It has been known since Saturday afternoon: Niko Kovac can whistle. Pretty loud even. As is well known, there are different techniques for whistling, but the coach of the VfL Wolfsburg only used the variant in which you put your thumb and forefinger in your mouth, take a deep breath and press it out of your lips so hard that a shrill sound is produced. A beep, to be precise: As soon as Kovac whistled, the Wolfsburg players knew to turn their gaze to the touchline, from where further instructions would follow. Push a little more to the left or right, drop, try the vertical pass even faster, keep the intensity high – these should have been the instructions that the constantly gesticulating Kovac wanted to convey.
And he did it successfully: Wolfsburg scored their first win of the season with a 3-2 win over VfB Stuttgart. It was also the first win of the season for the new VfL coach Kovac, who was recently heavily criticized because the Wolfsburg team had sometimes seemed lax, dispassionate and uncoordinated. “We were accused of not having the necessary morale on the pitch,” said Wolfsburg midfielder Yannick Gerhardt, who scored the late but deserved winner in injury time: “Partly rightly so. But that wasn’t the case today, because we managed to implement the basics.”
Kovac had recently missed the temperament of the VfL players
And Kovac apparently didn’t want to leave anything to chance in this regard. His penetrating constant coaching didn’t just seem to be about tactical subtleties and changes, about the right formation when building up the game and the right moment for counter-pressing. He seemed to go one level lower, on the foundation, on the basic instincts of professional footballers: go that one meter more than the opponent, keep the concentration high, the tension in the head and limbs. “I’m just a very temperamental person,” said Kovac, who had missed this temperament from his players in the past few weeks. Just like the spectators in the Wolfsburg Arena, who had whistled a lot recently, just for a different motivation than the VfL coach. Or like the chairman of the supervisory board, Frank Witter, who during the week in table football had demanded that the “squad should ultimately be formed into a team in which everyone has the willingness and will to push their limits and contribute fully to the team and the club”.
In subtext, that meant something like: Please get going, you comfortable and well-paid VfL footballers – and you, Mr. Kovac, are slowly becoming obliged to ensure that this happens.
From Wolfsburg’s point of view, the game against VfB was a first, small step in this direction. But the opponents also contributed a lot to this, who, according to Stuttgart sports director Sven Mislintat, presented a first half that went down in history as the “worst of the season” so far. Those were harsh words, but reality backed them up. For long stretches, the Stuttgart team presented themselves as the ideal opponent to help an insecure Wolfsburg home team out of the slump. For the majority of the game, the visiting team didn’t manage a structured offensive game and also no spontaneous creativity, things only worked together a bit up front when the actually well-structured Wolfsburg players made a little contribution. For example, when VfB striker Serhou Guirassy scored in the penalty area to make it 1-0 after a cross pass (22nd minute). Or when the Stuttgart defender Konstantinos Mavropanos headed in the injury time of the first half to make it 2-2 in the meantime because he too had been criminally ignored by the Wolfsburg defense.
“The team believed in it until the end,” said Kovac
It was different with Wolfsburg, whose attacking game, which has been rather dysfunctional so far this season, was surprisingly lively. VfL’s storm problem has not yet been completely overcome, but it has been shown what a difference it can make when offensive dribblers like Omar Marmoush and Kevin Wimmer are allowed to work together. Former Stuttgarter Marmoush, who was in poor form recently and kept throwing the VfB defense upside down, scored with a right-footed shot to make it 1-1 (23′). Wimmer, who had been injured for a long time, didn’t score a goal, but was such a trouble spot with his pace that he even received a rare special praise from VfL coach Kovac. And then there was midfield boss Maximilian Arnold, who had also failed to meet his potential this season and now – also thanks to a mistake by VfB goalkeeper Müller – scored with a long-range shot to make it 2-1 (38th).
The Wolfsburg made a slightly better impression, also because they invested more than the guests waiting for a counterattack, and they stayed with the matter even when the game became more disorganized in the second half. “The team believed in it until the end,” said Kovac, but the decisive factor was that she managed to make a remarkable move shortly before the final whistle: After a one-two with Marmoush, Mattias Svanberg headed on to Gerhardt, who had also been injured for a long time from a short distance got the 3:2 winning goal, which was redeeming from a Wolfsburg point of view. According to the statistics, it was a task that has to succeed 99 percent of the time, but that doesn’t mean anything because Wolfsburg, who have been in trouble for more than a year, have rarely followed the usual rules in football.
For VfL coach Kovac, who can be sure of his job for the time being, one thing is certain: “Everything wasn’t always bad before, now everything’s not great. So we’ll leave the church in the village.”