Wolfsburg 2-0 PSV - A Tactical Analysis

Going into the third matchday of the Champions League, all four of the teams in Group B were sitting level with each other on three points – leaving everything open for one of Wolfsburg or PSV to strengthen their credentials for qualification with a win in their encounter in Germany. That closeness of the group was quite strongly reflected in the opening 45 minutes of this match, with the first-half being a very tactical, methodical encounter which the away side had the better of despite recording no shots on target.

Breaking down Wolfsburg's defensive shape, which was quite distinctly a 4-4-2, caused PSV a lot of problems – and the inability of the centre-backs to play forward properly was a cause of this.

Breaking down Wolfsburg's defensive shape, which was quite distinctly a 4-4-2, caused PSV a lot of problems – and the inability of the centre-backs to play forward properly was a cause of this.

Wolfsburg managed to have a couple of half-chances from the edge of the box themselves in the early stages, first through Daniel Caligiuri and then Julian Draxler, but PSV quickly took a foothold in the game after that and dominated the ball for long periods at a time without creating anything of note. Jorrit Hendrix was the Dutch side’s key player in possession, and as the deepest midfielder in their 4-3-3 he was the one who enabled this control by regularly dropping in line with his team’s centre-backs.

This gave them a spare man in the build-up against Wolfsburg’s Bas Dost and Max Kruse, with Dieter Hecking’s team taking up a very distinct 4-4-2 with rather little pressing in defensive phases, but PSV were unable to make the most of this. Neither of Jeffrey Bruma and Héctor Moreno stepped up effectively enough when they had the ball, and as a result of that the midfield battle – in which PSV should’ve had a numerical superiority of 3 vs. 2 – became harder for them to win than it should’ve been.

Some of the fault for that can also be put on Adam Maher, PSV’s midfielder who started the game on the left side but often drifted inside towards the number 10 position (making their 4-3-3 somewhat asymmetric with Luciano Narsingh on the other side playing very much as an out-and-out winger). He should’ve helped to restore that superiority by dropping in and helping to instigate overloads in the centre, but instead he was rarely involved and struggled to get on the ball in any particularly useful areas.

Hendrix was probably the best player in the first-half, and when PSV did manage to progress up the field a lot of the play went through him – and here he picked out one of the runs which Guardado made down the left side.

Hendrix was probably the best player in the first-half, and when PSV did manage to progress up the field a lot of the play went through him – and here he picked out one of the runs which Guardado made down the left side.

Credit does have to go to Wolfsburg’s Josuha Guilavogui and Luiz Gustavo for a portion of that struggle though. The two defensive midfielders got the distances between each other and the two wider midfielders (Caligiuri and Draxler) spot on, whilst also sticking with Andrés Guardado and Davy Pröpper and preventing them from getting the ball in any space. Even if the pair did well in that respect, though, it was them who could be blamed for Wolfsburg’s own inefficiencies with the ball in the half.

The short distances which Guilavogui and Gustavo left between each other made it very difficult for PSV to break through them.

The short distances which Guilavogui and Gustavo left between each other made it very difficult for PSV to break through them.

Those two sat in the double-pivot of Wolfsburg’s 4-2-3-1 system when they had possession, and their lack of creativity meant that they struggled to get the ball into that line of three ahead of them – consisting of Draxler, Kruse and Caliguiri. That trio looked quite sharp when they did get to attack, and there were hints of some good interchanging between Draxler and Kruse especially, but because of Guilavogui and Gustavo not providing any real verticality, bar one or two forward runs, it was all quite disjointed and absent of fluidity as a whole.

Similarly to Wolfsburg, PSV rarely pressed when they didn’t have the ball. Their defensive shape was a little bit different though, with Maher and Narsingh dropping level with the three central midfielders to create a 4-5-1; Luuk de Jong being the one. The Dutch side not having anybody to support De Jong meant that Dante and Naldo could easily play round him (more on that later) and get the ball into the midfield ahead of them, but as mentioned the deficiencies of Guilavogui and Gustavo meant this rarely came to anything unless they played longer balls forward.

Naldo and Dante often had space to step forward with the ball, and here he picks out a great pass for Kruse (which the German fails to control just inside the area).

Naldo and Dante often had space to step forward with the ball, and here he picks out a great pass for Kruse (which the German fails to control just inside the area).

Instead, the home side’s only real chance came on the counter-attack in the 39th minute when PSV had numbers committed forward. Caligiuri ran forward excellently from his own half through the midfield area and managed to set Dost up just inside the area, but his attempt to curl the ball into the far corner with his first touch was quite horribly wayward.

Wolfsburg’s best chance of the first-half came on the counter-attack, after an excellent run from Caligiuri down the middle of the pitch, although Dost fired it wide.

Wolfsburg’s best chance of the first-half came on the counter-attack, after an excellent run from Caligiuri down the middle of the pitch, although Dost fired it wide.

As for PSV’s best opportunity, which happened to be the best of the half, it was the otherwise uninvolved Maher who it fell to just three minutes after Wolfsburg’s chance with Dost. It came as a result of that movement he kept making inside, too, something which worked when it was facilitated by a run up the flank by the left-sided central midfielder, Guardado. With Guardado out wide and Maher now in the middle with space behind Wolfsburg’s double-pivot for a change, a cross from the left-back Simon Poulsen was put perfectly between the two centre-backs for him to attack in the air.

Maher’s only 5’8 and not exactly known for his aerial ability however, and it was perhaps somewhat ironic in the tone of his half that this cross would be his one significant chance to contribute. The header went wide, he covered his face with his shirt, and shortly after the half-time whistle went.

Another of Guardado’s run down the left allowed Maher to move into a central area, and he almost scores with a header after a superb cross by Poulsen, PSV’s left-back.

Another of Guardado’s run down the left allowed Maher to move into a central area, and he almost scores with a header after a superb cross by Poulsen, PSV’s left-back.

There were no substitutions or notable changes at half-time, but after a goalless opening 45 minutes the match suddenly came to life when Wolfsburg somewhat unexpectedly took the lead in the 46th. Whilst PSV had failed to make use of their centre-backs being the free men in the first-half, Wolfsburg did the opposite and got their goal as a result of it – bypassing De Jong easily and thus giving Naldo plenty of space to step up the field with the ball at his feet.

The Brazilian’s cross from a deep area found Kruse, who had space near the far post to knock it down to Guilavogui on the edge of the box. His half-volley was saved well by Jeroen Zoet, but the in-form Dost was lurking and he tucked the simple rebound away from a couple of yards to put Wolfsburg 1-0 up.

Naldo makes the most of the space he’s given to step out of defence and crosses the ball in the air towards Kruse – who wins the header and gives the ball to Guilavogui to have an effort from the edge of the area).

Naldo makes the most of the space he’s given to step out of defence and crosses the ball in the air towards Kruse – who wins the header and gives the ball to Guilavogui to have an effort from the edge of the area).

It was quite an undeserved lead for Hecking’s side, but the goal changed the complexion of the game. The German team began to enjoy more of the ball, PSV started to press a little higher to try and get it off them, and with more space in midfield the early signs of promise from the Wolfsburg three behind Dost became more evident.

What became less obvious from here onwards, though, was Hendrix’s role. The 20-year-old passed the ball around very nicely in the first-half, and was arguably the best player on the pitch too, but he started to see less of the ball at this point as the tempo became a bit more frantic and Wolfsburg retained the ball more. Phillip Cocu did at least manage to get Maher involved to a greater extent however, and he swapped with Guardado to take a central role on a permanent basis. This helped them to move the ball around a little quicker, as well as giving PSV a little more natural width on the left to try and stretch the Wolfsburg defence.

Maher moving into a central role gave PSV a little more spark, due to his quick feet and burst of acceleration, although they still struggled to create much.

Maher moving into a central role gave PSV a little more spark, due to his quick feet and burst of acceleration, although they still struggled to create much.

PSV were still unable to create anything significant despite that, and they were made to pay for their failures when Wolfsburg extended their lead just before the hour mark. Again, it was another move started from one of their centre-backs, Dante on this occasion, and his pass forward to Kruse gave them the opportunity to break through their opponent’s midfield.

After receiving the defender’s pass, Kruse played a first-time ball into the unmarked Draxler who had cleverly drifted into space between the lines. He carried the ball forward, cut inside (thanks to Kruse dragging the right-back Joshua Brenet away from him) and shot; forcing another good save from Zoet. For the second time it was a Wolfsburg player who was first to react though when the attempt was pushed wide, and Caligiuri crossed the ball in for Kruse to head home excellently.

Kruse’s clever run down the left opens up space for Draxler to drift inside, and he fires an effort at goal which Zoet saves well (although Kruse then scored after the rebound was crossed in).

Kruse’s clever run down the left opens up space for Draxler to drift inside, and he fires an effort at goal which Zoet saves well (although Kruse then scored after the rebound was crossed in).

Given the lack of chances they’d made up until this point it felt quite unlikely that PSV were ever going to claw back a 2-0 deficit, and it proved as much in the final half an hour as they continued to knock the ball around quite nicely without any real penetration. Wolfsburg were happy to let them advance up the field a little more by this point, but they still continued to maintain their shape effectively in defensive phases and prevented them from breaking through their lines or creating much.

Hendrix’s performance declined in the second-half, and he struggled to break through the compact defensive line of Wolfsburg.

Hendrix’s performance declined in the second-half, and he struggled to break through the compact defensive line of Wolfsburg.

Other than Wolfsburg’s attackers continuing to interchange and Draxler especially getting on the ball more, nothing of any particular note happened from then until the first set of substitutions in the 72nd minute when Jürgen Locadia came on for Hendrix. This saw PSV switch into a 4-4-2, with the young striker joining De Jong up top and Maher going back out to the left side.

There were a few other switches for both sides (although they were very much like-for-like), but Locadia was the only one to have any real impact and he put in a decent cameo for the most part. He showed some good energy and movement in those closing stages of the game, even winning his side a penalty in the 90th minute after drawing a foul from Diego Benaglio just inside the area.

Locadia coming on meant PSV’s formation changed into much more of a 4-4-2, with him joining De Jong up front.

Locadia coming on meant PSV’s formation changed into much more of a 4-4-2, with him joining De Jong up front.

Benaglio redeemed himself and saved the effort which was taken by Locadia though, keeping Wolfsburg’s lead to two goals as well as stopping any late surge for an equaliser from PSV. The final whistle went soon afterwards, and the three points which the home side secured saw them go to the top of the group after CSKA Moscow and Man Utd drew in the other game.