Pierre-Michel Lasogga came back to haunt his old club with two assists and the result-settling goal in this exciting Bundesliga round 11 clash on Saturday afternoon. Felix Magath’s decision to play a high-line and a rookie centre-back backfired, as Hertha Berlin thrice exploited Wolfsburg’s dodgy defence to take all three points from the Volkswagen Arena. Bjarne Thölke was at fault for both the second and third of Hertha’s goals, although Markus Babbel’s side were impressively clinical on the break, displaying the cutting-edge in front of goal that was missing from Wolfsburg’s game. It was mainly left to Makoto Hasebe and Ashkan Dejagah to create the opportunities the anonymous duo of Thomas Hitzlsperger and Alexander Hleb were supposed to carve out; but, despite getting chances handed to them on a plate by the former pair on several occasions, neither Mario Mandžukić or Srđan Lakić displayed the sort of lethal, assured finishing that we saw from Lasogga – the one Wolfsburg let get away in 2009.
The opening exchanges passed by with little of note happening. Wolfsburg saw the majority of possession, and were content to knock it about at pace and give everyone a touch. Sotirios Kyrgiakos could already be seen barking instructions at Thölke, the veteran Greek international doing his best to help the young German in any way that he could. In the fifth minute, though, the game very nearly exploded into life courtesy of another German, Christian Träsch. Mandžukić had already spotted the lay-off opportunity before receiving the ball, and when the Croatian finally got the chance to play his desired pass, he set up the perfect shooting chance for the right-footed Träsch. However, former Bayern Munich goalkeeper Thomas Kraft pulled off an athletic super save to keep the score at 0-0.
The home side took confidence and momentum from this opportunity, and four minutes later, Mandžukić himself so nearly opened the scoring, only to to see his mid-air six-yard box tap-in foiled by Kraft. The chance came after some quick and clever one-two football from Dejagah and Patrick Ochs, the former operating from the shadow of the D to play in the latter down the right. As we went beyond the ten-minute mark, the visitors had come into the game a little more. However, rather than playing blistering counter-attack football, they seemed more content to reach the final-third and force the Wolves’ midfield to fully retreat, before looking to win a corner or free-kick. Like Magath, Babbel was also playing something akin to three attackers when his side had possession, but his line-leading trio of Nikita Rukavytsya, Lasogga and Adrián Ramos – fed by the deep-lurking, pass-picking Raffael – offered far more width than the interchangeable Dejagah, Mandžukić and Hleb tritet, who were mainly standing and bobbing in a huddle.
However, whereas the latter trio did little in the way of dropping back (and, added to that, they only really went beyond a jog in the pressing stakes when the ball-holding centre-back/defensive-midfielder came to within ten metres of crossing the halfway line), Ramos and Rukavytsya were effectively helping to form a deep-ish bank of midfield five when the Wolves held onto the ball for a prolonged period. With Wolfsburg’s spark and urgency having become conspicuous only by its absence as we went beyond the quarter-hour mark, Hertha’s 4-5-1 system ensured that the game had turned into something of a stalemate.
Yet, despite being quick to form their own-half banks of four and five, Hertha weren’t so hot on pressing the ball in their own half or covering the angles. Thus, Hasebe easily strode forward and placed a great ball into the box in the 18th minute. However, Mandžukić was always stretching to get there, and could only therefore head over the bar when he did make a connection. After a quiet start, the Croatian’s Belarussian attacking colleague, Hleb, was coming into his own as we reached the 20-minute mark. That quiet start, partly caused by his side’s initial penchant for attacking down the channels, was being forgotten as the former Arsenal man had started dropping back and helping his defensive-midfield colleagues when the visitors had the ball in the Wolfsburg half. Resultantly, on turnovers, Hleb was in the right place at the right time to expose the central gaps in Hertha’s full-back-unleashing, wide system, although more often than not, all he could do was win free-kicks.
The hosts had two great chances to open the scoring 60 seconds either side of the 25-minute mark. Firstly, Marcel Schäfer’s thunderbolt of a free-kick – taken from just off the D after the probing Josué drew a hack from Andreas Ottl – hit a blue and white-shirted player in the wall and smashed back off the bar. Two minutes later, Dejagah was fed after some smart counter-attacking football to drag a shot just wide of the post.
Barely 180 seconds later, though, the Wolfsburg stalwarts were made to pay for their profligacy. A quick break and a Lasogga through-ball rendered the hosts’ high offside trap redundant, playing in Raffael to run at Diego Benaglio from the left channel. The Brazilian dribbled towards the six-yard box, made it look as though he was going to square the ball across the box to one of two colleagues ghosting towards the back post, before changing the shape of his body to curl an inch-perfect right-footer into the top corner for 1-0!
Alas, Babbel’s side held onto their lead for all of five minutes. Wolfsburg hadn’t hidden after falling behind, and both Ochs and Träsch went close to levelling the scores before the in-form Mandžukić did put the ball into the net. Starting from the D, he gave the panicking and headless-chicken running Hertha defence the eyes before slipping in Dejagah’s jog towards the left-hand side of the six-yard box. The winger looked all set to shoot, before dropping a shoulder and taking yet more defenders out of the game, as well as, crucially, goalkeeper Thomas Kraft. This allowed Dejagah – formerly of Hertha Berlin – to square the ball to the now nigh-on goalline-standing Croatian, who tapped in for 1-1!
Two minutes later, Hertha thought they had regained the lead after Ramos headed in a free-kick from the right; but Lasogga – who went for the flick on – started the move in an offside position, before moving back to interfere with play. However, the same two players caused yet more havoc in the 35th minute, exposing the inexperience of Thölke. Ramos, lurking centrally, carried the ball even more infield and sideways, with the Wolfsburg defence standing high and narrow. Lasogga began making a run from in front of Hasebe to the space behind Kyrgiakos, and would have been offside had the young Thölke stepped up. However, he didn’t, and thus, the entire back-four were caught standing still nearer the halfway line than Benaglio’s goal, and Lasogga had a one-on-one chance. After being rounded, Benaglio went for the tactical trip, giving away a penalty. He, perhaps luckily, only got a yellow card for his troubles, but Levan Kobiashvili made sure the home side didn’t get off scot-free by blasting the penalty home for 2-1!
A minute later, however, the upward curve of the Hertha players and fans’ lips drooped slightly as Kraft left the field with an injury. Berlin-born Sascha Burchert took his place. The next bit of action happened at the other end of the pitch, though, as Christian Lell hit the post with a shot. The effort sparked a minute of end-to-end, cataclysmic football, with Wolfsburg initially breaking from the right-back’s post-hitter. However, the home side, up against an energetic and confidence-brimming pack of ten outfield players, looked stodgy, and several poor passes allowed the ball to be zoomed back towards Benaglio’s goal. However, despite not having the technique to create or have a chance in the initial space available, the athleticism of Raffael and in particular, Ramos, allowed Hertha to hold onto possession, and eventually, Peter Niemeyer had two attempts on goal, both of which the hosts’ Swiss international ‘keeper was equal to.
In the last phase of play before the referee blew for half time, Wolfsburg nearly made it 2-2 in comical fashion. A ball into the box bounced off an unaware Lell, catching Burchert sprinting towards his right-hand post. With the ball rolling slowly towards the bottom left-hand corner, the young ‘keeper made a gargantuan effort to stop and accelerate back towards his other post, and heroically, managed to claw the ball away from the net and ensure his side went into the interval 2-1 up.
Magath, who had the luxury of a very strong bench, made a change for the second half. Off went the more defensive-minded Josué, and in his place came former Aston Villa and West Ham United midfielder Hitzlsperger. The occasional German international looked possession-hungry in the opening stages of the new half, looking to get on the ball and splice open the Hertha defence – deeper than ever and with their midfield colleagues not standing too far away. With their guests content to sit off, the ball was all Wolfsburg’s in the opening ten minutes, giving them the luxury of making cross-field passes and long-diagonals at will, as well as the chance to stand the defence on halfway.
The closest the hosts came to scoring in this period, though, was when Ochs launched a head-down diagonal dribble from the chalk towards the right-hand side of the six-yard box. He succeeded in getting there because Rukavytsya switched off momentarily and didn’t have the body strength to recover. However, the Australian’s pace eventually helped him to get back before Ochs could unleash a shot, although the former Eintracht Frankfurt man seemed more content to buy a penalty than test Burchert, and his ill-advised flop wasted the opening.
In the 57th minute, an incisive punt upfield from Kyrgiakos exposed a huge hole between Kobiasvili and Andre Mijatović, with Dejagah and Ochs both there to take advantage of the opening. However, a communication breakdown saw Dejagah head the ball out for a goal-kick, when Ochs was primed to take it down with his feet or get off a first-time shot. This error-strewn approach to the game didn’t stop there either, with Kyrgiakos’ attempted clearance cannoning back off Träsch, and presenting Rukavytsya with a one-on-one chance. However, the experienced Benaglio was off his line in a flash, smothering the angle and saving the shot. Hertha created few chances from the 45th to the 65th minute, but they had the chance to gain decent territory on their breaks because Wolfsburg weren’t playing with a midfielder on the left – Hleb was playing more of an old-fashioned inside-left role, with Dejagah at inside-right, and Schäfer basically functioning as a wing-back.
Another fantastic ball into the box from Hasebe in the 61st minute saw Mandžukić again given the opportunity to place a header at goal after some fine movement; but, for the umpteenth time, the Croatian headed off-target, albeit shaving the post with this particular chance. Four minutes later, Magath changed formations again by replacing the ineffectual Ochs with Croatian centre-forward – and former Hertha player – Lakić. But, after Niemeyer went close to putting the game to bed, it was the other Croatian, Mandžukić, who had his side’s next chance to equalize, again missing with a header after a cross from the right in the 68th minute (Dejagah). Two minutes later, Hasebe put another excellent ball into the box, only for Lakić to emulate Mandžukić by heading wide.
Hertha were growing into their 4-5-1 shape, and even Raffael was doing a good job as a ball-winner (perhaps spurred on by knowing that if he got the ball, he had acres of room in which to dribble, or play in the rather-isolated Lasogga). Wolfsburg’s width was now coming from both full-backs, with Hleb – who’d gone extremely quiet – and Dejagah bobbing in the central-trequartista positions. With Hertha’s focus solely on defence, Wolfsburg had been getting away with this tactic for a good ten minutes as we reached the 75-minute mark, although the athleticism of Ramos and pace of Rukavytsya were partly-insured against by the fact that the two centre-midfielders, Träsch and Hitzlsperger, were standing in wide, full-back-covering positions (meaning that Lasogga had two centre-backs to evade whenever he did get the ball or a chance to dart onto a possible pass).
Nevertheless, Babbel and his side did have some tricks up their sleeve, as epitomised in the 76th minute. Wolfsburg tried to do things too fast in the final-third, allowing a loose ball to be collected by Raffael. Spotting Träsch’s headless-chicken, sod-the-brakes oncoming sprint-press, the Brazilian waited, before feigning passing to the right and actually jinxing delicately with the ball glued to his feet towards the left wing. He had room in which to run, and eventually played in a ball to the final-third for Ramos – the Colombian having darted from one strip of chalk to the other, thus rendering the focus on marking Lasogga out of the game obsolete. Just like their attacks at the very start of this match, Hertha used the move to hold territory, draw Wolfsburg back and waste time. Nevertheless, it wasn’t too long before the hosts had taken back control of the ball and territory.
As we entered the final ten minutes, both coaches made alterations to their midfields. Rukavytsya, who, truth be told, still doesn’t look up to the task of playing Bundesliga football, was replaced by Fabian Lustenberger, a defensive-midfielder. Magath, meanwhile, opted to bring on his South Korean magician Koo Ja-Cheol. He replaced Hleb, who had done nothing save for that aforementioned ten-minute spell in the first half to justify his inclusion. But, it was the man from Japan, Hasebe, rather than Koo from Korea, who won a crucial free-kick just off the D in the 84th minute. The tackle from Maik Franz was poor, and earned the visiting centre-back a yellow card. However, worse punishment was to follow when the set-piece was taken, as Schäfer blasted in a daisy-cutter for 2-2!
Incredibly, the parity lasted all of two minutes, as Wolfsburg’s defence again went out of their way to make scoring easy for Hertha. The busy Niemeyer scooped a left-sided byline-heading ball to Ramos, who easily shrugged off the weak Thölke to square for Lasogga. The 19-year-old was never going to miss, and capped a glorious day by tapping in for 3-2!
Babbel immediately replaced Lasogga with Christoph Janker, making his 4-5-1 even more defensive than it had been for most of the second half. Save for one nervy moment when a through-pass was easily played through the midfield and a gaping hole between Kobiashvili and Mijatović, allowing Lakić to go close from a Hasebe pull-back, Hertha held on for a win that should serve as a lesson to every team who visit the Volkswagen Arena this season. They host Borussia Mönchengladbach next weekend, knowing that three points could see them move into the top five. Wolfsburg, on the other hand, go to Dortmund.