In a new series on our favourite teams, Ben Sibley fondly recalls the Bundesliga-winning Wolfsburg side of 2008-09…
Published in 2008, page 88 of the fifth edition of Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting states that “A fire naturally occurs when the elements [heat, fuel and oxygen] are present and combined in the right mixture”.
In August of the same year, Zvjezdan Misimović joined fellow Bosnian Edin Džeko and the Brazilian Grafite at Wolfsburg – managed by Felix Magath. Magath, shocked by the decision of Wolfsburg’s outrageously-talented but homesick Marcelinho to return to Brazil, believed Misimović was the ideal replacement – he was signed for just under £4m and tied down to a four-year deal.
Misimović was a wonderfully gifted attacking midfielder and had enjoyed an eye-catching 07/08 season in a Nurnberg team that lost half of its league games and couldn’t escape relegation to 2. Bundesliga. He had the technique that ensured his vision and reading of the game was utilised regularly and ruthlessly. All he needed was a player on a similar wavelength – he ended up with two.
Edin Džeko made his debut in 2003 at 17 for Bosnia’s most successful club, FK Željezničar Sarajevo. He then spent two years with Czech top-flight side FK Teplice and finished the 2006-07 season as the second-top goalscorer in the Gambrinus Liga. Magath took him to Germany in the summer of 2007 and he quickly settled, netting 8 goals in 17 league starts during the 2007-08 campaign.
After two productive seasons with Le Mans in Ligue 1, 28 year-old Grafite followed Džeko to Germany at the end of the 2007 summer transfer window. As Džeko settled, so did the Brazilian, contributing 11 league goals – a solid partnership that helped the club to a remarkable 5th place following a relegation scrap the season before.
With the addition of Misimović a year later in August 2008, fuel was given to a fire that burned so bright it took the Wolves to their first ever major honour: the 2008-09 Bundesliga title. Between them, Džeko and Grafite plundered 54 league goals, a new Bundesliga record. Incredibly, neither player featured in 100% of Wolfsburg’s league games. Džeko scored 26 goals in 29 starts and Grafite a scarcely-believable 28 goals in 25 starts.
Of the 54 goals they scored, 13 were assisted by Misimović (5 for Džeko, 8 for Grafite). He set up a further 7 goals for his teammates – ending the season on 20, another league record. The variety of goals scored was as impressive as the relentless rate at which they were scored. Džeko’s first 6 goals of the season were shared equally between his left foot, his right foot, and his head. Come May, he’d scored 7 with his left foot, 10 with his right and 9 with his head.
The Bosnian would score tap-ins, he’d stick out a foot to deflect wayward shots towards goal, he’d stoop to head low crosses. Opening the scoring at Hannover, he controlled a lofted pass with his chest on the edge of the penalty area before rifling a rasping half-volley into the roof of the net. At home to Bayern (more on this later), he passed to Misimović before using the outside of his right ankle to cushion the return ball perfectly and finish low past goalkeeper Michael Rensing with his left foot.
Grafite was an example of the classic Brazilian number nine – outstanding balance, clinical finishing and a lightning-quick footballing brain. During a goalmouth scramble at Hoffenheim, he collected a pass from Džeko, trapped the ball under his foot (completely wrong-footing a covering defender) before toe-poking home past a sprawling goalkeeper. A natural finisher doesn’t need to rely on power when shooting at goal – accuracy alone should be enough. The vast majority of Grafite’s goals in 2008-09 were placed, caressed, lifted and nudged past helpless goalkeepers.
If the first half of the season was a small campfire – Wolfsburg entered the winter break in ninth, nine points off newly-promoted table-toppers Hoffenheim – what followed after Christmas was a raging inferno.
After a seventy-third minute Grafite goal grabbed a point at Cologne on matchday 18, the Wolves won their next ten league games – scoring twenty-six goals in the process. During this scorching two-month period, Grafite scored ten goals, including a hat-trick against Schalke and a brace in a famous 5-1 win over Bayern. His second goal in that game, Wolfsburg’s fifth, was voted the Bundesliga goal of the season.
The in-form Brazilian picked the ball up midway into the Bayern half in the inside-left channel and showed poor Andreas Ottl one way, then the other, and then the other. Cutting inside, he slipped past Christian Lell and then sidestepped Michael Rensing. Now facing away from goal, with defenders Breno and Phillip Lahm covering for their stricken goalkeeper, Grafite back-heeled the ball with just enough force so that it trickled over the line and gently kissed the back of the net as the Brazilian wheeled away in ecstatic celebration.
There were direct comparisons with Ronaldo’s goal for Barcelona against Compostela in October 1996. At times during the season, one would’ve been forgiven for mistaking the Wolfsburg man for his legendary counterpart.
Bayern, recently shorn of club legends Ottmar Hitzfeld and goalkeeper Oliver Kahn struggled for consistency all year. In stark comparison to Wolfsburg, they lost three of their first four league games after the January restart. Despite the red-hot form of Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose, a shaky defence kept only 8 clean sheets in 34 games across the season.
Hitzfeld’s replacement for the 2008-09 campaign, Jurgen Klinsmann managed just 8 wins from 17 away games as his team consistently failed to turn up for big games. The ex-Bayern and Tottenham Hotspur striker would be sacked three weeks after the historic defeat to Wolfsburg – caretaker manager Jupp Heynckes took charge until Louis Van Gaal arrived in the summer.
As Bayern faltered, a 3-0 win at Arminia Bielefeld took Wolfsburg top of the league. It was a position they never relinquished as the post-Christmas blaze continued at a scorching pace. A final day 5-1 destruction of recently-beaten UEFA Cup finalists Werder Bremen (in which all three of our trio scored or assisted) saw Bayern’s hopes of a second consecutive league title go up in smoke.
It was a truly remarkable, record-breaking season. A sweet, sweet moment for Magath, having been sacked as Bayern manager two years previously despite back-to-back league and cup doubles. This was the last time a team other than Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund won the league and the first time Wolfsburg finished top of the pile. Džeko and Grafite were widely regarded as the best attacking partnership in the world and Misimović was hailed as the best passer in the world – no mean feat less than a year after Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas had orchestrated Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph.
As is sometimes the case, the fire burned bright but burned quickly. Magath left for Schalke immediately after the title win, with ex-Stuttgart boss Armin Veh replacing him. A poor run of form saw Veh sacked in January 2010 with Wolfsburg tenth in the Bundesliga, 17 points behind league-leaders Bayer Leverkusen. Second-team coach Lorenz-Günther Köstner took charge until the end of the season.
Magath’s departure and a first-ever Champions League campaign took its toll on the Wolves. Despite the deadly attacking trio enjoying another productive season – Džeko finished top-scorer in the Bundesliga and Misimović second-top assister – they finished twenty points behind champions Bayern, in eighth place.
A relegation scrap in 2010-11 was followed by an eighth-place finish in 2011-12, eleventh place in 2012-13 and a welcome return to Europe with fifth place in 2013-14. At the time of writing, Wolfsburg sit second in the Bundesliga – nine points clear of chasing Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Last Thursday, they made light work of Inter Milan in the first leg of their Europa League last sixteen tie and have won six of eight Bundesliga games since the winter break. This good league form includes a 4-1 win over Bayern – a victory that included a brace apiece for Dutch striker Bas Dost and Belgian playmaker Kevin De Bruyne.
It is the form of Dost and De Bruyne that has led to comparisons with the 2008-2009 team. Dost netted eleven times in five league games in the new year and De Bruyne has fifteen assists and nine goals in twenty-four league games.
This season’s winter break saw the arrival of a player who could well complete Wolfsburg’s next great attacking trio. Dieter Hecking – just as Magath did seven years previously – moved quickly to replace an outgoing Wolfsburg favourite. Evergreen Croatian striker Ivica Olic left for Hamburg, to be replaced by Chelsea and Germany forward André Schürrle.
The addition of Schürrle to Dost and De Bruyne brings back such glorious memories of Misimović, Grafite and Džeko. What was next for the class of 2008-09? You may be surprised…
The Bosnian enjoyed another good season (15 assists, 10 goals) with the Wolves in 09-10 before a move to Galatasaray in the summer of 2010. He failed to settle in Istanbul and by January 2011 had been demoted to the reserve squad by manager Gheorghe Hagi after the Romanian legend labelled him ‘not focused enough’.
In March 2011, after just 8 league starts, he left Gala for Dinamo Moscow. Misimović’s time in Moscow proved just as turbulent – he narrowly escaped a ban from the Russian Football Union for kicking the ball at Spartak fans after they pelted him with snowballs and was then bombarded with paintballs by his own fans after a poor run of form.
A move in January 2013 to the Chinese Super League with Guizhou Renhe followed and despite moments of genius (including this freekick against Tianjin Teda), Misimović’s love for the game was dwindling.
International retirement in August 2014 was followed by his decision to call time on his career altogether in March 2015 at the age of just 32 – citing a wish to spend more time with his young family as the deciding factor. He remains Bosnia’s most capped player, and their second-top goal scorer of all time.
Grafite grabbed a hat-trick in Wolfsburg’s first ever Champions League game in September 2009, a 3-1 win over CSKA Moscow. He made one substitute appearance for Brazil against Portugal in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup before leaving Wolfsburg in June 2011 for Dubai’s most successful club, Al Ahli – admitting that the salary offered was too good to refuse for a player who’d recently celebrated his 32nd birthday. He finished with a total of 75 goals in 130 games for Wolfsburg, including 59 in 107 league appearances.
He enjoyed three productive seasons with Ahli and was named the league’s international player of the year in 2012-13 after scoring 24 goals in 20 games. He bagged another 19 goals as Al Ahli stormed to the Arabian Gulf League title in 2013-14 – finishing 16 points clear of Al-Wahda.
Ahli have struggled for form in 2014-15, with Grafite regularly dropped to the bench. A move West across the Arabian Gulf to Qatar side Al Sadd in February 2015 followed. A poor start – only 2 wins from his first 8 games (including just 1 goal and a missed penalty on his debut) – could mean a return to Europe may be on the cards in the not-too-distant future.
Džeko finished the following season as Bundesliga top-scorer with 22 goals in 33 appearances. He began the season after in similar form before a January transfer move to Manchester City for a Bundesliga record fee of £27 million. He scored a handful of goals as City finished third.
Džeko started the 2011-12 season with a bang – scoring all four goals in a 5-1 victory over Tottenham at White Hart Lane. It was a typical Edin Džeko master-class; he stabbed in a left-wing cross, headed in another, tapped in a right-wing cross and finished off with a glorious 20-yard left-foot curling finish that nestled in the far top-corner of Brad Friedel’s net. Whilst not playing as regularly as Bosnian national team boss Safet Sušić would like, Džeko did grab the equaliser against QPR that ensured Sergio Augero’s strike moments later won City their first ever Premier League title.
In September 2012, he became Bosnia’s all-time leading goal-scorer with his first ever international hat-trick against Liechtenstein. That season, the Premier League title returned to Old Trafford. Despite this, Džeko netted 14 league goals for the second year running.
2013-14 was arguably Džeko’s best season at City. He bagged a brace in a 3-0 derby win over United (including a goal after 43 seconds – the fastest at Old Trafford in Premier League history). Another brace followed at Goodison Park to take City top of the league in May and yet another two goals against Villa ensured his team would be champions with a draw against West Ham on the final day. He finished the season with his second league winners medal and a personal-best goal return of 16 goals in the Premier League.
Džeko finished Bosnia’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign as the second-top scorer in the UEFA section and went on to score the opening goal for his country in a 3-1 win over Iran – their first ever World Cup victory.
This season, Džeko has struggled with injury and increased competition for a starting place in Manuel Pellegrini’s forward line. Two separate calf injuries in the run up to Christmas, the form of Sergio Aguero, and the January signing of Swansea’s Wilfried Bony have all contributed to Dzeko’s relatively poor return of 6 goals in all competitions. Despite this, he is still regarded as one of Europe’s deadliest strikers and is on course to overtake Misimović as Bosnia’s most-capped player of all time.
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