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Steve McClaren: can he return the bite to the ‘Die Wölfe’?

August 13, 2010


Once the laughing stock of media outlets in England, Steve McClaren has a chance to make a name for himself in continental Europe, a feat that should see his reputation return to the levels it once was.

His move from the arty town of Enschede on the border of Germany to Wolfsburg, a town that resembles the perfect specimen of industrialisation that Karl Marx described in the mid 1800’s is one that had people talking. For Steve McClaren is the first Englishman to manage a German football club aswell as his exploits at Twente earning him the Rinus Michels Award for his championship winning season last year.

As an aside, one of my strangest (and happiest) recent experiences is that of travelling by rail through Wolfsburg. It’s a bizarre setting, one canal, a mass of brick, slightly tainted by the fumes emitted from the Volkswagen factory. Once you’ve got over the fact that the place resembles a set of ‘Oliver Twist’, it’s remarkably minuscule place. In fact, the only things I saw were a colossal factory and Volkswagen Arena. It boggles the mind to know that a place like this held the Bundesliga trophy (it looks like an antique Hors d’Oeuvres tray) for a year, after they won it in the 2008/09 season.

Taking tips from Gothem City, the people of Wolfsburg call out for their saviour, Steve McClaren.

His time in Enchede was extremely successful, managing to hold off a resurgent Ajax under the tutorage of Martin Jol. How Ajax did not win the title is beyond me, de Godenzonen scored double than what Twente managed, whilst conceding three less goals.

At Twente, McClaren preferred a lone-striker system, with the hard-working and physically intimidating Blaise N’Kufo leading the line.

N’Kufo, half man-mountain, half footballer, made 32 appearances last year and was the only consistent in an inconsistency of system choices. Twente looked to play a variation of a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1, with skilled, technical wingers able to cut inside as well as running outside of their full-backs.

In Twente’s defence

Defensively, Twente’s wide-men looked to press the centre and full-backs high up the pitch, putting pressure on them to make a mistake (1). This was accompanied by two hard-working central midfielders looking to close down the recipient of the pass – making it hard for teams to play through Twente (2)

This closing down from the supporting midfielders would, theoretically, pull the midfield out of shape, creating spaces for the opposition to move into and run at the Twente defence. To counter this, McClaren placed an anchor man in the midfield, who looked to just sit, keeping the shape of the team, preventing opposition finding the cherished space just in front of the defence.

Anchoring the good ship 'Tukkers', Tiote always kept the vessel stable.

As well as having this man just sitting, the defence were compact, leaving little space between each player – restricting the space to play through them. If the opposition did manage to penetrate the defence, Twente’s were able to track back and recover.

Twente’s defending, no matter how impressive it was, was conventional, leaving little to talk about. It was their attacking play, evident in this game against Sparta, that caught the eye – and the credit must go to Steve McClaren.

An English manager who knows how to create an unpredictable attacking force? The FA, sign him up!

Fluid, interchangeable, players in all positions looking to get forward, these are now words or phrases that can be attributed to Steve McClaren’s Twente side – perhaps a little bit of Dutch ingenuity and creativity altered his attacking philosophy.

Twente looked to attack with usually seven players, the full-backs, two midfielders and the front three. The movement between them was unpredictable, full-backs popping up inside, central midfielders running beyond the lone-striker, whilst the wide forwards looked to swap sides and play centrally. This led to unpredictability in attack and from a selfish point of view, and now makes it hard to show this play diagrammatically.

However, they did have a tendency to be too narrow. With many numbers pushing forward this often made it congested in the middle as it attracted opposition players to move inside and defend. This resulted in their passing in the final third to be inaccurate as they were looking to play one-twos with eachother. It was very akin to watching Arsenal actually.

What was surprising was the centre-backs recalcitrance to look for simple passes, if they felt they had an opportunity to run with the ball – they went for it. Several times in the first half, the centre-half, Douglas strode forward with confidence. It is obvious that McClaren put a lot of trust into the players, empowering them to make their own decisions, if they felt it was a good one – not constrained by managerial instructions. This change in philosophy is noticeable, especially when his Middlesbrough side were sometimes seen as being reliant on ‘two banks of four’. It’s at this point in the paragraph, where I whisper in your ear the one word that has football fans wobbly at the knees ‘totaalvoetbal’.

Douglas hates his teammates, always looking to run with the ball in the final third.

McClaren and Wolfsburg, a good fit?

Can this empowerment and free-willed attacking philosophy be transferred to a team that were reliant on certain players to perform on the day (in the last couple of seasons, these players are Džeko, Grafite and Misimović)?

First of all, it has to be noted that McClaren has bought well this summer, bringing in the highly rated Simon Kjær from Palermo. Confident on the ball and a good passer, hopefully McClaren can bring out the best in his defensive strengths and his attacking vision, similar to the way he did at Twente with his marauding centre-backs. As well as Kjær, Arne Friedrich was a bargain. After an impressive World Cup, where he did little wrong, this has the possibility of growing into a great defensive partnership.

He may offer a nice change for Wolfsburg and Bundesliga fans too, for Wolfsburg system over the past couple of years has been a rigid 4-4-2 diamond shape, which placed emphasis on the front-three to create and score goals.

He’s expected to change Wolfsburg into a team that plays a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 system, obviously taking the formula that worked for him at Twente to the Bundesliga. He has brought in Mario Mandzukic, a forward / right winger, as well as Cicero, a midfielder who can also play on the left. Flexibility is definitely something that McClaren is looking for, players who can play a variety of positions, their attributes creating different problems for the opposition.

McClaren is also looking to bring in a player he has worked with before, Bryan Ruiz. Although he has been linked with the likes of Liverpool, it’s known that McClaren wants to bring him to the Lower Saxony region. He’s quick on the ball, superbly poised and balanced as he runs, as well as being strong in the air and a competent finisher. Able to play as a striker and in central and wide berths, he’s a perfect player to help implement the system he used at Twente.

It cannot be understated that McClaren had a wonderful relationship with the national press and the ‘Tukker’ people of Enschede area. He often opening training sessions for the press to observe, as well as offering them humorous quips to mention in their articles – acts that always endears you to the national press. It is these qualities that could provide a comfortable time in Germany – a place alien to English managers.

Can Wolfsburg be a happy hunting ground for Steve McClaren?

McClaren’s reputation in England would hopefully rise if he manages to muster a strong title challenge this year – but unfortunately (and sadly), for most, he will always be that “Ginger prick who uses an umbrella.”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Red permalink
    August 13, 2010 6:21 pm

    Loved the read. Always rated him tho’ he had a torrid time with the National team.

  2. Ivo permalink
    August 13, 2010 6:50 pm

    Great article, must admit. Never really respected Steve but seems he has been doing good work at Twente. Will try to catch some Wolfsburg games this season, especially if they end up signin Diego. How do you see him fitting in his system? As a trequartista or maybe even a Totti-like seconda punta behind Dzeko?

    • August 13, 2010 6:59 pm

      Just behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 I imagine. Similar to the way Perez played when McClaren was at Twente. I’ve not seen much of Diego at Juve so I wouldn’t really know what his assets are, but that’s how he would fit in I believe.

  3. josephlittle permalink
    August 13, 2010 11:18 pm

    Would just like to say, please keep writing these articles. I have just recently discovered this blog and I’m still reading through it all and enjoying it a lot. Your intelligence and tactical awareness on football is something out of this world 🙂 .

    I would like to know though, did you use to have an older blog at a different location/host/link? I ask because I would love to know if you have ever written anything on the Inter vs Barça semi final on Champions league and the subsequent final against Bayern Munich, particular on how Mourinho has set his team’s tactics.

    • August 14, 2010 3:55 pm

      I bet you say that to all the footy bloggers *strange wink*. But honestly, thanks for your kind words – you’ve made me blush.

      I only started before the World Cup, so what you see here is what I’ve done. I’ll be continuing on obviously, so hopefully there’ll be more things that tickle your fancy throughout the year.

      • August 16, 2010 9:25 am

        Great article once again.

        How do you think Misovic will fit into a one striker system? He doesn’t have the pace to play as second striker or on the wing and would be wasted in a deeper role. The attacking trio works so well but the problems are in defense.

      • August 17, 2010 7:11 pm

        I don’t think Misimovic will stay at Wolfsburg. Rumour is that Schalke will get him if Diego goes to Wolfsburg, where Magath will play two up-front, extremely similar to the formation Wolfsburg used last seasons.

  4. Lettuce permalink
    October 13, 2010 3:21 am

    Great article, but no coach has been able to replicate the genius free flowing attacking play that Felix Magath applied to the championship winning side. Diego has been dissapointing apart from the first half against Mainz (the team went on to self destruct in the 2nd half and lose 3-4). Kjaer has been awful to say the least, must be directly accountable for more than half of the goals they have conceded so far this season.

    Misimovic was great but has weaknesses, he is slow and has no strength, you would expect Diego to be dribbling and playing through balls into Dzeko at speed but he has been like a ghost so far, it’s almost looking like losing Misimovic could hurt them…

    Seems Dzeko will be on his way out this summer..which I believe will be the end of Wolfsburg as a power in German football, and I don’t blame him, he must be sick of banging in 2 or 3 goals a game, only to find out his defence has conceded double that! 🙂

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