VfL Wolfsburg are relative newcomers to the Bundesliga, first promoted in 1997 and winning the title in 2009. Years of instability followed until the 2014/15 season when Kevin De Bruyne inspired the Wolves to a second-place finish in 2014/15 and victories in the DFB Pokal and Super Cup. Last season was a disaster, manager Hecking and sporting director Klaus Allofs sacked with Bundesliga survival eventually achieved through the playoffs.
Verein für Leibesübungen Wolfsburg e. V. originated in 1945 as a club set up for the Volkswagen workers that populated the city. Owned and run by the powerful Volkswagen Group, the Lower Saxony club play at the 30,000 capacity Volkswagen-Arena and have been Bundesliga regulars since their first promotion in 1997.
Die Wölfe (The Wolves) enjoyed their most successful period under Felix Magath, the autocrat appointed in July 2007 as CEO, sporting director and head coach. Wolfsburg flourished with a fifth place finish in 2007/08 and qualification for the UEFA Cup, but there was more to come from Magath.
Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga title in 2008/09, guided by strikers Grafite and Edin Džeko who scored an amazing 28 and 26 goals respectively. Magath believed he had fulfilled his mission at Wolfsburg and joined Schalke, departing with the prophetic statement: “This team is young and is bound to develop further in the future.”
It wasn’t to be. A succession of management failures resulted in disappointment on the pitch until Dieter Hecking took charge in January 2013. Securing a fifth place finish in 2013/14, Kevin De Bruyne inspired the Wolves to a second place finish in 2014/15 and victories in the DFB-Pokal and Super Cup.
Despite De Bruyne’s €74m move to Manchester City, the 2015/16 season started well for Wolfsburg who were third in December and topped their Champions League group. Defeating Real Madrid 2-0 in the quarter-final first leg at home was a high point, but Ronaldo’s hat-trick in a 3-0 defeat in Spain ended their European campaign with an eighth place finish in the Bundesliga another disappointment.
An exodus of players left the Volkswagen-Arena last summer with Naldo, Dante, Max Kruse, André Schürrle and Bas Dost all departing. The majority of their replacements proved disappointing however, Hecking sacked after seven games with Wolfsburg in 14th position. Valérien Ismaël took over but after just four wins in his first 16 games, sporting director Klaus Allofs paid the price and was sacked.
38-year-old Olaf Rebbe was promoted to sporting director in January, wasting little time in dismissing Ismaël who was sacked in February. Former Wolfsburg assistant manager and head of Arsenal’s youth academy Andries Jonker was given the task of guiding the Wolves away from danger.
The Dutch manager’s reign started well, but despite Mario Gomez’s productivity, five defeats in the final eight matches including an electrifying 2-1 defeat at Hamburg on the final matchday consigned Wolfsburg to a relegation playoff. They defeated Eintracht Braunschweig 2–0 on aggregate to remain in the top flight, a joyous end to a forgettable season.
54-year-old Andries Jonker boasts a wealth of coaching experience at youth and assistant levels, serving as Netherlands youth coordinator from 1990-97 and as Louis van Gaal’s assistant at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Wolfsburg’s assistant manager from 2012-14, his familiarity with the clubwas a factor in his appointment with Rebbe stating: “He is an internationally experienced coach and a proven tactician.”
Jonker’s main task is to rebuild the confidence and belief in a squad which appeared mentally broken last season. Their fragility was cruelly exposed as Bayern Munich came to town on matchday 31 and destroyed the Wolves 6-0, Jonker telling Deutsche Welle: “They told me they haven’t been sticking to the plans the coaches have proposed them in the past. I’ve told them, stop that. You can’t work if you’re not all committed to the plan.”
Despite his vast experience, this is Jonker’s second job managing a top flight team after an unspectacular 47 games in charge of Eredivisie strugglers Willem II from 2007-09. Jonker talks a good game, but his tenure and legacy at Arsenal was not universally applauded and the Dutchman has a long way to go before convincing he is the long term solution at Wolfsburg.
Out: Ricardo Rodríguez finally departs Wolfsburg after years of speculation, the versatile player off to AC Milan for €18m. Promising 20 year-old left sided defender Jannes Horn was snapped up by Köln for €7m, midfield enforcer Luiz Gustavo leaving for Marseille for €10m.
Veteran Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio moves to Monaco on a free transfer. The 33-year-old departs after making 259 Bundesliga appearances and most ever for Wolfsburg, but reached a deal to return to the club in a new role when he eventually retires.
In: John Anthony Brooks was signed from Hertha BSC for €17m, the 24-year-old Berlin born central defender becoming the most expensive American player in history. Ohis Felix Uduokhai adds depth to central defence with the promising 19-year-old Germany U20 international signed for just €1m from 1860 Munich.
Two right backs have been acquired, 22 year-old Brazilian William from Internacional for €5m and 33-year-old former Augsburg captain Paul Verhaegh signing a two-year deal. Luiz Gustavo was replaced by 27-year-old Ignacio Camacho, brought in from Málaga for €15m while 22-year-old left winger Marvin Stefaniak joins from Dynamo Dresden for €2m.
Two 19-year-old forwards were signed to boost the attack. England youth international Kaylen Hinds follows Jonker to Wolfsburg from Arsenal for an undisclosed fee and has scored three goals in five pre-season appearances, the Wolves paying €10m for Congo DR born Belgian striker Nany Landry Dimata who scored 14 goals for Oostende last season.
Mario Gomez – The 32-year-old striker scored 18 competitive goals last season, half the amount of the entire squad. A veteran of over 250 Bundesliga games, Gomez flourished after Jonker took charge, scoring 11 goals in Wolfsburg’s final 13 matches and scoring in the play-off first leg against Eintracht Braunschweig.
Gomez had an option to leave Wolfsburg but chose to stay, saying: “I have complete confidence in our team, the club and the fans, and have therefore made the decision to play here next year. I feel very good here and believe the club can be successful.” Expected to captain the side after the Benaglio’s departure, Gomez is the undisputed leader on and off the pitch.
Jonker’s plans for Gomez are quite clear, as he revealed to Deutsche Welle: “What I’m doing is trying to use his quality, so I’m trying to make him stay in the box. Don’t go in the midfield, don’t go to the outside, stay in the box and I try to give my players options how they can deliver the ball to him so he can make the goals.”
U21 player to watch:
Nany Landry Dimata – The 19-year-old striker was born in the DR Congo but chose to represent Belgium for whom he has played from U17 level. Powerful and fast, Dimata has drawn comparisons with compatriots Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke, following in the footsteps of Vincent Kompany and Axel Witsel by winning the Pro League’s Young Player of the Year award.
Bought for a respectable €10m, Dimata has solid positional sense, scoring 14 goals at Oostende last season with many of them close range headers. Sporting director Rebbe stated: “Nany is a young, versatile front man, whose potential to develop is something we have been paying great attention to for quite some time. He is quick and determined. He will definitely develop with us.”
After riding on the back of the irreplaceable Kevin De Bruyne in 2014/15, Wolfsburg proved incapable of spending their substantial funds wisely and deteriorated on the pitch. Many players sunk to the levels of those around them, apparently infected with demoralisation and simply unable to recapture their form at previous clubs.
After finishing runners-up to Bayern Munich just two seasons ago, 2016/17 couldn’t have been much worse but Bundesliga survival was achieved. It has been a dramatic fall from grace, but The Wolves can now enjoy a fresh start under Jonker and Rebbe with much work to be done in the quest for a return to European football.
Jonker’s inexperience managing a top flight club is a concern while 39-year-old Rebbe is new to the sporting director role. Wolfsburg need to prove they are not over reliant on Mario Gomez but there is certainly enough talent in the squad to achieve a top half finish. One way or another it’s set to be an interesting season at VfL Wolfsburg.
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