It’s often easy to deride those Bundesliga clubs that sit below Bayern Munich. These are the teams the neutral fans fiercely implore to challenge the Bavarians at the top of the German game. Anything to raise the stakes. Yet, whenever it appears Bayern Munich might be within reach, the chasing packs almost always trips in unison.
One Bundesliga team that hasn’t tripped recently, however, is Wolfsburg. They, along with Eintracht Frankfurt, are the German top flight’s form team at this moment in time. A run of four straight league wins have taken Oliver Glasner’s side up to third in the table, only three points off RB Leipzig in second place.
This puts Wolfsburg above the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach, all of whom have more naturally talented squads and greater resources. So what are the team nicknamed ‘Die Wolfe’ doing so well? What are they getting right? Where is the secret to Wolfsburg’s success?
Glasner’s team is one without any obvious big names. Indeed, his group of players consist largely of familiar Bundesliga names who haven’t always competed at the top end of the division. In many ways, Wolfsburg are an unremarkable side, but that’s what makes their recent run of good form all the more remarkable.
Wolfsburg haven’t always been the most popular of Bundesliga clubs. While RB Leipzig have recently taken the heat from the anti-capitalists who view German soccer as being the property of the fans and the fans only, Wolfsburg are the original corporate front in the country’s top flight. They are, after all, owned by Volkswagen and play in the shadow of the biggest car factory in Europe.
There is, however, plenty to like about this particular Wolfsburg team — starting with their unassuming Austrian head coach, Glasner. The 46-year-old was never destined to become an elite level soccer coach. In fact, he studied economics before taking a desk job with Red Bull Salzburg, where working alongside Ralf Rangnick changed the course of his professional life.
Rangnick’s influence is clear to see in Glasner even if the latter favours a more conservative style. Work on the training ground permeates the performances on the pitch, as demonstrated by the improvement in Wolfsburg’s decision-making in the final third this season. They are a more ruthless team now than they were six months ago.
Having scored 14 goals in 20 Bundesliga appearances this season, Dutch forward Weg Weghourst has been the spearhead of this recent Wolfsburg resurgence. Overlooked by scouts as a teenager, Weghourst’s story is reflective of his team’s as a whole. Not as naturally talented as many other Bundesliga centre forwards, the 28-year-old has worked hard to get to where he is now.
Weghourst is well on track to better his tally of 16 goals for the 2019/20 season, when only Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland scored more Bundesliga goals in 2020 than the Dutchman. There are plenty forwards quicker, stronger and more naturally gifted than Weghourst, but few can match his desire to always improve.
American centre back John Brooks is another who has taken the long road to the top, with the 28-year-old now finally fulfilling the potential he displayed earlier in his career. Along with goalkeeper Koen Casteels, Paulo Otavio, Maxence Lacroix and Kevin Mbabu, Brooks has helped make Wolfsburg one of the Bundesliga’s most defensively resolute sides, with their 0.9 goals allowed per 90 minutes good for second-best in the league.
However, the brilliance of the team Glasner has forged is perhaps best epitomised by the midfield, where there is a natural balance. Maximilian Arnold, Ridle Baku, Yannick Gerhardt, Xaver Schlager and Renato Steffen are all flawed players as individuals, but as a unit they are one of the most effective in he German game right now.
Even considering their recent winning streak, it seems highly unlikely that Wolfsburg will get within touching distance of Bayern Munich and the Bundesliga title. The best they can realistically hope for is to finish ‘best of the rest,’ but this season’s DFB Pokal offers them real hope of a tangible return for the astonishing progress made.
Bayern Munich’s shock early rounds exit in the competition has blown open the field. Wolfsburg will face RB Leipzig in the quarter finals on March 3. Win that tilt and Wolfsburg will be the favourites for many to clinch their first major honour since 2015, when Kevin de Bruyne was till at the club.
Glasner isn’t likely to get ahead of himself, such is his inherent low-key demeanour. “When you look at a flight of stairs and worry too much about stumbling, you’re guaranteed to stumble,” the Austrian coach said after a recent win. Right now, though, Wolfsburg’s stride doesn’t look like being broken. The stairs Glasner speaks of are taking them higher than anyone thought possible.