The 49-year-old Yorkshireman's stock in Wolfsburg has never been higher than a fortnight after his dismissal
Eighty percent of success is just showing up. Who knew that Woody Allen was such a football expert? A casual glance at a couple of coaches in the Premier League and Bundesliga – let's call them "Graham Plant" and "Pirmin Späh", to protect the guilty – shows that The King of Nebbish instinctively grasped the essence of management. For some, simply sitting on the bench and adopting a stern, thoughtful expression has been enough to secure continued employment. Steve McClaren, however, is poised to go one better this year: he no longer needs to show up at all to come across as a top manager.
Truth be told, the 49-year-old Yorkshireman's stock in Wolfsburg has never been higher than two weeks after his dismissal. The 2009 champions have now lost two in as many games under his successor Pierre Littbarski and slipped to 15th in the table after a 2-1 defeat at Freiburg on Saturday. From this vantage point, the perspective might well change. A few losses more and McClaren might just go down in VfL history as the decent manager who so nearly saved this sorry mess of a side from the inevitable drop, but was fired prematurely.
Dieter Hoeness will, of course, never accept such a flippant view. "We have enough individual quality to be among the top third in the table," the general manager told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper before the Freiburg trip, "but we didn't manage to come together as a team." McClaren was only mentioned in passing in the interview – "in the winter break, senior players asked him to be stricter" – but it was obvious who the 57-year-old blamed for the slide. "We didn't manage to create our own footballing philosophy," Hoeness said. He implicitly agreed that McClaren's Wolfsburg had played "a kind of kick and rush, without the rush", as the Süddeutsche reporter suggested.
It's a measure of how bad things have become at this season's biggest gross spenders – €52m (£43.8m) for new players – that the somewhat unfortunate defeat at the Badenova-Stadion was almost greeted with relief. "I saw many things I liked today", Hoeness said. "The team was fighting and playing well. We didn't just play it long, we played with patience. It looked like football." The Brazilian midfielder Diego, back from his disciplinary ban for taking (and missing) a penalty against McClaren's wishes two weeks ago, concurred. "If we continue like that, our situation will change," predicted the 25-year-old confidently. "We mustn't panic now, that won't help us."
Keeper Marwin Hitz, too, believed in progress: "Today we were very unlucky. But we'll get out [of trouble] if we work this hard. We're more of a unity now." Littbarski had controversially banned Alexander Madlung and Thomas Kahlenberg from the squad in midweek, the measure seemed to have the desired effect. Even the Freiburg coach, Robin Dutt, conceded that the opponents had played well. "Diego was world class," he said.
It's not a coincidence modest Freiburg are up in sixth position while the big names (Stuttgart, Bremen) flounder. Dutt, one of the league's most hard-working and progressive coaches, has a clear idea about tactics (pressing, pressing, pressing) and players willing to work for each other, unlike others.
Having said that, Wolfsburg could easily have travelled home with three points if they hadn't encountered three specific problems on the way. First, SC keeper Oliver Baumann kept his side in the running after Patrick Helmes's opening goal (28 minutes, assist by Tuncay) with some inspired saves. Then, referee Robert Hartmann overlooked a handball from Anton Putsila in the run-up to Stefan Reisinger's equaliser. Finally, they were thwarted by the bar in the last minute, when Cicero's header had beaten Baumann. The fact that the Senegalese striker Papiss Cissé scored the winner for the home side with his 16th strike of the season didn't make the defeat easier to stomach. Hoeness had tried to sign in the 25-year-old in January but was rebuffed by Freiburg's €19m evaluation.
Littbarski will have to win more than plaudits for the more aesthetically pleasing approach of the side. Hoeness has made clear that the 50-year-old is only a caretaker manager ("his job is to save us") and refused to guarantee the 1990 World Cup winner a minimum run until the end of the season. The club and players don't seem entirely convinced that "Litti", the boyish 1980s idol and Limahl doppelgänger is quite the man for a scrap in the Bundesliga basement.
In his oversized black trenchcoat, the former dribbling genius has cut a pretty forlorn figure on the sidelines and his natural expression has been that of a man who has realised his employees have booked him a window seat on the Hindenburg. Even before his promotion, Littbarski was photographed looking extremely unhappy. But maybe that's just par for the course for people with folding bicycles on Lower Saxony commuter trains.
Next up is a "six-pointer" (Hoeness) against 18th placed Gladbach, who won 2-1 at home against Schalke under new manager Lucien Favre. "A lot is at stake next week but not everything, not yet," said the general manager, in an effort to take some pressure off the players. The Wolfsburg supporters have started calling for his head in recent weeks but Hoeness has been smart enough to line up more potential saviours/scapegoats in case Littbarski can't cut it. The veteran Hans Meyer is pencilled in as the next emergency caretaker before Ralf Rangnick will take over in the summer. From a Woody Allen point of view, the 52-year-old looks like a risky proposition though. He's one of those managers who actually does too much, if anything.
• Not many "likes" for Felix Magath's facebook page this week: his Schalke team crashed to a 1-2 defeat to Gladbach on Sunday despite assuming a 2nd-minute lead (Peer Kluge). Dr Felix, the amateur psychologist, felt that "mental problems" precluded his men from performing after the creditable 1-1 draw with Valencia in midweek. "Some people were hiding on the pitch," added Manuel Neuer. "We didn't know how to play today." The opposite effect was visible on the other side of the pitch, where Borussia played with a vigour and coherence rarely seen this season. "It was fantastic today, apart from the first minute," said Favre.
• Defeats for Stuttgart (4-2 away to Leverkusen) and Bremen (4-0 at Hamburg) made Gladbach's win even more valuable. All of a sudden, the Foals are back in the mix – in a good way, unlike recent(ish) champions VfB and Werder of course, who never dreamed of rubbing shoulders with each other in the nether regions. The Swabians were well worth a draw but threw it all away after 81 minutes, when Stefan Reinartz headed home the host's third goal unopposed from a corner. Thomas Schaaf's men have at least some consolation: a decent opening 20 minutes apart, they can't possibly play worse. Per Mertesacker, who had given Bild an in-no-way populist or borderline-xenophobic interview (title: "I hate mercenaries") last week was the worst player on the pitch, albeit in a very loyal, "committed to my club" kind of way. A few hundred angry supporters stopped the Werder bus on its way home and insisted on a debate with the players. After exchanges that were described as "polite and constructive" by defender Clemens Fritz, the fans burst into song. "Thomas Schaaf, you're the best man," they chanted, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
• Two draws in a row had suggested the faintest possibility of some last-minute bottling but Dortmund were back in the groove against St Pauli. Goals from Lucas Barrios and an own-goal from Ralph Gunesch put paid to doubts over Borussia's finishing prowess. Asked about the high number of missed chances in the first 30 minutes, Jürgen Klopp smiled benignly. "Don't worry, this highly emotional subject will be dealt with internally," he said. Not that funny, but if you're top of the pile, everything's forgiven. Apart from advertising wallpaper glue perhaps.
• What was supposed to be tough dress rehearsal for the Champions League trip to Internazionale turned out to be a bit of walk in the park for Bayern in Mainz. The hosts never recovered from a ninth-minute Bastian Schweinsteiger header and were cruelly overrun by some uncharacteristically well-executed counter-attacks after the break. "I think winning the Champions League might be easier than winning the Bundesliga this year," said Arjen Robben, a little on the optimistic side. Maybe the Dutchman spends so much time away from his own back-four in the opposition that he's yet to see the full horror of Bayern's defensive frailty.
Results: Nürnberg 3-0 Frankfurt, Hamburg 4-0 Bremen, Hannover 3-0 Kaisersluatern, Freiburg 2-1 Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim 1-1 Köln, Dortmund 2-0 St Pauli, Leverkusen 4-2 Stuttgart, Gladbach 2-1 Schalke