After a second-place finish and German cup success in 2015, VfL Wolfsburg were able to end Bayern Munich’s dominance of the Bundesliga. An ambitious club, heavily backed financially by parent company Volkswagen and with Champions League football to help strengthen the squad. At the very least it seemed like Wolfsburg would continue to finish in the upper echelons of the Bundesliga and firmly establish themselves as European regulars in the coming years.
Fast forward two years and Wolfsburg were a controversial penalty and a couple of missed chances away from being relegated in the playoff against rivals Eintracht Braunschweig. The scare of relegation has seemingly had little impact within the club, apart from the constant hiring and firing of managers. Wolfsburg are no longer thinking about being Bundesliga’s representatives in Europe and instead are fighting to maintain the status as a Bundesliga team.
It’s easy to look at the summer of 2015, where the club lost playmaker Kevin De Bruyne and influential winger Ivan Perisic in the same transfer window. And while in hindsight the loss of the Belgian looks an even bigger blow than originally thought, it isn’t a reason for a club to drop 14 positions in two years. De Bruyne was world class for Wolfsburg, many would argue he was even better in his only full season in Lower Saxony than he is currently for Manchester City. A record 21 assists in the Bundesliga to go along with 10 goals, and 5 goals and 5 assists in the 11 Europa League games that season, he was truly one of the best players in the world that season and in a bigger market would have garnered much more praise and attention.
However, he was only one player and one player doesn’t make a team, even a player that good. He was surrounded by very good Bundesliga players. New arrivals Julian Draxler and Max Kruse should have filled a lot of the void left by De Bruyne but cracks started to show early in the 2015/16 season with just one win in the first six away games. Strong home form kept the club in European contention and finishing top of the Champions League group showed that the team were still capable of competing. However, two separate runs of seven league games without a win either side of the winter break meant that ultimately the season ended in failure.
The Champions League was blamed on the poor league form and while the fans were disappointed, a run to the quarter-finals and a victory over Real Madrid were enough to appease many. The summer of 2016 saw three players departure the club, André Schürrle and Kruse literally and Draxler mentally. With those departures, the days of Wolfsburg putting out lineup’s with some of Germany’s best talent were over.
This showed on the pitch and a return of one win in the opening seven games spelt the end for manager Dieter Hecking, a man who only 18 months earlier had been lauded by many. And so began the beginning of a period of incredible instability. Valerien Ismael, the then second team coach, was brought in and subsequently fired just months later after picking up 16 points from 15 league games. The next appointment of Andries Jonker was no better, and although he did keep the club in the Bundesliga it was by the skin of his teeth, while a poor start to this season ended his time in charge.
During this time, the transfer policy changed from buying established top end talent to looking to pick up cheaper options from Bundesliga clubs at the wrong end of the table. While the likes of Daniel Didavi, Yannick Gerhardt, Jeffrey Bruma, John Brooks etc aren’t bad players they also aren’t of the ability that the club used to be able to attract.
Unfortunately, the list of failed transfers is far too long. Upwards of €30 million was spent on the likes of Landry Dimata, Bruno Henrique, Paul-Georges Ntep and Carlos Ascues. Loans of Borja Mayoral and Divock Origi have also failed to inject the quality that the club needed after the loss of the likes of De Bruyne, Draxler and Bas Dost.
Some of the blame can be apportioned to the parent company Volkswagen. Whatever media line comes out of Wolfsburg, it is no coincidence that high profile spending stopped and the sales started around the time of the emission scandal. However, Wolfsburg have still spent far more than nearly every other Bundesliga club and find themselves below most of them in the table. Recent purchases of Admir Mehmedi and Felix Klaus have done little to inspire confidence in the transfer policy that seems to consist of mediocre Bundesliga players or divas from abroad who have little to no care for the club.
This brings us to the present. Last season despite the lowly finishing position, it was clear that the players cared deeply about the trouble they found themselves in. The likes of Ricardo Rodriguez, Luiz Gustavo, Maxi Arnold etc. had been around for too long not to feel some emotional connection to the fans and the club. The results never materialised but the fans were right behind the players and then manager Jonker.
This season it is the opposite. The quality is still in the squad however, the effort and desire has been severely lacking from the first weekend. Wolfsburg’s problem this season has been the inability to compete effort wise with the other 17 Bundesliga clubs. Failing to win from a leading position against 1. FSV Mainz 05 (twice), Werder Bremen, Stuttgart and Hannover 96 highlight this, and those draws could easily have ended in defeats with Wolfsburg being the inferior team in the second half of many of those matches. There were also complete no shows in away games to Hamburger SV and 1. FC Köln, the current bottom two teams, in which Wolfsburg scored no goals and took only one point.
Last season the fans were behind the players and the club, this season it has changed. The disgruntlement at another relegation fight finally saw action taken as a large section of fans boycotted the first 19 minutes and 45 seconds (Wolfsburg were founded in 1945) of a recent game against Bayern Munich. A large banner reading “Ohne Arbeit, Ohne Fußball, Ohne Leidenschaft = Ohne Uns” Without work, without football, without passion = without us was displayed, a play on the new motto “Arbeit. Fußball. Leidenschaft.” that was introduced by the club.
Yet while the squad has some individual quality, there are few players that Wolfsburg fans would be disappointed to see leave. Youth players Felix Uduohkai and Gian-Luca Itter are two of those and midfielders Maxi Arnold and Joshua Guilavogui might also belong to that category.
However, you would struggle to get the list above five. For a club that has big ambitions and a squad that has individual quality, this shows the disconnect between the players and fans. Gone are the days where the club had long term legends in Marcel Schäfer and Diego Benaglio, players that the fans could relate to even during times where the results and performances weren’t up to standard. Those types of players are no longer at the club, showing by the captain’s armband being passed between players that only arrived last summer and Maxi Arnold, a former fan favourite but a man who is beginning to divide opinion.
Martin Schmidt seemed like he was turning it around, while many of the draws were disappointing he also picked up points on the road against Schalke, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, matches that in previous seasons Wolfsburg had been blown away in. Even up to the defeat in Werder Bremen, fans still believed he would do enough to keep the club safe and then have a chance to reset in the summer and really stamp his style and vision on the team.
His resignation after the home defeat to Bayern was a surprise. The noise coming out in the days after were troubling. Managing director Tim Schumacher said that club “do no fully understand all his reasons.” You would think that if the coach resigns in the middle of a relegation battle then you would want to fully understand why he feels he cannot do the job, especially as it appeared the club weren’t thinking of firing him themselves.
It’s as though Schmidt felt he was unable to get the players to carry out his instructions, and as a manager if your players won’t or don’t want to work for you then there’s little point you trying.
Wolfsburg have ten games to save their Bundesliga status, a drop to the 2. Bundesliga would be disastrous and unlike Stuttgart and Hannover last year, it’s unlikely they would make a return at the first time of asking. Given the relative quality of the teams in the relegation fight, Wolfsburg should have just enough to avoid this fate and new manager Bruno Labbadia is probably the right man to keep them up. Despite this, the performances have done little to inspire any sort of confidence and the fixture list isn’t overly kind with trips to Borussia Mönchengladbach and RB Leipzig looming, as well as home games against Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke to come.
A club that two years ago were in the midst of beating Gent twice, and progressing to the final eight in European football now just want to win a couple of games to give themselves breathing space in another relegation fight. The days of finishing second are in the past, and are a long way off in the future; the present is bleak and without some fighting spirit might be even bleaker come May.
It’s clear that something must be done for the sake of the fans. The players must come together and put some effort in for the remainder of the campaign if they are to avoid relegation.
By Thomas Pain.