How have Wolfsburg gone from relegation contenders in the past two seasons to European hopefuls in 2018/19? The answer is quite simple: USMNT star John Brooks.
Admittedly, the 26-year-old was at Wolfsburg last season too, having joined from hometown club Hertha Berlin in July 2017, but a series of injuries restricted him to just nine Bundesliga outings. Even then, however, his influence was tangible: the Wolves earned 1.44 points per game with him in the side, as opposed to 0.97 without.
Now fully fit and playing regularly, the self-styled 'Wall of Brooks' has vastly improved on those numbers as a key member of Bruno Labbadia's side that has climbed almost unnoticed into the European reckoning, currently sitting seventh on 39 points, just one behind fifth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt.
Brooks has played the full 90 minutes in 23 games so far this season, only missing out on Matchday 14 through suspension. "Jay's an important player for us, he's made a place in the starting line-up his own," said Labbadia in January. "He earned that at the end of last season when he showed the quality he has by playing even though he was still unfit after his injury."
As you might expect for a hulking 6'4" centre-back, he fulfills his defensive duties with aplomb, making more interceptions (438) and winning more tackles (62 per cent) than any other Wolfsburg player this term – that latter tally rising to 73 per cent in aerial duels. The fact he has only committed nine fouls in 2070 minutes of action show just how skilled he is at this particular aspect of the game.
Brooks is by no means simply a destroyer, however, but also an integral part of Wolfsburg's build-up play. In 2018/19, he is averaging more touches of the ball per game than ever before (70, compared to 63 in previous seasons) and completing more passes than any other Wolfsburg player (89 per cent).
And those are not the simple, 10-yard sideways passes you would expect from a centre-back. Brooks has played more long balls forward (176) than any player in the Bundesliga this season, with a whopping 69 per cent of them finding their target, which is an incredible return for such risky passes.
That ability to open up the game was not lost on new USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter on a recent visit to Germany: "He's a very good defender," he said of the 36-time USA international."He's got a good profile, when I think of his towering frame and how he passes the ball. We'll be coming over to watch him again because we think he has huge potential."
Labbadia is of a like mind and has set about unlocking it this season: "Jay's developed well. He's a rock for us at the back, but I can still see potential there. He's at the right age now to get to the next level. He's a good height and is good in the air. We're working on his goal threat. That's one of the areas he can improve."
Watch: Brooks hits the target for Wolfsburg on Matchday 24
The results are already starting to show. On Matchday 24, Brooks opened the scoring in Wolfsburg's 1-1 draw with Werder Bremen, having set up Admir Mehmedi to find the net the previous week in the 3-0 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach. As such, he now has two goals and two assists in the league this term, compared to six and two in 90 appearances for Hertha.
The Wolves still have fixtures against four of the teams currently in the top five before the season is out and must face Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig away from home in that time. Yet as tricky as that run-in may seem for Wolfsburg's European push, they have a chance as long as Brooks is about.