December 17, 2017

VfL Wolfsburg Season Preview 2011/12 – The Magath Rebound

Introduction

It has been over two years now since Wolfsburg lifted the league title under the guidance of Felix Magath, a season that immortalized the man and the team in the hearts of all supporters.  It was Wolfsburg’s first ever Bundesliga title and looking at how things went for them that season no one could have been blamed to think that more was to come.  Instead of following up on their success, Wolfsburg entered a downward spiral reminiscent of an aging rock star.

That decline was kick started by the departure of Magath who could not turn down a lucrative offer from Schalke. Replacing Magath was English coach Steve McClaren whose vision was never thoroughly implemented or executed. Magath simply had too large of a grip on the team.  Their downfall was supplemented by the gradual dissolution of the magic trio of Misimovic, Grafite and Dzeko.  Misimovic and Dzeko were eventually sold while Grafite never managed to replicate the form he shown in the past.

In the span of two years, Wolfsburg went from being champions of Germany and playing the likes of Manchester United in the Champions Leauge to battling relegation on the last day of the season.  Appropriately enough, it took the heralded return of Magath to preserve Bundesliga status last season.  Just the same, Wolfsburg supporters now expect Magath to reverse their fortunes and once again lift Wolfsburg out of mediocrity.

Summer Transfers

Träsch was Wolfsburg's biggest money transfer this summer.

As expected after a down year, Wolfsburg have been busy in the transfer market, albeit relatively quieter than years past.  The most prominent signing has been Stuttgart’s Christian Träsch, a versatile central midfielder who can just as easily fill in at right back.  Speaking of which, the other big name purchase was Patrick Ochs, the former Eintracht Frankfurt captain was brought in after his club was relegated and is expected to be the team’s starting right back after the departure of Sasha Riether to Köln.  Joining Ochs from Frankfurt is central defender Marco Russ who can also fill in defensive midfield if needed.

To add firepower to the team, Wolfsburg have also signed 21-year old offensive midfielder Mateusz Klich from Polish outfit MKS Cracovia.  In addition, Magath has also brought over veteran Hasan Salihamidzic from Juventus to bring some experience and leadership to the team.  Magath is going to hope that Klich and Salihamidzic can help striker Serdan Lakic, whose signature was secured earlier in the January transfer window, especially after the overdue departure of Grafite.

What to Expect?

Wolfsburg's season got off to the worst start possible in Leipzig.

The Bundesliga kickoff is less than a week away but club seasons are already underway this weekend with the first round of the DFB Cup and if Wolfsburg’s performance is any indicator of the coming season, supporters may just be in for a very long year.  Magath’s side was unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by fourth division and fellow corporate beneficiaries Red Bull Leipzig.  The 3-2 loss will stand as arguably the biggest upset of the first round.  And although Leipzig fielded several former Bundesliga players as well as young players from Bundesliga academies the result is still surprising and will no doubt be perceived as unacceptable.  More importantly, the game raises several questions ahead of the new campaign.

Playmaker?  What Playmaker?

First and foremost is the question over Diego’s future.  The drawn out drama between the club, Magath and the player has unpleasantly defined Wolfsburg’s summer.  The situation became so drastic that Magath was ready to keep the Brazilian playmaker on the bench if he could not find a suitable buyer, or worse yet, send him to the reserves. Diego has been heavily linked with a move to Atletico Madrid but until that happens, the rift between Magath and Diego has no doubt cast a shadow over what is a vital transition period for the club and has the potential to inflict some serious damage to the team.

Diego and Magath's rocky relationship is threatening to overshadow more serious concerns.

Magath has favored a central playmaker throughout his managerial career, whether it was Hleb at Stuttgart, Ballack at Bayern or Misimovic in his first stint with Wolfsburg.  At first glance, Diego seems the perfect player for Magath’s preferred diamond midfield but their off field hostility has left him without a proper replacement on the pitch.  That was glaringly evident in their Cup loss where Hasebe, Tuncay and Helmes were all tried in the “playmaker” role, albeit unsuccessfully.  Wolfsburg’s distinct lack of creativity in the squad screams for a reconciliation between Magath and Diego and both may have to put their pride aside for the betterment of the team.

Defensive concerns

Since winning the title it can be argued that Wolfsburg’s biggest weakness has been their defending.  Goalkeeper Benaglio suffered from injuries and dipped in form while star signings Friedrich and Kjaer have so far failed to solidify the backline.  As it stands, Wolfsburg still leak goals at rather worrying rates, which is completely uncharacteristic of a side coached by Magath.  After the loss to Leipzig Magath reiterated that he was still seeking additional signings and that may very well come in the form of a few new defenders.

A picture that truly speaks a thousand words.

Then again, Wolfsburg’s backline is still relatively unseasoned considering Benaglio and Friedrich’s recent struggle with fitness, Kjaer’s slow adjustment to German football, and the additions of Ochs and Russ.  In that sense, it might just be a matter of giving them time together but a lot will also depend on who Magath sets out ahead of the backline.  Josue has been Wolfsburg’s defensive stalwart in midfield for a few years now but the tenacious Brazilian has shown signs of his age recently which could prompt Magath to move away form his preferred midfield diamond to a more steady “double six”.

Potential Tactical Variation

Magath no doubt has some tweaking to do ahead of the new season and a lot of that will depend on the future of Diego.  His departure could prompt further action in the transfer market.  Magath could pursue a similar type of player and continue with his preferred formation or he may just decide to give new signing Klich a chance to prove himself.  Or he could surprise a few people and alter his familiar system in what would be a rare self-admission of poor judgment.  Then again, Magath has almost always found a way to fit loose pieces together and there are examples in the past hinting at moves away from convention.

Possible line-up keeping in mind Magath's preferred formation.

Prognosis

Despite the various outstanding concerns facing the Wolves, their biggest strength lies in their coach’s continuous ability to reconstruct a broken side.  As he has done throughout his career, Magath is again at the foot of a seemingly insurmountable summit, tasked with defying his critics and odds by resuscitating a seemingly lifeless squad of players.  Contrary to past experiences though, Magath has been here before and if anyone can steer the ship it is him. That said, this time around it might require loosening the iron grip that has made him so notorious in his career.  If Magath can manage that it is feasible to conclude that Wolfsburg may very well find themselves in the top half of the table again.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

3 Comments

  1. wow, even though I have an idea of the difficulty, I didn’t think it reach to completely wild stuff. anyway they started the league with tremendous result at Koln which make me realize they might, might, have a chance for the title [jk]

  2. Thanks Tim. It is very possible that the Wolfsburg players just can’t or won’t adapt or buy into Magath’s methods. So what might end up happening is the players indirectly playing against their coach on the pitch.

  3. Cris – very nice article, well-written. I just have this feeling that something is going awry in Wolfsburg. I don’t want to see them go down after that remarkable season a few years ago, but it seems that when your biggest purchase is Träsch, coupled with diego discontent in the locker room. He has not been the same since being returning from Juve. Lastly, if the Pokal loss is any indicator, it sure seems to have the recipe for Abstieg written all over it. Again, I hope I am wrong, because VfL belongs in the 1.BL.

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