Tonight Manchester United host Wolfsburg in what has a become a very important fixture for the Reds after losing away to PSV Eindhoven in the first round of the Champions League group stage. Wolfsburg had a fantastic 2014/2015 season and finished second in the Bundesliga, but since then they´ve had to rebuild their squad a little bit after losing Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic to Manchester City and Internazionale. Julian Draxler and Max Kruse has been brought in to fill the gaps left by De Bruyne in particular, and Brazilian centre back Dante has been brought in from Bayern Munich to improve the team at the back.
I´ve only watched Wolfsburg twice this season, including the nasty 1-5 defeat away to Bayern (featuring the famous nine minutes of Lewandowski), but since I have some extensive data from the Bundesliga I thought it´d be a fun idea to put that data to use and see if I can try and profile Wolfsburg as a team to try and figure something out about how they want to play their football.
Wolfsburgs start to the season hasn´t quite lived up to the expectations created by the very successful 2014/2015 campaign. They currently sit fourth in the table with 12 points gained through three wins, three draws and the loss against Bayern. The Wolfs are four points behind Schalke, five behind Dortmund and nine points behind Bayern. Not a terrible start by any means, but probably slightly below the fans hopes and expectations.
The underlying numbers offer no consolation to Wolfsburg fans so far. They are fifth in TSR and the expected goals numbers are even harsher on the Wolfs, currently ranking them the sixth best team in Germany, though sample size is obviously an issue this early in the season.
If you separate attack from defense, it becomes evident that Wolfsburgs issues so far are mainly attacking ones. Apart from Bayern and Dortmund, the two dominant sides so far, Wolfsburgs expected goals against are the lowest in the league, despite the fact that they´ve already played Bayern away from home. On the attacking side, however, things are looking a lot worse.
Seven teams have taken more shots than Wolfsburg so far, but what´s even more worrying for the Wolfs is the fact that only five out of the 18 teams in the Bundesliga teams have taken shots with a lower expected goals number per shot. When you plot Wolfsburgs shots taken, it´s not very hard to tell why that is (red shots are misses, blue=goals, and the bubble size indicates ExpG value).
That´s a LOT of efforts from range, and if you exclude that big blue dot from the penalty spot, Wolfsburg expected goal difference would be down to just +1. At this stage of the season, it seems that Wolfsburg are yet to find a way to make up for the loss of Kevin De Bruyne.
Different teams defend in different ways, and in different areas of the pitch. The plot below is a density plot showing where Wolfsburgs tackles and interceptions has happened so far this season (R code shamelessly borrowed from @Jalapic).
This might not say to much in a vacuum, but when you include a list of who´s actually making these tackles and interceptions, a pattern emerges that allows us to draw a few conclusions on Wolfsburgs defending.
Lets focus first on the central attacking players, Max Kruse and Bas Dost. They basically don´t tackle or intercept at all. Julian Draxler, who´s been deployed both centrally and wide left, does very little as well. I think it´s safe to assume that Man Uniteds centre backs will get a lot of time on the ball, as Wolfsburg opts not to press very aggressively from the front, especially not through the middle.
if we look at the players usually deployed at wide midfield and fullbacks, neither of the wide left midfielders (Schürrle/Draxler) does a whole lot of defensive work, and compared to the right backs (Träsch and Vieirinha), left back Ricardo Rodriguez also does a lot less.
Träsch and Vieirinha on the other hand do a lot defensively, especially Träsch, but apart from them, the players that do most of the defensive work in Wolfsburg are players in the centre of the field. Centre backs Naldo and Dante both do their fair share, as do Luiz Gustavo (who might miss the game due to injury), but the numbers that stick out the most are the very high numbers of Josuha Guilavogui, and to some extent Maximilan Arnold. Wolfsburg do appear to have a very physical set of players in the central parts of the field, doing most of the ball winning work for the team.
All in all, with Daniel Caligiuri at wide right doing a lot more defensive work than either of the left wingers, and the right full backs doing a lot more than Ricardo Rodriguez, and the central players doing the majority of the defensive work, it might be a good idea for United to focus their attacks down the right wing, where Wolfsburg seems to do the least defending.
Wolfsburg have been one of the most possession oriented sides in the Bundesliga so far. Only Bayern and Borussia Dortmund have made more passes per game, and apart from those two, only Gladbach have played a smaller percentage of their passes forward than Wolfsburg.
So Wolfsburg usually pass the ball a lot. But where do they pass, and who does the passing? This is a density plot over all passes attempted by Wolfsburg this season:
Most of the passing seem to be happening out wide (especially to the right) and at the back. with very little going on centrally in the attacking half. The plot below shows who´s doing most of the passing at Wolfsburg this season, with the larger circles implying a higher number of passes per 90 minutes played. For clarity, the number of passes per 90 is included below the player names as well.
This furthers the point from the density plot, showing that the six players that have had meaningful playing time at the back in Wolfsburg this season, are the ones with the most passes per 90 minutes as well. Max Kruse and Julian Draxler have attempted roughly the same amount of passes, just a few passes short of Kevin De Bruynes 51 passes per 90 from the 2014/2015 season.
When filtering for passes that ended up inside the final third, Wolfsburg do fall down the ladder a couple of spots, with newly promoted Ingolstadt and Vfb Stuttgart completing more passes in that area.
To try and measure how direct teams are, we can use a simple ”Passes per shot” metric. As it turns out, only Borussia Mönchengladbach have attempted more passes for every shot taken in the Bundesliga this season, further proving the point that Wolfsburg is indeed one of the most possession oriented teams in the league.
Shots & Key passes
We´ve seen so far that Wolfsburgs defensive numbers are quite good, but the attack is lacking somewhat. Replacing the 10 goals and 20 assists delivered by Kevin De Bruyne was never going to be easy, and as is always the case with new players such as Kruse and Draxler, they might need some time to settle before they find their best form.
So which players are Wolfsburg relying on to create chances at the moment? The charts below shows Shots and Key Passes per 90 minutes played.
Bas Dost is taking by far the most shots with just under 3 shots per game, which isn´t too impressive as a lone striker in a top team, though in his defence he usually takes shots from some superb locations. Overall, I would have expected a few more shots from the likes of Kruse, Draxler and Schürrle, who has yet to impress since his switch from Chelsea last season.
It is instead Daniel Caligiuri who is taking the second most shots per 90 mins behind Dost, while also providing the most Key passes, beating two usually creative names in Kruse and Draxler. 27-year old Caligiuri had had an inspiring start to the season, contributing with both shots and assist, as well as some defensive work. In total, Caligiuri is contributing directly to roughly 6.8 shots per 90 minutes played, Kruse 5.4 shots and Draxler 4.8 shots.
Man United will host a side that hasn´t quite reached the form of last season. Defensively Wolfsburg are very solid, but as we have seen they usually don´t pressure very high up the pitch, especially in the central areas. Instead it is the defensive central midfielders and the back four that does most of the defensive work.
Wolfsburg usually do see a lot of the ball, and again it is the central midfielders and the back line that sees the most of it. The central line seems very important to Wolfsburgs game, given how involved they are in both passing and defending. The full backs are very involved in Wolfsburgs passing game, as is the centre backs, implying that they like to play out from the back and potentially keep possession as a means of defending as well as attacking. Both fullbacks do contribute going forward, as they provide about two key passes each per 90 minutes. However, it is Daniel Caligiuri and Max Kruse that has provided the vast majority of key passes, with lethal striker Bas Dost being the most common recipient of said key passes. Julian Draxler has settled in ok, posting the 3rd highest numbers for both shots and key passes per 90 minutes.
It´ll be very interesting to see how Wolfsburg approach tonights game. The data for this analysis comes from the seven games played in this seasons Bundesliga, in six of which Wolfsburg were favourites. That is not the case tonight, and in reality we have little information on how Wolfsburg will react to this type of game, as they haven´t been in the Champions League for some time. I´d expect them to set the team up a bit more conservatively, defend deep and compact, and to counter attack a bit more than usual, given that a draw would be a great result for Wolfsburg.