UEFA Women's Champions League Performance Insight: How Wolfsburg snuck past Arsenal after extra time
Monday, May 8, 2023
UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse how Wolfsburg booked their final place with a dramatic extra-time win against Arsenal.
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UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse how, in an intensely physically demanding match where coaches and players were required to seek solutions to tactical problems posed by the opposition, Wolfsburg's set-play expertise exploiting the aerial power of Alexandra Popp made an important contribution to the narrow extra-time victory over Arsenal in London. Victory secured Wolfsburg a sixth appearance in the final of the premier club competition.
1-0: Stina Blackstenius (11)
Katie McCabe dispossessed Lena Oberdorf in Wolfsburg territory to trigger a three-pass counter with Lia Wälti playing a long pass through the central corridor where Blackstenius took on the two centre-backs. Kathrin Hendrich tried to shield the ball for the keeper but Blackstenius toed the ball away from the onrushing Merle Frohms for a left-foot finish.
1-1: Jill Roord (41)
A run to the left allowed Popp to head a free-kick across goal for Roord to beat Manuela Zinsberger with a low volley.
1-2: Alexandra Popp (58)
Popp was first to a left-footed inswinging corner by Felicitas Rauch from the right to put the visitors ahead with a near-post header.
2-2: Jen Beattie (75)
Lotte Wubben-Moy, latching on to a clearance following a free-kick, crossed for Beattie to equalise with a glancing header.
2-3: Pauline Bremer (119)
Jule Brand pressed hard, stole the ball and crossed for fellow substitute Bremer to slot home the late winner.
Player of the Match: Jill Roord (Wolfsburg)
The UEFA match observer picked out the former Arsenal midfielder on account of the off-the-ball movement which allowed her to exploit pockets of space between lines and, as the observer remarked, might have exerted an even greater influence on construction play if the centre-backs had picked her out more frequently. In possession, she saw and executed incisive forward passes; was a constant threat near the Arsenal box and – not least – scored a crucial equalising goal that helped to earn a return to her native country for the final.
Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall, struggling to fill the bench during a run of injuries to key players, was able to include Lina Hurtig in his squad for the match, thought hopes of a return for Caitlin Foord were ultimately dashed. Arsenal played with three centre-backs and two high wing-backs who rapidly tracked back into a 5-4-1 defensive formation.
Wolfsburg coach Tommy Stroot was able to welcome back his captain and key performer Popp who had missed the first leg through injury. Wolfsburg attacked in a 4-3-3 structure with Oberdorf as a single screening midfielder behind Popp and Roord who constantly permuted positions. But the visitors’ 5-3-2 defensive set-up (with Svenja Huth tracking back to slot in as the fifth member of the back line) often metamorphosed into a 6-2-2 as Wolfsburg tried to find a response to Arsenal’s attacking wing-backs.
Arsenal's advanced wing-backs
Arsenal’s advanced wing-backs provided one of the problems that Wolfsburg worked hard to deal with – as illustrated by the first clip which shows the visitors defending with six in a situation where The Gunners have five up and five back. In a patient build-up, Wälti hits a crossfield pass to the right and a beautifully weighted ball sets wing-back Noëlle Maritz free on the right to deliver a low cross to Blackstenius, whose finish was disallowed after a VAR review for offside.
In the second situation, from a kick-off, the ball is played to the left centre-back and then to the keeper with wing-back Steph Catley staying high on the left in the side’s 3-3-4 structure. One-touch passing breaks the Wolfsburg press and a 15-pass move allows Catlin to deliver a cross after an infield run from a high starting position.
Threat in transition
The technical observer also highlighted Arsenal’s threatening transition play – as demonstrated by a scenario when the ball is regained on the right side of the defensive third, catching Wolfsburg with their full-backs upfield. With Blackstenius making a run between the centre-backs, team-mates flood forward to support the through pass. The following clip shows a regain in a similar area which, with seven Wolfsburg players committed to attacking positions, leaves them short-handed at the back. However, they recover with sufficient speed to stifle the threat from the through pass.
Solutions in midfield
The following clips reveal how Wolfsburg, very restricted by Arsenal’s set-up in terms of building through midfield, were occasionally able to find viable solutions, thanks largely to the intelligence and experience of Roord and Popp. The first clip in this section starts with a phase of Wolfsburg possession with six at the back, with Popp then dropping deep on the left to provide and additional passing option and, after receiving, to deliver a neat pass to a team-mate making a run behind the centre-back towards the corner flag.
The following scenario starts with Frohms in possession and Arsenal pushing three players forward centrally, leaving space behind them. A backward run in midfield draws a marker out of position and makes room for a dangerous advance. A similar situation (Frohms in possession with no obvious passing outlet) highlights the clever movements by Roord who eludes four Arsenal players with a one-touch pass which then allows Wolfsburg to break lines and a create a 2v2 situation in Arsenal’s back line.
Three of the game's five goals came from dead-ball situations, with Wolfsburg exploiting two of them to convert a one-goal deficit into a one-goal lead. The first originated in a free-kick wide on the left at a considerable distance from goal. Arsenal set themselves up with eight players holding a line at the edge of the box and Popp, although the obvious aerial threat, made a run away from goal to connect with a clever delivery and head across goal for Roord to score with a low volley.
The second stemmed from the left-footed delivery of a corner on the right and, as the clip reveals, five Arsenal and three Wolfsburg players line up in the vicinity of the goalkeeper while three other visiting players remained unmarked on the edge of the box. Arsenal opted not to protect the near post and this area was exploited by Popp who, first to the ball, scored with a glancing header.
Tommy Stroot, Wolfsburg coach: "We accomplished something that can't be taken for granted. We beat an extremely tough opponent and are now in the top two teams in Europe. We can be incredibly proud of that. When the whistle goes and I see everyone run on to the pitch well, it's moments like those that are part of why I wanted to become a coach."
Jonas Eidevall, Arsenal coach: "It was tough, no doubt about it. It was a game of such fine margins that I think we are allowed to hurt and feel empty. But we are also allowed to feel proud of the performance and the occasion created by the supporters, who were magnificent. With all the injuries, with all the challenges I am incredibly proud that we made it to the Champions League semi-final and only lost it by the finest of margins."