For VfL Wolfsburg, the winter break could hardly have come soon enough. The 2015 Bundesliga runners-up and DFB Cup winners finished the year three points clear of the relegation zone, after winning just four of their opening 16 matches – the final two included, averting an even grimmer scenario.
In Olaf Rebbe, the Wolves have a brand new sporting director who has got straight down to brass tacks. At the winter training camp in La Manga, Spain, head coach Valerian Ismael already had four fresh faces at his disposal – most prominent among them attacking midfielder Yunus Malli, a marquee capture from league rivals 1. FSV Mainz 05.
The Turkey international has six goals and seven assists to his name this season and is champing at the bit to add to that tally with Wolfsburg. “After five years in Mainz I felt ready to take the next step. The club made a very convincing case, even if they're not exactly where you'd expect them to be at the moment,” said Malli, adding that, “I don't need much time to settle in. I want to start helping the team straight away and I'm confident that I can.”
Wolfsburg also further boosted their midfield options with the signing of Riechedly Bazoer from AFC Ajax. Already a full Dutch international, the 20-year-old talent is equally capable of patrolling the space in front of the back four or operating in a more advanced role. At the sharp end of the action, pacy Cameroon-born France international Paul-Georges Ntep is a promising addition from Stade Rennais FC, as is free-scoring Nigerian prospect Victor Osimhen, now 18 and officially on the books in a pre-arranged move from the Lagos Ultimate Strikers Academy.
“It's been an intensive time for everyone, Olaf included. It's just great for a coach already to have all the players you wanted by the end of the training camp,” said Ismael, who had further words of praise for his sporting director: “He was under a lot of pressure, not least from me. At times I was hunting him down every three hours, asking him what's happening with those players.”
Ismael and Rebbe's mid-season analysis had yielded the perhaps inevitable conclusion that a squad makeover was urgently required. For all the promise of the new arrivals, however, the club's targets for the rest of the current campaign remain modest. “Given that we're three points clear of the relegation play-off place, it would be presumptuous to occupy ourselves with anything beyond staying up. That's all we're focused on right now,” said Rebbe prior to the Wolves' Matchday 17 win over Hamburger SV.
The new sporting director may be a relative novice at this level, but the early signs are he is proving to be a quick learner, which is precisely what Wolfsburg need with no time to waste in their survival operation.