Both teams were able to clinch a victory on Sunday and strive for the European Cup this season. Ahead of this match, VfL Wolfsburg had only conceded 15 goals and thus the best defence in the Bundesliga. It looked similar for FC Schalke 04, who had only conceded three goals more so far. Both teams put a lot of emphasis on the defence. Nevertheless, an entertaining game with chances on both sides evolved. Overall Wolfsburg had an xG-value of 3.0 while Schalke only amassed 1.73 xG.

This tactical analysis will examine how Wolfsburg’s tactics allowed them to reach their highest xG-value of the season. This analysis will also take a closer look at the corners, that played a crucial role in this fixture.

Lineups and formation

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Both teams’ lineups

Wolfsburg’s starting eleven didn’t hold many surprises. After their last-minute win over Mönchengladbach, Oliver Glasner saw no reason to change his system and started in a 4-1-4-1 again. Koen Casteels was the man between the posts while the back four was made of Jerome Roussillon, Marcel Tisserand, John Anthony Brooks, and Kevin Mbabu. Joshua Guilavogui played as a single pivot with Xaver Schlager and Maximilian Arnold in front of him. The wingers were Joao Victor and Josip Brekalo, who replaced Renato Steffen, while Wout Weghorst was the man up front.

Schalke, in contrast, were forced to make changes due to the suspension of Alexander Nübel and the injury of Weston McKennie. The two were replaced by Markus Schubert and Juan Miranda. While Schubert replaced Nübel in the goal, Miranda played as a left-back and Bastian Oczipka replaced McKennie as a centre-back. Consequently, the back four consisted of Miranda, Ozan Kabak, Oczipka, and Jonjoe Kenny. In addition to that, David Wagner surprised with his selection in the attack of his 4-diamond-2. Here, Fabian Reese and Guido Burgstaller replaced Rabbi Matondo and Benito Raman. Especially the latter was in top form having scored 4 goals in his last 4 games.

Pressing intensity

Both teams are known for high and intense pressing this season. Consequently, it was no surprise that both sides reached quite low PPDA values of 8.08 (Wolfsburg) and 6.42 (Schalke). That means either team allowed the opposition far fewer passes per defensive action than the Bundesliga average of 11.21 according to understat.com. Furthermore, this also indicates their directness and tendency to be very much vertical-oriented.

Both teams partly used a similar pressing approach. While Schalke opted to disrupt the opposition build-up play early in a man-oriented way, Wolfsburg were a bit more flexible in their approach.

As we will take a closer look at later, Schalke built up from the back with three. Therefore, to press with a man-marking approach, Wolfsburg lines up in a 4-3-3. Weghorst marked Mascarell, who dropped deep, and the two wingers marked the central defenders. Schalke’s midfielders are usually positioned higher up the pitch to win second balls. Therefore, Wolfsburg often only needed to press with three.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Wolfsburg put pressure on Schalke’s defenders high up the pitch in a man-marking approach. The other three central midfielders marked Schalke’s wide midfielders. This leaves Schalke no option to play out from the back in a structured way.

However, Wolfsburg sometimes sat a little deeper in a clear 4-1-4-1 formation to prevent passes through the middle. In both cases, Joshua Guilavogui acted as the single pivot, providing an extra layer of protection.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Wolfsburg stand very compact in a 4-1-4-1 offering no space in the middle of the pitch.

Since David Wagner attaches great importance to it, Schalke’s press has been their biggest strength this season. In the example below, we can see their 4-diamond-2 press. The strikers marked the central defenders while the midfield-diamond covered the centre. In case Wolfsburg would have tried to build up with their full-backs, they would have been pressed by Schalke’s wide midfielders. Omar Mascarell acted as the holding midfielder and looked to seal the press.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Schalke press within the opposition half with their two strikers. The midfield-diamond is positioned behind the strikers to cover the centre. Since Schalke don’t offer any space in the centre, Wolfsburg could only build up through their full backs or play a long ball.

Neither Wolfsburg nor Schalke could build-up without pressure and both teams tended to avoid any risk. The pressing often resulted in passes back to the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper then decided to play a long ball instead of playing out with short passes.

Wolfsburg in control

Wolfsburg dominated the match, especially the first half. Since Schalke had numerical superiority in the centre due to their diamond-formation, Wolfsburg’s most dangerous attacks came from the sides. One disadvantage of the 4-diamond-2 formation is the open space on the ball far side. Wolfsburg knew how to make use of this by switching sides as illustrated in the example below. In this situation, the entire Schalke squad shifted to the left side where the ball was in play.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Schalke’s ball-oriented movement leaves their left side completely open.

Mbabu had enough time to receive the ball and several options to progress the ball. As we can see he had plenty of space in front of him. In addition to that, he could also play a 2 vs 1 with Schlager, who shifted towards the right side. A third option would be to play with Joao Victor, who was positioned between Schalke’s left-back and a centre-back.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
After Mbabu had received the ball, he still had time and three options to progress the ball.
Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Because Suat Serdar closed the passing lane into the centre, Schlager recognized the space between Serdar and Miranda. Since Miranda also had to cope with Joao Victor, Schlager got the ball earlier and dribbled past the defender to run towards the penalty area.

Furthermore, Wolfsburg frequently got into the spaces between the centre-back and full-back. Especially Schlager showed his quality in recognising these situations. One reason for this is also the new formation since the fixture against Mönchengladbach. Thanks to Glasner’s switch to 4 at the back, instead of three, the central midfielders Arnold and Schlager have more freedom. They use this freedom by joining the attack more frequently.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Schlager saw the space between the centre back and the right back and thus makes a run into it.
Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Once again, Schlager saw the space and positioned himself higher up the pitch.

We’ve seen now, how Wolfsburg was able to get into dangerous areas. When looking at the underlying statistics, we can further see that the Wolves were particularly strong in the middle of the first half. Due to good counter press and the strength with second balls, Wolfsburg were able to make one attack after another. This dominance is further underlined by the fact, that they partly won more than 2/3 of the duels. Although the second half was a bit more balanced, Wolfsburg still were the dominant side.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Huge dominance of the Wolves between the 16.-30. min

Schalke’s struggling build-up

As seen in many analyses this year, Schalke’s build-up is still work in progress. This was not made easier by the injury-related losses of some regular players like Salif Sané or Benjamin Stambouli

As mentioned, Schalke always builds up from the back with three with Mascarell dropping in between the two centre-backs. By doing so, he allows Schalke to stretch the pitch with both full-backs anchoring each flank.

A usual pattern of Schalke this season is to progress the ball through their full-backs who then try to play a 2v1 with the wide midfielders. However, due to Wolfsburg’s good work against the ball, the Royal Blues had a hard time to do so.

v
Schubert is pressed by an attacking player of Wolfsburg. Despite the pressure, he is able to play an accurate air ball to the right back Jonjoe Kenny. As soon as Brekalo recognizes that, he starts to put pressure on him.
Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
When Kenny receives the ball, he is already under pressure by a defender. In addition, his only passing option, Caligiuri is also marked and Brekalo is on his way to create numerical superiority for Wolfsburg.

Wolfsburg’s pressure in this situation as well as in many others left Schalke’s players with very few options. In the end, this often resulted in hoofed balls under pressure by goalkeeper Markus Schubert.

This leads us to another problem in Schalke’s attacking. First, both their strikers Burgstaller and Reese struggled to control long balls and lay it off for the midfielders. This is still to be coped with considering their emphasis on second balls. Nevertheless, it is necessary to be positioned accordingly to win these second balls. Even though they had numerical superiority in the centre, this was too often not the case.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Three Schalke players are on par with the defenders without any staggering. This poor positioning leaves only one Schalke midfielder in the centre against three Wolves.

Crucial set-pieces

Set pieces often occupy an underrated spot in football. However, in this match, set-pieces played a significant role, not least because of the two goals. In total there were 17 corners, 12 of them for the Wolves. What’s even more impressive with Wolfsburg is the fact that 9/12 (!) corners resulted in a shot. Until this game, Schalke was not known to be particularly susceptible to corners, nor was Wolfsburg known to be particularly dangerous. So how did so many dangerous corners come to be for the home side?

First, it is interesting, that Wolfsburg lined up with two players at the corner spot: left-footed Maximilian Arnold and right-footed Josip Brekalo. In the first half, these two played the corner shortly five times creating a  v1 one situation on the flank.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Both Maximilian Arnold and Josip Brekalo are prepared to take the corner.
Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
The short corner created a 2 vs 1 situation. In the end, Arnold could either shoot himself or cross the ball.

The next example emphasises Wolfsburg’s line up when the ball was crossed. As we can see below, Wolfsburg always lined up with four men in a row to confuse Schalke’s defence.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
Wolfsburg’s offense prepares for the corner.

One might suggest, that one reason was to set picks to block defenders and generate space in the box. However, that wasn’t the case with Wolfsburg. All players ran in and occupied the areas between the penalty spot and the five-meter area.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Wolfsburg vs Schalke - tactical analysis tactics
One player is positioned at the short post, one at the long post and two in the middle.

What’s worth mentioning beyond that is Xaver Schlager’s position on the far left in the picture. The Austrian midfielder amassed two shots after corners through second balls.

Conclusion

All in all, as shown in our tactical analysis, Wolfsburg were the dominant side. Although the Wolves scored the equalizer late in the game, you have to admit that they deserved more than one point. Especially their attacking strategy and their corners worked out very well, creating lots of chances. Schalke benefited from a good goalkeeper (apart from his individual error) and Wolfsburg’s lack of accuracy in shooting.

In the end, both teams can live with this point and continue to squint at a place for the European Cup next year. While Schalke welcomes SC Freiburg in the Veltins Arena on the last matchday 2019 in the Bundesliga, the Wolves will travel to Munich to face FC Bayern.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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