10/11 season in review: VfL Wolfsburg

Welcome to a new series of articles that we’ll post throughout the next few weeks. “10/11 season in review” will give bloggers a chance to write about their team’s season. In our first installment @man20c writes about Wolfsburg and their, to put it mildly, problematic 10/11 season 1.  Without further ado, here is a rundown on the Wolves’s roller-coaster season.

Wolfsburg’s disastrous season can be summed up as a sequence of problems to the point where only a past associate like Felix Magath could come in and save them from relegation.  Wolfsburg dramatically left it to the last day of the season to ensure their stay in the Bundesliga. Many would argue their team spirit was gradually breaking down when Felix Magath (now sounds ironic) left Wolfsburg for Schalke in 2009 after winning the Bundesliga title that same year. The following season without him revealed how much they were missing Magath after they were looked upon as pure under-achievers when finishing 8th.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the season that would follow would be beyond an under-achievement and pretty much a major crisis that leaves Felix Magath being a Wolfsburg legend at both ends of the table.

Summer 2010

Zvjezdan Misimovic and Edin Dzeko, two vital players that left Wolfsburg during the 10/11 season.

In May 2010, Steve McClaren was appointed as the Wolfsburg boss with Dieter Hoeneß being the director at the beginning of that year. Their star-striker Edin Džeko was heavily rumoured to leave in the summer, while their star-playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic also showed signs of leaving the club. The Bosnian duo arguably carried the team through their dominant title winning seasons and saved them whenever they were in trouble.  As such they became invaluable to the team, leaving the question of who would replace them were they to leave.  The plan was to find an alternative before selling. As a result, Wolfsburg signed former Werder Bremen playmaker Diego from Juventus at the end of August, allowing Zvjezdan Misimovic to join Galatasaray soon after.  Edin Džeko stayed for the time being, which now looks essential because Wolfsburg could had been off even worse approaching January.

 Steve McClaren the wrong man.

Steve McClaren’s arrival stirred up a mix of reactions. He just left FC Twente after leading the club to the Eredivisie title for the first time in their history. Yet, most famously he was remembered for failing to guide England to the Euro 2008 tournament. Despite that being a national team and not a club team, it certainly did not earn him any favors for anticipating Wolfsburg fans.

His Eredivisie success was down to his 4-2-3-1 \ 4-3-3 system. The potential problem was that Wolfsburg were generally accustomed to a diamond formation or narrow 4-3-1-2 that Magath instilled prior to his departure. The formation’s success is based on two strikers and classic number 10 playmaker with three solid midfielders. Steve McClaren’s system on the other hand relied on width, flexibility and tenacity. McClaren fully intended to undo Magath’s system and instill his own  at Wolfsburg – which later brought heavy criticism criticized by Hoeneß after poor results.

It was a very difficult task because Wolfsburg played a particular style and Steve McClaren inevitably was to about to change that.  Not to mention, the team spirit needed fixing too after confidence dropped. To employ a man that doesn’t specifically know Wolfsburg inside-out was most certainly a courageous (later wrong) and risky decision because there were various problems that needed addressing ahead of tactics. Perhaps he was appointed to motivate the squad or McClaren was simply misunderstood as a genius who led FC Twente to their title.

August to January

Wolfsburg first game of the season was without the number 10 playmaker (although Zvjezdan Misimovic was later brought on) against Bayern Munich as Schweinsteiger netted a last minute winner (2-1). The following two matches under Steve McClaren saw his 4-2-3-1 system in place and resulted in two defeats; one against Mainz (3-4) after leading 3-0, and Borussia Dortmund (0-2).  McClaren decided to revert back to Wolfsburg familiar 4-3-1-2 after stern words from Hoeneß which saw three subsequent victories.

Soon followed a mixture of three defeats, one draw and one win. Then came an incredible seven consecutive draws going into January. There were several problems with the team –  switching back to 4-2-3-1 again, playing Mario Mandžukić on the wing, unnecessary experimenting with Diego (or just Diego in general), Edin Džeko being unmotivated and of course the team still with lacking a distinct character on the field. That was not entirely Steve McClaren’s fault, but these characteristics that needed addressing did not appear to be prioritized by the Englishman, and it was Dieter Hoeneß responsibility to fix as well. Steve McClaren was also still not entirely familiar with the club and its’ workings so the problems were inevitable and in a sense perpetuated.

January and beyond – chaotic problems.

Edin Dzeko’s €32 million sale to Manchester City in January was by then inevitable.  His replacement (in Dieter Hoeneß mind) was Patrick Helmes (flopped) with Tuncay Şanlı (rarely used) and Dieumerci Mbokani (loan and flopped) being back-up options. Despite the obvious struggles on the pitch, Steve McClaren continued playing 4-2-3-1 after Edin Dzeko’s departure. Grafite was the lone-striker and the team looked broken on the pitch and gutless in front of goal without their talismanic departed captain Edin Dzeko.

Two more defeats followed at the end of January – one against Borussia Dortmund (0-3) and Hannover (0-1), which was the final straw.  Dieter Hoeneß again criticised McClaren: “I don’t know why we play with 1 forward, we only play with with 2 forwards.” There was also an incident with a penalty vs Hannover when 0-1 down where Diego stole the ball off Patrick Helmes (desired penalty taker under Steve McClaren), which the Brazilan subsequently missed and was then banned for the next match. Few days later Steve McClaren was sacked.  The problems were far from over though.

The facial of Pierre Littbarski says it all.

The assistant manager, Pierre Littbarski, had to fill in as the caretaker but only managed one victory in five matches.  The main problem was trying to base the team solely around Diego as Edin Dzeko had now left but the Brazilian struggled to shine in that role. Pierre Littbarski tried giving Diego total freedom on the pitch (something Steve McClaren apparently didn’t do after giving him too many instructions)  Uncharacteristically, Diego was able to perform well only against last placed Gladbach in that role.

Felix Magath returns.

On the other end, Felix Magath wasn’t exactly lighting the league on fire at Schalke.  He was eventually fired after the board and fans lost patience. Just two days later, he was dramatically re-appointed as Wolfsburg manager to essentially come to their rescue. Dieter Hoeneß also left the club which brought more good news (rare occasion) to the Wolfsburg supporters.

Magath was quick to bring out his favorite training toy - the medicine ball.

Felix Magath merely had two days to prepare against Stuttgart.  The match eventually ended in a 1-1 draw after Niedermeier’s last minute equalizer. Wolfsburg were unfortunate not to collect their first win under Magath.  After that match, Magath immediately claimed how stunned he was with the poor fitness levels of the players and criticized how poorly the training methods must had been -which was addressed immediately. Of course he is notorious for his strict training regimens- aiming to bring the best fitness levels out of his players no matter how grueling the methods (according to most).  Thus returned the medicine balls and lead jackets to prep his team for survival.

One major benefit was that Felix Magath knew Wolfsburg inside-out so he could address the problems that needed fixing immediately although it wasn’t going to be fixed over night.

Another saving grace was the fact that Mario Mandžukić looked like a completely different player under Felix Magath. After being poorly utilized by McClaren, the Croat claimed he was delighted with Magath’s understanding of  his role as a centre-forward and not as a wide player. Consequently, eight goals followed for Mandžukić under Felix Magath which were his only goals this season.  All turned out to be crucial however and after the departure of Dzeko, a goal scoring hero was a welcome return for the Wolves.

Relegation drama – Felix Magath saves Wolfsburg.

The major obstacle of course was the fact that Wolfsburg were by now caught up in a serious relegation battle. After four games without a win since Magath’s arrival, things started to become extremely tense and just about anything was possible at the bottom of the standings.

The 2-2 draw against St.Pauli brought huge concerns seeing as they were Wolfsburg’s relegation rivals and it looked like the surest of wins in the run in. The following week Wolfsburg beat FC Köln 4-1 which was the first victory under Magath.  That was followed with a 1-0 away win against Werder Bremen. With two games to go, Wolfsburg lost 2-1 to Kaiserlautern meaning everything was to be decided on the final day.  It was to be one of the most dramatic finales to a Bundesliga season.

The situation was the following; Wolfsburg (15th) and Borussia M’gladbach (16th relegation playoff) were both on 35 points while Eintracht Frankfurt were just a single point behind. What ensued on the final match day was simply incredible.  Before Wolfsburg played Hoffenheim, there another dramatic incident involving Diego as the Brazilian  walked out on the team after finding out that he would start the match on the bench.

Mario Mandzukic blossomed under Felix Magath.

When Borussia M’gladbach took the lead against Hamburg, and Eintracht Frankfurt went ahead against Borussia Dortmund – the pressure was on Wolfsburg.  As it stood, Wolfsburg were going down. Just after half-time, Hoffenhiem took the lead and everything looked to be going against Wolfsburg – almost being dead and buried at one point. Soon, everything turned around – with Hamburg equalizing and Borussia Dortmund taking the lead.  Mandžukić again stepped up and put Wolfsburg ahead with a brace and Grafite’s deflection off a shot rounded up a 3-1 victory.  Wolfsburg had their destiny in their own hands and after their win  Magath’s mission was accomplished in dramatic and glorious fashion.

Wolfsburg survived but Felix Magath’s association with the club was absolutely crucial. Not just tactically, but he knew what needed to be done physically and mentally. This upcoming summer he can continue to fix and improve the squad which leaves only one potential problem: what will Wolfsburg do in the event of Magath leaving again?

Feel free to leave a comment below.

You can read @man20c thoughts on Wolfsburg and football in general on his blog.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

2 Comments

  1. When the club starting looking better during all those consecutive draws, thought that would be the turning point of the season–after all, it would have taken just a bit of luck or one extra run to turn 1 point into 3. Really, I’m just curious as to what happened with Helmes. Why did they bring him in and sit him so often after having dealt Dzeko?

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