Wolfsburg stuttering nervously to survival

Wolfsburg stuttering nervously to survival

When Bruno Labbadia was announced as the new manager of Wolfsburg two months ago, supporters of the struggling Bundesliga club were under no illusions as to the reasons behind such as appointment: imperative survival. His arrival was announced less than 24 hours after Martin Schmidt’s resignation, with the club perched just a point above the relegation play-off spot. Labbadia, a coach that comes with a certain label attached- that of relegation-battle specialist, earning this tag from successful battles against the drop at Stuttgart and Hamburg respectively.

Six weeks later, and Wolfsburg remain in a parlous position after their 0-0 stalemate at home to Augsburg on Friday evening, an uninspiring encounter that resulted in a player sent off for either side in the second half.

It was the fourth time in five matches that Die Wölfe failed to score; but, more immediately, was seen as a golden opportunity missed to put daylight between themselves and Mainz in the relegation play-off position. Events on Monday evening proved just so- between the meeting of the two clubs directly below, Mainz and Freiburg. The former emerged victorious- be it in the midst of sheer VAR pandemonium, subsequently leapfrogging their opposition. The relegation play-off scenario is now tighter than ever with all three clubs’ sitting disconcertingly on 30 points- Freiburg currently occupy the play-off spot due to their most inferior goal difference.

Labbadia’s arrival in February failed to yield any instant upturn in fortunes or any sign of a “new manager bounce”, earning just one point from his first four games in charge, signifying the club’s decline and reaffirming the urgent need for an antidote.

Their 2-0 victory at Freiburg on 7 April was crucial, and tellingly, the triumph was the first time they had scored two goals in a game in 2018. There was, however, a distinct imbalance and lack of ideas to their play against Augsburg, despite an increased sense of purpose in the second period. But such a dearth in confidence and profligacy has been synonymous of the last two, turbulent campaigns at the Volkswagen Arena.

Their current stagnation feels light years away from the stable partnership enjoyed under sporting director Klaus Allofs and head coach Dieter Hecking- those heady heights of a Bundesliga runners-up spot, a DfB Pokal trophy and Champions League football. Both departed in the final quarter of 2016, precipitating a change in the club’s fortunes and, remarkably, since then, four head coaches have been and gone.

Aside from a concerning managerial turnover rate, Wolfsburg’s pratfalls from this season and last can also be attributed to an unconvincing use of the transfer market rather than lack of investment. Signings that include the highly-rated Spanish midfielder Ignacio Camacho, the £15m defender John Brooks- a record fee for an American footballer, Divock Origi and the January signing from Leverkusen- Admir Mehmedi, are all yet to make any kind of significant, consistent impact.

An ominous final quartet of fixtures lies ahead. Daunting away trips to Borussia Monchengladbach and European-chasing RB Lepzig will require much of the defensive qualities shown to achieve a hat-trick of clean sheets from recent encounters; whilst home games to Hamburg and Koln, both sides helplessly marooned at the foot of the Bundesliga, may well have seismic implications for Wolfsburg.

 

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Why Hoffenheim have been the overlooked surprise package this season

Why Hoffenheim have been the overlooked surprise package this season

As the European mass media will deservedly accolade the top European performers around the continent this season; that of Antonio Conte’s revolution at Chelsea, Monaco’s outstanding title win and Champions League efforts and even RB Leipzig’s extraordinary first top-flight season; there is another success story from the Bundesliga that has not received the same widespread coverage.

Meet Julian Naglesmann (29), appointed as 1899 Hoffenheim coach on a permanent basis in February 2016; the youngest ever Bundesliga managerial appointment (aged 28 at the time). A truly animated touchline figure; routinely fist-clenching and arm-waving his way through every 90 minute period at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, willing his team on so.

At the time of his appointment Hoffenheim were in dire straits domestically. 17th in the table and seven points from safety, few would have criticised him at the time for making plans for life the following season in the 2. Bundesliga. Quite the opposite. A remarkable turn of form gleamed 7 wins from the final 14 games, finishing a point above the relegation play-off.

A year on and the club has been transformed. After a 0-0 home draw on the final day to FC Augsburg, Hoffenheim have finished in 4th place; just 2 points behind Borussia Dortmund and will contest a Champions League qualification play-off in August to qualify for Europe’s ultimate competition.

Naglesmann has certainly had limited financial resources to work with since his arrival. In fact, one of the key attributes to the club’s success this season has been his ability to get the best out his arguably average Bundesliga squad, particularly the likes of Kerem Demirbay and Sandro Wagner.

Naglesmann’s most lavish purchase last summer was Andrej Kramaric (£8.5m); the forgotten man of Leicester City, managed of course at the time by Claudio Ranieri.

A fringe player at best at the King Power Stadium, the Croatian made only two appearances in the Foxes’ title-winning season last year. Since his move to the Bundesliga, Kramaric has been instrumental behind Hoffenheim’s success this season with 15 league goals and 8 assists to his name.

Naglesmann should be hailed as one of the coaches of the season; not only for Hoffenheim’s impressive domestic performance but for his ability to get inside of the heads of certain first team individuals. Take Wagner as a case in point; an individual who has certainly been around the block in Germany having appeared for Duisburg, Werder Bremen (II & first team), Kaiserslautern, Hertha Berlin (II & first team) and Darmstadt since graduating from the Bayern Munich academy in 2007/08. Barely four months younger than Naglesmann, Wagner has flourished under his coach this season, having longed throughout his career for a manager that believed in his ability. Wagner has now received a call-up to the German national side squad for the 2017 Confederations Cup this summer.

Naglesmann had worked for Hoffenheim for 5 years prior to being named as head coach of the first team. He first joined the club as an assistant coach in the academy after having his playing career cut short by chronic injuries problems. His innovative and meticulous coaching methods are reflected not only by the club’s upturn in domestic performance but by the close bond he has with his players.

Naglesmann still underlines the importance behind preserving Hoffenheim as a stable top- flight Bundesliga side and he will realise the need to keeping his young players in check. But there can be no denying the fact he is only one qualifying play-off away from leading the club into their most prominent moment of their history.