Wolfsburg Need More On-Pitch Clarity In Order To Survive Relegation Play-Off

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Following their 2-1 defeat to Hamburg on the final matchday of the Bundesliga season, VfL Wolfsburg have retreated to the Dutch town of De Lutte, located on the Dutch-German border, to settle in for a brief training camp. That camp is needed to ready the side for their relegation play-off against Eintracht Braunschweig, a two-legged affair that will determine whether the Wolves stay in the top-flight or move down to Bundesliga 2 for the following campaign.

It’s not a spot Wolfsburg would’ve expected to find themselves in. After all, they made the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League last season, knocking over Manchester United along the way. To say the current campaign, where they finished in 16th place after 34 Bundesliga matches, has been a fall from grace would be a dramatic understatement. To make matters worse, the manner in which they fell to the relegation play-off was extremely cruel.

The Wolves came up against Hamburg on the final day, in a match that would most likely determine which of the two teams would drop into the Bundesliga’s bottom three. On paper, Wolfsburg were the team to beat, even if they were playing away from home. They had the better, more expensively-assembled squad, and at least in the early going, that showed at ground-level.

Andries Jonker’s players were strong initially, dominating possession and creating impressive chances. Mario Gomez was central to this, at one point operating as target man to perfection by winning a long ball and nodding it down to Jakub Blaszczykowski. The Polish star then returned the favour by putting Gomez in behind the opposition defence, but despite a well-hit strike that arrowed for the far corner, Hamburg shotstopper Christian Mathenia turned it around the post.

Mathenia was forced into another expert save soon after, but eventually Wolfsburg’s pressure told. They were winning corner after corner, and when Robin Knoche nodded home in the 23rd minute, after staying up from one of those corners, the Wolves were 1-0 and seemingly cruising. They had enjoyed 63% of the ball up until that point, and, somewhat embarrassingly for Hamburg, were also the only team to have created chances.

Joshua Guilavogui and Luis Gustavo patrolled the midfield with a mix of precision and strength, the front four, which featured Yunus Malli, Paul-Georges Ntep and Blaszczykowski in behind Gomez, looked lively and the defence was snuffing out anything even resembling an attack from HSV. Hamburg, known as the dinosaurs due to the fact that they are the only team to play in every single Bundesliga season, were rattled and, at least at that moment, seemingly on the way to yet another relegation play-off. The wheels, however, were about to fall off for Wolfsburg.

A few minutes later, Philipp Wollscheid attempted to play the ball out from the back, and in the first of many similar incidents, he took a little too long. He subsequently lost possession, at which point Lewis Holtby took over for Hamburg. He quickly streamed into the final third before poking a ball in behind an unset Wolfsburg defence. Wollscheid attempted to get back but he couldn’t, and with a swiftly hit shot across the face of goal, Filip Kostic equalised with HSV’s first shot of the contest. 1-1.

In front of their home fans, with the big Volksparkstadion clock continuing to count upward as a means through which to indicate the 53+ years the club has remained in the Bundesliga, Hamburg started to purr. The nerves and lack of precision that plagued them early on made way for a reinvigorated set of players, and after having so little of the ball in the opening stages, they were now on the front foot.

In fact, they were pretty well the better team from that point on. Wolfsburg started to get nervous themselves, and with Hamburg still needing a winner in order to steer clear of the play-off, the Green-Whites eased into a more defensive mode. That 63% of possession enjoyed by Wolfsburg lessened and lessened, and by the final whistle, it was about 50% each. More than that, though, the quality attached to the club’s distribution dissipated.

Wolfsburg turned the ball over continually in the second half, something Hamburg used to generate a series of half-chances. Then, with a couple of minutes remaining, Wolfsburg again handed the ball back to Hamburg with a rushed clearance from defence. The home team went to work quickly, moving the ball from left to right until it sat with Gotoku Sakai. The club captain responded with a wicked long diagonal, its weight so impressive that it fizzed perfectly into the path of Kostic. Hamburg, now clearly the more energetic side, took this opportunity to give the winger an option inside the box.

Among them was young substitute Luca Waldschmidt, who had only been on the field for two minutes. He put his hand up immediately, indicating to the crosser that he was the man to win it. Kostic offered him the chance to do just that with a left-footed curler, and Waldschmidt hammered it home with his head. He then moved into a deeply unconvincing Antoine Griezmann-esque celebration, but that didn’t matter. He had won it for Hamburg and, in doing so, he had ensured that the Bundesliga’s dinosaurs would evade extinction for another year.

Wolfsburg, meanwhile, were consigned to a play-off spot. Max Arnold missed a late chance to equalise, and at that point, they could only rue a poor performance. “I’m a little bit speechless because football is brutal,” Gomez lamented. “But we’re not relegated yet. We still have two matches against a second division side. We have to do it.”

That shift towards the relegation play-off has now well and truly begun, and in fairness to Wolfsburg, they have the upper hand. They have a squad packed with quality, and coming into a two-legged tie against Braunschweig, there’s no reason why they can’t win. On the pitch, though, they need to do a few things.

Firstly, they need to be better in the build-up. Wolfsburg gave the ball away far too cheaply, especially in defensive positions, so they need to be more secure in possession as they work their way towards the halfway line. As well as that, they need to use their attacking weapons to a greater extent. They looked good when they moved the ball quickly, either with long balls towards Gomez or direct passes out to speedster Ntep, but they didn’t find them with enough frequency.

They will no doubt be working on these things during their mini-training camp in De Lutte, and if they can perform with more assuredness in these areas during the play-off games, they might just be able to re-establish themselves as a Bundesliga side.