Daniel Ginzcek’s 94th minute winner on the opening weekend was more than just a match winning goal. For Wolfsburg, who have suffered the ignominy of two successive relegation playoffs, it was a goal that has the potential to change the culture at the club.
Following the DFB Pokal win and the Champions League quarter-final run, Wolfsburg were a club in position to cement themselves near the top of German football. However, two years of mistakes both on and off the pitch plummeted the club down the Bundesliga table and nearly out of the league all together.
A transfer policy of purchasing players that didn’t want to be at the club, or in a city where the main entertainment is in the form of a chain Italian restaurant and putting them on big wages unsurprisingly failed in a spectacular way. Daniel Didavi, Julian Draxler, Andre Schürrle, Borja Mayoral and Divock Origi are just a few of the big names who arrived and departed before even unpacking.
Victory over Holstein Kiel last May to give Wolfsburg a 21st season in the top flight of German football also gave the hierarchy another, and perhaps last, chance to get the recruitment right. By the performance on Matchday 1 and Saturday’s 3-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen, it appears that they may have done just that.
Full-backs have seen a resurgence in football in recent years and it is now one of the most important positions in football. Every top club has put huge emphasis on ensuring they have the right players for those positions. Pep Guardiola spent close to £150 million on three of them and ended up with one of the best season’s English football has seen. Lifting the Champions League three times in a row, Real Madrid are blessed with two of the best in world: Carvajal and Marcelo.
An important position and one that was criminally poor at Wolfsburg in previous years. At left-back a combination of central midfielder Yannick Gerhardt, centre-back Marcel Tisserand and 19-year old Gian Luca Itter were used. On the other side Bundesliga veteran Paul Verhaegh was bought and while he put in a steady season, a 34-year old who was never blessed with pace isn’t the epitome of a modern day fullback.
Wolfsburg lined up on Saturday with two modern and pacey full-backs and the improvement in attacking wing play was not only noticeable but showed just how embarrassing the position had become in the two years prior. Jerome Roussillon from Montpellier immediately added pace while he possesses the ability to beat a man going forward. On the other side William, the archetypal Brazilian full-back won the ball back dynamically and in dangerous positions, as well as showing his potential from long range.
Roussillon – featured on GFFN in 2017 – formed an instant understanding with young star Josip Brekalo down the Wolfsburg left and showed they have the potential to cause havoc among opposing defences. Nothing scares defenders like pace and in Roussillon, Wolfsburg have a man to provide that.
Defensively both Roussillon and William have weaknesses, both will dive in unnecessarily and being the important attacking forces they are will leave gaps behind them. However, the deficiencies at the back will be more than made up for at the other end of the pitch.
Brekalo in the words of former Arsenal manger Arsene Wenger is “like a new signing.” Signed in 2016 he spent most of his first six months on the bench or with Wolfsburg II before being loaned out to then 2.Bundesliga side Stuttgart.
Promoted to the Bundesliga with Stuttgart before returning to parent club Wolfsburg in January as part of the deal that saw Mario Gomez depart, Brekalo struggled initially in his first full top-flight season. In the last game of the season Brekalo finally delivered on the potential that it was clear he possessed. Wolfsburg needed three points against FC Köln on the final Matchday and with a goal and an assist, Brekalo put in a man of the match performance. He followed that up with another goal in the first leg of the relegation playoff where he was clearly the best player.
On the pitch, Brekalo is Wolfsburg’s most talented player and when on form is the best player too. He has the technique, finishing ability and trickery to be a 10 goal and 10 assist player and if Wolfsburg are to have a more positive season, then the young Croat will have to play a major role.
The 20-year-old is finding out just how under the spotlight he is and will continue to be. Instagram likes of homophobic comments under a post by the club celebrating diversity were picked up on. When questioned Brekalo blamed his phone for the likes but said he could not support the club’s diversity campaign as it “opposes my Christian worldview.”
Good performances on the pitch and Brekalo’s views will soon be forgotten. Football fans are fickle and while it is impossible to agree with Brekalo, it is unlikely that fans will turn on him if he performs at the high level he is capable of.
Daniel Ginzcek and Wout Weghorst had very different debuts but both endeared themselves to Wolfsburg fans. Ginczek’s Wolfsburg career couldn’t have started better with two winning goals in two weeks. While Weghorst couldn’t find the score sheet, his manic pressing and work rate were equally as impressive as Ginczek’s goal.
But although a debut that received mixed reviews, Weghorst scored the goal on Saturday against Bayer Leverkusen to put the visitors in the lead, sparking a remarkable comeback against a side that had been tipped to be up there with Bayern Munich this season.
Wolfsburg fans have suffered seeing Divock Origi, Yunus Malli and Daniel Didavi play like they would rather be anywhere but on the pitch in a Wolfsburg shirt. At best the effort shown by those three players was poor and at its worst it was down right embarrassing.
So to see a striker give his all for the club was a big thing. It nearly turned sour as his red card was overturned by VAR to a yellow and while head-butting Guido Burgstaller isn’t the best display of passion, it was still more than previous iterations of Wolfsburg attackers had shown.
Weghorst and Ginzcek won’t trouble the top of the scoring charts but will provide more goals than the five scored by strikers Mario Gomez, Divock Origi and Landry Dimata last season. Wolfsburg have a team capable of getting goals from multiple positions. Centre-backs John Brooks and Robin Knoche both have the height and aerial ability to be a danger from corners. Maxi Arnold and William can strike the ball from long distance and Josip Brekalo’s continuing development will see him find the net more this year.
With partnerships on the flanks of Roussillon and Brekalo and William and January signing Steffen, Wolfsburg will create an abundance of crossing opportunities for strikers Ginczek and Weghorst. With all four players arriving in the last 12 months the understanding between them may not be there immediately but given time it’s a tantalising prospect for Wolfsburg supporters.
It is as if Wolfsburg have woken up over the last six months and realised that signing aging Bundesliga players from mid-table clubs isn’t the best way to put together a squad. Wolfsburg have become younger, more dynamic and more exciting. The club has finally put together a squad that looks like it belongs in 2018. On the basis of Saturday’s performance, it is a club that not only belongs in 2018 but a squad that will give opposing managers’ headaches.
Wolfsburg in the years of Kevin De Bruyne, Ricardo Rodriguez and Ivan Perisic were one of the most exciting teams in world football. They not only lost that in recent years but nearly lost their Bundesliga status. The recruitment of the past six months has the potential to see Wolfsburg climb the table once more and give this small but incredibly proud city a team they can be proud of again.
By Thomas Pain.