Wolfsburg secured a vital win away at a relegation rival to haul themselves out of the drop zone and ensure Werder Bremen endure a nervy final two matches of the campaign.
The parapenultimate round in the Bundesliga’s 2010/11 season began with a double-header on the Friday night – Kaiserslautern against St Pauli, 12th against 18th, and Werder Bremen against Wolfsburg, 11th against 16th. When these fixtures were scheduled a few weeks back, these two games looked like they would be putting four teams fighting for their lives in action on the same night. However, although nothing but a win would have been considered good enough for both of the away sides coming into these games, the hosts’, five and six points respectively above the drop zone, could enter their respective fixtures in a more relaxed state.
But my eyes were primarily on the battle between the 2004 and 2009 champions, in a week where Felix Magath turned down millions of Russian dollars from Dynamo Moscow to stay committed to the Wolfsburg cause – another timely boost in the wake of the confidence-injecting 4-1 win against Cologne last weekend. Werder Bremen, meanwhile, were on a decent run coming into this game, experiencing just one defeat in their last 11 games, with that loss coming nearly two and a half months ago at Hamburg. But in this clash at the Weserstadion, Thomas Schaaf had to make do without Naldo, Sebastian Boenisch, Sandro Wagner, Tim Borowski, Sebastian Prödl and Denni Avdić. Magath had less absences to contend with, only shorn of Dieumerci Mbokani and Fabian Johnson.
After a bitty opening minute or so, the game suddenly burst into life: calm passing from the visitors around the halfway line allowed Sascha Riether to be released on the counter-attack, and there followed some attacking-territory passes, a corner, and an eventual Werder Bremen counter (which also involved full-backs showing high up the pitch). Both sides’ defences were looking to push high up the pitch as fast as possible, but neither ever really looked confident when doing so, with all eight players keeping at least a single eye on the ground behind them.
After a few Wolfsburg moves broke down, it was the home side who began to look slicker – they were quicker in the attack, aided primarily by playing sharper passes, and going at their guests with belief. Schaaf’s mobile strikers made the opening ten minutes torturous for the Wolfsburg defence; pulling them from side to side, and dragging them up the pitch one at a time. Despite this greater team cohesion, the hosts only had blocked Marko Marin, Marko Arnautović and Torsten Frings efforts from long-distance free-kicks to show for their forays forward (all of which were won after fouls on the towering Claudio Pizarro).
Despite the hosts keeping their banks close together and using one of the strikers to rummage deep in the midfield for the ball, there was no such cohesion to Wolfsburg’s play as we passed the ten-minute mark. They had struggled to get their attackers into the game, let alone get the ball down over the halfway line. In spite of that early burst of confident play, they seemed to grow more panicky as the game went on. Out of possession, they were chasing down their opponents like headless chickens, and when they got anywhere near the man in green on the ball, the Wolfsburg player in question either did a delegation punt upfield, or pulled the man back for a foul. Their opponents, on the other hand, always kept a cool head – going back to Tim Wiese when pressed, and mixing up their restarts between quick pass-outs and instant long boots towards Diego Benaglio’s box. Nevertheless, without their free-kicks (which were coming by the bucket-load but not causing any damage), Bremen had an inability to either make the killer ball in the final-third, or get someone on the end of one. As this went on, Wolfsburg’s defence grew in confidence, gradually beginning to keep a disciplined and impenetrable line.
One such instance of this Bremen profligacy allowed Wolfsburg to calm things down when starting short from Benaglio. Bremen’s attacking triangle bobbed hurriedly a few metres over the halfway line, narrowly set, and inviting the away side to fly their full-backs forward. But the Wolves were rewarded for an increase in positivity in the 21st minute, even after being forced back to Benaglio and a punt upfield during their going nowhere keep-ball. Diego picked up the loose ball, benefiting from the space with Bremen having pressed the ball back to the Swiss ‘keeper. He poked a through-ball out to Marcel Schäfer, who whipped in a fantastic ball between Wiese and his defenders. Cícero’s header was parried out to the penalty spot by the German international, but the loose ball always favoured the visitors, who had committed six men inside the box. Inexplicably, it was turned into the goal by Riether, the right-back, for a priceless and perhaps undeserved 1-0 lead.
Rather than sitting back and attempting to defend that lead, Magath’s side were now brimming with belief and seemed determined to snare a second. Bremen were back to using their set-pieces to test Benaglio, but while most were now being earned on the break, Wolfsburg’s new-found belief manifested itself in ugly ways too – Arne Friedrich and Cícero lunging into fouls, earning yellow cards and conceding free-kicks. After a number of set pieces once again forced Wolfsburg onto the back foot, it was back to Bremen bossing the ball. However, rather than chasing shadows, Wolfsburg reverted to a very tight, narrow and responsive 4-4-2 sat in their own half, eradicating the wide corridors Bremen’s strikers and Marin had earlier taken advantage of.
The increased level of difficulty the home side had in breaking their guests down resulted in them becoming more sluggish – thus, when Diego weaved and jinxed his way towards the box in the 35th minute, no one tracked Riether’s overlap, and the superb, curling first-time cross was just inches away from the feet of both Mario Mandžukić and Grafite. Their side could easily have been pegged back in the 37th minute, however, when despite some intense Wolfsburg pressing of a cleared Mikaël Silvestre corner (his set-pieces were hideously average during the first 45 minutes), Wesley swivelled under the frame of Jan Polák and sent in a first-time curled through-ball for Arnautović. Alas, the Austrian wasn’t set for the pass, and given his attitude throughout the season, that was probably no surprise.
Despite Frings starting to spray the ball about with more regularity and intent, looking generally hungrier to pull the strings, the brave and intelligent away side’s rearguard cleared each of the 14 free kicks and seven corners that came into their box during the first half. As the clock ran down, Magath’s infamous insistence on maximum fitness from the players he coaches was plain to see, as the likes of Marin were shuttled towards the byline and into playing eventual scuffed crosses.
The ball was all Bremen’s at the start of the second half, which saw the same 22 players return to resume their rivalries. Despite Marin showing several times on and for the ball, Wolfsburg pressed the space furiously in the central areas of their own half, making one-two moves difficult in and around the D, and forcing Bremen out wide and into making easy-to-clear crosses or half-hearted long-rangers. The visitors were a mixed bag on the break – Mandžukić useless at holding the ball up or instigating something; the powerful Grafite good at it. Josué was growing in influence too, mopping up loose balls, winning tackles and waiting until the room for the pass he wanted to make was available.
The injured Polák was replaced by Alexander Madlung in the 52nd minute – a move which served to narrow and flatten Wolfsburg’s central midfield trio, with Madlung going in front of the centre-backs, Josué moving to the right side of the centre-midfield, and the formation switching from a diamond to a 4-3-1-2 (continuing to squash the space available in the centre for the likes of Marin and Pizarro). Magath was winning the tactical battle – he knew that Werder Bremen were weak down the flanks (where the space was), with no wingers and inadequate driving central-midfielders in Wesley and Philipp Bargfrede. What’s more, with Pizarro looking to do his work outside of the box and Arnautović in Daydream Land, whenever a green-shirted full-back flew forward and whipped in an early cross, the numbers in the box just weren’t there.
Schaaf needed to make changes, and he did. A double substitution in the 64th minute saw Wesley and Bargfrede hauled off, and Dominik Schmidt and Aaron Hunt brought on. Magath reacted just 30 seconds after his counterpart, bringing on Makoto Hasebe for Cicero – arguably making the midfield ‘3’ even more defensive than it had been previously. This was necessary, as Schaaf had switched to a 4-1-3-2 – Schmidt playing at right-back, with Clemens Fritz moving onto the right side of an attacking midfield bank alongside Marin and Hunt, who interchanged with one another from the hole behind the strikers and the left flank, darting as often as possible either infield or out, looking to drag the blue-shirted midfielders out of their bank.
Marin suddenly looked lethal after being given license to work the flanks, and having more options alongside him to play passes with. Magath decided changes needed to be made to his attacking-midfield area in the 78th minute, and he replaced former Bremen favourite Diego with Tuncay Şanlı, the on-loan Turk making a very rare appearance (and ensuring Patrick Helmes was consigned to the bench yet again). A minute earlier, Schaaf had also made another change, replacing Frings with 20-year-old Serbian midfielder Predrag Stevanović. The youngster took on a task similar to that of the 34-year-old, being required to spray passes about the pitch for his attacking colleagues from the so-called quarterback role.
Grafite could have done with either of those two’s passing ability in the 79th minute, when he brought the ball forward on a counter-attack which Wolfsburg were dictating the pace on, and had the man advantage. With time to burn and options to pick, the Brazilian’s pass was poor, highlighting his limitations and wasting the move. Then, in the 88th minute, he managed to shrug off the attentions of Stevanović to go one on one with the last defender. Again, his lack of pace and poor decision-making cost Wolfsburg the chance to seal the win. Bremen continued to have their chances, but the away side defended with muscle, determination and discipline – characteristics that had been lacking from the back-line for the 31 league games preceding this one.