Wolfsburg were held by an industrious St Pauli side but might consider themselves lucky to escape with a point after an abysmal first half performance.
St. Pauli were on a bad run of form coming into this round 13 match, with just one victory in six. They’d gone 265 minutes without scoring (keeping their record as the Bundesliga’s lowest scorers in the process), despite the fact that just a few weeks ago, they were riding high in sixth spot.
VfL Wolfsburg, meanwhile, arrived at the Millerntor seeking only their second away success of the season. It looked like they’d have to do it without their prized attacking trio though, as Grafite, Diego and Edin Džeko were all deemed doubts. However, the latter pair were eventually passed fit to start.
St Pauli pressed Wolfsburg all over the pitch from the off, and ensured the visitors were never allowed to control the game. Physically stronger and mentally hungrier, Holger Stanislawski’s 4-1-4-1 compensated for the potentially exposable length of the pitch it covered by keeping the midfield bank of four mobile – up and down, up and down, keeping Die Wölfe at arm’s length.
Although last season’s 2. Bundesliga runners-up lack the technical quality to cause serious damage in the top-flight, they made up for that against Wolfsburg by ensuring their opponents couldn’t play football. This was paramount in the early stages with Wolfsburg trying to pass their way into proceedings.
Not that Steve McClaren’s side made much of an effort to force their gameplan on the hosts, however – they were ponderous on the ball, slow to pile forward, and half-arsed in clearing their lines. Josué really struggled to deal with the sheer presence of the St Pauli attack, and more than anyone else in green, he wanted too long on the ball. He had no influence on the game whatsoever, and his pocket was picked in front of the defence far too often.
Gerald Asamoah, nominally positioned behind the striker, revelled in the freedom granted to him by virtue of the fact that only the lightweight Josué was patrolling that zone. Although there was nothing beautiful about the home side’s counter-attacking, Asamoah was always in the right place to instigate or resuscitate such moves, and proved to be St Pauli’s driving force. The former German international was superb in every aspect of his game, and didn’t lose a single aerial or ground duel.
The Wolfsburg centre-backs and Josué could only respond with fouls whenever Asamoah or Marius Ebbers held the ball up near the box. Thankfully for Steve McClaren, the St Pauli set-piece deliveries were poor (not that Diego’s efforts were any better down the other end). However, the first decent ball that came into the box midway through the first half saw the hosts take the lead.
The right-sided corner from Max Kruse was perfect in terms of weight and height, but Markus Thorandt’s run for the headed goal wasn’t tracked. In what was arguably the first – and only – real chance of the half, the deadlock was broken.
Wolfsburg didn’t have a single chance of note in the first 45 minutes because they were stuck in their own half, none of the team playing on the same wavelength or bothering to hurry their passing execution in the face of – the surely by now expected – St Pauli pressing.
Their one tactic in the opposition’s half consisted of peeling the forwards wide (Mandžukić and Diego were interchangeable – the former occasionally veering in, then out, from a centre-forward position), getting them to hold the ball and draw the droves of white-shirted playersacross, before releasing a disguised darter down the wing. But targets in the box were conspicuous only by their absence, and the several attempts they made at this move therefore unsurprisingly amounted to nothing. Why McClaren had his side playing this way when they lack a box-to-box Steven Gerrard-esque ghosting midfielder is beyond me.
As is their way, Wolfsburg were a far different side in the second half. Suddenly, there was zip to their game, and resultantly, they were able to pass the ball penetratingly, and get the home side chasing shadows. Džeko’s equalizer came from a rather route one method (a Diego Benaglio punt), but given the way Wolfsburg had started the half, an equalizer by any means was on the cards.
McClaren altered his system with the game now stretched, and crucially, tied at 1-1. Josué was hauled off, and in his place came Alexander Madlung (more often than not, a centre-back). Wolfsburg adopted a Christmas tree formation as they looked to maintain the territory built up during their bright start to the half, as well as adding some physical presence in front of the D (Madlung, at 6ft. 4½ inches, is more than eight inches taller than Josué).
Asamoah and the rest of the St Pauli attack were gradually being marginalised anyhow as Wolfsburg showed greater hunger in keeping the ball pressed. In a marked contrast to the first half, even Džeko could now be seen haring back and preventing the home side from bundling the ball to one another and scampering up the pitch as a forceful, threatening attack-minded unit. Unfortunately for the neutral spectator, the game got bogged down in midfield, and attacks held back in the shadow of the D.
As the game entered its final 15 minutes, Stanislawski made a slight tactical emendation of his own. He dropped the two centre-midfielders deeper to form a pivot, replaced Max Kruse with Deniz Naki, and pushed the widemen nearer to Ebbers (and more infield). This meant that all four attackers behind Ebbers now had more space to play with, and resulted in Asamoah casting his influence over the game – again, carrying his side’s counter-attacks from deep.
Despite St Pauli camping in the Wolfsburg half for the remainder of the game, there was no way through. The away side’s defence cleared their lines with a decisiveness that was lacking in the first half, and even gambled to superb effect by playing the occasional speedy and high offside trap. Compounded with a number of tactical fouls, and a return to the poor delivery into the box, the scoreline remained 1-1.
Ultimately, neither side can be too pleased with a draw. They remain one and two points above the relegation zone respectively (although Schalke and Stuttgart are still below St Pauli, incredibly), and now seem unlikely to end the winter season in the top half of the Bundesliga table. Nevertheless, they both face fellow strugglers on the Sunday once again next week – St Pauli travelling to Germany’s Champions League entrants Werder Bremen, and Wolfsburg going to Cologne.