In Chinese astrology, every year is named after an animal. There’s the year of the Rat, the year of the Tiger, and about a dozen more.
In the Bundesliga, last season was the year of the Wolf, as VfL Wolfsburg staged a successful coup d’état to upset the traditional superpowers to bring the title to Wolfsburg for the first time ever.
Under the inspirational leadership of Felix Magath and with some stellar performances by the magical Dreiecke (triangle) Edin Dzeko, Grafite, and Zvjezdan Misimovic, Wolfsburg blitzed the Bundesliga and sent the town of Wolfsburg and the fans into raptures.
Magath managed to mould a team that, when in full flow, play some breath-taking attacking football. Their 5-1 demolition of Bayern, with a brilliant back-heel goal by Grafite, stands out as one of the highlights of the season and helped in making the 2008-2009 season the year of the Wolf.
In the current season however, it seems that Wolfsburgs fortunes have changed. The team lies in eighth position in the Bundesliga, with 21 points from 13 games. Not a bad performance, but not quite the performance you’d expect from the reigning champions.
Looking at the Wolfsburg squad, not much has changed since last season. Most of the players who were off to greener pastures, had been rotational players. Italian international Cristian Zaccardo left for Parma but he only managed 14 appearances last season.
All the others who departed were rotational players at best.
Despite interest from the likes of AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and FC Bayern, the club managed to keep its star players. Edin Dzeko remained loyal to Die Wölfe (the wolves), as did his compatriots Grafite and Misimovic.
The club even went shopping for reinforcements, buying Danish international Thomas Kahlenberg from AJ Auxerre, Algerian international Karim Ziani from Olympique Marseille, and most notably securing the signing of Nigerian international Obafemi Martins from Premiership-relegated Newcastle United.
The only notable departure was the one on the side-lines, as manager Felix Magath jumped ship to join FC Schalke ’04 of Gelsenkirchen. Not a bad move it seems, as Die Wölfe seem unable to emulate last season's success.
Magath’s successor, former Stuttgart manager Armin Veh, basically has the same team to work with as Magath, plus a few extra reinforcements. So why isn’t the team playing as it was last year? What’s going on in Wolfsburg?
When we look at the team’s performances this year, we can see Die Wölfe have scored a staggering 25 goals so far, which means they average nearly two goals a game, one of the highest averages in the division.
The team has also conceded an incredible 23 goals, which is nearly the same average on conceded goals. For reference, the only teams in the Bundesliga who have conceded more goals are Hertha BSC, VfL Bochum, and SC Freiburg, all clubs battling against relegation.
These numbers would suggest the team is unbalanced. Whilst scoring a fair few goals, the team is also letting goals in far too easily, which would indicate an unbalanced team, especially in midfield.
In last weekend's fixture versus Nürnberg, this became painfully obvious. Wolfsburg created many chances, dominated the game and scored two goals. The home-side also went all-out in offence and neglected its defence, which resulted in three conceded goals, most on fast break-aways by the Nürnberg guests.
The gaps between the midfielders and defenders were shockingly big, a weakness Nürnberg were happy to exploit as their midfielders and wingers made surging runs into space to supply the forwards.
So what can Armin Veh do to fix this problem—as this is obviously a tactical problem and thus one the coach should tackle.
Wolfsburg's diamond midfield is proving very capable in offence, but the team is lacking defensively. Newcomer Thomas Kahlenberg for example is a great player when your team has the ball, but he lacks the defensive awareness to play an important role when his team is defending.
Veh has always stated he could fix this problem by moving Sascha Riether from defence into midfield, so why hasn’t he?
Basically, the Wolfsburg coach needs Riether at the back, because he has no other alternatives there. For a team which spent nearly 80 million on new players in the past few seasons and is backed by a multinational corporation such as Volkswagen, that’s quite shocking, as this proves the long-term vision from the technical director has failed.
Die Wölfe should look at buying another defender to take Riether’s place at the back during the January transfer window, so Veh can reinforce his midfield and create more balance in the squad.
The second thing he should do is make a choice between which forwards he intends to use. Neither of the three forwards Veh has used so far has been able to impress. Dzeko, Grafite, Martins—none of them has showed blistering form so far.
On the other hand, how could they when they get rotated a lot? This rotational system upfront seems to be undermining their confidence and thus their ability to decide games and score goals.
Veh should stop messing around and just make a decision. Three players, two positions. Take your pick and let these lads play for an extended period of time, allowing them to regain their confidence and form, allowing them to become the lethal goalscorers they were before.
If Veh can get the team changed around, there is still hope for Die Wölfe. Wolfsburg are trailing league leaders Leverkusen by a mere six points, so it’s not impossible to make 2009-2010 the second successive year of the Wolf.