Bundesliga side Wolfsburg have appointed former Bayern Munich and Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel as head coach. The Dutchman had a fearsome reputation as a player, but he will be a junior partner in Wolfsburg.
Mark van Bommel's reputation precedes him in Germany.
From the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) broadsheet to Spiegel magazine to the tabloid BILD, the German sports media have all hailed the return of the so-called "aggressive leader" to the Bundesliga this week, as the new VfL Wolfsburg head coach.
What to English ears might sound like a bizarre title from North Korea is in Germany the nickname once conferred upon van Bommel by former Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, in appraisal of his Dutch captain's robust performances in midfield.
Van Bommel made 183 appearances for Bayern from 2006 to 2011, winning two league and cup doubles in 2008 and 2010, but also picking up more han 50 yellow cards.
"As a player, he was a master of dirty tricks," according to the SZ. "His core characteristics were extended legs, stuck-out elbows, balled fists and snappy words aimed at spectators, opponents and occasionally even at teammates."
Still, you don't win league titles in the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Italy, nor win the Champions League, nor reach the World Cup final after being crowned Dutch Footballer of the Year twice, just by being dirty.
"I never liked that label, but I never got rid of it," van Bommel himself has said, preferring to emphasize his role in turning defense into attack. "You enjoy it when you intercept play and play a good pass for a goal. It's not so noticeable, but it is important for the team to intercept passes."
As a player, van Bommel's philosophy was clear. As a coach, however, since his retirement in 2013, less so. The 44-year-old has worked in youth football in the Netherlands and as assistant to Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk with the Saudi Arabian and Australian national teams.
But his only job as head coach at PSV Eindhoven ended after just 75 games in charge, a second-placed Eredivisie finish and a Europa League group stage exit described as "not worthy of PSV" by the club's general director.
Now, at Wolfsburg, who Oliver Glasner led to a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League last season, the inexperienced van Bommel will encounter an even tougher taskmaster: Managing Director Sport, Jörg Schmadtke.
Schmadtke arrived in the Autostadt, the "automobile city" which is home to Volkswagen, in June 2018. VfL Wolfsburg, established by Volkswagen employees in 1945, had just survived back-to-back relegation playoffs – a significant fall from grace for a club which had finished second under Dieter Hecking in 2015 and gone on to beat Manchester United and Real Madrid in the Champions League.
But Schmadtke, with the help of sporting director Marcel Schäfer, has turned Wolfsburg's fortunes around. And he's done it his way – even when that has meant crossing swords with successful coaches.
Despite leading the team from the relegation playoff to the Europa League, Bruno Labbadia opted not to extend his contract due to disagreements over transfers, while Glasner didn't get the players or the guarantees he wanted either, despite leading Wolfsburg back to the Champions League for only the third time in the club's history.
"The ideas which came from [Glasner] were not doable," Schmadtke told the local Wolfsburger Allgemeine Zeitung in November. "This isn't fantasy land; you can't want things which are unrealistic."
Despite benefiting from significant financial support from parent company Volkswagen as one of three Bundesliga exemptions from the 50+1 ownership rule, belts have nevertheless had to be tightened in Wolfsburg in recent years. Following the emissions scandal which rocked Volkswagen in 2015, the company's investment in the football team was cut by 30% to around €75 million ($91.3m).
And Schmadtke's transfer policy reflects that, from striker Wout Weghorst (20 goals last season) and winger Ridle Baku (eight assists and six goals) to midfield engine Xaver Schlager to full-backs Kevin Mbabu, Paulo Otavio and Maxence Lacroix. Talisman Maximilian Arnold has also hit top form, as has central defender John Anthony Brooks, while Schmadtke is already lining up a move for Cologne defender Sebastian Bornauw.
"Schmadtke shines in the shadows; quaint, analytical, different," writes the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "His sense for what makes ambitious pros tick is what makes him one of the most successful pioneers in the league at the moment."
Now Wolfsburg are convinced that van Bommel has what it takes to pick up the baton and continue the club's progress, despite his inexperience and his strong personality.
"Even as a player, he used to think like a coach and would question everything," says Andries Jonker, who worked with van Bommel as assistant coach to Louis van Gaal at Bayern Munich, and who also coached Wolfsburg briefly in 2017.
"He demands a lot from himself and he demands that from the rest of the team, too. Even if he was unhappy with the warm-up, because he thought the players weren't concentrating, he would be angry in the dressing room and tell them so. You need these emotions and this personality when you want to achieve great things."
If he wants it to be, Wolfsburg could be an important step for van Bommel's fledgling coaching career. But he'll have to accept pretty quickly that there is only one "aggressive leader" in the Autostadt these days.