Labbadia’s and Stuttgart’s Way Forward

VfB Stuttgart’s decision to extend the contract of coach Bruno Labbadia until 2015 after a run of three straight defeats (now four) seemed to be met with, at best, resigned acceptance by fans of the Schwaben. And that despite the man from Darmstadt achieving a Hinrunde points total that VfB haven’t bettered since the title-winning 2006/07 season, a place in the last 32 of the Europa League and a promising DFB Pokal quarter-final against second-division VfL Bochum. So I decided to dig a little deeper and try to square the views of one of the more vocal anti-Labbadistas with my own neutral viewpoint.

46-year-old Labbadia joined the likes of Thomas Doll and Giovanni Trapattoni when he famously lost his temper at perceived unfair criticism in an October press conference. So what is this criticism based on, and is it fair or not?

Let’s start with Labbadia the man. And no, I’m not referring to any off-pitch superinjunction-inviting rumours from previous jobs, but simply his media personality. That press conference blow-up was really the nadir of a character trait that has bothered fans for some time – a victim mentality. That’s not to say his feelings are without reason, but there’s little doubt Labbadia (consciously or not) also shifts the blame as a defence mechanism. He likes to claim that he is constricted by a lack of financial clout, a small squad, unrealistic expectations and a lack of appreciation for his work from the fans in the stadium. How fair is this? Well it might be true that the surprise title win six years ago raised some people’s expectations for the future to unsustainable levels, the first-team squad does lack the depth to maintain a strong challenge on three fronts, and in money terms the club of course cannot compete with the very best.

Nevertheless, after two years in charge, even in the continental system whereby he does not have full control over transfers, a coach has to take responsibility for the quality of the squad he has built. Given that the club has a top-six wage bill and has given out €14 million in transfer fees since Labbadia’s arrival, it also seems unjustifiable to complain about a lack of financial support. On the other hand, selling players like Christian Träsch and Bernd Leno boosted the club’s coffers to the point that Labbadia has actually brought in €15.9 million more than he has spent. What’s more, he took over a club in the relegation zone mid-season and led them to safety, followed by a Europa League place the following year and, as previously stated, an acceptable first half of the current campaign. In the aforementioned press conference, Labbadia apparently threatened to walk away if he wasn’t treated better. Now that he’s decided to stay, he has to start proving his worth and winning over his critics.

What does that involve? Well, even in modern football, the media circus is a sideshow, so it really comes down to Labbadia the coach. As a starting point, let’s take a quote from that now-legendary rant – “As a normal Bundesliga coach, you have to ask yourself these days: do I go down a difficult road, as VfB Stuttgart has to do – do I go along with that, or do I say ‘Screw you!’?” One of the criticisms levelled at Labbadia by fans is that he has in fact taken the easy road in terms of both tactics and selection. With regard to the second point, the words he used in German, “einen schweren Weg”, are also significant.

The Stuttgarter Weg is an abstract phenomenon, but one that is part of the club’s tradition and promotes the use of the club’s young talent (Stuttgart is known for the quality of its youth system: alumni include internationals Timo Hildebrand, Sami Khedira, Mario Gómez and Serdar Tasci), but Labbadia (as he did at HSV and Leverkusen) seems to have gone a different “Weg” – to the annoyance of supporters. Indeed, that reaction from the boss was instigated by fans calling for his head after he subbed off 19-year-old Raphael Holzhauser against Bayer Leverkusen. Holzhauser and Antonio Rüdiger (also 19) are two who have seen some playing time, and Gōtoku Sakai (21) is a regular, but the feeling in the stands is that they have made the breakthrough either due to overwhelming fan and media pressure or because they were the last available option – “The boys aren’t ready yet” has become Labbadia’s catchphrase, and the likes of Kevin Stöger and Sami’s brother Rani Khedira are yet to see Bundesliga action.

The argument in favour of Labbadia’s selection policy is the rather unusual make-up of the squad generally: Tamás Hajnal and Cacau are the only first-team players over 30, and perhaps the coach feels bringing in genuine youth alongside this group of twenty-somethings would mean too little experience on the pitch and might even be damaging to the long-term prospects of the potential future stars, as well as the team’s current form. On the other hand, a group aged 24–29 should be at its peak, and if they aren’t impressing on the pitch, why not give youth a chance? The fact that the club’s reserve side have held their own in division three for the last four seasons and the under-19s and under-17s sit second and fourth in their respective leagues suggests the quality is there.

But Labbadia has also faced negative reactions to the way he uses the players he does select – again, the criticism is probably over the top, but not without reason.

While Bayern dominate the Bundesliga with penetrative possession play and the league’s surprise success stories base their strategy on disciplined pressing and quick transitions, Stuttgart have often looked slow in their build-up when they play through midfield. At a basic level, Stuttgart look to play a passing game, but lack the quality to implement it when they are put under pressure. This often leads to the ball ending up at the feet of their less talented passers, such as Georg Niedermeier, who simply look to get rid of it – admittedly the difference from team to team is small, but only relegation-favourites Greuther Fürth have played a higher percentage of long balls than VfB this season.

And although Labbadia has been open to tactical alterations, this often hasn’t been enough to outwit his opponents. Mirko Slomka turned a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 victory for his Hannover side by moving to a 4-1-3-2 and decreasing the time Stuttgart’s midfield three got on the ball, and VfB also threw away leads against Mainz, Leverkusen and Bayern in the Hinrunde. It would certainly appear that this difficulty in holding onto leads is down to tactics rather than stamina, as fitness is one area where Labbadia’s side cannot be criticised: despite regularly playing Europa League matches on Thursdays, Stuttgart covered more distance in “intensive” runs than their league opponents in 18 of their 20 matches so far this season, and ran further overall in 14 of those. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are expending their energy effectively: Christian Streich’s Freiburg are renowned for energetic pressing to stifle their opponents – VfB nevertheless outran them in every area, but were easily beaten 3-0. On the other hand, they were bested by Dortmund in terms of ground covered, but managed a surprise goalless draw against the champions.

Thankfully there does seem to be a middle ground that could both placate fans of exciting football and bring positive results. On the occasions when VfB have used the width of the pitch and got direct but targeted passes to the flanks, followed by quick service to their danger man Vedad Ibišević, they have caused teams problems. Victories against Schalke and Gladbach can be put in this category, which is by no means tiki-taka, but is at least dynamic and effective. There’s no doubt that VfB haven’t managed results like that often enough this season, and four defeats on the bounce is always cause for concern. But before we move on, let’s reiterate the bare facts: Stuttgart remain (despite underwhelming performances) involved in European competition, in the German Cup with an excellent opportunity to reach the semi-finals, and, despite their poor start to the Rückrunde, still only four points off reaching a Europa League place again.

Criticism of Labbadia is therefore only partially justified, but there is a more general and arguably more important aspect to consider. The club’s management have made many mistakes since the famous Meisterschaft of 2007, and to this day there are complaints from fans about a lack of direction among those at the top of the club’s hierarchy. A combination of panic buys and ill-advised contract extensions have led to the current imbalanced squad, which is arguably performing at around the right level for its quality, but is a long way from title-winning aspirations – or even the achievements of the mid-1990s “magic triangle” that included today’s sporting director Fredi Bobic.

In that respect, January was mixed: on the one hand a new contract for the ageing and underperforming Hajnal is hard to comprehend, and the arrivals of Tunay Torun and Felipe Lopes are unlikely to power the team up the table. On the other, while he has struggled for form this season, the summer capture of Fürth’s Sercan Sararer looks deft, and bringing in Federico Macheda on loan is relatively risk-free and may provide the edge up front that is sorely missing whenever top scorer Ibišević is unavailable. Then there is the signing of forward Alexandru Maxim from Romanian side Pandurii Targu Jiu. If he can contribute this season, he could prove a bargain. But at 22 years old, with a transfer fee of €1.5 million and a reported €1.2 million salary, if Labbadia suggests “the boy isn’t ready yet”, Stuttgart fans will be tearing their hair out.

So does the Stuttgart board’s decision to give Labbadia more time fall into the “ill-advised” category, or is it the beginning of a long-term strategy that could signal a return to the glory days? Two years ago Labbadia restored stability to a side that was at genuine risk of relegation, but signs of development have stalled in the meantime and there is a risk of complacency setting in. And yet, with so many clubs clearly suffering from a lack of continuity, his performance has hardly represented grounds for removal, and anything other than a vote of confidence now would have seemed an odd decision. And that is where the two sides meet – the fan who has seen his team drift up and down over many years, can analyse every error and master stroke, and feels the accompanying frustration; and the neutral who sees a team performing adequately and laying the foundations to continue that work, and perhaps make a gradual further improvement. And in football, both viewpoints can simultaneously be entirely correct.

Thanks to @Jens1893 for the forthright opinions!


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