By Manuel Veth –
It was not too long ago that VfL Wolfsburg was thought to become the biggest challenger to Bayern Munich’s dominance of German football. Wolfsburg, fuelled by the investments of Volkswagen and guided by the clever management of manager Dieter Hecking, and sport director Klaus Allofs, put together a team that finished the 2014-15 Bundesliga season in second place, and then went on to win the DFB-Pokal final against Borussia Dortmund.
The team which consisted of several superstars such as the Belgian, Kevin de Bruyne, the Croatian, Ivan Perišić, the two Brazilians, Luiz Gustavo and Naldo, as well as the Swiss left back, Ricardo Rodriguez, seemed ready to take the league by storm.
One year later, however, de Bruyne (to Manchester City), Perišić (to Inter Milan), and Naldo (to FC Schalke 04) have left the club. Furthermore, Rodriguez, and Luiz Gustavo may soon follow, as both have stated that they could leave the club this summer.
VfL Wolfsburg – What Happened to the VW Club?
This brings us to the question: What happened? There are really two key events that could explain some of the reasons for Wolfsburg’s problems. The first was the departure of Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City last summer. His departure left many at the club with a sense that Wolfsburg wouldn’t be able to challenge Bayern Munich at the top of the table after all.
Perišić later told Gazzetta dello Sport: “One of my reasons to leave was because I didn’t feel we could compete with Bayern Munich. Wolfsburg didn’t buy the players that were necessary to close the gap to the very top. On top of that, some players, who couldn’t be replaced, left the club.”
To be more specific, the Croatian felt that de Bruyne’s departure couldn’t be replaced, despite the fact that the club had received €80 million from Manchester City for the Belgian attacking midfielder.
In some ways, Allofs must have felt that the €80 million received from city could give the club the necessary cash to make possible the next step in the team’s development.
After all, Wolfsburg was limited in terms of spending on new players due to the fact that the club was under Financial Fair Play investigation by UEFA, and also because the club was restrained from spending excessively due to the Volkswagen Scandal—VfL Wolfsburg’s owner, the Volkswagen Gruppe, had manipulated the emissions of several models of diesel cars and was facing massive lawsuits in Europe and the United States.
At the time, Klaus Allofs was adamant that Volkswagen would continue to make large investments into the club. In fact, some of the money that Wolfsburg received for de Bruyne was reinvested, as the club signed Julian Draxler from Schalke 04 for €34 million.
Wolfsburg Could not Compensate De Bruyne’s Departure
Although the German national team player had a strong European Championships background, he often failed to truly impress at his new club. Following his notable showing at the Euros, Draxler has told Allofs that he would like to leave Wolfsburg to join a bigger club abroad—the likely destination appears to be Arsenal.
The club also bought Max Kruse from league competitors Borussia Mönchengladbach for €12 million, but various scandals—he reportedly lost €75,000 in poker winnings in a taxi—as well as poor performances, have meant that Wolfsburg have now told the striker to look for a new club.
In short, recent signings have just not worked out for the club. Another example is André Schürrle, who was signed from Chelsea for €30 million in February 2015, but could never be fully integrated into Dieter Hecking’s tactical plan at Wolfsburg. Schürrle has now been sold to Borussia Dortmund, and it is likely that the winger will blossom there next season, as Dortmund’s manager Tuchel had originally discovered Schürrle.
The three above-mentioned players, in particular, were thought to be the cornerstones of the new Wolfsburg after both Perišić, and de Bruyne left the club. But after Hecking failed to fully integrate the three national team players and, following the Volkswagen scandal, the club never managed to put a string of good results together.
Wolfsburg’s Lewandowskiesque Meltdown
In fact, Wolfsburg’s most notable performance came in the first half against Bayern Munich in September. But then, in the second half, Bayern’s striker, Robert Lewandowski, scored five goals in nine and a half minutes. Fittingly, the game came within days of the uncovering of the Volkswagen scandal, an event that seemed to have affected the club and the whole city more deeply than the protagonists are willing to admit.
Following the result in the above match, the club continued to struggle and only managed an eighth place finish in the Bundesliga and, as a result, failed to qualify for international football. In fact, only Wolfsburg’s strong performance in the Champions League, protected the management of the club from more criticism—Wolfsburg won their group ahead of PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, and CSKA Moscow, and then reached the quarterfinal against Real Madrid, where they came close to eliminating the Spaniards, losing 2:3 on aggregate (2:0, and 0:3).
Ultimately, failure to qualify for Europe now means that several players want to leave the club. Aside from Schürrle who, as mentioned above, is already gone, Draxler, wants to leave sooner rather than later—it is rumoured that the Swiss left-back will be gone soon.
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) July 22, 2016
Other players, such as the Brazilian, Luiz Gustavo, who has been linked with a move to China, and the French midfielder Josuha Guilavogui, who has received an offer from Champions League participant AS Monaco, have been open about the fact that they want to leave the club.
Last Season Illustrated the Biggest Weakness of the Wolfsburg Project
Indeed, last season illustrates the biggest weakness of Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg project. Even without UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulation, the club has difficulty finding players who can be convinced to commit to the project long term. After all, this is the second time that the club has experienced the disintegration of a successful side.
In 2009, the club won the German championship but, within hours of winning the trophy, the club was already falling apart, as manager, Felix Magath, decided to leave the club for Schalke 04. Several players followed, most prominently star striker, Edin Džeko, who moved to Manchester City in 2011.
Following the 2009 season, Wolfsburg desperately tried to maintain their level by spending money on expensive signings. But their acquisitions, such as the Brazilian Diego, often proved either to have difficult temperments or to lack motivation when playing for Wolfsburg.
Klaus Allofs has Resurrected Wolfsburg Before
It was not until the arrival of Klaus Allofs in 2013 that Wolfsburg again started to make the right decisions on the transfer market. But, despite having plenty of cash to throw around, Wolfsburg has a big disadvantage in that the city is located far from the attractive metropolitan centres of Germany. Hence, star players only made the move if they either had fallen from grace elsewhere, such as de Bruyne (Chelsea) and Perišić (Borussia Dortmund), or were attracted by the big money offered, such as Diego (from Juventus).
Allofs’ strategy of focussing on discredited star players seemed to work well until those players regained their form and, once again, became attractive for bigger clubs in more exciting cities. The hope, then, was that the club could compensate these players. Now, however, without Champions League football, it will be even harder to keep star players in Wolfsburg, or to sign new ones to replace the likely departures.
Hence, Hecking and Allofs presently face a difficult task, which is to rebuild a club without the promise of Champions League football. Also, the handicap that star players could leave will make it even more difficult to attract new players. Yet, there are two positives: One is that Volkswagen has renewed its commitment to the club and the second is that Allofs has shown before that he is a capable sporting director, who can resurrect a club that seem to be in trouble.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.