“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 Tuesday night’s game was another of strangely mixed emotions: partially pride about what they’ve become, and partly disappointment at failing to quite fulfil what was possible.
Experienced defender Paul Verhaegh, who opened the scoring from the penalty spot early on before Marcel Halstenberg equalised 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. “At home we’re playing great football,” said midfielder Josuha Guilavogui after Saturday’s draw at Hamburg. “Very attractive football, with a lot of good movement up front. We’re efficient as well, and we often score early [Tuesday’s match was the third straight in which Wolfsburg scored in the first 15 minutes]. We know we had a tough season last year especially at home, and we didn’t win a lot. We had to do better this season, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Maybe Schmidt 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 kick-off this 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 Tuesday’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 Tuesday. “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?
• There was a first Bundesliga win since September for Borussia Dortmund, and a first at any time in the league this season for their new coach Peter Stöger. They were playing a pretty average Mainz team, in truth, but the 2-0 win is welcome either way, and there was at least some sort of Stöger effect, with the side sitting off more than under Peter Bosz, saving energy and with Julian Weigl looking more like himself. Stöger, ever the class act, praised Bosz post-match “for leaving me with something good” to inherit.
• Schalke are back in second place and unbeaten in 11, their longest undefeated series in a decade, after a thriller against Augsburg in which they led 2-0 and were pegged back before Daniel Caligiuri’s late penalty winner. In a way, this might prove the most useful of that run, as Caligiuri and coach Domenico Tedesco both conveyed their anger at Die Königsblauen almost letting it slip. “There’s still a lot of work ahead of us,” Caliguiri told Sky.
• Also on a run are Bayer Leverkusen, who are 14 without loss and into the top four after Lucas Alario’s goal saw them past Werder Bremen. As in Stuttgart on Friday, Heiko Herrlich’s side weren’t overwhelmingly impressive but ground out the result, with Leon Bailey contributing another assist. Werder have their best defensive at this stage of the season in eight years (which at least partly owes something to Florian Kohfeldt’s predecessor Alexander Nouri), but still sit second bottom, and with Kohfeldt only confirmed to Christmas, the board have a decision to make.
• Bayern’s win was the most predictable of the Englische Woche, but they beat rock-bottom Köln only by a single goal – and one of high quality, set up by Thomas Müller’s deft flick for Robert Lewandowski to finish. The Pole’s winner pushed him into the all-time top 10 of Bundesliga goalscorers with 166, an especially remarkable achievement bearing in mind that he’s played at least 60 matches less than anyone else on the list. His coach, Jupp Heynckes, still has a decent enough lead on him in third place, with the 220 he notched for Borussia Mönchengladbach and Hannover. In an interview with Eurosport, new Köln sporting director Armin Veh insisted he wasn’t resigned to relegation by regardless of Saturday’s result against Wolfsburg. Few believe him.
• Hooray for Eintracht Frankfurt, after extending the division’s outstanding away record with another road win at Hamburg, where they came back from a goal down after Kyriakos Papadopoulos’ opener. Timothy Chandler, back from injury, laid on both Eintracht’s goals and underlined that Niko Kovac might have a little more depth to his group that previously suspected.
• Freiburg won their second match in two, in controversial circumstances. Their goal against Gladbach was from a penalty awarded by VAR – not by referee Deniz Aytekin alone – for Jannik Vestergaard’s supposed foul on Nils Petersen, who got up to strike the winner, his third successful penalty in two games and his fourth goal overall in those matches. Alexander Schwolow, who was a spectator for long periods as his side dominated, was defiant. “We have eaten shit for long enough,” he said after the game.
• Hoffenheim had another late goal from Mark Uth to thanks for beating Stuttgart, and lifting them back into the top five, with the Swabians’ miserable away record continuing, while Salomon Kalou followed up his late equaliser at the weekend with a brace as Hertha beat Hannover.