UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse how Wolfsburg's defensive discipline, attacking width and Alexandra Popp underpinned their impressive quarter-final triumph over Paris Saint-Germain.
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Wolfsburg reached their eighth semi-final of the UEFA Women's Champions League last Thursday thanks to a narrow 2-1 aggregate success against Paris Saint-Germain.
In this tactical analysis, the UEFA Technical Observer Panel takes a look at the key features of the sides' closely contested quarter-final second leg in Germany.
1-0: Alexandra Popp (20)
The Germany international doubled Wolfsburg's aggregate advantage with her first goal in the competition since March 2021. It was Wolfsburg's first attempt of the match and an excellent strike which came after Popp had intercepted a pass infield by Sandy Baltimore and, from just inside her own half, sent Felicitas Rauch away down the left. She then hared forward to meet the return pass with a first-time shot from the edge of the box. Slipping as she struck it, she sent the ball arcing over Sarah Bouhaddi and inside the far corner.
1-1: Kadidiatou Diani (30)
Diani had seen an earlier strike adjudged offside after a VAR review. Now she did have her fourth goal of the campaign after Sakina Karchaoui had been given time and space to float over a cross from some 30 metres out on the left. Diani got her body in front of Dominique Janssen and nodded the ball past Merle Frohms and inside the far post.
Player of the Match: Alexandra Popp
The 31-year-old went into the game with 12 goals in her domestic league this season and she duly opened her European account on an evening when she had six shots – more than any other player in quarter-final action last week. She was confident enough to try scoring from the kick-off at the beginning of the second half and she ended the match feeling she should have had at least one more – having hit the post from just a few metres out in the 53rd minute.
The UEFA match observer praised the example she set with her "positive leadership" and "competitive nature", and her aerial prowess warrants a mention too. Of the 12 players who contested six or more aerial duels in last week's second legs, she had the highest success rate (83.3%).
Coach Tommy Stroot made two changes from the team beaten by Bayern München the weekend before, with tournament top scorer Ewa Pajor dropping to the bench along with Marina Hegering as Sveindís Jónsdóttir (23) and Lynn Wilms (2) came into the starting XI.
Wolfsburg set up in a 1-4-2-3-1 in possession and the movement of Popp (11) and Jill Roord (14) was worthy of note as the pair exchanged positions throughout; when one of them fixed the central defenders, the other performed the link role and vice versa.
Out of possession, Wolfsburg stayed in their 1-4-2-3-1 shape with Lena Oberdorf (5) in a key controlling role in midfield. Strong in duels, she was well placed both defensively and to offer support when her team had the ball.
The visitors lined up in a 1-4-3-3 formation and their starting XI featured two changes from the first leg as 19-year-old Laurina Fazer (18) began in midfield and Lieke Martens (22) began on the right side of the attack.
Missing from their first-leg line-up were the injured Jackie Groenen and Élisa de Almeida, who was suspended after her red card in the first leg. As a consequence, midfielder Oriane Jean-François (6) stepped into central defence alongside captain Grace Geyoro (8) – a player who herself has been filling in in defence owing to injuries, with Gérard Prêcheur looking to his skipper's composure, speed and technical ability in possession to help the team from the back.
Ahead of the back four, Kheira Hamraoui (14) was an important figure in central midfield, involved in her defensive tasks and powerful enough to get forward too. Higher upfield, the wingers had different roles: Baltimore (21) played wide and looked for 1v1s, while Martens (22) would come in from her flank.
There was a setback for Prêcheur mid-match when he had to replace Diani (11) because of injury, sending on Amalie Vangsgaard in her place for the second half.
The first focus of the video analysis above is PSG's pressing game which was particularly noteworthy in the early part of the game. "Especially in the first half-hour Wolfsburg had real difficulties in getting out of the pressure of PSG," said the UEFA match observer and Clip 1 illustrates the point.
From Wolfsburg's goal-kick they have numbers high up the field with Diani pressing centrally. The observer cited the position of Baltimore, on her toes in space between the left centre-back and left-back, and ready to press if the ball goes out to the full-back.
In this instance, Wolfsburg take no chances with centre-back Janssen launching the ball long. When Jean-François picks up the second ball, the French side still have players positioned upfield and are now attacking in a 6v5 scenario.
Clip 2 offers a similar example. PSG have three players in the first line of the press. Once more, they win the second ball from the long kick and – with the Wolfsburg centre-backs still adjusting – they immediately look to get behind the back line with Baltimore's attempted through-pass to Diani.
The second feature of the visitors' play shown in the video is their defensive organisation in the middle of the pitch. Clips 3 and 4 highlight their efforts in the second line of the press as they try to get a player tight on each of the opposition midfielders and link player, thereby restricting Wolfsburg's options as the German side look to build from the back.
In Clip 4, we also see the influence of captain Geyoro – who ended the week with the most interceptions (five) – as she steps up from the backline to pressure Popp and force the hurried pass.
Another factor in denying Wolfsburg space was the man-marking approach in the middle of the pitch, making it harder for the hosts' midfielders to get on the ball and face forward. Prêcheur's side were less compact after the break, however, when the observer saw their forwards pressing up and the entire defensive line further back, which allowed more spaces in midfield for Wolfsburg, as shown in Clips 5 and 6.
At this point of the contest, PSG were setting up in a 1-4-4-2 formation when defending. In Clip 5, goalkeeper Frohms is able to pick out Lena Lattwein, free of a marker just inside her own half, to start an attack. Lattwein finds space again in the next clip as she collects the knockdown from Popp and looks for a forward pass. Prêcheur sought a remedy just after the hour by sending on Korbin Albert in place of Baltimore to provide support for Hamraoui.
As for Wolfsburg, the match observer highlighted the importance of their wingers when going forward – something we see in Clips 7 and 8. The observer noted the speed of both Huth on the right and Sveindís Jónsdóttir on the left – and it is the latter who is the target of the attempted ball in behind in Clip 7.
"Wolfsburg are a team that try to progress through combination play but are also clear about how dangerous they can be with their speed on the flanks looking for crosses to connect with one of the best strikers in the world," said the observer, and Clip 8 offers a perfect example as Huth produces a lovely ball from the right which Popp meets with a diving header. This was one of three completed crosses by Huth on an evening when she delivered nine from open play. Across the whole campaign, only Fridolina Rolfö and Delphine Cascarino have surpassed her tally of 38 crosses from open play – the source of three of her four assists to date.
The focus of the final two clips is Wolfsburg's attacking transitions. They showed they could be aggressive and incisive, as seen in Clip 9 when they create the opening goal with a pass into space vacated by the full-back and a second pass into the gap between the central defenders.
In the last sequence, we see that they have five players immediately on the attack after winning the ball; eventually a neat combination leads to an excellent opportunity for Jill Roord.
A final point to make here concerns that space between the centre-halves: first, the gap for Popp to surge into to strike the opening goal, and second, the room vacated when Jean-François steps out of the backline and Roord is put clean through for a shot blocked by Bouhaddi. It is only fair to remember the mitigating factor that this was a visiting team playing with two stand-in centre-halves.
Tommy Stroot, Wolfsburg coach: "In the second half we found our way into the game much better and created more chances that we could have converted to get the win."
Gérard Prêcheur, Paris coach: "In the first half we had control of the game. We had a very attacking team – we didn't have one true defender in our back four at the start. The first chance they had we were punished, but I'm really pleased with the way we played."