No country for a broke man: Felix Magath’s transfer policy

VfL Wolfsburg head coach Felix Magath must have loved Championship Manager 01/02. That was the version of the popular football management simulation that contained a bug allowing managers to buy any player for free by bidding £50 million and then cancelling the offer at the contract negotiation stage – the result being a transfer kitty that, though virtual, was actually bottomless. A dream come true for Magath – a man who seems to have a passion for buying and selling players at least equal to his love for football itself. With the transfer window system in place, Christmas effectively comes twice a year for the experienced coach, who won the European Cup as a player with Hamburger SV in 1983. But given the Wolves’ disappointing start to the current season, the time has surely come to cast a more critical eye over his strategy.

As ever, Magath didn’t hold back in his summer festive period just past. Eight players arrived in Lower Saxony, most notably Heerenveen forward Bas Dost for €7 million and the €4.8 million signing of Brazilian centre back Naldo from Bundesliga rivals Werder Bremen. Ten were also shown the door, and the money taken in for selling Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić to Bayern Munich meant that the net result was in fact a profit of €400,000. That flurry of activity pales into insignificance, however, in the snow-reflected light of the previous window. Then, with the Volkswagen-owned Europa League hopefuls sitting a disappointing 12th, only four points above the relegation play-off spot, Magath hit the January sales hard, unconcerned that, unlike the normal retail market, prices in football tend to be inflated post-Christmas.

Among the eight new arrivals were four players capable of playing left wing, though thankfully for tactical purists Magath never attempted to use them all there simultaneously (in fact, he barely used any of them at all). Also brought in were the defenders Ricardo Rodríguez and Felipe Lopes, and defensive midfielder Petr Jiráček, all of whom did become first-team regulars in the second half of the season. The freshly assembled back line appeared to gel impressively quickly, keeping a clean sheet against an admittedly toothless Cologne side, and results did improve in general, with the side finishing eighth. On the other hand, after spending €30.5 million in January on top of the €20 million he shelled out in the preseason, the ultimate failure to qualify for a European competition has to be considered below par (or perhaps, since the players’ shirts are currently emblazoned with the word “GOLF”, over par. The point is – not good). Two factors are particularly worthy of note: firstly, of the numerous signings, those that saw the most game time were defensive-minded, but the team still finished with the fourth most goals conceded in the division. Secondly, although the team put together an impressive run at home, indifferent away form left an overall impression of inconsistency. And this pair of issues also reveals the two problems at the heart of Magath’s strategy.

Problem number one is self-evident – as the excellent German-language Bundesliga tactics site spielverlagerung.de put it after a 5-1 defeat at Borussia Dortmund last season (incidentally this match was before the January influx): “At the end of the day, there is always doubt as to whether a team that is newly put together and altered again and again can achieve the required cohesion. A feeling of togetherness … can not develop through so many changes.” The obvious difficulties in creating a solid and successful team unit with such rapid player turnover are exacerbated by Magath’s tactical preferences. He tends to favour a high defensive line playing the offside trap – a strategy that naturally requires plenty of practice on the training field and a good level of understanding between the entire back four. In the past, it could at least be said that even if the personnel changed regularly, they could nevertheless be fairly sure of what system they would be asked to function in, as Magath has always tended to play a midfield diamond where possible.

This season he has experimented with the 4-2-3-1 formation so popular in the Bundesliga, but the problems remain – most clearly in the 4–0 home defeat to Hannover 96. Both sides attempted to press the ball, but Mirko Slomka’s settled Hannover side were able to apply his tactics far more effectively. Wolfsburg’s players, in contrast, seemed unsure of their roles, resulting in centre forward Dost looking isolated, Josué being overrun in midfield and even replaced at half-time, and the home defence being taken to pieces. The consequences of the two coaches’ squad-building methods can hardly be overlooked; the only new signing in the away team was Szabolcs Huszti (in his second spell at the club), whereas Magath’s starting XI featured three new defenders and (including the returning Diego, frozen out and then loaned out last year), three new forward players. Football isn’t just like any other business, but it’s still plain to see that changing over 50% of the staff in the most important department every six months is conducive neither to productivity nor employee morale.

Attacking-midfielder Diego is also relevant to the second problem, which relates both to Felix Magath’s transfer policy and his personality. At this point it is only fair to mention that the man from Aschaffenburg has an excellent record as a manager. He twice won the league and cup double with Bayern Munich, and, of course, led Wolfsburg to a surprise title in his first spell at the club. A renowned disciplinarian, he often gets the most out of players, but those who don’t fit in with his demands tend to find themselves among the reserves or away from the club. This in turn helps to fuel the frequent changes in playing personnel when Magath is in charge, and does not always appear beneficial to the team’s fortunes.

Two examples from the recent past are those of the aforementioned Brazilian, Diego, and striker Patrick Helmes. After the former discovered he was not in the first XI for a vital match against Hoffenheim at the business end of the 2010/11 season, he elected to leave the team hotel rather than take his place on the subs’ bench. His manager was understandably unhappy, and the incident ultimately led to the talented playmaker spending last season on loan at Atlético Madrid. Impressive performances and Europa League success seem to have earned him another chance in Lower Saxony, but his creativity was sorely missing from Wolfsburg’s midfield last season. For his part, Helmes was one of Steve McClaren’s last signings as a Bundesliga manager and found himself out of favour under Magath due to a perceived lack of endeavour, with his new boss describing him as “a pure finisher who has never learned to help defensively and contribute to creating chances himself”. However, after unsuccessful experiments trying new signings Giovanni Sio and Vierinha somewhat out of position up front, Helmes was brought back into contention in the second half of last season. He went on to make a vital contribution of 12 league goals, including game-winning braces against Nuremberg, Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen. Magath might like to sell that as a positive result of his harsh man-management, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the season might have gone had Helmes got his chance to shine earlier on.

However, it seems Magath is not just quick to disregard players he has inherited from his predecessors. The table below shows what has become of some of those he signed in the summer 2011 and January 2012 windows.

 

Player Transfer details What happened
Srđan Lakić Summer ’11, free transfer from Kaiserslautern Loaned to Hoffenheim in January, now back but not starting
Patrick Ochs Summer ’11 €3 m from Eintracht Frankfurt Loaned to Hoffenheim this season
Hrvoje Čale Summer ’11, free transfer from Trabzonspor Moved to reserves after 1 first-team appearance
Christian Träsch Summer ’11, €9 m from VfB Stuttgart Captaincy removed after poor performances
Rasmus Jönsson Summer ’11, €3.4 m from Helsingborgs Striker is yet to score for the club
Thomas Hitzlsperger Summer ’11, free transfer from West Ham United Released and currently without a club
Sotirios Kyrgiakos Summer ’11, free transfer from Liverpool Loaned to Sunderland in January, no longer a regular starter
Chris Summer ’11, free transfer from Eintracht Frankfurt Contract not renewed, now at Hoffenheim
Ferhan Hasani January ’12, €700 k from Shkëndija Tetovo Made his debut against Mainz on Match Day 6 of the 12/13 season.
Felipe Lopes January ’12, €2.5 m from Nacional Has not featured this season
Petr Jiráček January ’12, €3.5 m from Viktoria Plzeň Performed well but already sold to HSV for €4 million
Slobodan Medojević January ’12, €2.5 m from Vojvodina Novi Sad Yet to make league debut
Giovanni Sio January ’12, €5.8 m from FC Sion Loaned to Augsburg this season

 

Though several of those players are young and show promise for the future, as yet the club have seen very little return on a net investment of over €25 million.

Just one win in the team’s first six league games this season after such consistent big spending has seen the pressure mount, but there is still hope that Magath’s strategy will pay off. Why? Because, as I touched on earlier, it has worked in the past.

Magath arrived for his first spell as Wolfsburg manager at the end of the 2006/2007 season, and proceeded to bring in 13 new players over the summer. The newly assembled squad started slowly and they went into the winter break in 11th place, but the arrivals of goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and midfielder Makoto Hasebe in January strengthened the side further and they only lost one of their next ten league games, eventually finishing an impressive fifth.

But the coach was not satisfied, and another nine players came in the following summer, including Palermo’s World Cup winners, Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo. The most significant changes, however, were arguably the signing of Nuremberg’s playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović, and a revised utilisation of the talent brought in a year earlier. After joining on the last day of the transfer window, Brazilian striker Grafite had been the side’s top scorer with 11 on the way to that top-five finish, while fellow new-boy forward, a little-known 21-year-old Bosnian called Edin Džeko, bagged eight goals. It was only in the second half of that season, however, that they were used as a strike partnership. Nevertheless, the experiment coincided with Wolfsburg’s upturn in form, and it would go on to prove even more successful. With 28 and 26 league goals respectively in the title-winning season, Grafite and Džeko became the Bundesliga’s most lethal strike duo of all time, but Misimović’s incredible 22 assists (along with seven goals) were perhaps even more significant.

Considering the role they played in securing the club’s first ever major silverware, the trio’s combined price of €15.5 million suddenly looked like a bargain. With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that the Wolfsburg board have been happy to give Magath free rein in the transfer market. But the fact remains that since his return business has been more miss than hit, and unless he can build a successful and settled side soon, he may have to do his Christmas shopping somewhere else next year

Financial information for this article from transfermarket.de.

 

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