A bad week for Dieter Hecking got worse last Saturday as VfL Wolfsburg’s good start to the season appeared to grind to a halt. Tuesday’s 5-1 trashing at Bayern Munich was followed by a dispiriting draw at home to bottom club Hannover.
Suddenly, the Wolves – last year’s Bundesliga runner’s up – find themselves nine points behind the champions, who look set fare to dominate German football again this season.
Next up for Hecking’s men? The small matter of a trip to Old Trafford to take on a resurgent Manchester United in the Champions League.
This is football life at the sharp end. This is what Hecking and the club have been working for. How they react to the setbacks of the last week and the daunting trip to the English league leaders will tell us much about where Wolfsburg might be heading this term.
Season 2015/16 had begun promisingly for the side many viewed as the most likely challengers to Bayern’s crown. Before Robert Lewandowksi put them so sensationally to the sword, Wolfsburg had been unbeaten in the league – winning three, drawing two and conceding only twice. They had also won their opening Champions League Group B fixture against CSKA Moscow.
Hecking will naturally look to impress upon his men the fact that they have still only lost once this term. And losing to the champions in their own back yard wouldn’t be entirely unexpected.
However, having been 1-0 to the good at half time in that fixture, the manner of the defeat may well have left a few of their number shell shocked.
The home draw against Hannover isn’t actually all that surprising either. Despite being bottom of the table, Saturday’s visitors are something of a bogey team for the Wolves. Amazingly, Wolfsburg have now only won one of the last eight league meetings between the sides.
Doubtless, the home fans greeted Hiroshi Kiyoyake’s equaliser with a certain resignation as he cancelled out Bas Dost’s first half opener and then held firm for a point.
Wolfsburg’s inability to crack the visitors’ defence open again will, however, have had many wistfully thinking of the departed Kevin De Bruyne, so often their creative inspiration in recent seasons.
Hecking would have been forgiven for letting his mind wander to what might have been this season had he been able to hold on to the Belgian.
How frustrating to build a team that can genuinely compete, only to see the man most central to that growing competitiveness tempted away by one of Europe’s financial powerhouses. And how frustrating to see it happen almost a month into the season when all of your plans have been laid, you team built around this singular talent, just as the transfer window shuts.
Yes, Hecking and Wolfsburg made Manchester City pay heavily. Yes, they probably knew it was coming and had planned at least in part for such an eventuality. And yes, they did, on paper, seem to spend wisely in bringing in Schalke’s Julian Draxler as a replacement. But that still doesn’t wipe away the disruption such a departure can cause.
And that disruption has been evident in Hecking’s gradual move away from the 4-2-3-1 formation in which De Bruyne excelled to a new 4-1-4-1 formation designed to get the best from Draxler in an attacking central midfield position.
The system has shown promise – and Draxler has certainly looked more involved. But it will take time for the young German international and his new team to adapt – a frustrating transitionary period for all who had hoped Wolfsburg could build on last season’s advances.
But that is the lot of many clubs just outside of the elite of the European game. Building competitive sides inevitably draws the attention of those they wish to emulate, who have the financial muscle to steal away their best talent.
A case of one step forward and two steps back, and a situation often made all the harder if your club then has the added demands of the Champions League to contend with.
But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t make it impossible –something Dieter Hecking and his players will need to keep in the front of their minds as they play their first away Champions League tie in six seasons at Old Trafford this week. This, after all, is what they have been working for.