The decline of VfL Wolfsburg: From Bundesliga champions to the brink of doom

Wolfsburg

Champions of Germany less than 10 years ago, VfL Wolfsburg nearly slipped down the trapdoor of relegation this season. So what went wrong exactly?

Volkswagen must be casting envious glances at Red Bull this season. Even though RB Leipzig have taken over the mantle of being disliked for their ownership structure amidst the 50+1 rule, they are soaring high through excellent management.

The newly-promoted side finished second in the Bundesliga this season to the Bavarian giants Bayern Munich. Volkswagen’s team VfL Wolfsburg, on the other hand, found themselves having to negotiate a tricky end-of-season relegation play-off against the third-placed side of the 2.Bundesliga, a local derby versus Eintracht Braunschweig. How did it come to this?

Though not as dramatic as Paderborn’s three consecutive relegations to the fourth tier, Wolfsburg’s travails have been a major talking point of this season’s Bundesliga. Usual European contenders Borussia Moenchengladbach, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen have had their own troubles this season, but Wolfsburg have outdone them all.

The former Bundesliga champions have been in the bottom half since gameweek four, and their struggles sound like they belong to an alternate reality given their quality on paper. But this has rarely transferred onto the pitch. In the regular league season they won just 10 games.

From title challengers to relegation troubles

Rewind back to 2014, when the picture was much rosier. Wolfsburg racked up 20 wins from 34 games in the 2014/15 Bundesliga season on the back of consistent excellence from Kevin de Bruyne, who was on his way to reaching world-class levels of attacking brilliance.

De Bruyne’s 16 goals and 27 assists in all competitions (10 and 21 in the league, a Bundesliga record) saw him pull the strings in midfield, allowing Bas Dost to rack up 16 goals of his own.

Wolfsburg took off after a shaky start that saw two losses and two draws in their first five games. By game week 10 they had climbed to second, a position they maintained for the rest of the season.

They were entertaining, too. A 4-1 home win over eventual champions Bayern Munich courtesy of a brace from Dost and de Bruyne was the highlight. But there were high-scoring wins versus Leverkusen (5-4, including four goals from Dost) and Werder Bremen (5-3).

A second place finish in the league coupled with a DfB-Pokal triumph – the first German Cup in the club’s history – and a Europa League quarter-final constituted a very successful season. The question was whether they would build on this success in future seasons.

They started off well enough in 2015 with a Super Cup victory over Bayern. But every successful season brings the vultures to town and Wolfsburg were unable to keep them at bay. The loss of Kevin de Bruyne cannot be understated – he was their world-class playmaker, but a £55 million could not be resisted, as he left for Man City on the penultimate day of the window.

Along with Ivan Perišić’s departure to Inter Milan the side was significantly weakened, even with the replacements of Julian Draxler – touted as world-class but having stagnated – and Max Kruse.

The 2015/16 domestic campaign saw them fall out of the European places by the start of the Rückrunde. It was a loss of form triggered by the Robert Lewandowski show in Munich when he scored five in nine minutes. They eventually finished eighth, five behind European spots.

Even enjoyable European nights couldn’t provide solace. A 3-2 win over giants Manchester United put them into the Champions League knockouts. They won the first leg of the quarter-finals versus eventual champions Real Madrid 2-0, blowing the lead in the second leg. But if they thought no Europe in the following season would help them, they were in for a rude awakening.

Wolfsburg’s slide begins

There were some smart signings on paper in the off-season – headlined by the young Yannick Gerhardt, while Jeffrey Bruma, Daniel Didavi and Philipp Wollscheid all helped to bolster the squad. Experience was added in the form of Jakub Błaszczykowski and Mario Gomez. But the sales of Kruse, Dost and Dante hurt, and so do their successful seasons at their current clubs. Moving on Andre Schürrle and Naldo did nothing to help a disjointed squad.

Dieter Hecking, their manager of four years, was sacked after just one win in their first seven games. It was a record that new manager Valérien Ismaël did not improve to a great degree. Two wins in 14 games condemned Wolfsburg to the bottom four, and from then on consistency was rarely found.

Further investment in the winter (Riechedly Bazoer, Paul-Georges Ntep and Yunus Malli) have failed to be the ray of sunshine that Wolfsburg needed, and the sale of Julian Draxler to Paris Saint-Germain for big money did nothing to help the instability.

Ismaël was sent on his way after a loss to Bremen after Week 22. But Andries Jonker, former academy manager of Arsenal, along with assistant Freddie Ljungberg, has done nothing to help the woeful form. After thrashings to Schalke (1-4) and Bayern (0-6), they limped into the final game week with a crunch match against Hamburg. A point would confirm safety.

They had it in the bag for 88 minutes. But then Hamburg’s birthday boy Luca Waldschmidt popped up with a header to dash Wolfsburg’s hopes and send them into the play-offs.

In the Champions League just a year ago, Wolfsburg found themselves stepping into the unknown – against local rivals no less. It’s a Volkswagen derby. VW’s Spanish division Seat sponsor Eintracht, with the town home to their finance arm and its oldest plant.

This was not supposed to happen to Wolfsburg. After all, they were also meant to finish in the top half, at least. They dominated the first leg of the play-off but only came away with a 1-0 lead courtesy a Mario Gomez controversial penalty. The second leg was more open and Vierinha managed to secure safety for Wolfsburg.

Ultimately, Wolfsburg dodged a bullet, and it may be the wake-up call they needed to get back to business. The club have paid €17m for John Brooks, the American centre-back from Hertha. That will help their defence, though he is a tad expensive.

The Volkswagen bosses would have slept uneasily in the build-up to the play-offs, but now that they have survived, they must ensure this does not repeat. Second chances don’t come often.

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Words: Rahul Warrier  | Main image credit: Ungry Young Man via Flickr

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