From scalping European royalty to relegation fodder: the decline of VfL Wolfsburg

From scalping European royalty to relegation fodder: the decline of VfL Wolfsburg

IT’S ONLY TWO YEARS SINCE VFL WOLFSBURG finished second to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race. In the same season – 2014/15 – Die Wölfe also won the DFB-Pokal and reached the quarter-finals in the UEFA Europa League. And yet, the Bundesliga champions from 2008/09 would have become a second tier club had they not narrowly overcame Eintracht Braunschweig in their recent Bundesliga relegation playoff.

Ultimately, a brace of hard-fought 1-0 wins over the two-legged relegation affair ensured that Wolfsburg live to fight for another season in the top echelons of German football. But how have the fortunes of Wolfsburg – a club supported financially by Volkswagen, the famous German automaker – capitulated so badly in the last couple of years?

To do so with any degree of accuracy, it’s important to cast our minds back to the north-west side’s 2014/15 Bundesliga season. Having finished the previous campaign in fifth place – just a point off qualifying for the Champions League – hopes were high for Wolfsburg breaking in the top-four in 2014/15. 

Despite a rather unremarkable career as a player, head coach Dieter Hecking, appointed at the Volkswagen Arena in December 2012, had shown up quite well since his appointment, as well as performing steadily in his previous post at FC Nürnberg, where he transformed a side seen as relegation candidates into a team capable of sixth and 10th-place finishes. 

With some seemingly astute summer signings, including the acquisitions of promising homegrown players Aaron Hunt and Sebastian Jung, it seemed like Hecking had many of the tools required to further improve the Wolfsburg side, most notably in the form of Belgian starlet Kevin de Bruyne, who joined for £18 million after a successful spell on loan at Werder Bremen from Chelsea, where he somehow never got a look-in under José Mourinho

Furthermore, the Arsenal misfit Niklas Bendtner and midfielder Josuha Guilavogui – on loan from Atletico Madrid – were seen as potentially important additions, though the former’s overall contribution in the next year-and-a-half, before his contract was terminated, would prove utterly unproductive. Nevertheless, these players joined a squad that was already in fine fettle thanks largely to arrivals in the previous couple of years of the likes of Bas Dost, Luiz Gustavo, Naldo, Ivica Olić, Ivan Perišić and Ricardo Rodríguez. Club stalwarts Diego Benaglio and Marcel Schäfer were complemented by the emergence from the youth ranks of Maximilian Arnold. 

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As the 2014/15 season kicked-off, Wolfsburg took time to gel, winning only once in the opening five league games until a victory against Werder Bremen on 27 September sparked a run of six straight wins. It was during that rich vein of form that Hecking’s team moved to second place in the league; a position they would refuse to surrender for the remainder of the campaign. 

With the Dutch forward Bas Dost finding his scoring touch – always aided by the sparkling supply line provided by de Bruyne – Wolfsburg scored five times in entertaining triumphs over Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen, and the season really caught fire when Dost and de Bruyne netted a brace apiece in a wonderful 4-1 home win against eventual champions, Bayern Munich. Wolfsburg were developing a certain sense of swagger, and although a serious challenge to Bayern always seemed like a long shot, they had quickly become the next best thing domestically. 

Subsequent to the fine league performances, there were exciting runs to the final of the DFB-Pokal, which was won against Borussia Dortmund in Jürgen Klopp’s last game in charge of Die Schwarzgelben, and to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League, as they memorably beat Sporting CP and Inter Milan in the knockout rounds before losing against Napoli. 

Again, Dost, who scored 16 league goals in the season, and de Bruyne, who supplied an amazing 21 goal assists for the campaign – as well as scoring 10 times – hit the net in the Pokal final, while the more the season wore on, the Croatian winger Ivan Perišić emerged as a deeply crucial performer; his pace and ability to travel with the ball often engineering ruthless counter-attacking moves. 

Having displayed their talent in cup competitions, and finishing 10 points adrift of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, the next challenge for Hecking and his players was to try to bridge the gap between themselves and Pep Guardiola’s domestic juggernaut. 

To help aid that gargantuan task, Julian Draxler, the highly rated German talent, was recruited for big money from Schalke ahead of the 2015/16 season. Brazilian defender Dante, a three-time Bundesliga winner with Bayern Munich, and Borussia Mönchengladbach striker Max Kruse were also signed. But there was a downside – and it was a major one, indeed. 

Instead of further bolstering Wolfsburg, the arrivals would seem almost irrelevant as the club cashed in on hot properties de Bruyne (€75 million to Manchester City) and Perišić (€18 million to Inter Milan), meaning that Hecking was going back to scratch in the bid to catch the Bavarian big-boys. 

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You could say that the hefty profit made by the club on both players was shrewd business, led by the then general manager and former West Germany star Klaus Allofs, while one could also wonder if there was anything significant that the club could do to prevent both players leaving, especially in the case of de Bruyne, whose wonderful football intelligence and attacking productivity was always going to see him leave for bigger and better things. 

And yet, the sales sent a clear message that Wolfsburg, while probably remaining able to stay in the top four or five domestically, would not be challenging Bayern Munich anytime soon. “When Wolfsburg lost de Bruyne, the creative heartbeat of the side, they went from one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league to one of the worst. Players like Max Kruse, André Schürrle and Julian Draxler were brought in, and while they are excellent individuals, they failed to gel as an attacking unit,” says Bundesliga commentator Kevin Hatchard. 

All the while, speculation abounded that the hearts and minds of many other players in the changing room were not really that dedicated to the Wolfsburg cause. Lurking in the background, too, were stories of Volkswagen taking a more reserved backseat – too distracted by the company’s emissions scandal to focus on the development of its football team. Allofs, as well, was coming under greater scrutiny after rumours emerged of alleged closeness to certain agents. The atmosphere at the club, needless to say, had changed dramatically. 

However, Wolfsburg still managed to start the 2015/16 campaign with a bang, beating the league champions in the DFL-Supercup and not losing in the first handful of Bundesliga outings. But instead of spurring the team on for a repeat of 2014/15, the early season form was merely a prelude to a topsy-turvy, inconsistent league showing, prompted by a hammering off Bayern Munich in the sixth league game. 

Despite a remarkable win against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final first leg – having previously topped a group containing PSV, CSKA Moscow and Manchester United – Wolfsburg laboured through the domestic campaign, eventually finishing eighth. And instead of making ground on Bayern Munich, they finished the season a whole 43 points behind them. 

They also tumbled out of the Champions League after, predictably, losing the second leg against Los Blancos. By then, the team’s cohesion and counter-attacking brilliance, that so characterised their efforts in the previous season, had disappeared. 

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The service to Dost, so ably supplied by the departed de Bruyne, dried up and he only managed eight league goals. Between them, Draxler and Kruse scored six and five goals respectively; gravely disappointing figures given the money spent on their acquisitions, and magnified by the fact that in the previous season, Naldo and Ricardo Rodriguez – both defenders – beat their paltry scoring returns. 

If the Wolfsburg faithful felt that things could only get better, they were wrong. 

The players, many of whom were on sizeable wages compared to most other Bundesliga sides, seemed to be jostling to get through the exit door as quickly as possible with Dante, Dost, Kruse, Naldo and Schürrle all jumping ship. Daniel Caligiuri and Draxler would follow in the winter, with the latter noticeably disinterested in playing for the club after Wolfsburg rebuffed Paris Saint-Germain’s initial approach for his services in the summer of 2016.

As a result, says Kevin Hatchard, Draxler spent the first half of this season ambling about the pitch, producing nothing like the flair he’s capable of. “Draxler played well in some big games but was generally a huge disappointment. Wolfsburg should have sold him in the summer because he coasted through the first half of the campaign,” he says. 

On the plus side – of which there are few for Wolfsburg at present – German international, Mario Gómez, recruited from Fiorentina last summer after a blistering season in Turkey with Beşiktaş, easily filled the void left by Kruse’s departure to Werder Bremen, scoring 16 league goals for the campaign. Without his contribution, which easily outshines that of other summer signings like Jakub Błaszczykowski, fans can only imagine where Wolfsburg’s season would have ended up. 

Still, the form of Gómez could not save Hecking from the sack in October. Rather lazily, the club promoted from within when seeking to fill the coaching void, elevating the former well-journeyed French defender Valérien Ismaël from reserve team boss to first-team head coach.

Despite donning the colours of Bayern Munich in his playing days – as well as those of Crystal Palace -Ismaël always looked out of his depth in such a huge role, and the only real surprise, other than his actual appointment, was that his tenure lasted for as long as it did – four months. Just five wins under his stewardship had Wolfsburg flirting aimlessly with the lower reaches of the league and by the time the Dutchman Andries Jonker left his academy role at Arsenal to take over, there was already lots of work to do in keeping Wolfsburg afloat. Jonker, incidentally, is not the only link to north London, with the Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg currently part of Wolfsburg’s first-team coaching staff.

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For the failure to adequately replace Hecking, the board at Wolfsburg has to shoulder significant amounts of blame for the way the season has panned out. Had they appointed Jonker then, and not with only 12 games to save the club, instead of experimenting with Ismaël, or even plumped for a steadier, more established coach, perhaps a mid-table finish could still have been achieved. Instead, the folly of thinking that they could muster enough positive results under the tutelage of a dug-out novice, in a highly pressurised environment, caught up on Wolfsburg’s lackadaisical board, from which Klaus Allofs was dismissed before the turn of the year.

Unfortunately for Wolfsburg, their decline has been steady and coming on hard since last summer, in particular. “Ahead of the season, Naldo’s experience was lost to Schalke and guys like Luiz Gustavo and Błaszczykowski haven’t done enough to lead the side,” remarks Hatchard. “Hecking was jettisoned with no succession plan in place, and the club stuck by Ismaël for too long. Players like Riechedly Bazoer, Yunus Malli and Paul-Georges Ntep looked like smart January signings, but none of them have really proved indispensable,” he adds.

In the end, second tier Eintracht Braunschweig simply didn’t have enough artillery to compound Wolfsburg’s misery. A couple of gritty 1-0 victories steered Jonker’s ailing side to safety. But even still, a last-gasp survival exercise cannot camouflage the fact that they, like many of their more established peers, are getting caught out in an age when more and more unfashionable Gorman clubs are learning quickly how to survive and prosper in the Bundesliga. 

For every Wolfsburg story, and every Hamburg and Stuttgart disaster, there is an emerging light like Hoffenheim, the much maligned but ambitious RB Leipzig, and FC Augsburg. “Teams like Hamburg, Stuttgart and Bremen have made some bad signings and changed coaches far too readily in recent years. Bremen’s decision to stick by Alexander Nouri in February when results were poor bucked the trend, and they have been rewarded for their loyalty to him” says Hatchard, who believes that Wolfsburg will now start to improve under Jonker’s guidance. “I think that will be the case once he has a full and good pre-season with the players,” he predicts. 

Despite a need to bring in some new players to reinvigorate the squad, it might also be wise to avoid wholesale changes in the summer. With a handful of shrewd acquisitions, allied to Jonker obtaining better levels of consistency from an underachieving squad, there is no real reason why Wolfsburg cannot at least climb into the mid-table positions next season. There remain some able footballers at the club, and although that ability failed to shine this season, tearing the whole thing down to start again might be something to be avoided. 

Whatever fate awaits Wolfsburg in the coming seasons remains unknown but it will be fascinating to see how the club and the head coach approach the rebuilding process. Having mixed it with the very best at home and abroad in the last decade or so, it would please many observers if the right path can be found for a club that has sadly lost its way in the changing face of domestic German football.

By Kevin O’Neill  @Kevoneillwriter

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