VfL Wolfsburg Preview: Kevin and Perisic go large
VfL Wolfsburg enjoyed an excellent 2013/2014, a season in which the 2009 Champions finished 5th – their best return in the league since those heady days – which, thanks to an excellent Rückrunde, has set die Wölfe up for what seems like a yet more promising season, with a very real chance of breaching the top four spots. The squad is much stronger than at this point last season, with the addition of depth, with the likes of Sebastian Jung and Aaron Hunt adding to the side’s defensive and midfield ranks, as well as blooding of youngsters such as Robin Knoche and Junior Malanda, and of course, some headline signings, including Belgium star Kevin de Bruyne, who returns to Wolfsburg off the back of an impressive World Cup.
These improvements have added to what was already a very deep and impressive squad; Wolfsburg are one of the few clubs in the Bundesliga who can be run in a similar way to an English club, with automobile giants Volkswagen bankrolling the whole operation; despite having some of the league’s smallest attendances, die Wölfe can stretch to large transfer fees and larger wage bills than you’d expect. Still, the playing side of the club needs to be run well, and this has been an area of the club which has been riddled with problems since their title win back in 2009, employing no less than four different managers – 6 if you include caretakers (including two spells for Lorenz-Günther Köstner) – but the balance finally seems to have been struck with the current man in the hotseat, Dieter Hecking. While Hecking is not the most exciting managerial personality, and doesn’t play the most tactically interesting style of football, he has run a steady ship at Wolfsburg since taking the job 18 months ago, easily negotiating a mid-table finish after some Magath mayhem had left the club in trouble earlier in the season, before the aforementioned 5th place.
It’s been a steady 18 months or so of development for Hecking as well as his squad. If this is to continue, though, Hecking will have to find a way to crack both Europe and domestic competition at the same time; he’s not had to contend with European football at all in his managerial career so far, which could prove a major stumbling block if he or his side don’t get to grips with the level immediately.
Nevertheless, Wolfsburg’s stated aim will be for a second consecutive stab at European glory, whether in the Champions League or Europa League. Anything less would – at least considering the ambition of the club, visible in their signings and audible in the noises coming from their camp – be a failure of vast proportions, and could quite rightly bring Hecking’s so-far successful stint to an abrupt end. The stakes are high for die Wölfe, and the purchase of a top forward – something Wolfsburg have targeted all summer long – is still in the early stages, having already missed out on Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku.
The New Boys
Wolfsburg’s summer business started, honestly speaking, late last season, with the addition of midfielder Aaron Hunt on a free, after the Werder Bremen man’s contract expired at his old club. Perhaps better known to non-Bundesliga fans as that half German, half English guy who’s quite good, Aaron Hunt was easily Werder Bremen’s best player over the past 3 or 4 seasons, and has worked with Wolfsburg’s sporting director Klaus Allofs before – when Allofs was at Bremen, obviously – which was, no doubt, a large part of the reason Hunt made the switch to Wolfsburg in the first place, given the reported interest from the likes of Besiktas.
One large question raised by the arrival of Hunt, though, is where he’ll find his slot in the team – indeed, if he’ll even managed to carve out a starting role. The likes of Luiz Gustavo, Kevin de Bruyne and Ivan Periši? are fairly nailed-on starters in midfield, with Maximilian Arnold, Vierinha, Junior Malanda and Daniel Caligiuri all competing for starting roles too, which could limit Hunt’s impact; as good as he is, a lot of his best moments at Bremen came from being the key man, which he already clearly is not following this change of scenery. That said, we should see a different side to his game, perhaps, allowed to play solely to his own strengths rather than carrying passengers – which is what Bremen’s midfield has been for the last few seasons, basically.
The other signing – another strong move by Allofs, too – is Sebastian Jung. The right back came from Eintracht Frankfurt for a fee of €2.5m, with his stock having stalled a little after that excellent season when Frankfurt reached sixth as a newly promoted side; whether this was the added load of games that Jung had to contend with, being a one-season wonder, or just a slight temporary dip in fortunes is up for debate, and we’ll likely find out more this season, but even in his unimpressive most recent season, Jung showed glimpses of why people are touting him as a potential long term replacement of Philipp Lahm for the German national team. While there are actually better candidates, that’s slightly irrelevant in this instance and that Wolfsburg have managed to sign a player who is clearly highly rated – probably more so on promise than actual ability at this stage, admittedly, for a fee of just €2.5m is absolute crazy. For parallels, look at Callum Chambers’ move to Arsenal – Chambers is a bit younger, and a bit more promising, but the difference in quality is not, and will never be equivalent to over £10m. In that respect, great business by die Wölfe.
Another point to make is that Wolfsburg are in the market for a striker, but any moves have so far – as has already been mentioned – proved futile. They do really need one – no team aspiring to a top 4 finish should hang their hopes on the shoulders of an ageing (yet still good, in parts) Ivica Olic and constantly injured (yet still good, in parts) Bas Dost. Perhaps the most intriguing link that is still possible is a move for young AS Monaco starlet Anthony Martial; aside from being ridiculously good on Fifa, Martial has the benefit of being talented and well regarded, having made 19 professional appearances for two of France’s top clubs – Lyon and Monaco – at just the age of 18. That’s ridiculous. He’s scored only two goals along the way, which might hint at him being a longer term solution, if indeed he does sign at all, but it would be a statement of intent from Wolfsburg, who are also linked with Fernando Torres – which begs the question: why?
The Key Men
Kevin de Bruyne is the highest profile name in VfL Wolfsburg’s ranks and with good reason; de Bruyne was Belgium’s main man at the World Cup, having made the £20m switch to Wolfsburg last season. A creative midfielder who really needs no introduction, de Bruyne also played alongside Aaron Hunt in his breakout season on loan to Werder Bremen; quite clearly, a re-ignition of this partnership would really benefit the rest of the team, especially with the potential lack of goals up top. Ivan Periši? will be another key player in this area; the offensive midfield is clearly Wolfsburg’s best position, and Periši? is returning to Wolfsburg off the back of a seriously impressive Rückrunde and having been one of Croatia’s brighter sparks during their mixed bag of a World Cup campaign.
In goal, Diego Benaglio will again be crucial; with the Swiss custodian missing for parts of the last season, Wolfsburg realised that back-up goalkeeper Max Grün just isn’t on quite the same level as the usual starter. Benaglio is seemingly irreplaceable wherever he goes – still a nailed-on starter for Switzerland despite strong competition from Yann Sommer and Roman Bürki, Benaglio is probably one of Wolfsburg’s most important players – when he’s on song, the rest of the team invariably are, too. At the age of just 30, Benaglio’s not even reached his peak yet – which is a scary thought.
Finally, viewers of Wolfsburg games should keep an eye on Ricardo Rodriguez, the Swiss left back whose set pieces are some of the most dangerous aspects of Wolfsburg’s (and the Swiss national team’s) play. Rodriguez knows where the goal is, whether from free kicks or penalties, scenarios in which he has a great record from, as well as setting up a lot from corners and indeed open play. So, what we’ve established is that Ricardo Rodriguez is a very good full back going forward – is that it? No. Rodriguez is also a formidable defender, and Wolfsburg were very rarely troubled down the left hand side last season – the right hand side was always much weaker. That sort of begs the question as to why Rodriguez is still at Wolfsburg, but whatever – with the addition of Jung, that side might not even be a problem area anymore, and so it’s hard to see Wolfsburg having any real defensive weaknesses whatsoever next term, what with Naldo and Knoche’s good partnership at centre back and the likes of Timm Klose in reserve. The defence – with Benaglio behind it – is easily Wolfsburg best asset, and if they can find goals, they’ll have a great season.
It would take not being able to cope whatsoever with Europe for Wolfsburg to fall apart massively – and that could be laid directly at Dieter Hecking’s door, should it happen. But it has to be said that, should a prolific striker join this already formidable squad, a top 4 push should be attainable. It’d take one of the others falling off, or a ridiculously strong season, but it could – and probably will happen. And, given their outlay over the past few years, Wolfsburg would, quite honestly, have no grounds to celebrate anything below a top four finish.