Half a season has passed since Kevin de Bruyne made his £55 million pound move from Wolfsburg to Manchester City. As a pivotal man in Dieter Hecking’s side the previous season, it would seem natural that they would sorely miss a player who occupied the crucial ‘number ten’ role. However, de Bruyne’s move seemed imminent all summer, despite Manchester City leaving it till late August to give him an “astonishing” wage offer which sealed his fate. With City and the footballing press making noises all summer about a potential move for a man they, like a spoilt child, seemed really desperate to sign, Wolfsburg were given ample time to make preparations for life after de Bruyne. In came the likes of Francisco Rodriguez, Max Kruse and the very highly-rated Julian Draxler, the latter two with significant Bundesliga experience and seemingly ready to hit the ground running at the Volkswagen Arena.
However, the mercurial Belgian certainly left big shoes to fill upon his departure. He was instrumental in Wolfsburg’s rise to second in the Bundesliga and the winning of the DFB-Pokal, and starred in the Wolves’ emphatic 4-1 win over Bayern Munich (who hadn’t lost a league game for over 8 months), in which he scored twice. He scored 16 goals and assisted 27 more, leading to him being named Footballer of the Year in Germany. Ultimately, it was inevitable that Europe’s biggest would be after him.
A change of scene has done little to faze him. Silky displays in which he has been scoring crucial goals and providing mesmerising assists have led to him very quickly winning over the Manchester City fans and English footballing public in the majority. He has already scored five league goals and also has eight assists, and seems to be becoming the centre piece of City’s star-studded squad. A late winner against Sevilla will live long in the memory for City fans and demonstrates the winning mentality already possessed by the youthful Belgian. Thanks to de Bruyne’s easy transition, City sit third in the Barclays Premier League, within touching distance of top spot and with a genuine chance of sealing a third Premier League title.
On the contrary, since losing de Bruyne, Wolfsburg have disappointed all those who expected them to kick on this season following their exploits last term. During the annual winter break they sit in seventh position. The loss to lowly Stuttgart, as well as a failure to defeat the likes of Ingolstadt and Augsburg, have dented any notion that they have developed any sort of ‘big team’ mentality under Hecking’s stewardship. Of particular concern is their away form, which is currently the second worst in the league, having recorded only one victory away from the Volkswagen Arena and conceding more goals than any other German side on their travels (20).
The source of these faults in reality lies equally with defence and attack, but it is the absence of their craftsman de Bruyne which is proving the most costly. The amount of goals they are conceding is similar to last term, and the addition of Josuha Guilavogui has provided ample midfield shielding for seasoned Bundesliga defenders Dante and Naldo, yet they are failing to outscore opposition teams in the manner they did last term, and without a doubt this can be attributed to the failure to replace de Bruyne.
Julian Draxler looked the most likely to fill this void. Highly-rated since making his debut for Schalke aged 18, he seemed to have the creative spark and vision to emulate de Bruyne’s rise to prominence. However, this year neither him nor any of his attacking midfield counterparts have struck fear into opposition with the creativity they exhibited last term. Take the aforementioned Draxler for example; even though this season he is making more key passes per game (1.36 as opposed to 0.67 last term) and creating more chances (1.64 as opposed to 0.73 last term) than he was for Schalke, he still doesn’t come close to replicating de Bruyne’s influence last term in which he was making 2.68 key passes per game and creating 3.26 chances per game. It was a big ask for Draxler to emulate de Bruyne, but his failure to do so has had a large bearing on Wolfsburg’s fortunes.
Responsibility has to fall on those responsible for recruitment, as it was unlikely that Draxler, a natural wide man, would be able to replicate de Bruyne, a typical number ten. This mistake has been exacerbated by the failure of anyone else operating centrally to do so either; only Max Kruse comes anywhere close to de Bruyne, and this is unsurprising given that he is essentially operating as a second striker.
An interesting point of analysis lies with Wolfsburg being a more measured side this year and one that takes less risks. This can be deduced by looking at de Bruyne’s pass completion last term (75%) in comparison to the likes of Vieirinha (80%), Cagliuri (78%), Draxler (83%) and Kruse (84%). Lower pass completion implies that de Bruyne tried more risky and audacious passes last year, whilst this year Wolfsburg’s attacking players have on the whole tried less of these, demonstrating the lack of creativity. This is similarly demonstrated by de Bruyne’s average pass length being longer than any of the other Wolfsburg players this term, as well as him taking more shots per game on average than the others. Hence, one must question whether it’s the fault of the players, who are naturally low on confidence after such an underwhelming start to the season, or the fault of Dieter Hecking, for adopting a more patient strategy this season.
This was on display in the Wolves’ performance away at Bayern Munich in the league this season. An impressive first half display had them 1-0 at the break, and their structured approach had Bayern frustrated. However, their lack of menace seemed to invite pressure constantly, and when Robert Lewandowski was unleashed off the bench he took full advantage, terrorising Naldo and former teammate Dante by scoring five goals in nine minutes, ultimately condemning Wolfsburg to a 5-1 away defeat.
The change in mentality, arguably forced upon them by de Bruyne’s departure, is demonstrated vividly when this performance is juxtaposed to the pulse-racing display against Bayern in April, when Wolfsburg were the victors by the margin of 4-1, de Bruyne scoring twice (of course).
To return to winning ways, Wolfsburg must break free of the fear set into them by their calamitous start to the season away from home and by the expectations imposed on them as a result of their success last season. They have the talent in their squad to be more creative, and with the likes of the highly-talented André Schürrle struggling to get game time, they must reassess the squad and utilise its potential more fully. Kevin de Bruyne is being sorely missed, but he is replaceable, by one or more players, which Wolfsburg may already have in their squad – the likes of Maximillian Arnold are looking more and more set to follow paths to greatness similar to that of de Bruyne. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them being active in this transfer window.