His wake-up calls cannot actually be ignored. When Niko Kovač tries to correct and motivate his own team on the sideline, shrill whistles are heard. Every minute, the VfL Wolfsburg football coach puts the index finger and thumb of his right hand in his mouth. As soon as danger threatens, the room layout is wrong or something tactical needs to be corrected, Kovač wants to reach his team acoustically. Whether this will also work in terms of content seems to be increasingly questionable.
Wolfsburg are traveling to the round of 16 game of the DFB Cup this Tuesday (8:45 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for the DFB Cup and on ARD) in Mönchengladbach with the recommendation that they have lost six away games in a row in the Bundesliga. The mood around the self-confident coach is becoming increasingly frosty. “I don’t feel any pressure,” says Kovač. He sounds defiant as usual.
Is the team not listening to him properly? Or does the team hear Kovač’s whistle but don’t understand his messages? What is increasingly noticeable in VfL Wolfsburg’s performances is that, apart from a few isolated highlights, no consistent game idea is trying to establish itself. After a year and a half in a prominent role, Kovač is still busy criticizing his players’ fundamental mistakes and lacking virtues.
He says us, but means them
What he demands is not highly complex, but extremely simple. After the 3-1 defeat last Saturday, the 52-year-old coach complained, for example, that the football generations after him were no longer able to communicate with each other on the pitch, help each other or verbally reprimand each other. “That’s what we’re missing,” said Kovač. He then says us, but of course he means them. The experienced person regularly reveals what bothers him today and what was better in the past. Exactly how things are supposed to get better with him still needs to be explored. Accordingly, VfL Wolfsburg is far away from a spirit of optimism.
Since Kovač took office in June 2022, the responsibilities and balance of power at VfL Wolfsburg have changed. Long-time managing director Jörg Schmadtke, now sporting director of Liverpool FC, was always a strong counterpoint to Kovač thanks to his experience and sovereignty. Now his successor Marcel Schäfer and sports director Sebastian Schindzielorz should put their fingers in the wounds.
Despite the big discrepancy between the expensive squad of players and the manageable success, things remain surprisingly comfortable in Wolfsburg. Instead of becoming loud, Kovač continues to act calmly and matter-of-factly – at least publicly. His appearance in the obligatory press conference before the cup game can be described as extremely cold. “You can’t do anything in such a short amount of time,” answered the coach when asked how he could provide fresh impetus within three working days between the defeat in Bochum and the difficult game in Mönchengladbach.
One almost has to hope that there are big differences between the way Kovač communicates externally and internally. His recurring public demand that the players have to lead, accept and win duels is reminiscent of outdated basic knowledge for normal trainers. “We have to wake up slowly. We can’t afford to miss every away game,” says midfielder Yannick Gerhardt.
Stoic calm and serenity
His season serves as a blueprint for how VfL Wolfsburg struggles. Sometimes Gerhardt was a regular player, sometimes a reservist. At Kovač’s request, different basic formations were added to the continuous rotation of staff over the past few months. Even particularly optimistic Wolfsburg fans find it difficult to recognize VfL’s game idea or to get excited about the rudimentary elements. “We are right in the middle – somewhere in the Bundesliga,” says Kovač. However, being in 11th place in the table does not match the high expectations in Wolfsburg. The question of whether the coach still fits the basic idea of the club is being asked more and more often by the players and Kovač himself.
What is surprising is the mixture of stoic calm and demonstrative composure with which Kovač continues to act. His habitus and his rhetoric convey: Who wants to question me here? “I have experienced too much in my life,” says the long-time professional and national player. Kovač came to Wolfsburg with the clear message that he wanted to play for titles and win them – as he did during his time as head coach of FC Bayern Munich from 2018 to 2019. However, the VfL team, coaching team and club management are very far away from that at the moment.
At the beginning of the year, Kovač was of the opinion that his midfielder Maximilian Arnold deserved to be called up to the German national team squad. In the summer he was still good enough for the coach to make him captain again. But Arnold is currently no longer considered in the Wolfsburg starting eleven.
Daniel Theweleit, Leverkusen Published/Updated: , Recommendations: 2 A comment from Anno Hecker Published/Updated: Recommendations: 47 A comment from Christopher Meltzer, Munich Published/Updated: , Recommendations: 8
Kovač could certainly justify this statistically using pass rates, running values and speed measurements. It would be his right to show that he would like to modernize VfL Wolfsburg’s playing tactics and develop them further without Arnold. What is missing as justification for this are good arguments and good results.