If ever there was a weekend to get it right, it was this one.
In its afterglow, Wolfsburg’s win at second-placed RB Leipzig looked like a tremendous bonus on Saturday evening. 24 hours later, after Hamburg rolled over the in-form Borussia Mönchengladbach, it looked more like an absolute necessity.
Neutrals dismayed at Bayern Munich’s ease towards another Bundesliga title, as much through the inconsistency of their rivals as their own strengths, at least have the promise of the battle at the bottom to keep them going. Everybody is picking up points – even rock-bottom Darmstadt won this weekend, for goodness’ sake – and amidst the flurry, the suspicion in recent weeks is that Wolfsburg might get blown into the eye of the storm.
That reckoned, though, without Andries Jonker. Die Wölfe firing their coach for a second time this season, when Valérien Ismaël was given the push at the end of last month, was no surprise. That he was replaced by Jonker, Arsenal’s academy chief, rather than a perceived relegation-battle specialist like Bruno Labbadia, was.
Even with his history at the club, having served twice as the assistant to Felix Magath then Dieter Hecking, it seemed like a risk, particularly in harnessing the resources at his disposal; a talented but haphazardly assembled bunch, producing a neurotic whole for most of the season so far. A solid enough draw at Mainz on Jonker’s debut did little to lift the mood, at least not outside the club.
If the pressure has been on Jonker, though, it hasn’t been apparent at all. For the first time in recent memory, Wolfsburg met their challenge with confidence and belief, as their coach’s smile shone from the touchline. The same positivity with which he governed the starlets at Arsenal has been immediately apparent here, but don’t be fooled; Jonker is no-nonsense too, bringing to mind his time spent as assistant to his compatriot Louis van Gaal at Bayern Munich.
“I already said (to the players) after the Mainz game ‘if you don’t believe you can go to Leipzig and win then don’t bother coming’,” he said in his pre-match press conference last Thursday. There were plenty of reasons for Wolfsburg to doubt, including the loss of the experienced goalkeeper Diego Benaglio – the sole survivor in the squad of the 2009 title win, at least until Ashkan Dejagah returned from Qatar in the January window – to a hip injury earlier in the week.
There was no let-up in the game itself, either. When the much-coveted Ricardo Rodríguez, who has been playing at centre-back for some weeks, was injured in a collision with Timo Werner, Robin Knoche was left as the only available specialist defender at the team’s disposal. He responded, finally stepping up to somewhere near his best level from the days when Hecking’s team were in full flow.
As the newspaper Wolfsburger Allgemeine pointed out, the players ran 122.6km between them on Saturday, a season high. It wasn’t all about the commitment, though. “We believe that we can solve things like RB do,” said Mario Gómez after scoring the first-half winner, his second in two games under the new manager. “We don’t have to just blindly hit the ball forward. We didn’t just fight today.”
Gómez was right. Jonker’s work is immediately apparent not only in raised levels of industry, but in terms of collective intelligence. “We had a good plan,” he said. “We knew in detail how Leipzig would play and really calculated what we were going to do. The coach said before that we want to come here to win, but he wasn’t just saying this to give us confidence. It’s one of our coach’s great qualities that he perseveres until things go exactly as he imagines.”
The midfielder Daniel Didavi, who was equally instrumental in the performance – he and Gómez both hit the post in the space of five seconds in the second half – added that the players already feel the freedom to “reflect” when in possession of the ball, despite a situation which sees them, Werder Bremen and Hamburg all level on points. “The self-belief and the spark is back,” he said.
There were a few reminders too during the day that football isn’t quite life and death. The collapse of Leipzig’s Naby Keïta in the dressing room after the match – he was rushed to hospital and spent the night there, before being given the all-clear and released – made the most headlines, but more tragically was the death of a Leipzig fan in his mid-50s, who collapsed after suffering a heart attack outside the stadium before the game, as the club later confirmed.
Jonker, it seems, has already been able to convey that sense of perspective to his players. After months of upheaval, Wolfsburg have finally have received the injection of normality that could turn their ailing season around.
• The week started in inauspicious fashion for Mats Hummels, who the Bayern official Twitter feed filmed spilling a full cup of coffee down himself on the coach en route to Arsenal, and receiving very little sympathy from his team-mate Thomas Müller. He ended it in the Champions League quarter-finals and ten points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, laying the foundations for the 3-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt with an incredible last-man tackle on Branimir Hrgota at 0-0, which he and Manuel Neuer celebrated like a goal (and which was described as “world-class” by his returning team-mate Jérôme Boateng). In this context, Robert Lewandowski’s 100th Bayern goal almost (almost) felt like a footnote.
• One of the Bundesliga’s outstanding goalkeepers, Timo Horn, made his comeback for Köln at Ingolstadt after three months out – and promptly fumbled in Romain Brégerie’s shot to allow the strugglers a point after the prolific Anthony Modeste had scored twice. Coach Peter Stöger went easy on Horn, saying he was just “pleased to have him back,” while the man himself apologised and pledged that “in the next few weeks, I’ll start saving points for the team again.”
• Having been denied a famous win against Bayern by a heartbreakingly-late Lewandowski goal recently, Hertha Berlin made sure Borussia Dortmund left the Olympiastadion with nothing to move just two points shy of the Champions League places. Dortmund lacked “sharpness,” according to Thomas Tuchel – which is par for the course post-Champions League this season – but there was controversy after Mitchell Weiser’s dive of the season when accidentally caught by Ousmane Dembélé in the closing minutes. “I only reacted to what he did. If you beat him with his own weapons, that’s OK,” Weiser said with a grin, before attempting to further justify the leap by tweeting a picture of his stud-scraped leg later on.
• Another win for Hamburg, who are now seven unbeaten in the Bundesliga at the Volkspark after Sunday’s comeback against Gladbach – who had earned more Bundesliga points in 2017 than any other team before this. Bobby Wood, who this week told The Platers’ Tribune the fascinating story of how his mother enrolled him in football training to make babysitting easier when he was growing up in Honolulu, hit the winner to leave HSV, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg all level on points, with the former still in the relegation play-off position.
• Tayfun Korkut, the surprise new coach of Leverkusen, had his old friend Jogi Löw present at the BayArena to support him on debut against Werder, but it didn’t go off as hoped, despite five changes to the XI. Kevin Volland’s early goal was cancelled out by Claudio Pizarro, ending his longest-ever spell without a goal in the Bundesliga, 860 minutes, to grab Werder a point – with a fairytale ending slipping away with their fifth missed penalty of the season in stoppage time, this time by captain Ömer Toprak.
• Darmstadt, having renamed their stadium Jonathan-Heimes-Stadion am Böllenfalltor for the season in honour of their late fan and charity fundraiser, commemorated the first anniversary of Heimes’ passing by having his motto DUMUSSTKÄMPFEN (“you have to fight on”) on their shirts for the home game with Mainz. They were suitably inspired by the emotional occasion, winning 2-1 to retain a faint hope of staying up.
Results: Hamburg 2-1 Mönchengladbach, Schalke 3-0 Augsburg, Bayern Munich 3-0 Frankfurt, Ingolstadt 2-2 Köln, 2 Hertha Berlin 2-1 Dortmund, RB Leipzig 0-1 Wolfsburg, Freiburg 1-1 Hoffenheim, Darmstadt 2-1 Mainz, Leverkusen 1-1 Werder Bremen.
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