FEATURE | The curious case of VfL Wolfsburg – from midtable obscurity to European contenders

Rarely would a team off the back of consecutive relegation play-offs consider an eighth placed finish a disappointment but that is the situation VfL Wolfsburg find themselves in. A season full of ups-and-downs is fitting considering the rise and fall from grace this club has seen in the last decade. From league titles, cup success and a win over Real Madrid to consecutive relegation play-offs, Wolfsburg have been through it all.

The race for the three European places, seventh place becomes a Europa League place should Bayern Munich or RB Leipzig win the DFB Pokal, is between five clubs. Borussia Mönchengladbach have been on the slide but should have a big enough lead to be safe. Likewise, Eintracht Frankfurt will qualify for a European competition unless disaster strikes, with a top seven finish likely.

Despite their impressive goalscoring record, the fixtures are not kind to Werder Bremen with games against RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund to come. So in reality, sixth and seventh is a straight battle between three clubs: Bayer Leverkusen, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg.

It’s hard to say losing away to Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig are the reason Wolfsburg don’t make Europe. The gulf in class between the top three and the rest is stark this year, their twelve combined defeats is the same number as seventh placed Leverkusen have alone.

Wolfsburg will feel like they should be safely in one of those positions already although the occupation of fifth for so long always looked a false position when you considered the fixture list. Given the three throw away games they needed a larger buffer, a buffer they didn’t have. A loss to almost certainly relegated Hannover 96, one point from six against Freiburg, a home draw to Hertha BSC and losing the lead to rivals Werder Bremen aren’t bad results in isolation. But that’s only if you want to be safe in mid-table. When you want to be in Europe, and Croatian winger Josip Brekalo revealed that to be the case, you need to be almost perfect in those games. Even six extra points from those games would see Wolfsburg just needing to win a couple of home games against Nürnberg and Augsburg to be safely planning a European tour

Football fans are fickle, before the season a ninth placed finish would have seen Wolfsburg fans delirious. However, once you have an inkling that better things might be on the horizon you get greedy. Suddenly ninth place is a failure rather than a massive success. Wolfsburg have made incredible progress this season, but the stink of the past two seasons lingered just long enough to see them drop crucial points.

This is the Bundesliga however, a league famous for Bayern victories and for unpredictability. Wolfsburg are in a tricky position and yet still the path to Europe is just wide enough that they could squeeze through. Their last three games of Nürnberg, Stuttgart and Augsburg should yield nine points which would put them on 55. Enough points to have qualified for Europe in eight of the past 11 years. The teams above them have a more difficult run-in, Hoffenheim travel to Gladbach and host Werder Bremen. Leverkusen have a juicy clash with Eintracht Frankfurt and an away trip to the capital (admittedly a home game against Schalke means in reality they have three more points than is currently shown.) Gladbach may not be too far ahead if they lose to Hoffenheim and Dortmund, both definite possibilities given their recent form.

So Wolfsburg have a chance, albeit a slim chance, of making this season a great success (in everyone’s eyes.) The fans deserve it too, some of the football was putrid in the last two years. Players thinking they were big stars, letting their overly inflated ego get in the way and treating Wolfsburg as a bank rather than a football club. Many of the players deserve it too, you’d be hard pressed to find a more passionate player than striker Wout Weghorst and a better left-back, in world football, than Jerome Roussillon. Midfielders Maxi Arnold and Josuha Guilavogui have been through the ups-and-downs but could never be accused of downing tools.

Wolfsburg’s new found spirit was in abundance against Frankfurt, dominant for so long and inches away from a two or three goal lead before Frankfurt fortunately took a lead. The Wolfsburg teams of previous seasons would have collapsed and conceded a second, this one found an equaliser and could have won the game at the death. If Wolfsburg miss out on Europe it won’t be through a lack of character, it will simply be because there were seven better teams than them.

The disappointment from not making Europe won’t be because of expectations or a sense of belonging. It will be because playing European football is incredibly fun. I feel in the modern game the Europa League has become unfairly ridiculed. Sure, for English clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United it’s not where they want to be. For a fan of a club who start the season not knowing if it will be a relegation battle or a European battle the thought of playing in Europe is just cool. It’s six games against different, potentially romantic, teams. As an English fan of Wolfsburg, the thought of playing against an Arsenal or Chelsea is exciting. So that’s where the disappointment would come from, not from a sense of underachieving.

Twelve points to play for, and the knowledge that 12 points will be enough. Even a defeat in Sinsheim against Hoffenheim won’t mathematically eliminate them, although it will make it very difficult. There will be twists and turns and it’s unlikely that all three teams (four if you include Bremen) will be perfect the rest of the way.

So, in conclusion, Wolfsburg dropped crucial points which failed to give them a large enough buffer; they dropped from a false position to a position that should have been a massive success and is instead a massive disappointment. Did I mention this club has had its ups-and downs?!

By Thomas Pain.


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