“I would say it’s something to learn from.” Divock Origi’s summary of his glaring second-half miss that might have given Wolfsburg victory over RB Leipzig might be considered to be erring on the side of circumspection – it was quite simply a sitter, despite his patient and detailed description of the circumstances that conditioned it to TV broadcasters after the game – but then again, his team are getting pretty good at that.
The appointment of Martin Schmidt, removed as Mainz coach after a too-close-for-comfort end to last season, hardly fired the imagination when Wolfsburg decided to end the difficult reign of Andries Jonker. Yet if his new side haven’t yet returned to the heights they were scaling when Kevin De Bruyne was running the show, their new coach has helped them to find stability.
Schmidt has been in charge for 13 games in all competitions and Die Wölfe have lost only one of those – and that defeat, at Augsburg, was heavily influenced by Max Arnold’s contestable early red card. The first seven league games under Schmidt were all draws (a Bundesliga record) and last week’s game was another of strangely mixed emotions: partially pride about what they’ve become, and partly disappointment at failing to quite fulfill what was possible.
Experienced defender Paul Verhaegh, who opened the scoring from the penalty spot early on before Marcel Halstenberg equalized for the visitors at the start of the second half, talked about “two points lost”, which says a lot about rising expectations after facing last season’s runners-up.
Last season, Wolfsburg’s struggles at home set the tone for general dysfunction. Now, they’re beginning to make the Volkswagen Arena a fortress, and are yet to lose there under Schmidt. Maybe he should have been given more credit. He has always had to be adaptable, having had a modest playing career in Switzerland punctuated by no less than seven cruciate knee ligament injuries, suffered playing football, downhill skiing and mountain biking. He has few regrets at being so intrepid. “You’d look back at 50 and say to yourself: ‘I never risked anything,’” he told 11 Freunde in a 2016 interview.
Before he was appointed youth coach as FC Thun – where his path crossed with that of Thomas Tuchel, who later invited him to join him at Mainz on becoming head coach – he was a part-time mechanic too, immersing himself in his workshop before dropping it completely and moving on when the time came. His tenure at Wolfsburg so far has again underlined his chameleon-like tendencies. He once spoke of his typical Mainz player being “a sprinter”. Against Leipzig, his tactics were more rope-a-dope, perhaps wisely in a taxing Englische Woche. Described as “passive” for the first 70 minutes by Leipzig goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, they certainly came out to play in the final 20.
As well as Origi’s miss, Gulacsi saved from Guilavogui right at the end as Leipzig hung on, after Dayot Upamecano was sent off for a second booking. Guilavogui is a great example of individual improvement, along with Yunus Malli, who was struggling badly last term but spent the morning after the Leipzig game with Wolfsburger Allgemeine, choosing a bespoke name for his inspired pass that set up Daniel Didavi’s goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach. He settled on the Malli-Drop, ahead of Mallifique and Yunusgenuss (“Yunus’ treat”).
Nobody is arguing with the job Schmidt’s counterpart Ralph Hasenhüttl has done at Leipzig, but they look as if they could do with some of that freshness right now. At last week, Sky trailed the statistic that Leipzig were set to have the lowest points total that a second-placed team has had in the Bundesliga at the winter break during the three-point era. It might be something that reflects on the general level of competition for Bayern Munich over the last two months (and with Schalke leapfrogging them with a Wednesday night win), but it underlines their own difficulties too. At the same point last season, despite losing the last of that 16-game sequence 3-0 at Bayern, Hasenhüttl’s side were eight points better off. They are now four games without a win.
Their style is a physically taxing one, with lots of sprints to press the opposition and then to counterattack. It’s hardly surprising, in this context and with a first Champions League involvement behind them, that after a good first half at the Volkswagen Arena, they began to tire badly in the closing stages. It was a thread grasped by Hasenhüttl, who has been dissatisfied with his side’s defensive performance in general but called last week’s effort “decent and alert, except for the last 15 minutes”.
In Lower Saxony they missed the injured Marcel Sabitzer and Emil Forsberg, and have little alternative to Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen up top with Jean-Kévin Augustin, who missed this through illness, out of form after a promising start. Gulacsi – who many thought might be replaced last summer, but has matured into one of the side’s most reliable figures – became the fifth different player to wear the captain’s armband on last week. “The other six or seven captains were missing,” he laughed after the match, reflecting on Hasenhüttl’s vote of confidence in him.
Leipzig need their winter break badly while on current form, Wolfsburg will be like caged animals during theirs. Who would have predicted that at the start of the season?
The Guardian Sport