The lustre of Wolfsburg’s golden era is beginning to fade, writes Kevin Hatchard.
In 2009, the Wolves stunned German football by winning their first ever Bundesliga title. Coached by relentless taskmaster Felix Magath – a man who once promised his players coffee and cake on a training run, but then made them run up a mountain to get it – Wolfsburg won 14 of their final 16 league games to lift the Meisterschale.
Edin Dzeko and Brazilian striker Grafite formed a deadly partnership, scoring 54 league goals between them, and intelligent playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic racked up 20 assists. On their way to the title, Wolfsburg smashed mighty Bayern Munich 5-1, in what remains one of the Bundesliga’s greatest ever performances.
In the 2014-15 season, a new team of stars emerged under coach Dieter Hecking. Brazilian veteran Naldo held together the defence, and chipped in with seven league goals. Stylish left-back Ricardo Rodriguez was involved in 10 goals, with his ability at set-pieces proving to be a very useful weapon. Luiz Gustavo snarled and battled at the base of midfield (he picked up 11 yellow cards that season). Dutch goal poacher Bas Dost netted 16 times in just 21 appearances, including a four-goal haul in a truly extraordinary 5-4 win at Bayer Leverkusen.
The man who stood head and shoulders above the rest was Kevin De Bruyne. His impeccable passing and crossing, and ability to thrive in transition when opposition attacks broke down, saw him set up 20 Bundesliga goals, just as Misimovic had six years earlier. De Bruyne smashed in 10 goals himself, and there was little doubt that he had put the frustration of his failure at Chelsea behind him.
Wolfsburg finished second in 2015, and capped a wonderful season by winning the DFB Pokal (German Cup) for the first time in their history. They swept aside Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund 3-1, in what proved to be Klopp’s final match in charge of Die Schwarzgelben.
Even though Wolfsburg reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League the following season, securing a famous first-leg win over Real Madrid along the way, the alarm bells had begun to clang loudly. De Bruyne’s defection to Manchester City had ripped the creative heart out of the side, and a Harlem Globetrotters approach to replacing him failed badly, ultimately costing sporting director Klaus Allofs his job.
Julian Draxler came in from Schalke, but never really settled or sparkled, save for a few performances in the Champions League. Within a year he was demanding a move. Max Kruse was acquired from Borussia Monchengladbach, but struggled on the field, and was mired in controversy off it. He left thousands of euros of poker winnings in the back of a taxi, and made a very naughty video that once seen, cannot be unseen.
Andre Schurrle, who had set up Germany’s winning goal in the World Cup final against Argentina, stayed for just a season and a half before joining Borussia Dortmund. Without De Bruyne to supply the ammunition, Dost scored just eight league goals, and was sold to Portuguese giants Sporting.
Wolfsburg finished the 2015-16 season eighth in the Bundesliga and failed to qualify for European football. Despite concerns over backers Volkswagen’s ability to keep pumping money in after the emissions scandal, cash was spent on the team. Promising midfielder Yannick Gerhardt was lured away from FC Koln, and after helping Besiktas to win the Turkish Super Lig, Germany striker Mario Gomez was tempted back to his homeland. Daniel Didavi was an astute free transfer pickup from Stuttgart, but the defection of Naldo to Schalke was a hammer blow.
An opening-weekend win at Augsburg made for a promising start to the current campaign, but the wheels flew off alarmingly quickly (ironic for a club backed by a car manufacturer). An eight-game winless run featured three goalless draws and a 5-1 hammering at home by Borussia Dortmund. In their pomp, Hecking’s Wolfsburg had been virtually unbeatable at the Volkswagen Arena, wiping the floor with Bayern Munich in a 4-1 battering and beating Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid. Now they couldn’t buy a win, or even a goal, on home soil.
Hecking was sacked in mid-October, which made sense given the fact he couldn’t get any sort of tune out of a talented attack. What didn’t make sense was that no succession plan had been put in place. Former Chelsea and Spurs boss Andre Villas Boas was linked with the job, but took up a lucrative post in China instead. Pal Dardai was sounded out, but chose to stay with his beloved Hertha Berlin.
Amidst the chaos, former Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich defender Valerien Ismael was promoted from within. The Frenchman could barely have made a worse start, losing 3-1 at rock-bottom Darmstadt, before watching his team hurl away a late lead in a chaotic 2-1 home defeat to Bayer Leverkusen.
After a 3-0 win at Freiburg, Ismael was hastily confirmed as boss until the end of the season, but he collected just 13 points from the next 12 games. He admitted the club’s plight was giving him sleepless nights and Friday’s dramatic 2-1 home defeat to fellow strugglers Werder Bremen was the final straw.
Ismael selected a back three containing just one genuine centre-back in Robin Knoche. Ricardo Rodriguez spent most of the match operating as an old-school inside-left, Luiz Gustavo kept wandering into his usual position of central midfield, and even Knoche showed little discipline, popping up time and time again on the right flank. An early double from Werder’s Serge Gnabry had the Wolves playing catch-up and if Werder has shown any ambition on the counter, they could have won by more.
New sporting director Olaf Rebbe flexed his muscles and has replaced Ismael with Arsenal academy boss Andries Jonker. The Dutchman knows German football well – he has been an assistant coach at Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg – and he is well respected.
The 54-year-old has a good squad to work with. Draxler’s winter move to PSG funded the arrivals of Riechedly Bazoer, Yunus Malli and Paul-Georges Ntep, and there was a good base to start with. The players stopped listening to Hecking and I don’t think they ever really listened to Ismael who was totally out of his depth. If Jonker can’t command their attention, the good times will truly be over for Wolfsburg.
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinhatchard