By Amy Eustace, writing from Dublin.
Sat down today to try and make sense of the chaos at VfL Wolfsburg, a club I have followed on and off since the wake of their championship winning 08/09 season. Since then, many things have changed. Felix Magath, the coach who achieved what seemed impossible with the Lower Saxony side, has moved on to Schalke. Edin Dzeko, who netted over twenty goals that year, has taken up the Premiership challenge at Manchester City. Armin Veh, Magath’s immediate replacement for the 09/10 season, now plies his trade at Hamburger SV - just a short drive west of Wolfsburg. Lorenz Gunther-Kostner, Wolfsburg’s reserve team coach, replaced Veh as caretaker manager until the end of that season, before returning to his original position when the permanent job was taken by Steve McClaren. As of yesterday, February 7th, Wolfsburg’s manager is Pierre Littbarski - assistant coach under McClaren, on an interim basis. Confused yet? I am.
That’s four managers in the space of two years - four managers since Wolfsburg clinched the Bundesliga crown in spectacular fashion. Where did it all go wrong?
To put the club into context, Wolfsburg, the city, sprung up around a Volkswagen factory, and the club has long been associated with - and is now wholly owned by - Volkswagen Group. Their 2008/2009 Bundesliga title is the only one to their name. The fifth place achieved in Magath’s first season (2007/2008) was their highest ever position at the time, and came after two successive 15th place finishes. Now, Wolfsburg are in 12th. Last year, they finished 8th.
Admittedly, this season has been unusual, as far as things can be unusual in the Bundesliga. The young Borussia Dortmund team led by Jurgen Klopp sits in first with a twelve point advantage over second-placed Bayer Leverkusen. Last year’s champions, and Champions League finalists Bayern Munich lag 15 points off the pace in fifth. But Wolfsburg have less than half of Dortmund’s current tally, despite finishing just seven points behind them last season.
It’s not as if the powers that be haven’t spent serious money in order to improve on Wolfsburg’s disappointing finish last year. A brief spell in the group stage of the Champions League last season - including a visit from Manchester United - would have boosted the budget for McClaren in the summer. Outgoings of Zvjezdan Misimovic (to Galatasaray, £7m) and Obafemi Martins (to Rubin Kazan, £7m) also added to the kitty that allowed for the arrivals of highly rated Danish international Simon Kjaer, former Werder Bremen midfielder Diego, German World Cup squad member Arne Friedrich, and Dinamo Zagreb striker Mario Mandzukic, among others.
The “Wally with a Brolly” as he was not-so-affectionately known following that infamous loss to Croatia at Wembley under English showers had a strained relationship with many in the Wolfsburg camp. A few weeks ago fans of Die Wolfe brandished umbrellas and signs reading “Wir-lassen Euch nicht im Regen stehen, ihr uns” (We cannot stand in the rain, you tell us) amid a seven-game long streak of consecutive draws, and just before their DFB Pokal exit at the hands of Energie Cottbus, after which Dieter Hoeness gave him the ominous ‘vote of confidence’. Then, Dzeko went on his merry way to the sky-blue side of Manchester, but not before a spat of his own with the English manager. Despite all that, for a moment or two after the winter break concluded, things began to look up. Before any of the massive £27m transfer fee deposited in Wolfsburg’s coffers had been spent, Wolfsburg secured (yet another) draw, this time against Bayern Munich, and then a victory - at last! McClaren went about looking for new signings - and brought in three. Stoke City’s Tuncay, Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrick Helmes and Anderlecht’s Jan Polak.
The bubble was soon burst, and the club is now one point off the relegation zone after the 1-0 defeat to Hannover that sealed McClaren’s sorry fate. It was not even simply the defeat itself, but the manner in which it happened. McClaren’s own signing, Diego, won a penalty in the 80th minute that could have secured another of their specialty draws and, ignoring the protest of the manager’s designated penalty taker, Helmes, proceeded to smack the ball straight at Hanover’s keeper.
Perhaps an experienced captain would have intervened, but twenty-six year old Marcel Schafer only earned the armband last month following Dzeko’s departure. The third captain Wolfsburg have had since they won the league - then it was Josué, who has been blighted by some injuries and has not always featured in McClaren’s plans, while Dzeko was made captain in the summer (perhaps to delay his exit) - Schafer is a smart young man with a good head on his shoulders, but Wolfsburg’s tumultuous times have not made for an easy transition from club icon to responsible leader. At the time the question of captaincy arose, I thought a nod to hard-working right-back Sascha Riether was in order, or former Hertha Berlin captain Arne Friedrich, or even McClaren’s stated second-choice, goalkeeper Diego Benaglio. Schafer has been ineffectual thus far - it is a role he must grow into, if only the atmosphere at VfL was conducive to that sort of growth.
In any case, the Hannover defeat was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Wolfsburg. Dieter Hoeness (former Bayern Munich player and brother of the Bavarian team’s chairman, Uli) had this to say in the club’s statement regarding McClaren’s dismissal: "We were no longer convinced that we could complete the season in a stable fashion working together with Steve McClaren. We all tried our very best until the final day but unfortunately our belief in success is no longer present. Following the most recent negative results, as well as the impression left by the poor first half of the season, we now really can’t afford to underestimate our position in the table. The fact that we are just one point off the relegation zone is alarming. For all of us now, the absolute focus must be on increasing the distance between ourselves and the relegation places."
Assistant coach, and former member of Die Mannschaft, Pierre Littbarski has taken hold of the reins from now until the end of the season. Littbarski, a prolific goalscorer for FC Koln in his day and previously a manager of Sydney FC, did not hesitate to make his promoted presence felt, immediately suspending Diego. “We are not Diego FC.” he said, “This should be a little kick in the teeth for him.” A no-nonsense approach is needed, perhaps, to reign in the unrest in the Wolfsburg camp.
But before Wolfsburg can truly look to the future, the club’s board must take stock of their surroundings. Their rise to the pinnacle of German football was perhaps all too swift. Traditionally, Wolfsburg are not known as a top flight team, not, anyway, like the usual suspects - Munich, Leverkusen, Stuttgart, Hamburg et al. They sit a desperate 21st in the historic rankings of the Bundesliga, with only Freiburg, St. Pauli, Mainz and Hoffenheim lagging behind them of the current 1. Bundesliga crop. Felix Magath and his terrific successes may have been one in a million, and no doubt Armin Veh and McClaren have suffered greatly as a result of comparisons to the man who brought glory out of nowhere.
Magath’s shadow still hangs heavy over the club, and the ghost of Dzeko lingers - all reminders of the greatness they once achieved. The sooner Wolfsburg reevaluate their ambitions, and realise that that greatness might only come along once in a blue moon, the better for everyone.