After the first five games of the 2022-23 Bundesliga season, VfL Wolfsburg were without a win and had only two points to their name. It was somewhat reminiscent to their start the season prior, under the brief stewardship of Mark van Bommel, except they actually won a match. Rather than part ways with head coach Niko Kovac early on, which happened to Van Bommel after just 13 games, Wolfsburg sporting director Marcel Schafer said that they were sticking with the former Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt manager.
What followed was a period of 13 games with only two losses, including a winning run of six matches and 22 goals scored, that put them back in contention for European places. How have Kovac's tactics evolved from the start of the season to now, and why do Wolfsburg look miles better than they did last season?
Untangling a flawed philosophy
Last season's appointment of Van Bommel forced Wolfsburg to change their playing style with little time and structure to do so. The successes under predecessor Oliver Glasner was built upon a compact defence, intensity and transitions -- pillars of his Red Bull coaching background -- but they were still able to play with some possessional style. Van Bommel's ideas, however, were fully possession-based, with a focus on slow ball circulation.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
- Wolfsburg vs. Bayern: Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+
The Dutch manager had no prior experience to prepare him for such a drastic undertaking. This led to the whole season being thrown into disarray, with a preseason deemed wasted, players confused on their roles and Van Bommel's replacement, Florian Kohfeldt -- who shared a very similar possession-based approach -- struggling to pick up the pieces.
After two mistakes in a selecting a head coach and a controversial director of football, Jorg Schmadtke, stepping down, Wolfsburg could finally get to work in correcting what they had gotten wrong. The appointment of Kovac, whose philosophy more closely matched Glasner's, was a step in the right direction.
When Kovac came in, he implemented a mix of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations with a clear focus on how the team plays without possession. He started working on increasing his team's intensity behind the ball so they were able to defend in a compact, mid-high press to force their opponents wide. As soon as they would win the ball, they could make use of their quick players in fast transitions.
While you could see an improvement and more stability, the beginning of this season was as unsuccessful as the last as several smaller issues disrupted the team. This included an unbalanced build-up pattern in which Wolfsburg used an asymmetric back three and a transition period of getting used to the level of required intensity.
"It certainly takes six to eight weeks for the body to react properly," Kovac told NDR of his players' adaption. "This is a process that has to develop over several months or years. We are at a good level, but more is possible."
Outrunning the opposition
Despite no wins and a familiar bad feeling around Lower Saxony, Kovac remained in the job with faith from the Wolfsburg board and more importantly, the players. Wolfsburg's opponents had outrun them in the first few matches, which had a negative impact on their results. Once Kovac's side gained the advantage in this specific metric, it aided his style of football and turned into wins.
Now, they're topping the Bundesliga table in sprints per game and intensive runs, but why is this so important? On its own, it isn't, but for a team that has a philosophy based on intensity it becomes vital in carrying out defending in a compact shape, closing down switch plays (pass or passes that helps a team change sides horizontally), pressing opponents individually, blocking passing lanes and defending in a way that disrupts your opponents. Those are now all things that Wolfsburg do well, and their improvement in results corresponds with improvement in these metrics.
All good runs must come to an end, however, and their consecutive 10-match unbeaten run ended abruptly with a 2-1 defeat at Werder Bremen last week. Funnily enough, in this loss they were again beaten in distance ran by Bremen. It also highlighted another area where Wolfsburg need to improve if they want to stay in the race for top four: tactics in possession. Their ball circulation is still slow, which allows their opponents to defend in a lower block if need be, and they find it hard to create any numerical advantage in order to overload certain areas to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Despite this issue, Kovac's appointment has settled a Wolfsburg team that lost its way after Glasner's exit. With Kovac a proven DFB-Pokal and Bundesliga winner with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Munich, respectively, his tactics should be enough to take Wolfsburg nearer to what they used to be: in European competition.