Injuries, disciplinary problems and mutinous fans aren't making life easy for Bruno Labbadia, Wolfsburg's third coach this season. The Wolves are fighting for their lives again as they welcome high-flying Schalke.
"Wolfsburg's squad consists of big names and a lot of quality," said Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco ahead of the Royal Blues' trip to the Autostadt this Saturday, which is why he is surprised that VfL Wolfsburg find themselves in a relegation battle for the second year in a row.
It has been a dramatic fall from grace for Wolfsburg. German Cup winners in 2015 and Champions League quarterfinalists a year later, Wolfsburg dared to be a new force in German football. A team that in 2015 recorded the 14th highest wage bill in Europe and the second highest in the Bundesliga though, has been anything but daring since.
After Dieter Hecking, Valerian Ismael and finally Andries Jonker preserved Wolfsburg's top-flight status via the relegation play-off last season, Jonker was replaced by Martin Schmidt who in turn made way for Bruno Labbadia this season. For the second year in a row, the Wolves have had three head coaches in one campaign.
Labbadia – a man with more experience in relegation battles than he would like – led Stuttgart to safety in 2011 and rescued Hamburg in dramatic fashion in 2015. It's clear why Wolfsburg feel he was the right man to appoint. But having failed to win any of his first three games with Wolfsburg, the 52-year-old faces perhaps his toughest challenge yet.
Injuries aren't helping. John Anthony Brooks, Yannick Gerhardt and Jakub Blaszczykowski are long-term absentees while Admir Mehmedi has suffered a rare ligament tear in his foot and faces a few weeks out. Daniel Didavi and Divock Origi are also battling for fitness while French midfielder Josuha Guilavogui will miss the game against Schalke with a back injury.
"We don't have a huge number of options in certain positions," said Labbadia. "We have to rely on a lot of team spirit." But even that appears to have been undermined after four players were fined for turning up late for training ahead of last week's 3-0 defeat to Hoffenheim.
"They've been punished and we had a very clear discussion with the team," confirmed Labbadia.
Big money, big names, small returns
According to this year's UEFA licensing benchmarking report, Wolfsburg had the 16th highest wage bill in all of Europe for the 2016 financial year – more than England's Everton and Italy's Inter Milan.
This season, only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga have spent more than Wolfsburg's €67.25m ($82.9 million). The front four that started against Hoffenheim cost a combined total of €27m, not including the highly-rated Daniel Didavi who arrived on a free transfer from Stuttgart.
They are eye-watering figures for a team sitting joint 16th in the Bundesliga – but money doesn't guarantee goals. While Didavi has contributed six goals and six assists this season, Divock Origi, Yunus Malli and Admir Mehmedi have only managed another 11 between them.
Collectively, Wolfsburg have only managed 28 goals this season – the fifth weakest attack in the Bundesliga. Nowhere near good enough for this group.
"Without work, without football, without passion - without us!" Wolfsburg fans organized a partial boycott of the Bayern Munich game.
In the first half of the season, Wolfsburg were able to rely on a steady defense. Only Bayern Munich, Frankfurt, Schalke and Bremen conceded fewer goals before Christmas, which goes some way to explaining Martin Schmidt's record run of seven draws in his first seven games in charge.
But having conceded 15 goals already this calendar year – including six in three games under Labbadia – that security at the back has evaporated too.
"We defenders know that the team is having problems scoring goals," Dutch defender Jeffrey Bruma told the Wolfsburger Allgemeine Zeitung. "So when we concede a goal, we all know that it will be even more difficult to win the game. It gets into your head."
How the Wolves are missing a defensive leader such as Naldo. The Brazilian left Wolfsburg for Schalke in 2016 and also thinks a collective effort is required at his former club.
"It's not an easy time for them right now but I think Wolfsburg have enough quality," he told DW in an exclusive interview. "They just have to play more as a team, everyone has to run for each other - only then will it work."
Even with eight games left in the season, Wolfsburg are running out of time to make it work.
Elsewhere on Matchday 27:
– Bayern Munich can wrap up a sixth straight Bundesliga title with a win away at RB Leipzig on Sunday evening, provided Schalke and Borussia Dortmund both fail to win. It would be the Bavarians' earliest ever title triumph.
– Borussia Dortmund will be hoping that Wolfsburg can take points off Schalke before they welcome Hannover to the Westfalenstadion on Sunday. The Black & Yellows are still unbeaten in the Bundesliga under Peter Stöger, but are coming off a humiliating Europa League exit against Red Bull Salzburg.
– After an impressive win over Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen will be hoping to continue their march back to the Champions League when they head to local rivals Cologne. There's little love lost between the two sets of fans but a derby win over the "Werkself" might soften the blow of a seemingly inevitable relegation for the "Billy Goats."
Matchday 27 fixtures (all times CET):
Freiburg vs. Stuttgart (Friday, 20:30)
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Hoffenheim (Saturday, 15:30)
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Mainz
Augsburg vs. Werder Bremen
Hamburg vs. Hertha Berlin
Wolfsburg vs. Schalke (Saturday, 18:30)
Borussia Dortmund vs. Hannover (Sunday, 13:30)
Cologne vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Sunday, 15:30)
RB Leipzig vs. Bayern Munich (Sunday, 18:00)