A Mario Mandžukić-inspired Wolfsburg preserved their Bundesliga status after coming from behind to beat Hoffenheim on the last day of the 2010/11 season.
Unlike Hoffenheim, dozing in mid-table obscurity, Wolfsburg came into this game sitting just one place above the drop zone. St Pauli had already guaranteed themselves second division football next season, but the other automatic relegation spot was still up for grabs, along with the relegation play-off spot – a tie likely to be played against Bochum, who look favourites for third place in 2. Bundesliga. As the table on the left-hand side indicates, we had a three-team league towards the bottom going into the final day, with the team topping that table ensuring themselves first division football in 2011/12.
Marco Pezzaiuoli, taking charge of the hosts for the final time before Holger Stanislawski joins as coach from St Pauli, had to make do without squad regulars Isaac Vorsah, Sejad Salihović, Boris Vukčević, Tobias Weis and Josip Šimunić. Felix Magath, meanwhile, was shorn of Tolga Ciğerci, plus striking duo Patrick Helmes and Dieumerci Mbokani. Added to that, Tuncay Şanlı wasn’t even named on the bench, so should Wolfsburg become desperate, Magath didn’t have a single striker to turn to. As for Diego, apparently he and Magath had had a raging row in the dressing room before the warm-up, resulting in the Brazilian storming out and forfeiting his place in the squad.
One more point to note from the build-up – when these sides met in round 16 on December 18, with Steve McClaren and Ralf Rangnick prowling their respective technical areas, it finished 2-2 – goals from Diego and Edin Džeko cancelling out two first half strikes from Luiz Gustavo and Gylfi Sigurðsson.
But it was this game that was now the important, and Wolfsburg started it at a great pace, pressing high and using the ball hurriedly and positively. They nearly took the lead in just the second minute when Sascha Riether’s early diagonal cross found Grafite creeping in between Matthias Jaissle and Andreas Beck, but the Brazilian steered a diving header wide. The away side nearly made another breakthrough just one minute later, another move benefiting from their constant desire to make a forward pass and involve the full-backs. This time, however, Marvin Compper had the pace to cover the through-ball. Nevertheless, the visitors had made an extremely positive start against the uncertain Hoffenheim rearguard, taking to their formation and its corresponding tactics seamlessly.
Unsurprisingly, Hoffenheim became a little more cautious as the minutes wore on, thus forcing the visitors to slow things down in their build-up play from the back. But Wolfsburg still played with real belief, shirking no tackles, deeming nothing to be a lost cause, and continuing to press high in numbers (chasing the ball back to Tom Starke, and then man-marking the dropping defenders looking to help him out with a sideways pass). Such pressing and exertion wasn’t always useful mind, because as the game approached its second quarter, the away side were giving away too many fouls, allowing the hosts to gain territory.
It didn’t take Hoffenheim to fade back into lethargy, however, as Wolfsburg soon began to see more of the ball in the opposition’s half again due to their unrelenting desire to win every header, tackle and force mistakes from the short restarts favoured by Starke. Unsurprisingly, Hoffenheim’s XI, who had nothing to play for, lacked this sort of intent and desire. Despite the effectiveness of such tactics throughout most areas of the pitch and most aspects of play, Wolfsburg were lacking a subtlety in the final-third when it came to making that killer pass. This was a bit odd given the fact that they generally had plenty of bodies forward, decent amounts of movement from the strikers, and their passes from the back were always simple and sharp. But perhaps it can be explained away by nerves, which would be understandable.
One might argue that a lack of such passes didn’t matter anyway, as Grafite seemed to lack subtlety and confidence when it came to finishing golden chances, missing another sitter in the 30th minute. Poked through one on one after some atrociously lazy play by the high Hoffenheim defence, Grafite tamely struck the ball at Starke.
The home side showed signs of life up front, albeit fleetingly. Using their full-backs to push high (with Beck often found highest on the right and Ryan Babel or Edson Braafheid highest on the left), the likes of David Alaba, Sigurðsson and Roberto Firmino bobbed about infield, looking to push back the high-standing duo of Josué and Alexander Madlung. All three Hoffe midfielders offered something different – the Austrian energy, the Icelander vision, and the Brazilian silky skills. And it was the latter who found space for a shot on goal in the 34th minute after some good and movement-heavy keep-ball from Hoffenheim in the opposition half. However, after peeling away from his compatriot, Josué, the former Figueirense man blazed over the bar. But such openings were rare, and Peniel Mlapa was more often than not isolated – his colleagues were under pressure more often than not in their own half, and even when the ball did come his way, Mlapa was always second best in terms of strength and desire to pick it up.
Because of Wolfsburg generally keeping the home side pinned back and Firmino’s tendency to come infield, Magath’s left-sided width was primarily provided by Marcel Schäfer, with occasional forays into the channel by either of the mobile strikers and the Danish playmaker, Thomas Kahlenberg. Despite occasionally getting behind Beck and providing a couple of decent squares or crosses, again, none of the balls into the box from any of those four players proved to be fatal enough. As we approached half time, news filtered through to the lively Wolfsburg fans that Gladbach had taken the lead – Juan Arango’s 41st minute strike meant Wolfsburg had dropped to 16th, and went in at the break with their heads down.
Those heads were nearly pushed even further towards the mud after the break, as Hoffenheim started the new half with real gusto. This was epitomised in the 47th minute via two gilt-edged chances they created – first Babel stung Benaglio’s fingers, before Sigurðsson eventually turned Firmino’s pull-back wide. Not that Pezzaiuoli’s side let those misses force their own heads down – a minute later, Sebastian Rudy was given time to both ponder and play a killer through-pass, the kind Wolfsburg were crying out for. Firmino was released one on one with the ‘keeper, timing his swervy run behind the offside trap-attempting defence to perfection. He finished with the kind of composure his compatriot, Grafite, twice could have done with at the same end of the pitch in the first half, and his side were now 1-0 ahead!
As if going behind themselves wasn’t bad enough, Dortmund nigh-on simultaneously fell behind too (thanks to a goal from Frankfurt defensive midfielder Sebastian Rode, of all people), making life a million times worse. Wolfsburg were now two points from safety, knowing only a win would save them unless results changed. Such an occurrence seemed highly unlikely, as their final-third play was getting worse by the minute – stodgy, nervy and thought-free. The away fans, to their credit, started singing loudly and proudly once again, and it almost brought an instant reaction from their side – a disguised overlap and inch-perfect cross from the left being headed over the bar by Simon Kjær, in the box because the move stemmed from a short free-kick in the final-third. Cícero, on for Kahlenberg, also nearly got on the end of a cleverly disguised burst and cross from a full-back moments later, this time Makoto Hasebe, but his athletic backwards header also went wide.
The game was now totally stretched as these two chances sparked the Wolves into life again, with Rudy excelling in breaking up play and carrying the counter-attack for the hosts. The best chance such tactics created for Hoffenheim fell to Sigurðsson, who again pulled wide when getting a shot on target seemed easy.
But it was Wolfsburg who were looking more dangerous, and on the hour mark, Mario Mandžukić showed the former Reading man how it’s done in front of goal. Timing his run behind the Hoffe backline to perfection, Cícero played the Croatian in with the kind of pass Magath had been waiting all game for one of his players to make. Mandžukić , one-on-one, feigned curling the ball under the oncoming Starke with his left foot, instead opting to scoop it over him with his right foot’s littler toes for 1-1.
With Gladbach and Frankfurt still leading, this result on its own wasn’t enough to keep the 2009 champions up, but Wolfsburg now had momentum and a timely injection of belief. Despite Hoffe still coming at them on the break (Babel drawing a fine save from Benaglio on one such occasion after cutting in from the left), Wolfsburg’s top-heavy system was making Hoffe’s defenders work overtime. In the 68th minute, Riether so nearly emphasised this domination, zooming into the box from his new left-sided position to get on the end of Mandžukić’s square pass, but failing to connect with the ball by a matter of inches. Riether was being used in an interesting manner on the left flank by Magath, acting more as a ghosting midfielder looking to get on the end of one of Ashkan Dejagah’s right wing crosses than as an out-and-out wideman.
But the most crucial cross of Wolfsburg’s season came from Josué following a corner in the 73rd minute, turned in by Mandžukić for his eighth goal of the season. Wolfsburg, now 2-1 ahead, had coincided going in front with equalizers for Hamburg and Dortmund. And, a minute later, their fans were ecstatic once again, as Dortmund took the lead – Wolfsburg were now in 15th spot with breathing space. Then, in the 77th minute, they made life even more comfortable for themselves. When Riether shot from just outside the D, the ball deflected off Grafite, and left Starke stranded. 3-1 to the away side, and their Bundesliga status saved!
Frankfurt were relegated after Dortmund beat them 3-1, while Gladbach’s draw with Hamburg ensured that they now have two games still to play, a place in the Bundesliga riding on the outcome.