With both Wolfsburg and Mainz harbouring realistic European ambitions for this season, having finished eighth and sixth last season respectively, the match between these two teams at the Volkswagen Arena was a great opportunity for one of them to set down a real marker after very mixed – and in the case of the home side, disappointing – starts to their Bundesliga campaigns.
Dieter Hecking and Martin Schmidt each opted to utilise a 4-2-3-1 system, and in both cases their side’s best players were operating in the number 10 position. For Wolfsburg that was Julian Draxler, who was sitting just off their recent summer signing, Mario Gómez, while Mainz’s Yunus Malli, on a streak of scoring in three consecutive league games going into this one, was tasked with running things from behind Jhon Córdoba.
When things became congested in the midfield Wolfsburg’s full-backs provided a nice outlet for them to get the ball forward, with Ricardo Rodríguez on the left and Christian Träsch on the right both happy to make use of any space that appeared.
It was the home team who started the game the brightest, Ricardo Rodríguez forcing Jonas Lössl into a decent save early on with a direct free-kick before Draxler found the back of the net with a smart left-footed finish in the 16th minute only for it to rightly be ruled out for offside. Aside from that, Wolfsburg didn’t really create too much with the dominance which they held, although they had pretty secure control over both the ball and the space.
One of the main weapons for providing that came in the form of their full-backs, Rodríguez on the left and Christian Träsch on the opposite flank. The pair offered constant width near the touchlines, particularly on the right where Jakub Błaszczykowski made nice movements inside to create more space for Träsch to bomb forward into. With those two pushed forward, Mainz were often forced into having their own wide players, Karim Onisiwo and Levin Öztunali, drop deep to support the rest of the defensive unit in the 4-4-2 set-up they adopted out of possession. And, in turn, that meant getting them involved in counter-attacks proved to be a struggle.
Another important factor for Wolfsburg’s solid start was their good initial defensive shape. Their 4-2-3-1 became more of a 4-2-2-2 without the ball during Mainz’s build-up phases, a hexagon-type structure which Roger Schmidt has used effectively at Red Bull Salzburg and now Bayer Leverkusen, preventing smooth ball progression from occurring due to good spatial coverage and adaptive ball-orientation. Mainz struggled to play through this, either resorting to ambitious long passes or being dependent on Malli dropping back enough to provide the necessary but generally detrimental (as a result of him now not being high enough up the pitch to influence things properly) support.
A combination of poor spacing by Mainz’s midfield and a strong 4-2-2-2 type system from Wolfsburg meant that the away side’s progression of the ball left a lot to be desired. As a result, Wolfsburg were able to control proceedings relatively easily.
Working out what portion of the game’s flow came from the home team’s good work and how much was a result of Mainz’s own extremely lacklustre start, though, is hard to decipher. Mainz were on the back of a midweek trip to Azerbaijan to play in the Europa League, and given that six of their starters – as well as the two substitutes which they used on the night – began the game against Qabala just a couple of days earlier, it was no real surprise to see them struggle to play at their usual tempo.
Hecking’s side being unable to take true advantage of that and the control they established by not creating many chances then was quite poor on their part. Their struggles in that department were familiar, the problems the same as those that have led to them only scoring four goals in the five games prior to this one. A failure to get Draxler into dangerous positions between the defence and midfield often enough was the biggest issue, while Gomez not being well supported by attacking runs around him in the centre also contributed heavily. So while they did well overall in the first-half, things were pretty uninspiring once they got into the final third.
A failure to get Draxler into dangerous positions between the defence and midfield often enough was the biggest issue, while Gómez not being well supported by attacking runs around him in the centre also contributed heavily. So while they did well overall in the first half, things were pretty uninspiring once they got into the final third.
There were a couple of occasions where Wolfsburg managed to get Draxler on the ball between the lines, but for the most part it was something which they didn’t do anywhere near as often as they would’ve hoped.
That meant that it was a relatively dull opening 45 minutes both tactically and as spectacle. And while Mainz started the second-half in a better way, getting Öztunali on the ball more initially and making use of the slightly lower intensity that Wolfsburg played at when pressing high up the field, things were mostly the same for the rest of the match.
The home side once again had more possession and worked a couple of decent chances in the box for Gómez, though there was little change of note from Hecking’s team; odd, considering that his side wasn’t generating much in the way of attacking opportunities.
Wolfsburg eventually had what proved to be the best chance of the game in the 68th minute courtesy of Draxler, when the German made a nice run into the space that Gómez vacated (a combination that didn’t happen anywhere near frequently enough) when dropping deep to play a one-two. Draxler then rounded the goalkeeper and looked to tuck the ball home, but Giulio Donati came to the rescue for Mainz with a sliding goal-line clearance to ensure that the 0-0 scoreline remained intact.
The caption on the left (courtesy of @MC_of_A) shows that Wolfsburg were somewhat unfortunate not to win based on the quality of shooting opportunities that the two sides had, although their attacking play was pretty poor in general beyond the few notable chances that were created.
Mainz’s two late substitutions were quite indicative of Schmidt being willing to settle for a point at this time, with Öztunali and then Malli – their two most technically-gifted midfielders – going off. Pablo De Blasis and Suat Serdar respectively were the ones to replace them, the former being a relatively like-for-like change while the latter was made to add more defensive security to their midfield. That third change for the away side came in the 83rd minute, and while Wolfsburg continued to push they didn’t have enough to break the deadlock.
And with that Wolfsburg’s uninspiring start to the season continued, their winless streak now extended to five; this being their third 0-0 draw in just six games. They were a little unlucky not to score here to be fair, but getting the likes of Draxler and Gómez to produce more certainly has to be something that Hecking must do if things are to improve.
A clean sheet and an away point for Mainz should be considered a rather decent result for them, particularly given their fatigue-inducing European game just a few days earlier.
By Daniel Butler. Follow @TheTacticsRoom