September 23, 2017

2017-18 Season Preview: VfL Wolfsburg — Things Can Only Get Better

Basics

  • Name: VfL Wolfsburg (Verein für Leibesübungen Wolfsburg Fußball GmbH).
  • Nickname: Die Wölfe.
  • Founded: 1945.
  • Club colors: Green and white.
  • Primary rivals: Hannover 96, Eintracht Braunschweig.
  • Fan friendship: Esbjerg fB.

Volkswagen Arena

  • Capacity: 30,000
  • 2016-17 attendance: 468,962 (27,586 per match)

Trophies

  • Bundesliga champions: (1) 2008-09.
  • DFB Pokal winners: (1) 2014-15.
  • DFL Supercup winners: (1) 2015.

2016-17 Finishes

Bundesliga:16th with 37 points (34 goals scored, 52 allowed, -18 GD).

DFB Pokal: 3nd round (1-0 loss to Bayern Munich).

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals: 4
Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 6
Number of Matches drawn: 7
Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 11
Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals: 6
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in loss: 5  
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in draw: 2
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw: 2  
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory: 1 

Top 2016-17 Scorers

  • Mario Gomez 16
  • Daniel Didavi 4

Summer Test Results

Record: 5-0-1
Goals Scored: 19
Goals Allowed: 5

  • Veltins Selection 0-8 VfL Wolfsburg
  • FC Rapperswil Jona 0-2 VfL Wolfsburg
  • FC Winterthur 2-1 VfL Wolfsburg
  • Hansa Rostock 0-1 VfL Wolfsburg
  • Dynamo Dresden 3-4 VfL Wolfsburg
  • Fulham 0-3 VfL Wolfsburg

Questions with an Expert:

Most Wolfsburg fans will want to forget last season as quickly as possible, but I managed to get UK Wölfe fan Tom Pain to give me his take on last season’s debacle at the Volkswagen Arena.

Keep an eye out for . . .

Paul-Georges Ntep, lovingly known as PG to the fans, he’s a hugely talented albeit inconsistent winger.  He has great pace and skill so if he can add a more consistent final pass and goals to his game he’ll be a nightmare for opposition defenses.

Terrace favorite . . .

Club legends Diego Benaglio and Marcel Schäfer have left us in the last year so the tag of terrace favorite probably belongs to Mario Gomez now.  A footballing legend who stayed loyal to us despite last season’s failures, and ultimately his goals are the reason we’re still in the Bundesliga this season.

Player that should be driven to another club . . .

Luiz Gustavo and Ricardo Rodriguez left us earlier this summer and they were harmonious but needed departures. Apart from that the majority of our squad will have a role to play this season and I can’t think of any one name that unanimously the fans would want to see leave.

Advice you’d give your manager . . .

Keep playing with pace upfront and don’t be afraid to drop well-known players if they haven’t been performing.

Opposition player you despise . . .

Sandro Wagner of Hoffenheim and I think most of Germany would agree with me on that one. Also Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski can’t stop scoring against us, but I have to begrudgingly acknowledge how great they both are.

What will opposing sides underestimate?

Goalscoring has been an issue for us the last couple of years but we have the talent in Mario Gomez, Yunus Mallì, Daniel Didavi and PG Ntep especially to score a lot of goals so if we can finish chances then we could give some teams a bad beating.

What are fans overestimating?

That’s a tough one because a lot fans are understandably pessimistic after last season. Maybe the manager Andries Jonker, he improved our performances at the end of last season but ultimately we still found ourselves in the relegation playoff.

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

Definitely try to get a ticket in the Nordkurve to experience a German football atmosphere at its best. Also, don’t listen to people who say Wolfsburg is a boring and ugly city, it’s no Berlin, New York or London but it’s peaceful, quaint and beautiful in its own special way. And if you can, then flying to Hannover rather than Berlin will cut at least an hour or two off your journey time.

Where will VfL Wolfsburg finish?

Honestly it could be anywhere from 4th to 16th (!) and I wouldn’t be surprised. Most fans, including me, will be happy if we have no relegation fears this season but in the Bundesliga it might only take a couple of months of good form for us to be challenging for European places, which this team is more than capable of having.

What is your standout Wolfsburg memory from last season?

Personally, watching us beat Ingolstadt 3-0 live in the stadium was a special moment.  But from a whole fanbase point of view, beating rivals Braunschweig over two legs in the relegation playoff was a stressful but ultimately great moment.

When last we saw them

The scenes of jubilation witnessed after Wolfsburg overcame Eintracht Braunschweig in the relegation play-off was bittersweet. Elation, relief and joy were soon superseded by a horrible feeling of shame. What were the 2009 Bundesliga champions doing scrabbling to avoid relegation? How could the 2014 Pokal winners have sunk to such a low?

The root causes of their decline are best dealt with in a separate article but the fact is the 2016-17 season was a disaster for the Volkswagen backed club. The season started brightly with a 2-0 away win at FC Augsburg, but soon took a nose-dive with the club picking up just three draws in the following seven matches.

Coach Dieter Hecking paid the price with the axe falling after just seven games. Then rather unambitiously the club looked to U23 coach Valerien Ismael to take the reins and turn things round. That the Frenchman was the wrong man for the task became apparent pretty soon, although Wolfsburg did pick up consecutive wins over Frankfurt and Mönchengladbach just before the Winterpause.

January began with a 1-0 win over Hamburg, but the inner dissatisfaction at the club and player unrest was made even more apparent with the not-too-surprising sale of Julian Draxler to Paris St. Germain. The mood in the Wölfe camp was sinking, as were their chances of survival. It was clear certain other players were desperate to leave and not committed to the cause and Ismael finally got the boot after a 2-1 loss to Werder Bremen on matchday 22.

The third coach of the season was parachuted in with Andries Jonker given 12 games to pull off ‘Operation Survival’. The mission was accomplished but there can be no satisfaction taken from a season like that.

Overall Wolfsburg had the second worst home record in the league picking up just 18 points at the Volkswagen Arena. They also had the worst scoring record at home with the fans seeing just 15 goals scored by their team.

Wolfsburg’s decline 2016-17 (courtesy of Kicker.de)

Aspiration

European qualification. The stated ambition prior to last season was a return to European football and a regular place in the top four, but look what happened. But seriously, a club of Wolfsburg’s financial clout and backing should be challenging for Europe rather than scrapping against the drop. The deadwood has been cleared from the squad meaning the disruptive elements have gone and younger replacements have been brought in.

It is a case of a new start at the club with coach Jonker and manager Olaf Rebbe working in tandem. Despite last season’s failures, ambitious targets should be set for the upcoming campaign.

Reality

The reality is that it will probably take a little more time for Andries Jonker to turn things around. He hasn’t had a lot of time with what is essentially a much different squad than the one that started last season. There are plenty of clubs you would say are in a much healthier position than Wolfsburg from a playing point of view.

The fact that Mario Gomez looks to have decided to stay at the club is a huge boost, but the fact is they were far too reliant on his 16 goals last season. The other attacking players like Daniel Didavi, Kuba Blaszczykowski, Paul-Georges Ntep, and Yunus Malli are going to have to chip in more.

The Boss

Following the coaching upheavals from last season it will be time for Andries Jonker to stamp his mark on the club in his first full season.  He left his role as Arsenal’s academy manager to return to Wolfsburg, where he served as assistant coach under Felix Magath, Lorenz-Günther Köstner and Dieter Hecking. He had previously also served in the Bundesliga as an assistant to compatriot Louis van Gaal at Bayern Munich.

Only time will tell if the eternal assistant and youth coach has what it takes to succeed in the top job. Yes he ultimately saved Wolfsburg from the drop last year, but when he took over the club were 14th and they ended up 16th. That said he will have his squad next season so he can be judged on that.

Philosophy

Boss Andries Jonker is his own man, but he can’t get away from the label as a Louis van Gaal disciple. Steeped in the tradition of Dutch possession football, technique and intelligence are key to the Amsterdam-born coach and it will be interesting to see him try and impose these beliefs upon Wolfsburg.

His experience working at youth level has developed an eye for talent, an understanding of the game as well as a desire to see his sides play an attractive brand of efficient football.

Mario Gomez will remain the key striker in 4-2-3-1 formation with Ntep, Didavi, Malli, Kuba, Vieirinha and new signing Marvin Stefaniak vying for the roles behind him. Fellow summer acquisition Ignacio Camacho will bring some needed quality in the defensive midfield.

John Anthony Brooks has come in for a lot of money in defence while the left-back slot vacated by Ricardo Rodriguez will see a battle between U21 international Yannick Gerhardt and Gian-Luca Itter. Brazilian signing William will come in at right back.

Plan B

Is Herr Jonker flexible enough to have a plan B or will he be van Gaal-esque in his belief in the system he prefers?

Up front there doesn’t look to be much of an alternative to Mario Gomez. 19-year old Landry Dimata, Victor Osimhen and Kaylen Hinds will struggle to deputise for Super Maario should anything untoward happen.

Notable Transfers 

Out:

  • Sebastian Stolze (Jahn Regensburg)
  • Ricard Rodriguez (AC Milan)
  • Jannes Horn (1FC Köln)
  • Ashkan Dejagah (?)
  • Diego Benaglio (Monaco)
  • Hendrik Hansen (Würzburger Kickers)
  • Francisco Rodriguez (FC Lucerne)
  • Patrick Drewes (Würzburger Kickers)
  • Luiz Gustavo (Marseille)

In:

  • John Anthony Brooks (Hertha Berlin)
  • William (Internacional Porto Alegre)
  • Landry Dimata (KV Ostende)
  • Felix Uduokhai (1860 Munich)
  • Kaylen Hinds (Arsenal)
  • Ignacio Camacho (FC Malaga)

Strengths

The potential is definitely there at the Volkswagen Arena and on paper Wolfsburg have a squad of players more than capable of delivering. The problem is that football is played on grass rather than paper and the experience of VfB Stuttgart showed that no club is too big to be relegated.

There is plenty of dynamism and pace in attack and Mario Gomez is a guaranteed source of goals. He will be the new figurehead at the club and the fact that all the want-away players have gone, should see a more harmonious atmosphere.

Olaf Rebbe has done well in the transfer market, bringing in quality, experience, while also making the squad younger.

Weaknesses

After the turmoil of last season and the restructuring of the squad, time is not on the Wölfe’s side. As mentioned they were dependent on Gomez for their goals last season and this is a clear area of weakness. In the Hinrunde Yunus Malli scored 6 and provided 7 assists at Mainz. In the Rückrunde at Wolfsburg it was just one goal and one assist.

Resilience also needs to be improved as stats show that Wolfsburg were not a great second-half side with the third worse record in the league. Home form was also a cause for concern.

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

With the quality of this season’s Bundesliga field it hard to pin down one stretch in particular, but for Wolfsburg the start will be key. It will show whether the trauma of last season has left any mental scars and whether new trainer Jonker has effectively got his message across.

They start with a really tough home game against Borussia Dortmund, before games they will have realistic hopes of winning (Eintracht Frankfurt. Hannover, VfB Stuttgart and Werder Bremen). Then comes a trip to the Allianz Arena, by which time we’ll have a better idea as to Wolfsburg chances this season.

Verdict

8th place. Wolfsburg missed out on European competition for the first time since 2008/09 last year and it could well be a second successive year this time around. I’ve little doubt they will improve on last season’s horror show, but it could be asking too much to expect such a rapid recovery.

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Mathew Burt

A year spent living in Bremen got Mathew hooked on the Bundesliga with regular visits to the Weser Stadion getting in the way of his studies. Back in the UK now, he still keenly follows the Grün-Weißen and German football in general. Follow him on Twitter @matburt74.

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