An improved performance from Wolfsburg wasn’t enough to help them take three priceless points on the road as they conceded an unlikely injury time equalizer.
Both sides came into this game in desperate need of the points. Wolfsburg, second bottom on 26 points with a goal difference of minus nine, had a great opportunity to leapfrog Stuttgart, one place above the drop zone (St Pauli being the sandwich filling), but with two points more than their guests and a goal difference of minus three. The away side were onto their third coach of the season, as Felix Magath made his (second) début on the Wolfsburg bench after leaving Schalke on bitter terms in the week. He had to make do without goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, a key part of the Magath side which won the title in 2009, as well as the recent expensive but stuttering striking acquisition, Patrick Helmes. Tolga Ciğerci, Wolfsburg’s promising young midfielder, was also still sidelined with injury.
Whereas Wolfsburg were on a run of six defeats in their last seven games, Stuttgart currently look rejuvenated under new coach Bruno Labbadia. They’d won three games in succession coming into this clash, two of them away from home, and the run had put an end to a run of four successive defeats in all competitions. However, Labbadia had a string of injured or suspended players missing for this game, including Martin Harnik, Cipran Marica, Arthur Boka, Matthieu Delpierre and Tamás Hajnal.
It was easy to identify Magath’s influence straight away, as Wolfsburg’s diamond shape became apparent. As Stuttgart looked to make the early running, Wolfsburg used a restart to kill the tempo – something Stuttgart let them indulge in, barely pressing until the halfway line. Wolfsburg also weren’t fussed about pressing until the halfway mark either, but unlike the hosts, they were less keen to push their defence as high up the pitch as possible. With the home side’s main attacking outlets being their widemen, Wolfsburg essentially looked to man-mark these two players out of the game, dropping deep to get the ball or not. Resultantly, former Wolfsburg man Christian Gentner was forced to dart about the pitch a little more, but he too soon found himself closely monitored. It seemed Magath had instructed his players not to give the opposition players an inch in the Wolfsburg half.
Perhaps the only conundrum for the visitors was getting variety in their attacks. With a workmanlike midfield picked, Diego was their only true creative outlet. Thus, Magath’s full-backs became his Plan A and B (seeing as it was Diego dropping deep to get the ball, before feeding them on the overlap). After Peter Pekarík got through and put across a troublesome square, Stuttgart looked to counter with the cleared ball in his abandoned space. Unfortunately, Shinji Okazaki, although winning a free-kick, showed his inexperience by looking to cut inside on his preferred foot, thus throwing the brakes on a break. If anything, rather than Wolfsburg suffering from a lack of something in the attack, it was the hosts. Urgency was the ‘something’ they lacked, allowing Wolfsburg to set up an impenetrable bank at the back. After Pekarík again raced free to put in another inviting cross, it was the away side who were growing into a position of control, comfort shown by the increasingly higher line the defence was beginning to hold.
Thus, desperate-ish times call for direct measures, and a long ball earned Stuttgart a free-kick in the opposition’s half. Using the set piece to gain territory and put three crosses into the box in a matter of minutes, Stuttgart gave their fans reason to believe again. But it was clear to see that Wolfsburg had also grown in confidence after briefly threatening in and around Sven Ulreich’s box, and they used a short restart to bring the ball out with some swagger. However, broken down not far into the Stuttgart half, Timo Gebhart, now on the left to run at Wolfsburg’s already-booked right-back, began to cause havoc – drawing a save and a panicky clearance in a matter of moments from the visitors. Suddenly, Wolfsburg found the right-side bolted in terms of attacking, and Gebhart, now standing as high as anyone else in red and white, had confidence, momentum and two options in the box – Pavel Pogrebnyak joined up front by Okazaki, and Genter covering the hole by going out to the right flank.
But Wolfsburg reminded the hosts they were still in the game in the 28th minute after a moment of Brazilian magic by Grafite and Diego which saw the former pick out an impossible-seeming through ball for the former Juventus man, who was denied by some superb Ulreich reflexes. Five minutes later, Diego again called Ulreich into superhuman action from range, drawing another key parry. In the 39th minute, the visitors did finally break the deadlock, striking through Grafite as mistake-laden Stuttgart were having a reshuffle after Zdravko Kuzmanović limped off injured. He was replaced by Élson, whose arrival instigated another 4-2-3-1; Okazaki dropping behind Pogrebnyak, and the Brazilian sub playing in an advanced central midfield role, making Stuttgart’s bridge between midfield and attack sturdier. But the laziness and casual attitude that permeated the defence surely can’t have been affected by these alterations, as several players dithered, failed to clear the ball, before Georg Niedermeier was held off and spun by Grafite, who powered in decisively for 0-1.
We saw two changes at the break, Jan Polák replacing the anonymous Makoto Hasebe for the visitors, and Serdar Tasci being replaced by Khalid Boulahrouz. Although Stuttgart pressed more intensely off-ball than they did at the start of the first half, the fact they were having to do so encapsulates the confidence Wolfsburg were playing with. The opening ten minutes of the second half were quite even, with both sides looking to get on the scoresheet. If anything, Wolfsburg looked the side most likely to score the next goal. They were solid at the back, and Grafite and Diego were attacking in tandem, the latter even looking unusually unselfish. Bringing on Polák was a canny move from Magath, who was obviously looking to keep Élson quiet, whilst simultaneously increasing the energy in his own midfield.
However, Magath soon saw fit to alter things, brining on Koo for Cícero, and going 4-3-2-1 – looking to match up against the bank of three in Stuttgart’s increasingly narrowing 4-2-3-1. But it was the South Korean’s sparring partner behind Grafite who was having the biggest influence on the game during the third-quarter, as Diego defended doggedly, drew fouls, created chances, and wore the clock down. In the 67th minute, enacting a last throw of the dice, Labbadia risked giving Diego even more space in which to work. He replaced Stefano Celozzi, the right-back, with last week’s goal hero at St Pauli, Sven Schipplock (not, notably, Cacau), and changed the formation to a 3-2-3-2, or W-W. This forced Magath’s hand a little, as he pushed his units back a bit deeper, and used Josué as a third centre-back, effectively. The Christmas tree was abandoned, as Koo went onto the left of midfield, part of a 4-1-3-1-1, with every green shirt in the Wolfsburg half, and barely pressing the Stuttgart centre-backs who were playing the ball forward at will. It marked a spell of possession monopolization for the hosts, but they struggled to thread through-balls with the likes of Polák closing down all over the first-third, and Arne Friedrich a rock, albeit an intelligent one, at the back.
Despite Gebhart contributing little, Stuttgart enjoyed a temporary resurgence down the left with between twenty and ten minutes left to play. Molinaro, let off his leash, was offering an overlap, and with Schipplock now in the box alongside Pogrebnyak, getting crosses in was the name of the game for the hosts. Over on their left, Wolfsburg’s Marcel Schäfer continued to want to play on the overlap too, and as Stuttgart’s back three got higher and higher, he had plenty of room to bomb forward into. As did Grafite who practically had two one-on-one chances – wasting the first through a paucity of selfishness, and the second through a lack of pace. Polák also had two great chances, both from set-pieces, as his insatiable hunger permeated every aspect of his play.
The final ten minutes produced end to end stuff, but Magath had made another inspired substitution; keeping Lenz untroubled by bringing on more energy into the defensive midfield position with Alexander Madlung. In fact, such was the fight and energy of every green-shirted player that in injury time, when Élson temporarily found space on the edge of the box, it was his compatriot Diego who was there to tackle him. The chances throughout the bulk of the match were Wolfsburg’s though, and had Stuttgart equalized, it would have been a somewhat apt punishment for their profligacy. And what do you know, in the 93rd minute, the home side did just that, despite not looking threatening in front of goal on the whole. A desperate scooped ball found auxiliary centre forward Niedermeier, who trapped masterfully just off the six-yard-box, and poked the ball beyond Lenz in the blink of an eye for 1-1. A great – albeit undeserved – equalizer that keeps Stuttgart clear of the relegation zone for now!