Wolfsburg have sent a message with their weekend drubbing of Schalke. The club may be four years removed from a Bundesliga title but, with their means and the addition of Luiz Gustavo, European qualification is a must.
When Wolfsburg announced they'd signed Bayern Munich midfielder Luiz Gustavo last week, it showed where their aspirations lie. The 26-year-old was the anchor of the Brazil side that dazzled at this summer's Confederations Cup. After making it known he wanted to leave Bayern, he was reportedly courted by a number of clubs, including Arsenal.
Yet Gustavo chose to remain in the Bundesliga, joining a club that last year failed to make even the Europa League. The Wolfsburg management, however, is adamant that this season is different. They want to put the disappointment that has followed their 2009 league triumph behind them and again join Germany's best.
"We are delighted that we have managed to convince Luiz Gustavo with our vision and that we could win him over for both [Wolfsburg] and the Bundesliga," said club manager Klaus Allofs at Gustavo's unveiling. "The fact that we won the race against several international competitors is proof of the status enjoyed by Wolfsburg."
Gustavo, who had fallen far down the pecking order in Bayern's deep midfield, wanted consistent playing to give him the best shot of playing for his country at next summer's World Cup in Brazil. At Wolfsburg he will get that, and possibly much more.
"I am excited about the new challenge," he said. "[Wolfsburg are] a top club with a great concept and I am happy to be staying in Germany."
The Wolves, who are backed by the finances of carmaker Volkswagen, always spend money in the offseason. They had already brought in Tim Klose from Nuremberg and Freiburg's Daniel Caligiuri, in addition to return of Koo Ja-chool, who had shown promise on loan at Augsburg. But Gustavo's reported 20-million-euro ($26 million) transfer to Wolfsburg was the club's most important signing yet. Outside of Mario Götze moving from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern, it is the summer's biggest piece of business among Bundesliga clubs.
"The likelihood of us proving successful with Luiz Gustavo is very high," said Allofs. "Now we are just happy to have him here and we hope to enjoy many years of successful cooperation."
Plenty of depth
Wolfsburg are still some ways off the impressive form that saw them win the Bundesliga. Gone are the days of Edin Dzeko and Grafite combining for 54 goals up front, with Zvjezdan Misimovic and Josue pulling the strings from midfield. All four have since departed, but this year's edition of the Wolves provides plenty of attacking oomph.
On paper, Wolfsburg's central midfield is almost as packed as Bayern's, admittedly on a slightly different level. Koo, Diego, Tolga Cigerci, Jan Polak and Maximilian Arnold are all capable of playing through the middle, in addition to longtime anchor Makoto Hasebe.
On the wings, Ivan Perisic and Vierinha are an intimidating threat. Caligiuri, who is recovering from an injury and is yet to play this season, was a key creative force behind Freiburg's success last season.
Up front there are still question marks. Could Bas Dost, who arrived with plenty of hype last season after lighting up the Dutch top flight, finally become the top-tier forward Wolfsburg were hoping for? Will 33-year-old Ivica Olic produce the goods in what he has said is his final Bundesliga season? And what about Patrick Helmes? The former Germany international made a splash upon his arrival in January 2012, but has since struggled with long-term injuries.
In defense Wolfsburg look promising. Klose was brought in to replace the departed Simon Kjaer and Naldo looks as strong as ever, even as he approaches his 31st birthday. Then there is 20-year-old Left back Ricardo Rodriguez, who seems to be going nowhere but up.
So can Wolfsburg really return to Europe for the first time since they won the league? Anything less would have to be a disappointment. With the amount of money they've invested thus far, maybe even the Champions League isn't out of the question. Bayern and Dortmund are almost certain to finish in places one and two, meaning the Wolves must compete with favorites Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke for the Bundesliga's "best of the rest" title.
A 2-0 defeat in Hanover to open the season was not exactly the kind of performance that Wolfsburg were hoping for, but an early red card to Arnold certainly didn't work in their favor. The dominant performance this weekend against Schalke was a different story. After a scoreless first half, Wolfsburg switched into gear and Robin Knoche, Vierinha, Naldo and less-hyped new signing Stefan Kutsche all got on the board.
Gustavo was slotted directly into the starting lineup. Completing an impressive 98 percent of his passes during his 75 minutes on the pitch, he looked every bit the player that Bayern purchased from Hoffenheim in 2011.
The new signing’s performance did not go unnoticed, and Allofs had only glowing words for Gustavo after the match.
"Luiz showed that he fits us perfectly," he said. "He exudes a pure will to win and he's brought calmness. You get the feeling that everyone enjoyed the extra quality and security."
The Schalke match was an important rebound from Wolfsburg's lackluster opening day performance, but their 4-0 win may have every bit as much to do with Schalke's terrible defending. The Gelsenkirchen club have a penchant for starting poorly and have thus far conceded seven goals and earned just one point from their first two games.
Nonetheless, the victory was an important achievement and, according to Gustavo, a benchmark for what's to come this season.
"We showed against Schalke what we can do. What we want to continue to do," he said. "It was a sign of something we want to reach this season."
The club's next big test will be away to Leverkusen on September 14. Just two weeks later they travel to Munich to face Bayern.