The fall of one titan usually leads to the rise of another. Two teams in the Bundesliga showed just how true that statement is this season as the perennial title challengers Borussia Dortmund found themselves cast out of the German elite and replaced by a team once on the fringes of European competition: VFL Wolfsburg. A team that finished in 15th just five years ago, Wolfsburg have now proven themselves as one of the best teams in Germany, and at the moment, one of the best teams in Europe.
Last season, the team from northern Germany finished the year just one point away from playing in the Champions League, but a whopping 30 points behind the champions Bayern Munich. Wolfsburg hadn’t won any significant silverware since their historic Bundesliga triumph in 2009, and they hadn’t qualified to play in Europe’s elite competition since that title-winning season. The team was led by an aging striker in Ivica Olic (34), but lacked the star quality that could push them into the upper echelon of German competition. This season, however, fans of Die Wölfe have seen the emergence of one of the most exciting young players in the world, and the resurgence of a once-forgotten striker.
In the January 2014 transfer window, Wolfsburg would sign one of the most influential players in the club. A 22-year-old Belgian midfielder with Bundesliga experience, Kevin De Bruyne had found himself listed by many as a Premier League flop having failed to live up to his massive potential during his short two-year stay at Chelsea. Unable to find meaningful minutes for the English giants, De Bruyne was forced to move abroad in order to continue his development, and Wolfsburg were happy to provide him with a new home.
After arriving at the Volkswagen Arena, De Bruyne immediately established himself in Dieter Hecking’s starting 11. In his first half of a season with Wolfsburg, the Belgian was able start 18 times for his new club between the Bundesliga and DFB Pokal while tacking on three goals and six assists during that stretch. The 18 German appearances nearly tripled the number of times De Bruyne had stepped on the field for his previous employers and it served as just a preview of that the young midfielder was capable of.
2014-15 has served as De Bruyne’s coming out party to the international soccer community. Aged just 23, the young midfielder quickly cemented his place as one of the elite players in the Bundesliga, and quickly became one of the most talked about names in the infamous rumor mill. The Belgian was without a doubt the most important player in Wolfsburg unforeseen success this season as he recorded ten goals (second best on the team) and an amazing 20 assists, tying a Bunesliga record that was set by fellow former Wolfsburg player Zvjezdan Misimovic in the team’s title run of 2009.
Even when De Bruyne wasn’t directly attributing to scoring beautiful goals such as the marvelous display above against Bayern Munich, his mere presence on the field struck fear into the hearts of the opposing midfielders and his passing ability created constant space and movement for his squad. I think it’s fair to say that without the Belgian international sitting in the middle of the park, this season would’ve ended very differently for Wolfsburg.
What good is a magnificent midfielder, though, without an able forward to feed? De Bruyne had just that in Bas Dost. Few fans would have expected the 25-year-old to have made such a telling contribution to this year’s campaign as he struggled just to get minutes last season. The 2013-14 season saw Dost appear just 13 times in the Bundesliga, while only being included in the starting eleven for just six of those appearances. Despite the lack of minutes, the Dutch forward was still able to net four times in league play, and once more in the German Cup.
Just like De Bruyne, however, the previous year failed to show just how talented Dost could be. The 25-year-old didn’t score a goal in the Bundesliga until December, but after that there was no looking back. In the remaining half of the season, Dost would score another 18 goals for his club and essentially single-handedly won them a 5-4 thriller against Bayer Leverkusen in a crucial top-four matchup in February. The conclusion of the 2014-15 campaign saw Dost end with an astonishing five two-goal games and with a grand total of 16 league goals, good enough for joint fourth best in the league.
The emergence of these two new stars paved the way for Wolfsburg to finish second in the league and only ten points behind Munich, while also setting the stage for them to claim their first trophy in over five years. Their final, and perhaps most important test of the season will come on May 30th when they take on the team they usurped, Borussia Dortmund, in the final of the German Cup. A victory in this cup final would give further evidence that Wolfsburg are the closest challengers to Bayern Munich in Germany, but they will have to show the wherewithal to handle the pressure of playing on this massive stage in order to fully announce themselves on the world’s stage. I can’t think of a more fitting end to this already improbable season.