VfL Wolfsburg finished the Hinrunde in second place behind runaway leaders Bayern Munich, and have continued the season’s restart in fine fashion, capturing seven of a possible nine points early on. Two stout wins against Bayern and Hoffenheim sandwiched a weaker Wolves’ effort away to Eintracht Frankfurt, a game in which Kevin De Bruyne’s late goal gave Wolfsburg a point, albeit a lucky one according to Wolves’ headman Dieter Hecking. Nevertheless, Wolfsburg’s undefeated run to begin the Ruckrunde shows that this indeed is a club to consider, a legitimate second best to holders Bayern that appears to have been galvanized by the tragic loss of teammate Junior Malanda during the winterbreak.
Under the guidance of Felix Magath, Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga title by two points over Bayern in 2008/2009, but since then they have rarely even been able to gain a European spot in the Bundesliga table, with consecutive finishes of 8th, 15th, 8th and 11th before last season, when they earned a Europa League birth and only finished a point behind Bayer Leverkusen for a play-in spot for the Champions League. The upturn at the club seems to coincide with the appointment of longtime Werder Bremen Sporting Director Klaus Allofs to the same position at Wolfsburg in November, 2012. Allofs brought in Dieter Hecking from Nürnberg a month later to direct the team on the field. That move, in itself, has created a climate of stability at the club following Magath’s departure in June, 2009, as the Wolfsburg coaching carousel afterwards included Armin Veh, Steve McClaren, Pierre Littbarski, and even a return by Magath, along with two interim stints by Lorenz-Günther Köstner. Hecking has fashioned a 51% winning percentage at his new club, with a record of 44-22-20 in just a bit over two full seasons.
The Allofs/Hecking duo have been consistently build the talent pool at Wolfsburg, bringing in solid players such as Daniel Caligiuri, Ivan Perišić, Sebastian Jung and Aaron Hunt while developing such youngsters as Max Arnold and Robin Knoche. Even more importantly, they’ve been able to flex their Volkswagen-enhanced financial muscles and signed the type of players sought by big clubs, beginning with Luiz Gustavo and continiuing on with young stars Kevin De Bruyne and, barely a week ago, German World Cup champion André Schürrle for a cool 22 million euros transfer fee. Schürrle, who debuted in Saturday’s match, made his mark with two assists and declared himself “very, very happy” to join Hecking’s squad. Early on, it looks that the former Mainz, Leverkusen and Chelsea attacker will be another difference maker for VFL, as Gustavo and De Bruyne have proven to be before him. De Bruyne, especially, has seemed to add yet another dimension to his arsenal of skills — that of finisher, as he’s already scored five goals in the Ruckrunde’s three league matches.
This influx of talent, joining with the holdovers at the club such as star left back Ricardo Rodriguez, goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, and towering defender Naldo, makes Wolfsburg a proper club with a proper roster. The club’s braintrust has been inventive in re-making Portuguese striker Vierinha into a threatening right back and the club has been relatively unscathed by the number of player injuries that have visited Schalke, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund this season.
While Wolfsburg have narrowed the gap behind Bayern Munich to eight points, it will be very difficult to catch up with, much less surpass, the talent-rich holders in this season’s table. But the Wolves have other opportunities for glory this year, and it’s time to grab the brass ring.
Wolfsburg are still alive in the DFB Pokal due to their PK win over SV Darmstadt 98 and will face RB Leipzig on March 4 in the competition’s Round of 16. They also have a chance to make a name for themselves in the Europa League, where they begin their Round of 32 series on February 19 at home against Sporting Clube de Portugal. A trip to the finals in at least one of these competitions is probably necessary if Wolfsburg are to be considered an elite club in the Bundesliga. With the right duo in charge and a roster full of stars and solid, experienced Bundesliga veterans, along with the added motivation of accomplishing in the name of their deceased teammate, it’s time for Woflsburg to take the next step forward and add a trophy or two to their cabinet.