In 2014-15, VfL Wolfsburg chased Bayern Munich for much of the season before succumbing and finishing second by a margin of 10 points.
Since then, they’ve enjoyed a transfer surplus of €61.65 million, and a shocking dip in form to go with it. Wolfsburg earned 69 points from 34 games that season; since then, Die Wölfe have won 51 points in 50 matches.
Prior to squeaking out victories against Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Mönchengladbach on the final two matchdays of the Hinrunde, Wolfsburg had just two wins in the first half of the season. At this stage a year ago, Wolfsburg were in fourth place. Now through 16 games, they’ve scored just 15 goals, 10 fewer than they did in as many matches last season.
That amounts to a major fall from glory for a club that reached the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League last March, and transfer dealings have been a big reason why.
Historically, Wolfsburg haven’t been afraid to drop serious coin on players. In the past two years (13-14 and 14-15), the club has run a transfer deficit of €73.55 million. While balancing the books is important, Wolfsburg are bankrolled by Volkswagen and will always have more money to spend than many of their Bundesliga rivals.
In 2008-09, when Wolfsburg won the league, they had a transfer deficit of €30 million. I looked at the transfer balance and league position for every Wolfsburg season dating back to 2000, observing an inverse relationship between a positive cash flow and a successful Bundesliga finish.
Wolfsburg need to spend to be successful and they have the money to do it. It sounds silly but it’s in the club’s DNA. Wolfsburg is, with a per capita GDP of €128,000 per year, the richest city in Germany.
Bankrolled by Volkswagen, VfL Wolfsburg is a daughter company of Volkswagen AG, in the same way Bayer 04 Leverkusen is wholly owned by Bayer AG. They’re not subject to the “50+1” fan ownership rule that most other German clubs must abide by, and a continuous cash flow provides the football club the funds necessary to ensure they club remains competitive.
Previously, the yearly amount was thought to be around €100 million. However, since the VW recall scandal, Bild have speculated that the club now receives €20-30m less per season from the automaker; a serious reduction in funds. Is this why they’re selling off players and not reinvesting the money properly?
In 2013, Welt.de speculated that without this money, Wolfsburg would face a relegation fight. From what we’ve seen this season, they may have been right.
Even so, a lot of other clubs would kill to have €70 million to spend each year. But even that amount might not be enough to sustain the success the club enjoyed only a couple of seasons ago.
Wolfsburg sacked sporting director Klaus Allofs in December. He probably didn’t help his case in his interview on Sport1’s “Doppelpass” roundtable discussion show one month earlier.
“One must see which goals Volkswagen have: Champions League football? Or a Bundesliga club at the headquarters?” Allofs notoriously said. He continued, saying: “If you want to play in the Champions League, spending a certain amount is required.”
Unfortunately for Allofs, he was right. There’s a certain threshold that must be reached for teams to be competitive at the top of the league in Germany, and especially within Europe’s elite club tournament. Being right couldn’t save his job, as he was doomed due to past transfer dealings.
Splashing cash and spending it smartly are two different things. For instance, the club botched the handling of Julian Draxler. The 23-year-old had been brought in during the summer of 2015 from FC Schalke 04 in the wake of Kevin De Bruyne’s departure to Manchester City for €74 million. At first, nabbing Draxler looked like a coup. Signed from Schalke for a cool €36 million plus add-ons (€7 million re-sell fee), the attacker seemed a perfect replacement for De Bruyne, or at least Ivan Perisi?.
However, after last season’s disappointing eighth-place finish that saw Wolfsburg miss out on both the Champions League and the Europa League, Draxler pushed for a move. He was clearly unsettled, and it showed on the pitch. Now, he’s moved on to PSG for a €40 million sum (plus a potential €7 million more). While Wolfsburg technically may make a profit, it will be for naught if they don’t spend that money wisely.
Failing to qualify for the Champions League also saw winger André Schürrle leave for Borussia Dortmund for €30 million. Two strikers, Bas Dost and Max Kruse, were sold. There were big changes defensively as well, with centre backs Dante (24 Bundesliga appearances last year) and Naldo (29) departing the club. Timm Klose, another central defender, was sold last January. Much of the team has departed, and it’s time to start anew.
Unfortunately for Wolfsburg, the replacements haven’t exactly kicked on as expected. Dante and Kruse were with the club for just a season. Mario Gómez has scored only four goals. Philipp Wollscheid has fallen out with management. A lack of incoming quality at the back has forced Luiz Gustavo to shift from defensive midfield into central defence.
Failing to adequately replace outgoing stars and adapt appropriately culminated in manager Dieter Hecking losing his job in October after just one win (and six points) in seven matches to start the season. Valérien Ismaël—Hecking’s replacement—has collected 10 points since (W3D1L5), with two of the wins coming the week following the Allofs’ sacking. Too little, too late to save the former sporting director who’d been there for four years and purchased Kevin De Bruyne in 2014, who he’d actually secured a loan deal for at Werder Bremen in 2012 (hipsters will tell you it was KDB’s real breakout season, as the Belgian scored 10 and assisted nine Bundesliga goals as a 21-year-old).
The current transfer window brings promise. Dumping the toxic Draxler was a start, and Wolfsburg have spent some of the money (€12.5 million) on attacking midfielder Yunus Malli, signed from league rivals Mainz 05. Malli was the creative engine driving Mainz, scoring six goals and assisting another six this season so far. Last year he bagged 11 and set up four. It shouldn’t take him long to adjust.
Additionally, Wolfsburg purchased 20-year-old Riechedly Bazoer (6 Netherlands caps) from Ajax to bolster the back half of the midfield. Paul-Georges Ntep, a 24-year-old left winger, was added in hope that the Cameroon-born Frenchman can replicate his Stade Rennais success in the Bundesliga to a similar degree of success as his former teammate Ousmane Dembélé has done at Borussia Dortmund. Victor Osimhen, a Nigerian striker that won the Golden Boot at the 2015 U-17 World Cup, had previously agreed to a pre-contract and will also join in January, as he is now able to sign a professional contract following his 18th birthday on December 29th. Osimhen is still recovering from a November meniscus injury, so they’ll be hoping Mario Gómez can get back to his old ways. Gómez did score the winner against Borussia Mönchengladbach in the final Hinrunde match.
The purchase of these youngsters looks promising on the surface, as do the summer signings of 18-year-old winger Josip Brekalo and 22-year-old central midfielder Yannick Gerhardt. However, it’s become apparent rather quickly that the Bundesliga is a level too high for Brekalo, with the Croatian playing just 76 minutes in four substitute appearances this fall. Gerhardt, experienced from his time at Köln, has been dependable this season.
Over the summer, they also picked up Daniel Didavi on a free transfer from Stuttgart, and signed central defender Jeffrey Bruma from PSV Eindhoven. Still, another centre back should be on the shopping list for January.
Certainly much of Wolfsburg’s recent success as well as transfer revenue boon can be credited to De Bruyne. Maybe they got lucky on him, but taking their academy to the next level might just allow the club to produce their own stars instead of relying on Volkswagen’s Euros. A more balanced approach may help provide the club greater stability in the years to come.