UWCL Final: Wolfsburg want to live up to their potential after difficult weeks

Alexandra Popp and teammates of VfL Wolfsburg applaud fans after a match
Alexandra Popp and teammates of VfL Wolfsburg applaud fans after a match (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Wolfsburg are into the Champions League final for sixth time in their history. In Eindhoven, the Wolves will take on Barcelona, hoping to take revenge for last year’s semi-final defeat against the Catalans.

Wolfsburg have been open about their Champions League ambitions from the beginning. Yet, despite boosting impressive individual talent, the road to the final has been bumpy at times. 

Great expectations before the season because of stellar signings

“I want to leave my comfort zone,” Jule Brand said in an interview in 2022, discussing her transfer to Wolfsburg. Brand was regarded as one of Germany’s biggest talents at that time, a raw diamond. Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, the national team coach, has said that Brand doesn’t even know herself what she’s capable of sometimes. Will she take that next step in the competitive, yet familial environment?

One year later, Brand comes on as a substitute in the 102nd minute of Wolfsburg’s semi-final at the Emirates Stadium. The 20-year-old is thrown into an intense, passionate game against Arsenal, with both teams pushing for the lead. But who better to sub in than Brand, awarded the ‘Golden Girl’ title last year, for Europe’s best young player?

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Jule Brand makes the difference in big games, but consistency remains a problem

Brand is relentless, she shows her natural talent with dribbles and smart runs. Not everything works, though, and too many of her passes end in the feet of an Arsenal player. Then, she creates the magic she was brought in for — one last run towards an Arsenal defender, winning the ball. One, two quick touches, a glance to the right side to the pitch. A pass, a goal, endless cheers — Wolfsburg are in the final.

Those 20 minutes are characteristic for Brand’s time at Wolfsburg so far. In her first season, she hasn’t really overcome the status of a promising talent, but had an impact in many games. Brand has mainly proven herself from the bench, tallying 10 goalscoring contributions in all competitions.

Some of them were massively important ones, like her last-minute equaliser against Hoffenheim in September. When in the starting 11, Brand has shown good performances but also inconsistency. 

Having a player like Brand in the squad is a luxury, but only bringing her in that late is an even bigger one. In London, Tommy Stroot subs Brand in for Sveindis Jonsdottir, another young, talented player in Wolfsburg’s squad. Her development has been rapid since arriving in Northern Germany last year.

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From a player whose main strength lays in her pace, Jonsdottir has developed into a more complete forward. Her shooting has become more precise, her decisions more unpredictable. In Wolfsburg’s 6-0 thrashing of Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal, Jonsdottir showed her best performance in Green so far. 

Wolfsburg’s squad depth is one many clubs envy the Germans for. It also implies a balancing act of finding the right balance between experimenting and finding the best starting XI. Between rotating and showing trust.

The story of Wolfsburg’s performances this season is also a story of the importance of squad depth, and the importance of having different profiles in your squad.

Despite fantastic squad depth, Wolfsburg struggles in the second half of the season

The team is now in the Champions League final, and so it is easy to say that their season has been a success at all times. Truth is, there have been rough periods in Wolfsburg’s season as well. From September on, the Wolves dominated the Frauen-Bundesliga, with the main question being: When will this dominance break, when will they slip? After a flawless first eleven Frauen-Bundesliga games, Tommy Stroot was eager to stress that he wasn’t dreaming of the perfect, Barcelona-like season yet.

And looking back, staying humble was a good idea. In the games where everything is at stake, Wolfsburg haven’t always excelled. Against Bayern in the league, in Paris and in London, the team’s playing style looked nothing like the utter dominance Wolfsburg display in most Frauen-Bundesliga games. Rather than controlling the opponent with rapid combinations, the Wolves relied on individual talent to get them through tough phases. 

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Wolfsburg lacking stability and freshness recently

Arguably, one could have expected Wolfsburg to be a stronger side by now, given the quality of the squad. The last weeks haven’t been easy for the Wolves. The VfL struggled in the league, almost losing to just-relegated Meppen, and didn’t seem to be at their best at most games. With midfielder Lena Lattwein out, they lacked stability in games. Too many misplaced passes, too many unforced errors, too many blunders. 

Some had expected a steeper development following the signings of players like Brand or Hegering. It’s hard to say whether Wolfsburg haven’t progressed enough or if their opponents have just made leaps in their development. In the knockout stages in the Champions League, tiny margins decided in favour of Wolfsburg. Penalties that were given or not, hitting the crossbar and not the back of the net. Playing the pass a second too early or not. 

Wolfsburg are no Barcelona, and in Eindhoven, they probably won’t dominate the match. In recent games, Wolfsburg haven’t looked as fresh, and the long season is beginning to show. But on a tactical level as well, it seems like their game has become a bit too predictable. If Alex Popp and co. still want to stand a chance, they need to reach another level. The captain herself said after the Arsenal match that she doesn’t believe her team has been at its best up to now.

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Can Alexandra Popp lead Wolfsburg to a third UWCL trophy?

So what has Wolfsburg brought so far, even without showing all they’re capable of? Squad depth and individual talent are the most obvious answers to these questions. Especially Popp, who seems to have taken her game to another level. With her physicality and height, she was always a threat but has shown more consistency at the highest level lately.

Popp’s role in the team is also a paradox one. She has arguably been Wolfsburg’s best player so far and carried them in many games. When the heads go down after conceding a goal, Popp shoulders the responsibility of a leader and makes her team attack again. She doesn’t just have goal threat but also wins duels in midfield and gets the ball back. 

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And yet, there isn’t really an ideal place for her in the team. Ewa Pajor is best suited to Wolfsburg’s play as the centre-forward, with her pace and ability to get on the receiving end on through passes. Stroot has to find another spot for Popp, and he has shown creativity in this task.

Popp has played on the left flank, as a ten, as an eight, as a six, and she can pull it all off. But when Wolfsburg are in possession, she hasn’t had much of an impact of the game in either of these positions.

A couple of days before the biggest day of the season, Wolfsburg have not figured everything out yet. The final in Eindhoven will probably decide how this season will be judged in the aftermath: Will it be seen as a year in which Wolfsburg seemed to have everything and then were ailing on the final meters of the season? Or will it be the year in which they finally won the Champions League again? In Eindhoven, Wolfsburg want and need to show that they can live up to their potential when it matters the most.

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