The 2009 Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg are staring relegation in the face in 2011. DW Sports looks at what went wrong with a team which once looked like it could shake up the league's old order.
Diego was supposed to inspire. It hasn't worked out that way
What Wolfsburg fans wouldn't give for the chance to turn back the clock two years. Match day 32 of the 2008/2009 season saw the Wolves hammer Bremen 5-1 to give them a two-point lead at the top of the table with two games to go. Bayern Munich were in hot pursuit, but Wolfsburg appeared to have the whiff of destiny about them. And so it came to pass - Wolfsburg, against all odds, won the league.
Fast forward to the last days of the 2011 season and the contrast is shocking. While Wolfsburg under-performed last season, crashing out of the Champions League group stage and finishing eighth in the league, they have imploded massively during this campaign and face the very real prospect of being relegated. Their emphatic 4-1 win over Cologne will have to turn into a win streak if they want to haul themselves all the way clear.
"It all looks unstructured and chaotic at the moment compared to the championship season," Jan Daldrup from the Bundesliga Offside told Deutsche Welle. "It also seems that the players have had problems adapting to the situation of having to fend off relegation instead of competing for Europe. The team lacks a proper hierarchy and has no backbone. It appears as if every player is doing his own thing at the moment."
Class of 2009
The current Wolfsburg team can't look to the best of their title-winning players, stars like Edin Dzeko or Zvejdan Misimovic, to get them out of trouble as this season nears its dramatic end. Both of them, along with other Class of 2009 stalwarts like midfielder Christian Gentner and defender Andrea Barzagli, have since deserted the sinking ship. Grafite, their 28-goal man of 2009, is still on board but has managed just eight goals this season.
Edin Dzeko moved on and the goals began to dry up
Dzeko's replacements, meanwhile, have had an even worse time of it. Patrick Helmes may has six goals to his name on the season but all but one came in the red of Bayer Leverkusen before his January transfer. Mario Mandzukic has shown signs of life, but still has scored just five times. And Dieudonne Mbokani? None at all.
In fact, Dzeko remains Wolfsburg's top league scorer this season with 10 goals, despite leaving for Manchester City at the start of the year. That says as much about the big Bosnian's worth to Wolfsburg as it does the inadequacy of their remaining strikers.
Former Werder Bremen and Juventus playmaker Diego was brought in to replace Misimovic but while showing flashes of his past creativity and contributing six goals so far, the erratic Brazilian has failed to find consistency this season. Moreover, he has exhibited his frustration through a series of petulant acts - acts which may not have garnered the red cards they have deserved, but have undermined team spirit and continuity nonetheless.
It could be argued that selling 12 of the 2009 title winning squad over the past two years was a terrible idea, especially considering most of the replacements have been of a lower standard than those departing. Helmes, for example, is a fringe German international and a proven goal scorer at Cologne and Leverkusen, but he has not looked like a player with a big enough character or physical presence to carry the team the way that Dzeko did.
Helmes can score but can he carry Wolfsburg on his own?
Diego comes out of the top drawer when it comes to ball skills, but he appears ill-suited to the role of team leader. Rather than inspiring his teammates, the Brazilian appears aloof, at times even frustrated with the mediocrity of those around him.
"Bad transfers certainly played a big role - or rather a bad transfer strategy," Jan Daldrup said. "Each coach brought their own idea of soccer to the club and tried to reshape the squad accordingly. They took apart a team molded on Felix Magath's ideas but couldn't put it back together: Armin Veh's unsuccessful attempt to turn Wolfsburg into a possession team and Steve McClaren’s ill-fated 4-2-3-1 formation."
When McClaren came in as coach, then-Sporting Director Dieter Hoeness made it clear that he had to build a team around the brilliant-but-unreliable Diego and Edin Dzeko, “who so obviously wanted to leave," Paul Chapman said. "We've seen how that worked out for them."
"Cashing in on Dzeko in January was also very bad timing," Chapman added. "Suddenly there was no focal point for the team. the goals dried up and relegation became a reality."
Should the worst really happen, the Wolves can probably expect other clubs to come in and pick off their star assets on the cheap. Looking at the current starting eleven, this could mean the departure of defenders Simon Kjaer and Arne Friedrich, Diego, Grafite - even Helmes if he values his international future.
Will Magath hang around if he can't keep Wolfsburg up?
There may also be question marks over the coach's future. Would Felix Magath stick around to manage in the second division? Would the club's hierarchy want to keep him? Could they afford to sack him after barely half a season back in charge?
"Felix Magath is totally confident of Bundesliga survival but he must have some nagging doubts because he again confirmed recently that he will stay with the Wolves if they get relegated," Chapman said.
Keeping star names and a highly-decorated coach at a club that has dropped down a division is always difficult and only the most loyal of players and bosses will stick around rather than putting their career before the future of the club. An important factor in this respect would be the amount of investment the club’s corporate parent Volkswagen would be willing to make to get it back into the top tier. Would they give Wolves a cash injection, or walk away and cut their losses?
"Wolfsburg's relegation would be an unprecedented situation as no company- or billionaire-backed club has ever been relegated," Daldrup said. "Normally clubs take a big financial hit and thus need to radically reduce their wage budget or sell players. Wolfsburg won't have to worry about that, unless VW says so. But maybe VW will do just that and use the 'opportunity' to give their marketing toy a new humble makeover; reduce the financial support and let the team work with a reduced budget for wages and transfers."
Whatever happens, relegation or survival, Wolfsburg are going to need a complete overhaul in the summer, either to get back into the top tier or to prevent another season focused on avoiding the drop.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann