After exceeding expectations last season to end a three-year absence from the European stage, Koen Casteels and Wolfsburg have high hopes for the 2019/20 campaign.
In an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com, the Wolves’ undisputed No1 discusses the impact of new head coach Oliver Glasner, expectations for the coming campaign and how becoming a father for the first time has affected his life.
bundesliga.com: VfL Wolfsburg exceeded all expectations last season. What was it like finishing sixth?
Koen Casteels: "It was very good. We were coming out of a tough period having played in the relegation play-offs for two years running, so maybe the expectations were not as high. We then agreed with the coach that we had to work harder than everybody else because we were the lowest placed team that did not get relegated. We put in this work and this made the team stronger. We won the first two games against Schalke and Leverkusen and this was a great feeling and boosted our confidence. We realised that we were a good team. Of course, we had a few weaker moments throughout the season, but we got through these periods and finished the season very positively by qualifying for the Europa League."
bundesliga.com: What was the secret behind Wolfsburg's success that led to a sixth-placed finish?
Casteels: "We made big changes in pre-season. We realised as a team that we needed to put in a lot of hard work before we got the right results. We took this to heart because we didn’t want to go through another tough season which could end up with us getting relegated. We trained more often and with more intensity than in the years before. Maybe this was a necessary step at this time."
bundesliga.com: What part did the former coach, Bruno Labbadia, play in last season’s success?
Casteels: "He played a large part. He did a very good job, even though it was intense for the players and we sometimes lamented having to do more training! Ultimately it was worth it, and you gladly put this effort in as a player if it pays off with achieving 6th place at the end of the season."
bundesliga.com: You are one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga and you were one of the main reasons why Wolfsburg managed to get into Europe. How would you assess your own performances and your contribution to the success?
Casteels: "It is difficult to say. I did a good job last season, just like everybody else in the team. You do not win any games as an individual and we just played well as a team. I was there when the team needed me, and the team spirit was great. Everybody gave their all, regardless of whether they were playing five minutes or the whole game. It was more down to a combined team effort than individual performances."
bundesliga.com: What are your expectations for the upcoming Bundesliga season?
Casteels: "We are playing Europa League this season and when you achieve this, you don’t want to let it slip. We want to qualify for Europe again this year as a minimum. We do not want to be overly ambitious and claim that we now only want to play Champions League. We need to stay grounded because we know how hard we worked last season to arrive at where we are. We need to replicate this again this year and we hope that we can play in Europe again next season. It is a long season and a lot can happen, so we need to wait to see how the first games go. I am very optimistic following our pre-season."
bundesliga.com: What are your expectations for your Europa League campaign?
Casteels: "It is a good competition for us, and I have never played in it. We will need to see what group we are drawn in at the end of August. It is obviously our aim to get as far as possible in the competition and to show that we can compete with teams on an international level."
bundesliga.com: How will the added workload affect you and your teammates?
Casteels: "Of course, it will use up a lot of energy when you have to account for 10 or 12 more games in a season. However, we have a good physio department and a good coaching team who will manage the training sessions in such a way that we can still give our all in every game and that we stay fit. It is always more fun to play games than to train, so I don’t think anyone is complaining that we have more games."
bundesliga.com: Do you think you the squad has enough depth?
Casteels: We have a lot of players and mostly have two players for each position. Our squad depth is looking very good.
bundesliga.com: Oliver Glasner is your new coach and has a different system to Bruno Labbadia. What have you made of the tactical changes?
Casteels: It is very good. He is very clear in the football he wants to play, and this was evident in some of the pre-season games. We are confident in the way in which we want to play, but it is clear that we need to improve in certain aspects. Of course, it is a change of system and we are trying to play in a different way, but there are already many positives to take. We just need a little time to adapt as a team, but a lot of things are already working very well.
bundesliga.com: As a youth player you sometimes played one half as an outfield player and one half in goal. How did that help shape you into the player you are today?
Casteels: At my home club, I always swapped positions with a friend of mine. It was at this time that I started training as a goalkeeper and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to entirely give up playing outfield. It was a good solution to play one half in goal and one half at left-back. This helped me to maintain my skills on the ball because I did this up until the age of 12 or 13. It helps me to see what situation I am putting the defender in if I pass him the ball and what he can do with the ball. It is a big advantage.
bundesliga.com: You became a father for the first time last September. How is fatherhood treating you and how have your priorities have changed.
Casteels: "It puts a lot of things into perspective, like winning or losing a game. Your priorities change when you then afterwards go home and see your daughter. Football is still a hobby of mine, even though it has become my job. I am very happy with being in this position because it brings me a lot of joy, but family is the most important thing in life. This becomes even more clear when you become a father."
bundesliga.com: A lot of Wolfsburg players became fathers last year. Do you get together often and do things together?
Casteels: "The wives sometimes meet or go for breakfast when we train. Of course, they often have five or six prams with them!"
bundesliga.com: The new season starts on the August 17. What are your expectations from the opening game against 1. FC Köln?
Casteels: "The Bundesliga is about to start so we could not be more motivated. We all can’t wait for it to start after a long pre-season. It is difficult to know what to expect from the first game and how the other teams will play. I know from experience that no games in the Bundesliga are easy. Köln have brought in some good signings and I saw them play in the cup. They play good football and have two strong forwards up front. It definitely won’t be easy, and it will be another fight that we have to be ready for."