually just in behind the opposition central midfielders, is superb and he positions himself to collect the ball on the half-turn, immediately able to spring forward and attack the opposition centre-backs. The wide players are able to make runs in behind the opposition full-backs and expect through-balls, while Dost can receive the ball to feet, or if the ball is played out wide, he ambles into the box and positions himself to meet a cross, as for the third goal.
The other goals, incidentally, came from a simple Gustavo rebound from Naldo’s blasted free-kick, and then a De Bruyne long-distance strike from Daniel Caligiuri’s knock-back.
When ahead, Wolfsburg’s slow possession play from their own defence was more useful than at the start of the game, as they slowed the tempo nicely.
In terms of the goalscoring, the game was effectively over by half-time. And yet Dortmund did launch a spirited and unrewarded fightback, which generally involved pushing their full-backs forward and forcing Wolfsburg back into their own third. They were fortunate Wolfsburg didn’t counter more effectively, as they’d done earlier in the season against Bayern, for example.
Dortmund were impressive because of the way Mats Hummels stepped forward from the back to become a deep-lying playmaker and hit some excellent passes towards Dortmund’s forwards. Wolfsburg never managed to cope with Hummels, with De Bruyne (understandably) given a free role and Dost concentrating on exploiting space in behind Hummels when possession was won. It was interesting that Dortmund, like Wolfsburg, were often bypassing the midfield rather than passing through it. The two pairs of central midfielders had very little impact on the game.
Dortmund created some chances from wide, partly because Wolfsburg’s full-backs are much better going forward than defensively. 3-1 was a slightly harsh reflection upon the balance of play – but then Dortmund have been constantly ‘hard done by’ in this respect all season.
A peculiar game, where Wolfsburg won reasonably comfortably without enjoying any spells of genuine dominance. Their defending in the opening stages was particularly suspect – they were simply playing too high up the pitch – and they could have lost the game in this period.
They looked much better when the game settled down into more of a structured pattern. Their side was more organised in terms of shape, and their wide players retained the width and meant Wolfsburg could play quick switches out to the flanks. Combined with De Bruyne’s intelligent movement, they were able to find gaps in the Dortmund side.
This game summarised Dortmund’s season – positive possession play, good overall shape without the ball – but sloppiness in both penalty boxes. It’s such a consistent theme that there must be some root cause, perhaps relating to the manner of Klopp’s training, but it’s difficult to pinpoint merely from watching matches – especially as this wasn’t a significant problem over recent seasons.
Overall, Klopp’s spell with Dortmund must be remembered extremely fondly. The organisation of the side has generally been excellent, and the attacking transitions were often devastatingly effective, particularly in the two title-winning campaigns.