Just eight months ago, VFL Wolfsburg were celebrating the biggest win in team history after defeating Real Madrid 2-0 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarterfinal. They were led that day by the shifty feet of a highly-rated young German international who had a hand in both goals, making his marriage with the club seem destined for bliss.
Now, that winger, Julian Draxler and his club seem set for a nasty divorce as he and the club are suffering through a miserable start to the 2016/17 Bundesliga season.
Wolfsburg have just 10 points in 13 matches this season and sit just three points above an automatic relegation place. This is a far cry from the expectations set after finishing second and winning the German Cup in 2014/15 and their aforementioned Champions League success last season. The manager who led the Wolves to these triumphs, Dieter Hecking, was fired in October and his successor, Valérien Ismaël has struggled to inspire any sort of sustained winning form since.
Draxler’s struggles are just as shocking, if not more so. He has yet to register a goal or assist this season in 11 appearances with an 82% pass accuracy rate and converted 54% of dribbles, has struggled with ball retention and looks a shell of the player he has shown he can be. The situation at Wolfsburg has gotten so tense to the point Draxler was jeered by his own fans after coming off the bench during their 3-2 home defeat to Hertha Berlin on December 3. This may have been the breaking point in a relationship with the club that has soured since the summer when Draxler told German tabloid, Bild he wanted out and was unhappy with comments Hecking and sporting director, Klaus Allofs made about his situation without consulting him.
“I don’t think I need to tell anybody what that (booing) does to a person — it certainly doesn’t help you,” Draxler told reporters after the Hertha match. “There’s no doubt it makes it hard for you to perform on the field. I can understand the fans, though. They have every right to do that. I said in the summer the way I feel and I stand by that.”
It is clear the untenable situation at Wolfsburg is affecting Draxler’s game. But beyond that, there are lingering concerns that surround the player in determining whether or not he can make a fluid transition to a big European club and perform consistently.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect is his health. In the 2012/13 season while with Schalke 04, the then 19-year-old put the world on notice, chipping in 10 goals and three assists in 30 league games with an 82% pass completing rate, 42 key passes and completing 66% of his dribbles. Since then, Draxler has missed 40 out of the 115 games his teams have played, affecting his consistency and possibly his confidence.
His finishing has also suffered since that season. Draxler has scored 10 goals in three plus seasons since, recording shooting percentages of 61% or less in each of the last three Bundesliga campaigns.
When signed by Wolfsburg in August 2015, Draxler was tasked with filling the shoes of Kevin De Bruyne as the team’s main source of chance creation. While Draxler has the creativity, he and KDB are in two different worlds when it comes to producing. De Bruyne largely operated in a free role for Wolfsburg, roaming from left to right as he sought out the likes of Bas Dost and others up top, recording a league-high 20 assists along with 10 goals in the 2014/15 season before landing with Manchester City.
Draxler is a prototypical winger, mainly operating on the left flank. While he does drift to the middle from time to time, he doesn’t play with the tactical freedom his opposite number enjoys. At his best, Draxler is incredibly comfortable on the ball, having strong close control and quick feet as well as immaculate vision and is not afraid to try the unconventional to make things happen in the final third. However, he has yet to consistently show he has the ability to dictate matches when necessary. He showed it during Wolfsburg’s Champions League run, including against the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid, but during much of his career has shown flashes of brilliance rather than lighting it up with regularity for club and country.
During the summer, Wolfsburg were adamant about their refusal to sell Draxler and insisted they will at least keep him for this season, after which a reported €75m release clause kicks in. However, given the team’s struggles and player’s growing desire to leave, Allofs recently softened his stance, telling Sport1 they could allow him to leave in the winter transfer window if the right offer comes in.
“We’d evaluate it differently now and maybe give our approval the next time,” he said. “The story did not help him, and it did not help VfL.”
A number of teams have reportedly been keen on Draxler, including English Premier League clubs Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton and four-time defending Ligue 1 champions, Paris Saint Germain. The Arsenal link has been the most persistent, with Draxler revealing he turned down the club’s advances in the 2014 winter window to remain at Schalke. However, given this latest development, it may lead the club to once again try and convince the winger to come to the Emirates Stadium.
Draxler’s next move is critical in his development. He has many tools to work with that simply need refining and could use a manager who could inspire that extra bit of will and ability to help him become the finished article. Part of the problem has been the lack of stability on the managerial front as at Schalke, he had six different managers (not including interims) between 2010 and his departure in 2015. This includes Felix Magath, Ralf Rangnick, Huub Stevens, Jens Keller, Roberto Di Matteo and André Breitenreiter.
An Arsène Wenger, Jürgen Klopp or someone of that caliber in his ear would be a great benefit to his game. Young players with high talent ceilings need inspiration and trust to unlock their potential and a manager with clout as well as a reputation for transforming the careers of younger players would be ideal for him.
He may not be a superhuman Marvel Comics character, but Julian can be football’s version of Drax The Destroyer if a steady voice can convince him to unleash his powers. Just how far his powers will take him and where he will show them remains a mystery.