BY ALEX BROTHERTON
VFL Wolfsburg find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. The one-time Bundesliga champions face a relegation play-off; a two-legged affair against Eintracht Braunschweig for the right to play in the Bundesliga next season. Their downfall has been rapid, their current position a far cry from their successes of two years ago.
The 2014-2015 Bundesliga season saw Wolfsburg looking to establish themselves as one of Germanyâ€™s top teams. An attack focused side spearheaded by rising star Kevin De Bruyne and a prolific Bas Dost secured the Wolves second place in the league, as they also ventured to the quarter-finals of the Europa League. They crowned those achievements with a DFB Pokal Cup, defeating JÃ¼rgen Kloppâ€™s Dortmund side to win their first piece of silverware since their 2008-2009 Bundesliga triumph.Embed from Getty Images
Add a German Super Cup win over Bayern Munich to this, and all seemed rosy in the Wolfsburg garden. In fact, one wouldâ€™ve been forgiven for expecting Wolfsburg to consolidate their position close to the summit of German football. Expected to march into the next campaign, challenging Bayern for the title, their form since has represented more of stumble than a march. But how did this happen?
One thing should be made clear; this is not a tale of a plucky underdog, with minimal resources, having success cruelly snatched away from them. Wolfsburg, from the small industrial town of the same name in Lower Saxony, are financially well-backed. They were founded in 1938 as a team for the workers of Volkswagen and have been owned by the automobile giants ever since. Much like with Hoffenheim and the infamous RB Leipzig, many German fans object to Wolfsburgâ€™s corporate ownership, achieved by their side-stepping of the 50+1 rule.
The rule stipulates that at least 50% + one share are owned by members of the club, meaning that the club members hold the majority of voting rights. However, in the case that a company (e.g. Volkswagen) has funded a club for a continuous period of twenty years, said company may have a controlling stake in a club. Therefore, unlike the majority of teams in Germany, Wolfsburg are not a fan owned club. This has won them little sympathy for their current predicament, as they are seen as a modern profit generator rather than a traditional club of the people.
A lack of quality signings has prevented the Wolves from building on the success of 2014-15. This hasnâ€™t been due to a lack of funds, but simply poor judgement. The sale of Kevin De Bruyne in August 2015 raised a cool Â£62million pounds, just over half of which was spent on his replacement, Julian Draxler. The promising German struggled for consistency in his only full campaign, recording five goals and five assists. Nonetheless, Arsenal and PSG showed interest and he duly handed in a transfer request. After a drawn-out saga, which included his own fans booing him at the Volkswagen Arena, he was sold to PSG at the beginning of 2017. De Bruyneâ€™s record breaking season left big boots to fill (16 goals and 27 assists in all competitions), but Draxler fell short of filling them.
Other slightly less high profile recruits have been and gone, such as AndrÃ© SchÃ¼rrle and Max Kruse, neither doing much to halt the teamâ€™s decline. Even after their mixed 2015-16 season (Wolfsburg finished 8th in the Bundesliga but reached the Champions League quarter-finals, beating Real Madrid 2-0 in the first leg) their transfer dealings donâ€™t appear to have improved.
The ageing Jakub Blaszczykowski has not been an adequate replacement for Daniel Caligiuri, while Jeffrey Bruma has disappointed since replacing defensive stalwart Naldo. Forwards Paul-Georges Ntep and Borja Mayoral were drafted in mid-season to try and improve the situation, but their efforts proved to be just as fruitless. In fairness, the signings of Yunus Malli and veteran Mario Gomez have proved successful, the latter providing 16 goals. But that has not been enough.Embed from Getty Images
Of course, one could argue that two managerial sackings in the same season have not helped to steady the ship. Long term coach Dieter Hecking only lasted until October and his successor, ValÃ©rien Ismael, until February. Since then Andries Jonker has taken control of another managerâ€™s squad, but has brought about no real improvement.
The fact of the matter is that Wolfsburgâ€™s recruitment has been poor, and the blame for that goes to the clubâ€™s hierarchy. Not improving on your playing talent in such a competitive league is a recipe for regression, even relegation, it seems.
So, after losing 2-1 at Hamburg on the final day of the season, Die WÃ¶lfe will face a local derby in the two-legged relegation play-off. The familiar foes will be Eintracht Braunschweig, looking to return to the top division for the first time since their relegation in 2014. Braunschweig will visit the Volkswagen Arena with confidence; the former fortress now a much easier proposition than before. In Wolfsburg the memories of 2009 and 2015 live on, but they seem ever more distant by the day.
FOLLOW ALEX ON TWITTER @alex_brotherton