My piece for the Boot Room on Wolfsburg’s poor season.
Wolfsburg’s season began with much promise but is coming to a disappointing end. The Wolves sit in tenth place with 39 points, six points away from a European spot, and three games remaining. The highs of last season are a distant memory.
Wolfsburg were the closest challengers to the dominant Bayern Munich in 2014/15, even dismantling Pep Guardiola’s side 4-1 late in the season. Ten points were the difference between first and second place in the end but a return to the Champions League beckoned. The highlight of the season came with Wolfsburg’s first ever German Cup triumph. Borussia Dortmund were the opponent on the night and Wolfsburg’s good results against Germany’s top two teams continued with a Super Cup win over Bayern at the beginning of this season.
Wolfsburg would have wanted to build on these achievements but this season has stopped them in their tracks. It’s difficult to pinpoint one major factor, though the first thing that comes to mind is the departure of talisman Kevin De Bruyne. The loss of a key attacker would hamper any team but Wolfsburg were not significantly weakened after that deal was concluded. Injuries and dips in form are expected each season and the Champions League schedule was actually easier to contend with than the previous seasons Europa League exertions. All these things played a role in Wolfsburg’s poor season.
Brazilian defender Felipe has missed the entire season, Diego Benaglio has endured various periods out with injury, and players such as Robin Knoche and Veirinha spent decent time on the sidelines. Bas Dost, the club’s top scorer last season, recently returned from a lengthy spell out and both Sebastian Jung and Julian Draxler are finished for the season. Dost’s time away from the field means it’s difficult to assess whether he could have replicated his 16-goal haul from last season. His current tally of eight goals in the Bundesliga in 18 games is decent but not spectacular.
A look at the Bundesliga table shows a side that has been distinctly average. The Wolves have picked up 13 points from 14 games in the second half of the season, good enough for 16th place in that period. The 42 goals scored and 43 conceded so far pales in comparison to last seasons 72 goals scored and 38 conceded. The problems on both ends of the pitch suggest there are a number of players besides Dost who failed to replicate last seasons form. That is further highlighted by the fact that only five players, six if you count the departed Ivan Perisic, managed a WhoScored rating over seven.
Things have just not come together domestically for Wolfsburg, with the poor league campaign compounded by an early exit from the German Cup. The Champions League provided more moments of optimism than may have been expected.
A manageable group including Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow was concluded with Wolfsburg surprise winners. The reward was a tie with Belgian side Gent and Wolfsburg obliged with victory in either leg to progress. A tie with Real Madrid awaited and the German side were; rightly, considered extreme underdogs. A brilliant performance at home led to a 2-0 victory that gave the Wolves firm command of the tie. Dieter Hecking was unable to lead his team to an upset victory as a poor approach in the opening half handed Madrid the impetus and, eventually, the tie. Reaching the quarter-final and being dumped out by Madrid is no shame but Wolfsburg could, and really should, have progressed.
A return to Europe, preferably the Champions League, would have been the least expected from this side regardless of other achievements. Hertha Berlin and Mainz have crashed the top six party and surprised all but Wolfsburg’s failure is mostly of their own doing. The capitulation in the 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich early in the season was a sign of things to come and last weekends loss to relegation-threatened Werder Bremen, a side beaten 6-0 earlier in the season, added further salt to the wounds.
Wolfsburg must now look to the summer to regroup. A season of inconsistency should not be the norm for a side wanting to become Germany’s best. Hecking should stay on given his previous successes and the squad will be given the necessary upgrades throughout the squad. The Champions League will have to wait another year but Wolfsburg’s plan will be to take part on an annual basis.