When Wolfsburg kicked off their 2016-17 Bundesliga campaign, they did not expect it to go like this. Star striker Bas Dost set up the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Augsburg on the first weekend of the season. The following day, Dost was on his way to Sporting Lisbon for €10 million.
After that, everything went downhill. It took nine more league games before they registered another win. During that time, they were hammered 5-1 at home to Borussia Dortmund and embarrassingly lost 3-1 to now-relegated Darmstadt.
Relegation is something that now looms over one of Germany's biggest teams. With two games remaining, they sit just two points above the relegation zone despite a resurgence in the second half of the season.
That change in form came after Wolfsburg appointed their third manager of the season, bringing in Arsenal academy manager Andries Jonker on February 27. The 54-year-old Dutchman had been assistant manager at the Bundesliga club before replacing Liam Brady at Arsenal, and brought experience of managing in the Netherlands as well as being Louis van Gaal's second-in-command at Bayern Munich.
When he moved back to the Volkswagen Arena, he took former Arsenal winger Freddie Ljungberg with him. Following his retirement, the Swede worked as a club ambassador at the Emirates before taking on the role of Under-15 coach.
The duo quickly got to work at righting the wrongs that had happened under predecessors Dieter Hecking and Valerien Ismael. Under Hecking, the Wolves had sold some of their big players in the summer, including Dost, Andre Schurrle, Max Kruse and defensive duo Dante and Naldo.
The replacements failed to have the desired impact, with defender Philipp Wollscheid frozen out under Ismael, being forced to play with the reserves. Julian Draxler was sold in January to PSG, while the goalkeeping situation was also unsteady with neither Diego Benaglio nor Koen Casteels a clear first choice.
During his time at Arsenal, Jonker indicated that his model of developing players sought four things: "technical ability, tactical ability, mental ability and physical ability." This mindset did not always turn into positive results on the pitch for Arsenals' youth teams, but was more about the development of players.
Many questioned why hot midfield prospect Gedion Zelalem was loaned to Dutch second-tier side VVV-Venlo, but the American youth international never doubted the academy director:
“Andries Jonker, who I’m sure a lot of Dutch football fans know about him, as he was an assistant to Louis van Gaal… he told me I needed to come to a team that has a lot of the ball, that’s maybe top of a league so I can get on the ball and show my talent," the 20-year-old told the Eerste Divisie club's official website.
“[He said] I’ll perform better in a lower league rather than an Eredivisie team which wouldn’t be so good for me. I agreed with him, so I came here. I hope to show what I can do.”
When Jonker left for Wolfsburg, Gunners manager Arsene Wenger knew that this player-first approach would help him guide Wolfsburg to safety, telling Arsenal's official website: "If you look at their team, their squad, they have very good players, so I think he has a good opportunity there to get them out of the relegation battle and as well to prepare to be their long-term coach there.”
While his work at Arsenal's academy was more a long-term vision, Jonker's impact at Wolfsburg was immediate. They won two and drew two of their four games after his appointment, with Casteels chosen as the No.1 for the rest of the season and Wollscheid welcomed back into the setup.
"He is part of the professional squad — with no ifs or buts — all that applies to the other guys also applies to him," Jonker said as Wollscheid returned to the first-team squad. "There are no promises, he has to earn his playing time."
With Mario Gomez returning to form up front, Wolfsburg look likely to secure their safety, having games against Hecking's new side, Borussia Monchengladbach, and 16th-placed Hamburg to finish their season.
Once safety is secured, Jonker can then begin to implement his long-term visions for the club. He can start to use what he learned as Arsenal's academy director to shape the future of Vfl Wolfsburg. Just a year ago they recorded a first-leg win over Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final. Under Jonker, they can start to believe in a return to those heights.
It would not be surprising to see Jonker or Ljungberg return to Arsenal one day, with Wenger indicating that the possibility of coming back was part of the reason Ljungberg was allowed leave.
“Freddie has done extremely well with the Under-15s here,” Wenger told the club's official website. “I was in touch with him constantly during his experience there.
“We gave him permission to go, but with a promise that he will come back if there’s a possibility to come back here. Overall, I think it’s part of his education to become a coach, to have this kind of experience. Hopefully, we can use that later at Arsenal."
Ljungberg and Jonker could be Arsenal's future, but for now, they have to ensure Wolfsburg stay in the Bundesliga.