June 26, 2017

2016-17 Season Preview: VfL Wolfsburg — Changes Create Optimism in VW City

Basics

Name: Verein für Leibesübungen Wolfsburg Fußball GmbH
Nicknames:
Die Wölfe (The Wolves)
Founded: 1945
Club colors: Green and White
Primary rivals: Eintracht Braunschweig and Hannover 96 (Lower Saxony derbies), VfL Osnabrück and St. Pauli (from the Regionalliga days (1960s))
Fan friendship: Wolverhampton Wanderers, Delfino Pescara 1936 and Esbjerg fB

Volkswagen Arena

Capacity: 30,000 (26,000 for international matches)
2015-16 attendance: 492.067 (28,945 per match) (15th in the league)

Trophies

Bundesliga: 2008-09

DFB-Pokal: 2014-15

DFL-Supercup: 2015

Eight Regional and Youth Championships each.

2015-16 Finishes

DFL-Supercup: won 5-4 on penalties against Bayern München

Bundesliga: 8th with 45 points (47 goals scored, 49 allowed, -2 GD)

DFB Pokal: Round 2 (1-3 loss to the eventual champions Bayern München at home)

UEFA Champions League: Quarterfinalist (lost 2-3 on aggregate to the eventual champions Real Madrid)

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals: 7 in Bundesliga (10 in all competitions)
Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 5 (8)
Number of Matches drawn: 9 (9)
Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 4 (5)
Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals: 9 (12)
Number of matches in which a led was blown, resulting in loss: 3 (4)
Number of matches in which a led was blown, resulting in draw: 4 (4)
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw: 3 (3)
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory: 0 (1)

Top 2015-16 Scorers

Bas Dost: 10 in all competitions (8 in Bundesliga)
Max Kruse and André Schürrle: 9 (6)

Summer Test Results

Record: 3-1-3
Goals Scored: 21
Goals Allowed: 9

Veltins-Auswahl 0-14 VfL Wolfsburg – it nearly took Wolfsburg half an hour to open the scoring against the Veltins’ selection, but, at the end, highly-rated new-signing Josip Brekalo netted a hat-trick in a customary confidence boosting start to the preseason.

Celtic 2-1 VfL Wolfsburg – well advanced in their preseason preparation because of their involvement in the Champions League’s preliminary rounds, newly-appointed Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers prevailed in his Celtic Park debut after the shock of Gibraltar.

FC Basel 3-3 VfL Wolfsburg – another high-profile friendly away at the home of one of the European football regulars.

Benfica 2-0 VfL Wolfsburg

Sporting CP 2-1 VfL Wolfsburg – Josuha Guilavogui, who signed permanently after spending the last two seasons at Wolfsburg on loan from Atlético Madrid, suffered a neck injury, and set to miss the majority of the season.

Malmö FF 0-1 VfL Wolfsburg – Ricardo Rodríguez with a match-winner from the spot, five minutes from time.

VfL Wolfsburg 1-0 Saint-Étienne – Wolves round off their highly competitive pre-season friendlies with Jakub Błaszczykowski finding the net a week after signing from Borussia Dortmund.

Questions with an Expert:

Many thanks to the die-hard Wolfsburg fan Vivi for providing the answers. A big shout-out goes to Behnors for helping us out in finding her in the process.

Keep an eye out for . . .

Maxi Arnold, who is a really good and young payer or Leandro Putaro, who is in a oneyear loan deal in Bielefeld at the moment, but I think he will be really good, especially because he’s only 19.

Terrace favorite . . .

Julian Draxler or Maxi Arnold.

Player that should be driven to another club . . .

Caligiuri, who isn’t that good at the moment. Or maybe Dost, we have better players in his position. (Dost signed with Sporting CP Sunday).

Advice you’d give your manager . . .

Our players shouldn’t give up after they’ve scored 2 goals, because the other team wont give up neither.

Opposition player you despise . . .

Bendtner

What will opposing sides underestimate?

Our (new) players.

What are fans overestimating?

Gomez

Tip you’d give foreign fans visiting Volkswagen Arena for the first time

Visit the football world beside the stadium. If you have time, taste our “Volkswagen Currywurst“. Its special.

Where will VfL Wolfsburg finish? . . .

I think they will be back in the top 6 again, because they made some good transfers. DFB Pokal, maybe semi or quarter final. It will be affected by other team’s performances, as well.

What is your standout Wolfsburg memory from last season?

My memory from last season is definitely the victory against Real Madrid (2:0). The stadium was full with energy and power, and it was hilarious!

When last we saw them

Last season was a familiar sight for Wolfsburg’s faithful. They finished outside the European places after taking the league by storm in the previous season. There were sparkling moments here and there – especially in the Champions League – but it was the abysmal away form that could perfectly define their underwhelming campaign.

In 2014-15, they were far from repeating the unimaginable 2008-09 title. Yet that’s only because of Bayern’s new level of invincibility, as Wolfsburg played some breathtaking football until the final weeks of the season. And they were able to land the club’s only second major title in form of the DFB-Pokal by downing everyone’s darling Borussia Dortmund – who planned a perfect farewell for Jürgen Klopp – in the final.

But just like the reality check after their only league triumph, Wolfsburg caught on the wrong foot in Dieter Hecking’s third full season at the club. The influential Ivan Perišić‘s late (yet expected) departure left a big gap in the side, although the damage was already done with Manchester City stealing Wolfsburg’s chief orchestrator, Kevin de Bruyne, from the Bundesliga.

Nevertheless, there were hefty expectations from Wolfsburg’s attacking trio ahead of the season – January signing Andre Schürrle and new arrivals Julian Draxler and Max Kruse. But you will get hard time to find a single match in which all three synchronized to a great effect in the season.

With some exceptions – Draxler was an absolute joy to watch in the excellent away win at Gent, and Kruse and Schürrle netted brilliant hat-tricks at lowly sides Hoffenheim and Hannover, respectively – they individually struggled to meet expectations.

The scoring output further damaged by the underrated Daniel Caligiuri’s quiet season, while Bas Dost’s joyful start to 2015 became old news and a likely outlier. Even the charming fullbacks – Ricardo Rodriguez and Vieirinha – had below-par seasond by their usual standards.

There were hardly any changes in the progress of youngsters Maximilian Arnold and Robin Knoche as well. Knoche struggled for playing time, while Arnold – despite being Wolfsburg’s most used player in the season – couldn’t create much from the middle of the park.

Aspiration

Return to Europe. Wolfsburg can pick up on the silver lining from this season – solely focusing in the league and DFB-Pokal – although their season target is a remainder of a domino effect. Either way, with Wolfsburg’s potential and vision, they should always target top-four finish in the league. They had a difficult time in the second half of the Pokal’s opener at third-division side FSV Frankfurt, but the cup is the only genuine chance to finish the season with silverware.

Reality

After offloading Schürrle, who failed to live up to his billing at the Volkswagen Arena, and the troublemaker Kruse for a good price, sporting director Klaus Allofs used his experience to bring a mixture of youth talents with Bundesliga veterans in the summer.

Jeffrey Bruma, who spends two seasons at Hamburg as one of Frank Arnesen’s signings, returns to Germany with the added continental experience from his three-year stay at PSV. After a troublesome debut season with niggling injuries, Peruvian Carlos Ascues will hope to partner Bruma at the heart of the defense, although losing the ever-reliable Naldo could prove vital.

The addition of Błaszczykowski (Kuba) and Mario Gómez, after their respective decent Euros, will be expected to change last season’s dire attacking output. The form of fellow new signings Yannick Gerhardt and Daniel Didavi could have a big say in Wolfsburg’s season, as well.

The Boss

dieter hecking2Assembling a decent team is a big task awaiting Hecking, who had a disastrous time after being named 2015’s German Football Manager of the Year. Hecking embarked on a European football for the first time last year, and enjoyed famous wins against Manchester United and Real Madrid.

However, the way Wolfsburg lost the return leg in Champions League’s quarterfinal against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid left plenty to ponder. When Wolfsburg turned to him in 2012, Hecking conducted his release clause from Nürnberg in hope of taking the big step in his managerial career.

After three-and-a-half years with Wolfsburg, the clock is ticking for the 51-year-old manager. As a coach, Hecking already achieved far more than he did in his playing days – a midfielder for a number of second-division teams and Germany’s U21 team – but he clearly wants to push the limit at Wolfsburg.

Philosophy

The exciting brand of football Wolfsburg played throughout the 2014-15 campaign was nowhere to be seen last term. The departures of key attacking players also had an effect on the performance of the ones staying at the club, while the new-signings were anonymous at crucial times.

A quick glance on Squawka’s Bundesliga numbers suggests that last season’s Wolfsburg were still in the top four in a number of categories. Only the top-two sides Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund exceeded Wolfsburg’s 54% average possession, and the Wolves’ chance creation rate is the league’s best next to the stats registered by the same two teams.

The defense had a hard time last term, however, with Diego Benaglio – who will be dropped to the cup duties, though he will retain the captaincy, this season – looking shaky for the first time in his long-standing career. Saving his excellent pass accuracy, Dante’s carefree mistakes were costly too, as Wolfsburg conceded a league high 12 goals with defensive errors.

Plan B

With the pair of young strikers – Brekalo, 18, and Borja Mayoral, 19 – joining their ranks in the summer, Wolfsburg have a squad depth that’s been lacking for years. There was a place for Croatia’s Brekalo in the 2015’s UEFA European Under-17 Championship team of the tournament, while Real Madrid’s loanee Mayoral is highly regarded by the reigning Champions League winners.

Notable Transfers

Out:

  • Max Kruse (Werder Bremen)

  • Andre Schürrle (Borussia Dortmund)

  • Naldo (Schalke 04)

  • Dante (OGC Nice)

In:

  • Jeffrey Bruma (PSV Eindhoven)

  • Daniel Didavi (VfB Stuttgart)

  • Yannick Gerhardt (1. FC Köln)

  • Jakub Błaszczykowski (Borussia Dortmund)

  • Borja Mayoral (Real Madrid)

  • Josip Brekalo (Dinamo Zagreb)

  • Mario Gómez (Fiorentina)

  • Oskar Zawada (FC Twente)

Strengths

New man Didavi
New man Didavi

It’s early days to analyze the transfer activities, but Allofs showed his vast experience in the off-season. From the experienced heads to the future stars, Wolfsburg are raring to go with a new look side after last year’s mediocrity. 

The budding Wolfsburg’s midfield has a potential to enlighten the league this season. Gerhardt and Didavi should step up their game, whereas a lot will be expected from Luis Gustavo, especially after Wolfsburg sold fellow compatriot (and leading figure) Naldo to rivals Schalke. The late sale of Bas Dost means that Hecking will be counting on youth to back up Gomez at the top of the formation.

Weaknesses

The club sends a clear vibe of keeping their competitive side, though, with their persistence in keeping up the want-away Draxler. They are also targeting to land the former Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen attacking all-rounder Son Heung-Min from Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund’s versatile youngster Matthias Ginter, although agreement on transfer fees for either of the two is still up in the air.

Wolfsburg’s away form in 2015-16 is more than a cause for a concern, as they only collected 13 points from 17 matches. That’s only half of the points they gathered from their travels a season before, and Eintracht Frankfurt (12) are the only side with the worst record in the league in the past campaign.

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

With an opening day win at FC Augsburg followed by the first home fixture against Köln, Wolfsburg have beaten one of the sides that they weren’t able to defeat last season.  In the final four fixtures of the season, Wolfsburg will entertain Bayern München and Borussia Mönchengladbach, sandwiched by a trip to underachievers Eintracht Frankfurt and Hamburger SV.

Verdict

Europa League berth. I tipped Wolfsburg to stay in top-four last term, and they proved me wrong in so many ways at the end. I’ll lower my expectation this time around, just like everyone else has, and say they will eventually finish in the Europa League places after a close-run for the spot at the Champions League.

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Eskender born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Despite the geographical difference, he is interested in every detail of German football. You can pay a visit to his Facebook page, Bundesliga Obsession, dedicated for the one and only, Bundesliga. You can also follow him on Twitter @eskeBMG

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