Football can be cruel. As I’ve written before, success itself is sometimes ironic – something I’m well acquainted with as a Borussia Dortmund lover. Increasingly in modern football, success contains the seeds of its own demise, unless you’re Real Madrid, Barça, Bayern, Man U, or possibly Chelsea (it’s too soon to judge for Man City and PSG). For everybody else, the party always ends, sooner rather than later. Besides, given our indomitable propensity for cutting into the Procrustean boxes of compelling narratives, how do we even know that a party even happened in the first place?
Such might be the fate of VfL Wolfsburg this season. Or at least I wonder. The problem is two-fold: first, Wolfsburg could quickly become a victim of its own success; second, I can’t help but doubt just a little bit how real VfL’s success really is this season.
First, the contours of success’ cruel irony lurk nearby for the Wolves. Of course, I’m mainly talking about the fate of Kevin De Bruyne. When will he leave and for whom? Because he will leave. The circus has already begun. The circus exists because he’s not already playing at Bayern, Real Madrid, Man U, etc. and, therefore, is a ripe candidate for speculation. As a BVB supporter, I know this truth to be self-evident: that all star players are imbued with the unalienable transfer to a bigger club today, rather than tomorrow. Kevin De Bruyne is such a player. If VfL is super lucky, my guess is that De Bruyne stays for one more season – tops. I’m pretty confident about this prediction. After all, market logic is on my side.
The Belgian “gingy” has been sensational this season. Absolutely sensational. Aside from Arjen Robben (who was having a career year until injured), no other player is a serious player of the year candidate exists in the Bundesliga. For example, Within WhoScored.com’s “secret sauce” linear weight scoring model (consume it with a proverbial pinch of salt), De Bruyne is ranked as the league’s 2nd best player, after Robben. Perhaps even more impressively, De Bruyne is listed as Europe’s 5th best player in the same scoring system. Yes, that’s 5th best in Europe. Although I tend to mostly ignore WhoScored.com ratings, De Bruyne’s score confirms the perception that he’s having an incredible season. The keyword here is perception. In reality, De Bruyne is amazing and all that, but perception drives the transfer market.
Need some numbers? Here, I’ll throw you some. De Bruyne leads Europe with 17 assists (move over, Cesc). Oh, he’s even scored 10 goals. That’s 27 goals he’s directly responsible for. Only CR7 and Messi boast larger tallies. Moreover, I’m inclined to believe that De Bruyne is not simply lucky this season (assist tallies are prone to this factor), as only Marseille’s Dmitri Payet creates more “key passes” per match (3.8) than De Bruyne (3.2) in Europe. Squawka.com tabulates De Bruyne’s play-making numbers like this: 95 chances created (17 assists + 78 key passes). The final 3rd is the gingy’s playground:
So he’s gotta be Europe’s “it boy,” especially considering that he plays for a not A-level club. Sorry, VfL Wolfsburg. In another words, De Bruyne screams “TRANSFER FREAKING TARGET”! Europe is on alert. In this world of buy-out clause madness, we all know how binding contracts are. Look, I’d really love to see him play a few more seasons at Wolfsburg, but the chances are slim.
Where does this inevitable reality leave Wolfsburg? My fear for the Wolves is that too much of their on-the-pitch success is currently predicated on De Bruyne’s play-making abilities. In fact, I’d submit that their consistent ride of success (although I’ll question this claim later) can be attributed to De Bruyne’s play-making both in threat and execution. As corollary to this first claim, I’d submit the fairly obvious claim that the success of Bas Dost and other VfL players owes a great deal to De Bruyne’s presences on the pitch. Football is a team sport, yes, but individuals can have outsized effects on the pitch. De Bruyne is such an individual.
After De Bruyne’s 17 assists, there’s a big drop off. Vieirinha is next with 5 assists, followed by Dost’s 4 assists. Moreover, the only other contributor of key passes (i.e. leading to scoring opportunities) is Ricardo Rodriguez, who averages 2 KPs a match. De Bruyne is even VfL’s leading shot-taker per match (3 vs. Dost’s 2). However, even more crucially than these numbers, De Bruyne is largely responsible for triggering VfL’s attacking opportunities. The Belgian carries this burden with his movement into open midfield space to receive balls on the run, with his long dribbling runs through swaths of opponent territory, with his hold-up ability on the ball around the opponent’s box, and, of course, his passing skills (especially ground balls) in the final 3rd.
More than any other player right now, De Bruyne is Wolfburg’s attack.
My perception tells me that, during the Rückrunde, Wolfsburg has become one-sided in attack, a shift coinciding with its rise to 2nd place in the Bundesliga table. Basically, VfL has become a side thriving off transitional play and counters – long live the through ball! During the Rückrunde, it seems, less and less do the Wolves create legitimate scoring opportunities through slower build-up play, something VfL seemed to do more of during the Hinrunde. Although I don’t have access to some of the data to make a stronger empirical case, I’ve observed something like this shift in playing styles with the decreasing roles of players like Maxi Arnold (he of great potential), Daniel Caligiuri, Luis Gustavo (in attacking play), or even Andre Schürrle (did he ever have a role?).
Which brings me back to De Bruyne’s outsized effect on VfL. Back in January/February, I expected the likes of Schürrle, possibly Caligiuri, and especially Arnold to synchronize attacks with De Bruyne. However, this development mostly hasn’t happened, which is particularly disconcerting in Arnold’s case. Arnold’s increasingly diminished role in VfL’s attack in recent matches only shifts more responsibility on De Bruyne, which isn’t necessarily bad, except that the Belgian’s days with the club are surely numbered. Arnold’s continued development is a missed opportunity, especially given his slot as an attacking midfielder, who’s supposed to provide link up play, passing wits, and pace.
What I’m trying to get it the likelihood of the Wolves having to retool their entire attack after De Bruyne’s inevitable departure – a process that will surely equate with points lost in future tables. Par-tay over?
Call me neurotic for worrying about future seasons. Sure, I admit it’s kinda silly. After all, Wolfsburg is having a helluva season. YOLO and all that. Right? Right? Well, yes and no, which leads me to my second main point: I can’t help but doubt that VfL’s season is really the resounding success that conventional thinking dictates.
Yes, it’s been a helluva season for VfL, who are 2nd place in the table, who marched deeeeeeep into the Europa League, and who crushed Bayern (so satisfying!) 4-0. De Bruyne, Dost, Naldo, Gustavo, and Rodriguez are certified stars. But peer closer. There’s cracks.
First, Wolfsburg’s recent Rückrunde run hasn’t exactly convinced that the Wolves will remain Germany’s #2 for long, or are even the #2 side right now. Arguably, Borussia Mönchengladbach is the better side on form right now and sit only four points below VfL in the table. A second place finished is not guaranteed for VfL by any stretch of the imagination. Heck, even torrid-form Leverkusen are only six below VfL in the table.
Second, it’s the little things, like losing 0-1 to FCA, drawing Mainz 1-1, drawing Schalke 1-1, or even beating SCF 1-0 on a last minute winner. Bundesliga sides have looked better prepared for VfL and the gingy attack. That, and there’s been some simple regression to the mean (e.g. Dost’s leveled out form). Perhaps the clearest vindication of my ill-ease was Gladbach’s dominating 1-0 home win over the Wolves last weekend. VfL’s attack was shuttered and their midfield play was minuscule. Did you know that Foals can de-fang Wolves? Seriously.
Third, I can’t simply ignore VfL’s 3-6 (aggregate) thumping at hands Napoli in the Europa League quarter-finals. Honestly, if the Bundesliga’s “2nd Best Team” exits the second-tier Europa League like this, then – shucks – I’m embarrassed. And losing at home 1-4 to boot? Well … Frankly, I’m not looking forward to future European competitions if Wolfsburg is the best German export to bet on after Bayern.
You can accuse me of passive aggressively channeling my disappointment with BVB’s downfall into this piece by “taking it out” on innocent Wolfsburg. Sure, I’ll grant you this point. Yes, you are hearing the voice of a disgruntled BVBer. However, I’m convinced that VfL’s party will be short, at least as the Bundesliga’s viceroy club Moreover, I’m not even convinced that the party really ever began.
The plundering Sirens of Europe sing for De Bruyne. Someone stuff some wax in the Belgian’s ears.
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