It would be fair to conclude that Wolfsburg have failed to live up to performances of the last campaign. The club, backed by car manufacturers Volkswagen, finished second to Bayern Munich the year before and appeared to be set to launch a strong challenge for the Bundesliga championship.
But the vultures had struck: Ivan Perisic and Kevin de Bruyne were swooped away by the end of August. The De Bruyne transfer has had significant ramifications for Wolfsburg on-and-off-the-pitch, some of which to the detriment of this season’s ambitions. The Belgian assisted 22 goals last season for the Wolves in their runner-up season, which concluded with a superb German Cup win over Dortmund.
Manchester City tossed 74 million euros ($80 milion) in Wolfsburg’s direction to make the 24-year-old the most expensive player to come out of Germany’s top division. But the prolonged bargaining for the huge price, which considering the club’s ownership model is practically obsolete, sucked out any momentum left from the final win in Berlin.
The negotiations dragged on past the first four games of the campaign. As the speculation mounted around the Belgian’s future, his performances inexorably declined. The Wolves were fortunate to beat Frankfurt before drawing in Cologne where De Bruyne was notably disappointing. Such an anemic start to the season all but put pay to any notion of the club challenging league-leaders Bayern Munich.
But to the credit of sporting Klaus Allofs, the move to bring in Schalke attacker Julian Draxler was a statement of intent for the club at 36 million euros ($39.2 million). The 22-year-old sounded out Germany coach Joachim Löw and was keen to compete in the Champions League. Draxler has helped the team become more possession-focused, a unique trait for German clubs at the moment.
The fact Wolfsburg have adjusted better to Champions League football is little surprise, with a win over Manchester United securing their first-ever passage into the Last 16. In turn, they have earned a date with Belgian side Gent, arguably the most favorable clash of the seeded teams.
There’s an argument, however, that Wolfsburg’s Champions League encounters could destabilize their season further – Dieter Hecking’s men have failed to win in 50 percent of their games in weekends after European football. Seventh in the table, three points behind the fourth Champions League spot, any further setbacks might become a problem for the Wolves.
Ahead of the Bundesliga’s restart this weekend, Wolfsburg are preparing to cope with the loss of Dutch striker Bas Dost. Last season’s top scorer with 16 league goals has seven already this term, but will be out of action for six weeks. "I’ll try with the players that are available to find the best combination, which should give us as many goals as possible," said Hecking whose side won all three bounce games in the winter training camp.
Hecking, 51, boasts an exceptional talent in 27-year-old Max Kruse who has been the preferred option in attack when Wolfsburg has played in the Champions League. Stalky and strong, but blessed with outstanding mastery of the ball and with a precise eye for his teammates, Kruse has to be considered as one of the best ‘false-nine’ forwards on the continent. There may be more to come from Kruse this summer at the European Championships in France, if he continues his development.
He cost the Wolves 12 million euros ($13 million) from Bundesliga rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach and has reserved most of his best performances for Europe. When Kruse is able to combine with Vieirinha, Draxler and Daniel Caligiuri, Wolfsburg have a dominant, confident front-four to match their competitors in the league. The quartet in attack should be enough to power the club to the Champions League quarterfinals for the first-time.
What would be fascinating to see – now with Dost injured for a sustained spell – is whether Hecking and Wolfsburg could replicate the Champions League style in the Bundesliga. Only Bayern, Dortmund and perhaps Mainz encourage a style that appreciates the dominance of possession, while the rest of the division focuses on high-pressing and counterattacking play.
Allofs, the chief behind Wolfsburg’s transfer business, has counted almost 12 million euros ($13 million) for Timm Klose who joined Norwich City this week. Danish forward Nicklas Bendtner will likely be moved on following a disappointing spell with the club, but Allofs has ruled out any move for Ricardo Rodriguez. "In the Champions League, we have convinced, whereas in the Bundesliga not," Allofs said when based in Portugal for the winter break. "We believe we have prepared really well for the second half of the season."
The winter break couldn’t have arrived at a better time for Wolfsburg who ended 2015 with four league games without a win. The first five matches before the clash with Bayern Munich will be a solid indicator as to whether the Wolves have the capability to bridge the three-point gap to fourth place. While carrying Champions League form into the Bundesliga is the expectation, Europe’s premier tournament itself might prove a hindrance if the club wants to extend their continental adventure for another season.