A look back on Stuttgart’s Hinrunde

So a few months ago, I gave a few thoughts on Stuttgart’s promising start to the season. In hindsight, this was by far the most ill-advised thing I have ever wrote, narrowly beating out the previous holder of that dubious honour, a nine volume literary work written in a faux Russian sentimentalist style that can be described as questionable at best. Ever since the aforesaid piece, Stuttgart have been on a nightmarish run of form, managing to grasp only six points from the eight games going into the winter break, against teams of the calibre of Mainz, Koln, Nurnberg, and Bayern, clubs that a side with top seven ambitions should manage to pull off a positive result against.

"Everything's fine! Nothing out of the ordinary! Don't panic!"

Stuttgart’s form since the season opened its great adamantine valves has been incredibly erratic, marked by a string of results not dissimilar to any NOW! That’s what I call music! album from the earlier 90s; diverse, varied, yet somehow produces a feeling of emptiness. As a slight off the topic point, the chaps down at NOW! once included The Beautiful South’s A Little Time, which was probably written by Bruno Labbadia. For example, a 1-0 loss against Hertha Berlin, managed by former Stuttgart coach Markus Babbel, preceded a vital 3-0 triumph against fellow European hopefuls Hannover. This victory was built upon by a narrow win against fellow Baden-Wurrtemberg sides Freiburg (2-1) and Hoffenheim (2-0), followed by a somewhat disappointing 2-2 draw against relegation strugglers Nurnberg. Another draw would be forthcoming, as Bruno Labbadia’s managed to pull off a poor man’s David and Goliath by holding a resurgent Dortmund side that had recently recaptured their form of 2009 to a goal apiece. This would be a short-lived triumph, however, as Labbadia’s charges would fall to a miserable 3-1 defeat against a Mainz side that has so far, among other results, held the mighty Kaiserslautern to only three goals against, snatched a brave 4-2 loss from the jaws of victory against Schalke, and suffered a 4-0 reverse against TSG Hoffenheim. TSG Hoffenheim. 4-0. That isn’t a typo.

In the following weeks, the Swabian would do little to redeem themselves with a tight 2-1 win against Augsburg, before a 2-0 trouncing by a Bremen side who form this season has so far mirrored Nick Clegg’s political position since 2008. The season would end in ignominy, with a last gap 2-2 draw against Koln from a cooly taken Podolski penalty, before sustaining a 2-1 reverse against Bayern, with Riedlingen Oedipus Mario Gomez scoring twice for the Bavarians. The misery in the real Autostadt* would be compounded the next week by a bitter end to the Hinrunde, taking the form of a 1-0 defeat away in the fahren fahren fahren aus die Autobahn derby against Wolfsburg, another team with form as erratic as the typical Felix Magath press conference.

*(You can buy success, but you can’t buy quality cars)

At the time of writing, Stuttgart lie eighth in the table, four points off of a Europa League spot, and eleven off of a Champions League berth. Hinrunde form means considerably less than pundits (including yours truly), who make their money from sensationalism, like to suggest, a precedent for this existing with Wolfsburg in the 2008-09 season. While I do not mean to suggest that Stuttgart can pull off a Wolfsburg, it is far too early to write the Swabian club, or anyone, for that matter, off the list. Remember 2007!

Unfortunately, my optimism is likely to be misplaced as Arthur Boka is at right back, and perhaps, if we’re looking at it realistically, 7th place is the best that can be expected in Swabia this year. In the last few seasons, the Bundesliga has changed beyond recognition while Stuttgart have mostly seemed content to remain in a beautiful state of existence positioned somewhere in a space-time wormhole stretching between 2007 and 2009. While I fully trust in this trend to change in the near future, this is not the near future.

Speaking of change, it is my belief that the only way forward for Stuttgart at this point is the removal of Bruno Labbadia from his coaching duties. While yes, Labbadia did do extremely well to avoid relegation last year, and for that, Bruno, everyone in Swabia will be forever grateful, this season has been a disappointment. The team has been playing with little ambition, and Labbadia does not seem to have any ability to do anything about this whatsoever. In addition, he seems to have little faith in the youth section, preferring to deploy more senior players out of position than make a change. While I realize full well that part of Stuttgart’s problem over the past few years has been the instability around the position of coach, stability is not preferable to success, and Labbadia must go.

As for his speculative replacement, I fantasize about Mirko Slomka, a man with a proven record of bringing titles to Stuttgart, but this is unrealistic. I would like to see Robin Dutt of Leverkusen, if he were to be sacked by the pharmaceutical giant, assume the reins of the red and whites. Perhaps more realistically, either Mainz’s Thomas Tuchel, or Kaiserslautern’s Marco Kurz, the latter a Stuttgart native, might be lured to the cradle of the automobile. Perhaps Edy Sozer, the current Stuttgart assistant manager who was excellently portrayed by Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. As pure speculative fantasy, I wonder what Jens Lehmann’s doing these days…

Regardless, director Fredi Bobic has kicked off Stuttgart’s transfer season by adding to Labbadia’s consider arsenal of squad players the loan signing of Gotoku Sakai for 500,000 Euros from Albirex Niigata. While the personal opinions of your humble writer are strictly that the Japanese defender will be excellent, and that Bobic has allowed himself to be cheated out of 10 million euros by not signing him outright, it is infinitely likely that we shall see Sakai-san being marginalized by the coach, confined to the bench, returning to Japan, and re-emerging in three years as one of the world’s finest players, as is the fate of most youth players connected with Stuttgart.

Nonetheless, as Richard Ashcroft (and who am I to doubt him?) told us, there is still time, and, though matters look stark, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the red and whites. Whether this light transpires to be an oncoming train remains to be seen.

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