bundesliga

How have Eintracht Frankfurt and Wolfsburg got to the verge of UEFA Champions League qualification?

Eintracht Frankfurt and Wolfsburg face off on Matchday 28 sitting fourth and third respectively, both on course for a perhaps surprising UEFA Champions League qualification, sitting at least seven points clear of regular top-four contenders Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen.

Ahead of the meeting at Deutsche Bank Park, bundesliga.com looks at just how these teams with contrasting styles have come to the brink of elite European football…

Surprise contenders?

The top five in the Bundesliga for the last two seasons has always consisted of Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig, Dortmund, Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Many people will have expected a similar line-up again in 2020/21. Did anybody really think Frankfurt and Wolfsburg would gate-crash that party?

There could well be two different German clubs contending the UEFA Champions League next season, with Wolfsburg and Frankfurt keeping pace with Bayern Munich and Leipzig. - David Ramos/Getty Images

The pair finished last season in ninth and seventh respectively, meaning the Eagles have soared five places - the biggest improvement in the division from 2019/20 to 2020/21 - and the Wolves have climbed four. Wolfsburg are currently third, only three points off Leipzig in second and a whole 11 clear of BVB in fifth. Eintracht in fourth have a seven-point buffer after their victory in Dortmund last weekend.

For Wolfsburg on 54 points, this equals the second-best campaign in their Bundesliga history. In fact, it's the same total they had at this stage in 2008/09 when they won the title for the first and so far only time under Felix Magath. The only year they've been better off was in 2014/15 when they had 57 and finished second under Dieter Hecking. Those are also the only two previous campaigns when they qualified for the Champions League.

And as for Frankfurt, they are actually enjoying their best-ever top-flight season with 50 points on the board after 27 matchdays. As things stand, they are seven games away from a first-ever Champions League qualification, following a couple of very impressive UEFA Europa League campaigns in recent years.

Different approaches

While the two teams have gone about matters in different ways this season, the underlying fact is that both have proven themselves to be incredibly tough to beat. They both have just three Bundesliga defeats to their name this season (all away from home), which is a new club record at this stage for both and is the fewest in the division alongside leaders Bayern.

Koen Casteels is just one of the reasons why Wolfsburg have conceded so few goals so far this season. - Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Frankfurt's in-game resilience and morale has been incredible. They have fallen behind in 14 of their 27 games this season but still fought back to earn 17 points, which is second only to the defending champions (22). Critics will point to the fact that eight of those were draws compared to only three wins, but when you consider they are seven points clear of Dortmund, who have lost seven games more, then those fightbacks to draw have been invaluable.

When it comes to Wolfsburg, though, their modus operandi has been to get in front and stay there. The only time they've lost this season after taking the lead was away in Munich (2-1). Otherwise, they've claimed all three points in 15 of the 18 games when they've gone ahead, which is the best conversion rate in the league after (unsurprisingly) Bayern.

Same but different

Frankfurt's Adi Hütter and Wolfsburg's Oliver Glasner are currently the only two Austrian coaches in the German top flight. They are also among the most successful to cross the border. The latter's average of 1.69 points per Bundesliga game is the second-best among Austrians after Ernst Happel (1.86), while the former is next on the list and only slightly behind on 1.57, level with Ralph Hasenhüttl.

Oliver Glasner (l.) and Adi Hütter (r.) are two of the most successful Austrian coaches ever to have worked in the Bundesliga. - Oliver Hardt/Getty Images

They both learnt their trade in roles at Red Bull Salzburg, and the stats show their respective teams have a number of similarities in terms of possession (Frankfurt average 51 percent this season; Wolfsburg 52 percent), pass completion (81.4 percent - 80.9 percent) and challenges (WOB have won the third most, SGE are fourth).

The biggest discrepancy comes in terms of runs. Although Eintracht players have spoken of Hütter's desire for a high-energy game, they rank in mid-table for sprints and intensive runs; Wolfsburg are literally runaway leaders in the league for both categories.

And then there’s formations, where the pair again differ greatly. While Frankfurt have started every game this season with a back three; the Wolves have had a back four. They have also been remarkably consistent in their shape further forward. Hütter's formation has almost always been a form of 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2, while Glasner has stuck with his 4-2-3-1 with an occasional tweak towards a 4-3-3.

Solid foundations

The consistency in shape and therefore selection has been of great benefit to both teams, who are at the lower end of the league standings for the number of players used. That's particularly the case for Wolfsburg, who have created the meanest defence in the league, conceding only 22 goals (same as Leipzig). That total is also by far the lowest in their Bundesliga history at this stage of a season.

John Brooks (l.) and Maxence Lacroix (r.) have been solid at the back for Wolfsburg, while Wout Weghorst (c.) has scored more than 16 goals for the third straight season. - IMAGO / Christian Schroedter

At the heart of that back line has been the experienced USA international John Brooks (23 starts) and revelation summer signing Maxence Lacroix (22), playing in front of the always reliable Koen Casteels in goal, who boasts a league-leading 13 clean sheets (same as Peter Gulacsi). That included a run of 673 minutes without conceding, which is a club record in the Bundesliga and the sixth-longest streak in the league’s history.

Free-flowing attack

Frankfurt have also been solid enough at the back and have the sixth-tightest defence in the league, but it’s at the other end where they've excelled. The Eagles are on a run of 22 Bundesliga matches where they've found the back of the net, which is their longest since 1977. The total of 55 goals after 27 matchdays is also their best since 1981/82 (64).

As with the Wolfsburg defence, Eintracht have a number of standout performers when going forward. The headline act is striker Andre Silva, who has 22 goals to his name so far, making it the second-best campaign for any Frankfurt player (Bernd Hölzenbein got 26 in 1976/77) and he is even keeping returnee Luka Jovic as understudy.

Watch: all of Andre Silva's goals

At the start of the season, the role of supporting act was taken mostly by Daichi Kamada as the Japanese playmaker provided a constant supply of goalscoring opportunities. He has four goals and nine assists this season, but has been overshadowed of late by the explosive return to form of Filip Kostic.

The Serbian had a tough start to the campaign with just a single assist before the winter break. But since the turn of the year, he's chalked up four goals and set up 10 more from the left wing to help propel the Eagles away from the chasing pack. He now only trails Thomas Müller in the league for assists but does lead the way in the division for crosses from open play (154), which is almost 50 more than the next best. One of his latest led to Silva's late winner in Dortmund.

Watch: Highlights of Frankfurt’s win away at Dortmund

Leading men

While Frankfurt may have the more potent attack, and Wolfsburg the meaner defence, they do both have a talisman.

As mentioned, Silva is Eintracht's leading scorer with 22. Together with three assists, he's had a hand in 25 goals, which is second only to Robert Lewandowski in the league and means the Portugal international has been directly involved in 45 per cent of his team's goals. That's the third-highest proportion in the division alongside Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

Top of that particular chart is Lewandowski on 52 per cent, but sandwiched between them is the leader of the wolfpack, Wout Weghorst. The big Dutchman has either scored or assisted in exactly half of Wolfsburg's 46 league goals. Of those, he's netted 17 himself to equal his personal best in the Bundesliga from 2018/19. And after 16 last season, he's now the first VfL player to ever score at least 16 times in three top-flight campaigns.

Passports at the ready

The last decade has been a rollercoaster for both clubs. As recently as 2015/16, Frankfurt only survived relegation via the play-off, while Wolfsburg repeated that feat in both of the next two seasons.

Yet they are also the only clubs not called Bayern or Dortmund to win the DFB Cup in the last 10 years. Since Hütter and Glasner took over in 2018/19 and 2019/20 respectively, the Eagles and Wolves have established themselves as genuine European contenders - and this season as two of the toughest teams to beat in the Bundesliga.

Only four points separate the sides ahead of the Matchday 28 meeting. It promises to be an exhibition of what we’re set to see on the Champions League stage next season.