Story of VfL Wolfsburg : Analyzing how quickly fortunes change in football
VfL Wolfsburg, a lower Saxony club in the city of Wolfsburg, finish 5th in the Bundesliga; just a point away from a Champions League spot. After winning the Bundesliga in 2008-09 on the final day of the season, the club struggled for a few years until the 2013-14 season, qualifying for Europa League under the newly appointed coach Dieter Hecking. Die Wolfe were very clever in the transfer market, signing match winning players like Luiz Gustavo from Bayern Munich and Kevin De Bruyne from Chelsea. The future looked bright after a promising season, one that truly surpassed the fans expectation.
They wished to continue their super form. They aimed to secure a Champions League spot. By this time, Wolfsburg had become good players in the transfer market and earned themselves the services of certain match winning players. Their squad now comprised of some big-name players like Kevin De Bruyne, Schurrle, Bas Dost, and Ivan Perisic.
Experience was never a problem, as the club had veterans like Naldo, Diego Benaglio, Marcel Schafer, Luiz Gustavo to name a few. To add to this, the wolves also had some great young talent in the form of players like Ricardo Rodriquez or Maxi Arnold.
As expected, the wolves had a great season. They finished 2nd in the league. Out of the 34 games played, they won 20 and only lost 5. They won the Domestic cup, beating Dortmund 3-1 in the final. Though they could have done better in Europa League, it was a good season overall. However, the most memorable day of the season was winning 4-1 against Bayern Munich at home.
By this time, all the experts were predicting the Bundesliga to be a two- way race between Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg. The season started with the traditional Super Cup to be played between the League and the Cup winners. VfL were the eventual winners, beating Bayern Munich 5-4 on penalties. Even though Wolfsburg had earned a big name for themselves across Germany, they were still considered a small club in Europe. They had only participated once before in the Champions League, getting knocked out in the group stages itself.
Further, the brilliant performances of Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic saw them joining the higher ranks at Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively. Nevertheless, Wolfsburg did bring in Julian Draxler from FC Schalke as a replacement for De Bruyne. They had built a decent squad. As the season ended, Wolfsburg, who were expected to be title challengers, finished 8th in the League.
They lost to Bayern Munich in the Domestic cup in early rounds. Yet exceeded all expectations in the Champions League, as they knocked out Manchester United in the group stages, whilst themselves topping the group. They did not stop here. Facing Real Madrid in the Champions League, they showed tremendous courage in beating them 2-0 at home. It was once in a lifetime kind of performance.
Season 2016-17 and Season 2017-18:
The season started badly. They lost many players in transfer window and the replacements failed to deliver over the season. On paper, the wolves looked like a solid side. Yet, on the pitch, they lacked any sort of coordination. Whilst, it became clear that Wolfsburg would no longer finish in the top 6, it was shocking to see them finish 16th in the Bundesliga. It was a nightmare, and something that people were finding hard to believe. Eventually, the wolves did survive relegation after a 2-0 win on aggregate in the relegation playoff.
Having encountered one of the worst seasons ever in the history of the club, the fans hoped for a turnaround of fortune. It was necessary that the players stick together. Neither of this happened, the few remaining impact players like Mario Gomez, Ricardo Rodriquez, Gustavo and captain Diego Benaglio left the club. The club had changed their coach 4 times. As things stood, the wolves again finished 16th scoring a record low of 33 goals. They again survived winning the relegation playoff 4-1 on aggregate.
So what really went wrong for Wolfsburg?
1. They were poor in the transfer market. They let their main players go out easily and the replacements simply weren’t good enough.
2. The club did not keep enough faith in the management. Frequent changes of coaches and sporting director did not help and led to instability.
3. The players did not play like a team and many were/are at the club only for money.
What is the way forward?
Identify, a good coach and sporting director and keep faith in them. Be smarter in the transfer market. Buy players who really want to be a part of the club and make a difference. Lay out their long-term goals for the next 5 years whilst having short term goals. The Wolfsburg story only highlights how quickly fortunes can change in football.