LORENZ Günther-Köstner’s temporary spell as Wolfsburg coach continues to get better and better, as his side registered their fourth win from the five games they’ve had under the 60-year-old’s control. Crucially, the result also lifted Wolfsburg out of the relegation zone and above Hoffenheim, who paid the price for their woeful first-half performance (and an improved, if not much better, second-half showing). Markus Babbel’s side, coming into this game with their spirits buoyed after learning on Friday that popular, talented midfielder Boris Vukčević – involved in a nasty car crash in September – had finally woken up from his coma, just never got going, and played like a side who have only won one of their last seven games.
But, credit where it’s due to Wolfsburg, who deserved all three points this afternoon. Defensively, they were mentally, tactically and physically solid, and in attack, were enterprising, creative, fluid and confident. If Günther-Köstner’s side can win against Werder Bremen at the Volkswagen Arena next weekend, it’s hard to see how the former Hoffenheim coach won’t be given the Wolfsburg job on a permanent basis. Today’s hosts, meanwhile, booed regularly by the home fans, welcome Bayer Leverkusen – coached by Sami Hyypiä, Babbel’s former Liverpool teammate – to the Rhein-Neckar-Arena. It’s hard to see how Babbel, once a coach of such promise, will be able to hold onto his job if his players fail to pick up even a point from that encounter.
Hoffenheim (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Tim Wiese; Andreas Beck, Pelle Jensen, Matthieu Delpierre, Fabian Johnson; Sebastian Rudy, Daniel Williams; Roberto Firmino, Sejad Salihović, Kevin Volland; Joselu
Wolfsburg (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Diego Benaglio; Fagner, Naldo, Simon Kjær, Marcel Schäfer; Josué, Jan Polák; Makoto Hasebe, Diego, Ivica Olić; Bas Dost
Wolfsburg took control of the ball straight away, knocking it about confidently and slickly despite some good Hoffenheim pressure, but not getting anywhere near Wiese’s goal. The eagerness of each and every player to get on the ball and move into space to receive it or aid a colleague will have given Günther-Köstner and new sporting director Klaus Allofs a lot of pleasure, though. The visitors did eventually have the first effort of the match – Hasebe shooting well wide from just off the D in the fourth minute.
This restart allowed Hoffe to finally get on the ball, but they didn’t last long in possession, such was Wolfsburg’s desire to remain in the driving seat. In the sixth minute, they broke down one home side attack down the Wolfsburg left-hand side of the pitch, with the ball quickly being shipped to Polák in the centre-circle. The Czech midfielder, dubbed surplus to requirements by previous coach Felix Magath last season, released Olić down the left flank with a fine pass, who was one-on-one with rookie defender Jensen. A few stepovers and head-down charge to the byline allowed the Croat to send a ball across the six-yard box, which Dost charged towards the near post to attack. He, Wiese and several defenders missed the ball, allowing Hasebe – back from Oman after captaining Japan to victory during the week – to head in at the back post for a very-much deserved 1-0 lead!
The hosts didn’t hide in their collective shell in the immediate aftermath of the goal. They had a decent chance within minutes of falling behind – Firmino dropping a shoulder to create a few yards of space outside the box, and drawing a fine save from Benaglio with a missile of a shot. A minute later, after a Salihović corner was cleared, Beck used the ball to try and catch the Swiss ‘keeper out – firing a shot from the flank into the near side-netting after feigning a cross into the box.
Unsurprisingly, as we reached the quarter-hour mark, Wolfsburg were sitting off, allowing Hoffenheim more of the ball, and their defence to push nearer the halfway line. Hoffe tried to lure Wolfsburg’s players into pressing them, as the blue-shirted players bobbed about, interchanging with ease, floating into the gaps. However, in their own half, the white-shirted visitors hassled the man on the ball with such relish, Babbel and a subdued crowd at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena could only watch on as myriad passes went astray.
Nevertheless, Hoffenheim kept coming and coming, and did work one or two openings between the 15th and 20th minutes. However, these half-chances resulted in Beck going down, claiming Kjær impeded him (referee Günter Perl was having none of it), and Volland blasting a shot over the bar. Although yet to create a gilt-edged chance, Firmino was arguably the playmaker having the biggest impact on the game at this stage. All of Wolfsburg’s good work – most of which, in an attacking sense, was now behind them – hadn’t really come primarily through Diego, but with the away side being on the back-foot, players such as the livewire Brazilian, Olić, and striker Dost – who had barely touched the ball – were poised to hit their hosts on the break.
However, when the latter increased the Wolves’ lead in the 24th minute, the move was anything but a counter-attack. After breaking down some Wolfsburg possession in their first-third of the pitch, Hoffe’s players seemingly had the ball comfortably under control. Firmino was fed on the edge of Wiese’s box, and after trudging a few yards up the pitch with it, played a lazy pass that was intercepted by his compatriot, Josué. The quick-thinking Wolfsburg-employed Brazilian instantly slipped in Dost, lurking onside to the right of the D, and fed to go one-on-one with Wiese. The Dutchman feigned shooting inside the goalkeeper’s left-hand post, before firing a right-footed shot back across goal and in off the post for 2-0! The boos rang out around the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, and Hoffenheim’s players looked as though they were wishing the ground would swallow them up whole (bar Wiese, who just looked furious – how he would have loved to have kept a clean-sheet in this game, thereby ‘proving’ to the man who sanctioned his move from Werder Bremen, Allofs, what a mistake he had made).
It was take two for the home side in terms of instantly trying to get back into the game, but their play was much more lethargic this time – measured build-ups, if we’re being kind. However, Hoffenheim were finding it difficult to force the visitors to camp out in their own half, because when Wolfsburg made an interception or tackle, or forced Hoffenheim to pass back into their own half, the white-shirted players pushed out extremely quickly, something Babbel’s side couldn’t cope with. By the half-hour mark, the team looked desperate for the half-time whistle to blow, and radical change looked like it was needed.
The half was petering to a close as we entered the final five minutes, although both sides had decent chances: Williams stinging Benaglio’s fingers with a fierce strike and winning a corner – the set-pieces had started being taken, unsuccessfully, by Rudy – and at the other end, Hasebe mishitting a volley when he really should have cushioned it in for 3-0. The home side were still giving the ball away far too easily, while Wolfsburg, knowing the interval wasn’t far away, used their possession to wind down the clock more than anything.
However, this tactic occasionally backfired, with Hoffenheim pressing hungrily and hard every now and again. One such moment set up a cross from Volland on the left in the 41st minute, which found Joselu at the back-post. The former Real Madrid centre-forward – coming into this game in goal-scoring form – headed back and sideways to six-yard-box-standing Salihović, who had the ball hanging at a perfect height, Kjær failing to halt his run in the other direction, and the whole goal to aim at. But, the Bosnian headed straight at Benaglio, who showed strong palms to make the save. It’s hard to imagine Hoffenheim fans having endured a less enjoyable half of football this season, even if conceding goals is something they do very often – and Wolfsburg’s brace meant they now boasted 1. Bundesliga’s leakiest defence.
Formations that started the second-half
Hoffenheim (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Wiese; Beck, Jensen, Delpierre, Johnson; Rudy, Salihović; Volland, Firmino, Vincenzo Grifo; Joselu
Wolfsburg (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Benaglio; Fagner, Naldo, Kjær, Schäfer; Josué, Polák; Hasebe, Diego, Olić; Dost
It was unsurprising to see Babbel make a personnel change at half-time, bringing on exciting 19-year-old midfielder Grifo for the more defensive-minded Williams. Although Hoffenheim’s formation didn’t change as a result of this substitution, the team’s tactics had, because Salihović was now sitting in a quarterback, play-making role alongside the more box-to-box, energetic Rudy; Grifo, meanwhile, went out to the left flank, Firmino into the second-striker position, and Volland was shunted onto the right wing.
The home side bossed the opening seven or so minutes of the second-half, and gave Wolfsburg one or two nervy moments. The key chance in that period fell at the feet of Joselu in the 52nd minute, after Polák let the ball reach Volland in the D, and the Germany U21 striker cleverly slipped in the Spaniard. Alas, the 22-year-old fluffed his lines in front of goal, and Hoffe were back to looking crestfallen again. Desperation began to creep into their game; Beck flopped on the floor in the box in the 54th minute, looking for another penalty, but Perl, who had done well letting the game flow (well, in comparison to most officials), was not interested, just like he wasn’t in the first-half either. The 42-year-old was, however, interested in handing Rudy the first booking of the game a minute later after one foul too many.
With Wolfsburg sitting off, waiting for the moment to strike on the break (full-backs Schäfer and Fagner had pretty much made it a permanent back-four, rarely venturing into the Hoffe half, unlike Beck and Johnson), the game had again begun to peter out as we entered the last half-hour. But, the away side made things briefly exciting again in the 61st minute, when a chance to hit their hosts on the break finally arrived. Diego scooped a sumptuous pass over the high-standing blue-shirted defenders, with Dost the recipient having peeled off Jensen intelligently. One-on-one with Wiese, the Dutchman cutely chipped the sliding 30-year-old, and wheeled off to begin his celebration. However, Delpierre never gave up, and managed to clear the ball off the line just before it crept in. Hoffe had their own moment in front of goal less than 60 seconds later, as both Volland and Joselu – set up by a Grifo cross – had two bites at the same chance in the six-yard box, but failing to beat Benaglio, who had moments earlier saved a curling Salihović free-kick.
Joselu was hauled off in the 65th minute, replaced in a like-for-like substitution by Swiss international Erin Derdiyok (who started the summer by banging in a hat-trick against the Germany national side, only to produce little of note since). Babbel went for broke in the 77th minute after Jensen crowned a poor performance with a yellow card after being duped by Diego. Off went the young, inexperienced centre-back, and in his place came striker Sven Schipplock. From the free-kick resulting from Jensen’s challenge – the 20-year-old went off in the build-up to that set-piece – Naldo smashed a right-footed missile through the wall and into the bottom left-hand corner for 3-0! So simple, yet so effective.
The home side were now playing in what was effectively a 4-1-3-2, albeit with Rudy only occasionally dropping in to partner Delpierre at the back, and Beck rarely venturing back into his side’s own half. With eight minutes to go, Josué was replaced by Alexander Madlung in a like-for-like switch, as Günther-Köstner looked to inject some fresh energy into his team’s engine room for the closing stages. But, Wolfsburg were beginning to tire – unsurprising given that a number of players had been involved in international fixtures during the week, and because only one substitution had been made – and thus, Hoffe had a number of chances in the closing stages. Rudy headed against the bar, before Naldo cleared the ball off the line, and then, in the 87st minute, Derdiyok headed in a consolation goal – Wolfsburg being denied a 3-0 win for the second week in a row late on after Steffan Kieβling’s 90th minute strike for Leverkusen last weekend.
Thomas Kahlenberg came on for the final few minutes, Olić getting a well-earned rest after a hard-working if not spectacular performance. In injury-time, Günther-Köstner made another tactical, time-wasting substitution, bringing on Rasmus Jönsson for Dost in a like-for-like change. The Swede didn’t even get a touch of the ball, though, as Perl blew his whistle. The sound that greeted it was inaudible – very few Wolfsburg fans had made the journey south, while most of Hoffenheim’s had started their trips back home. While one of these teams appears to have turned a corner, the other has passed them in the opposite direction on the way.
Formations that finished the match
Hoffenheim (4-1-3-2, from right to left): Wiese; Beck, Delpierre, Beck, Johnson; Salihović; Volland, Firmino, Grifo; Derdiyok, Schipplock
Wolfsburg (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Benaglio; Fagner, Naldo, Kjær, Schäfer; Madlung, Polák; Hasebe, Diego, Kahlenberg; Jönsson