Hey Arnold!

Last Saturday provided us with a great opportunity to talk in detail about VfL Wolfsburg’s Max Arnold and his burgeoning football career. Of course, this talented youngster (one of the best attacking players in his age category) has already been in the spotlight of the German media for quite a long time. Rarely might you have seen a Wolfsburg match report since April without any praise to Max and his outstanding abilities. This season, three of his four goals came in three consecutive matches, inevitably getting him in the news. However, journalists seem to avoid the ‘not-so interesting’ stories of Arnold’s upbringing, his childhood and adolescence and his formation as a footballer before his Bundesliga debut. So, as a consequence, many readers outside Germany were left under the false impression that Arnold had just miraculously come out of the woodwork – without any premises or preparations.

That could not be further from the truth. In fact, what we have here is quite the opposite. The first thing that catches the eye when examining Arnold’s past is his steady and continuous development – step by step, one foot in front of the other. Almost without rebuke, without straying from the rough path upwards. Maximilian Arnold, born on May 27, 1994, comes from Eastern Germany – namely, from the small town of Riesa, about 50 km from Dresden. Formerly, twenty years or so before Arnold’s birth, a local working-class team named BSG Stahl Riesa, which includes Riesa-born Ulf Kirsten as one of its most illustrious alumni, enjoyed success competing in the DDR Oberliga in the mid-70s and 80s. But, at the beginning of XXI century, when little Max attended the football school of Stahl, the glorious days of big football in Riesa were long past gone. After a series of name changes and financial problems, the club dissolved in 2003 and reformed as TSV Stahl Riesa, now playing in the Bezirksliga Dresden in the seventh tier of German football. Despite that, Arnold spent three years there between 2003 and 2006 after having transferred from BSV Strehla, and, at the age of 13, the talented boy was once again on the move, this time to the elite academy of Dynamo Dresden, another “big name from the past”. A real breakthrough took place three years later, when Arnold was noticed by Wolfsburg scouts, accepted their deal and travelled west. In the same year he was called to the ranks of Germany national U-16 team.

He would later progress through the all age categories of the DFB team and in almost all of those he was a first XI player. Now he is playing for the Under-21 national team, making his debut only a week ago against Romania under the guidance of no other than Horst Hrubesch.

In the spring of 2011, Arnold, who was still under the age of seventeen, made his first appearance for the Wolfsburg U19 team. They were fighting for the championship title and Max fitted into the team perfectly – despite the fact that most of his teammates were a couple of years older than him. In all three major playoff games, Arnold played from the start, including a goal against Bayer Leverkusen in the semifinals. The final saw them face Kaiserslautern and it ended with a spectacular 4-2 victory for the Wolves. That’s how Arnold became national champion in the junior category – and it inevitably drew the attention of the first team coach. Felix Magath was his name.

A footballer who underwent his baptism of fire under the (in)famous Quälix rules has hardly anything to fear later in his career. On the other hand, Magath, after having opened the world of professional football to Arnold, began to shuffle his lineup frantically and didn’t provide him with much time to play. Having appeared twice as a substitute in Bundesliga matches during the 2011/12 season, Max was unable to really show off his true potential.  Events of the final matchday were particularly painful: Wolfsburg took the lead in Stuttgart and then the experienced Hasan Salihamidžić was substituted for Arnold half an hour before the final whistle. The home side seized the moment, turned the game on its head and eventually won 3:2, putting paid to Wolves’ hopes for the Europa League. “Still too young”, “Isn’t ready for big games” – were just some of the fans’ verdicts of Arnold. Partly they were right – from then on and until his dismissal, Magath never picked Arnold again. The same story continued under stubborn Lorenz-Günther Köstner, who time and again kept using the same lineup in Bundesliga games, ignoring Max.

The second chance was granted only last spring by Dieter Hecking – due to Ivan Perišić’s injury, at first. But in April, an “upgraded” Arnold demonstrated such a high level of skill that even his hardest skeptics couldn’t deny it – there was a nova emerging in the team, if not in the whole league. That’s when Arnold’s positive football qualities, already known to some people from the A-Jugend games, fully blossomed: physical endurance, fine technique, dribbling, high speed, powerful and precise left foot (yes, he is left-footed – although he still managed to net a beautiful goal from 25 yards, the first in the 3-0 away victory at Werder Bremen, with his right foot). A week later, he opened the scoring against Hoffenheim, before even turning eighteen, and he became the youngest scorer in the club history – in addition to the “youngest debutant” title he had obtained earlier under Magath. For the remaining matches of the season, Arnold was played in almost every position in midfield, often taking on the responsibilities of the playmaker, and the local media saw him already as Diego’s rival.

However, at the very start of this season, Arnold endured a major setback. In nearly all preview materials of the upcoming tournament, journalists keep calling Max “VfL’s rising star” and putting him in the starting lineup. In fact, he did appear on the pitch from the beginning in the first game (against Hannover 96)… only to receive a particularly stupid red card after only half an hour of play. Without Arnold, Wolfsburg didn’t stand a chance and lost 2-0. The “perpetrator” later received a two-match ban from the DFB committee.

Moreover, Dieter What-The-Hecking decided to further punish his player and tacitly excluded him from the first-team squad even after the ban period had ended. Arnold played two games in Regionalliga with the U23 team while his teammates were taking some harsh beatings three tiers above him. Such a severe punishment of player who had never violated the discipline before, inside as well as outside the stadium, was met with particular dislike by fans. Hecking kept avoiding the topic when talking with interviewers, but it was evident – the footballer had to earn his coach’s trust once again. Arnold’s return to the first team was a short eight-minute cameo in the 1-0 defeat at Bayern München six weeks after his red card but he had to wait another month for Hecking’s heart to soften to regain his place in the starting XI,  after Wolfsburg had been languishing inanely near the bottom of the table.

And that’s when the current craze started – the fairytale we’ve all been witnesses to for the few last weeks. Four beautiful goals in five games, a sharp rise in optimism of supporters and loud eulogies from all sides towards “unser Maxi”, the one and the only. And he’s really “theirs” – before the start of this season Arnold extended his contract to 2017, now appearing to be totally happy both in town and in the team. At the time being, Wolfsburg has returned to the Europa League places within shot of that coveted fourth spot; Arnold’s market price, according to the Transfermarkt experts, has grown six times in less than a year, now standing at 3m€. Sometimes, this guy with your typical freshman-next-door looks can be an unstoppable figure on the football field. The last goalkeeper (up to now, but definitely there will be more of them!) to suffer from Arnold’s thunderbolts was rugged and experienced Rafael Schäfer from Nürnberg; Arnold (who had just returned from his trip to Romania with national team), after a skillful turn to get away from the defender, shot from distance and the ball seemed to be going straight into Schäfer’s hands… before it suddenly swerved to the left in the air and caught the flabbergasted Schäfer on the wrong foot.

In his interview published in the latest issue of kicker, Dieter Hecking openly confessed: “At the moment, Maxi is the most important player of our team”.

Go figure.

Header courtesy of Wdr.de

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Igor Savchenko

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