The announcement of Tayfun Korkut’s hiring by VfB Stuttgart on January 29 was a head-scratcher. Departing coach Hannes Wolf was a former BvB assistant, highly-regarded and a crucial mentor in the development of Christian Pulisic while at Dortmund. Wolf brought Stuttgart immediately back to the top flight after a season in the second division. In his first season as a head coach in the Bundesliga, he’d kept the Swabians afloat with a very strong home record balancing an atrocious record on the road.
But Wolf’s side lost seven of eight matches in December and January, including two losses to struggling Mainz (one in the Pokal) and Wolf expressed his thoughts to Stuttgart management that he’d perhaps lost the locker room and wasn’t sure he could turn things around. He was relieved of his duties and Korkut brought in. The Stuttgart native, who began in the youth ranks of Stuttgarter Kickers and played in Germany, Spain and Turkey, is impressive in many ways — obviously a smart man, he’s fluent in four language sand played internationally for Turkey, later becoming an assistant on their national squad after stints coaching youth sides of Real Sociedad, Hoffenheim and yes, Stuttgart.
But his dismal record as a head coach in Germany, beginning in December, 2013 when he was hired by Hannover and continuing at 1.FC Kaiserslautern and last Spring at Bayer 04 Leverkusen didn’t inspire any excitement among pundits or fans. In 77 combined matches at those three posts, he’d only earned 21 victories, with 24 draws and 32 defeats for a lowly 27% winning rate. But after four matches in charge, Korkut has fashioned an impressive 3-1-0 record, defeating European hopefuls Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Mönchengladbach and FC Augsburg by re-configuring Stuttgart’s tactics and emphasizing defense while discovering a formula of employing two big strikers in a 4-4-2 formation, moving Holger Badstuber to central midfield, allowing the other side more possession and keeping a consistent starting XI that has learned to play together.
The Gomez/Ginzcek Duo Upfront
In his first game coaching Stuttgart, Korkut brought in Daniel Ginczek at halftime with his side trailing VfL Wolfsburg 1-0. Since then, Stuttgart have scored four goals and allowed none in 315 minutes. Korkut has since started Ginzcek, 26, alongside the 32 year-old Mario Gomez, acquired from Wolfsburg in January, in every game and the two veterans have responded. They’ve scored three goals between them in their time together, but just as importantly, they have combined for 23 shots and have won 36 aerial duels since being paired atop a 4-4-2 formation. Their size (6’3″ and 6’2″respectively) and experience provides their aerial advantage, and both seem to have bought into Korkut’s plan completely….it was Ginczek’s hustle on MatchDay 24 that created Erik Thommy’s early game-winning goal. Ginczek beat Frankfurt captain David Abraham to a ball provided by Christian Gentner, and after eluding goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky hustled to direct a shot that rolled close across the Frankfurt goal for the onrushing Thommy to tuck in ahead of an intent Marco Russ looking to clear the ball out of the goalmouth.
The Gomez/Ginczek duo is a pairing that Wolf had little access to, with Gomez just arriving and Ginzcek missing ten matches in the Hinrunde with injury. Korkut has sacrificed the pace provided of young Chadrac Akolo, who had some brilliant moments during the Hinrunde, in exchange for the experience and size of his two veterans. They aren’t electrifying the league with prolific scoring, but they are making enough happen with their determined play to keep the Swabians undefeated, and they are making it happen early — Stuttgart have taken the lead in each of their last three matches in the 5th, 27th and 13th minutes. Those early leads are key to Korkut’s defensive emphasis. Whether the duo can remain healthy and not become fatigued will be the question — they’ve both been playing a large amount of minutes since Korkut arrived.
The Badstuber Move
Stuttgart have two young, very talented 21 year-old central defenders in Frenchman Benjamin Pavard and the underrated Timo Baumgartl. They have developed a strong partnership, with Baumgartl much improved from his inaugural Stuttgart campaign a few years back and Pavard already earning his first caps for the French national team. So….what to do with Holger Badstuber, the central defender who has overcome a brutal series of injuries and setbacks to earn regular minutes at Stuttgart when not injured (he’s missed seven matches this season) ?
Korkut decided to partner the 6’3″ Badstuber with Stuttgart’s first-year 5’6″ bundle of energy, Santiago Ascacibar. The 21 year-old came to the Swabians last summer from Estudiantes and has quickly developed a reputation for his ‘take no prisoners’ style of play. Badstuber is the perfect counterbalance to the Argentine in central midfield, bringing size and experience. So far, the partnership has been successful. Badstuber has adapted well to his new role, providing four interceptions, one clearance and one blocked shot against Augsburg while making three tackles, two interceptions and two clearances against Frankfurt. Moreover, in both matches the former Bayern and German National team man has passed at a 78% success rate — not overly impressive except in the context of a Stuttgart side that passed at success rates of 67% and 68% in their last two matches.
Trading Possession for Defense while Still Taking Shots
Stuttgart currently rank 8th in the league in average amount of possession per match, with 49%. But under Korkut, that number is going down, as in his four matches in charge at VfB the club has reached a high of 44% possession in his first match against Wolfsburg, and their amount of possession continues to decline with rates at 32%, 40% and 38% in their three next matches — all shutout wins. Korkut appears to be quite happy to surrender possession and have the advantage in successful tackles — Stuttgart have been averaging nearly 21 tackles per match under their new coach, their opponents 11. Lesser possession certainly contributes to that disparity, but it gives Stuttgart an identity as a side that will get stuck in.
And I think that’s what is what Korkut is trying to establish, the idea that “you’ll get dirty and beat up when you play Stuttgart.” For a team with little identity since their Bundesliga championship a decade ago, Korkut’s emphasis on defense means that his most-used sub is Dennis Aogo, a veteran fullback now being used as a caddy for Erik Thommy on the left-wing. Aogo does have offensive skills, and can still motor up the flanks and get in a quality cross, but he’s been a defender almost his entire career.
Lineup stability is also helping the defensive strengthening of Stuttgart. Basically Korkut has employed the same lineup in all four matches — Zieler in goal, Insua and Beck at fullback, Pavard and Baumgartl in central defense, Badstuber and Ascacibar lying in central midfield with Thommy and captain Christian Gentner on the wings and Ginczek and Gomez up top. A mixture of youth and veteran experience, these eleven players, along with Aago, are getting almost all the playing time as Korkut seems to inherently trust these players in tight matches.
And although Stuttgart still rank second-worst in goals scored with 20 on the season, their shots per match have improved in the four matches under Korkut to 12.5 per match (despite less possession) — a figure that puts them squarely in the middle of the Bundesliga rankings in that category. The Swabians are ranked above average with three counter-attack goals and average with eight set piece goals. (They are tied, though, for last in goals from open play and have only one goal from the spot. No goal-scoring juggernaut here).
Philosophy and Prognosis
With Korkut guiding the Swabians to 10 out of a possible 12 points in his four matches in charge, Stuttgart have now accumulated 3o points on the season, closer to the Bundesliga’s Europa league spots than the relegation zone. It is probable that VfB will be in the Bundesliga next season with 10 matches remaining, especially if the quality of their defending keeps them in most matches and creates an identity for the club and its fans.
Apparently Korkut decided to emphasize defense on a squad where most of the talent lies in defending, and let his burly frontline try to nick a goal provided by Thommy or Gentner. It’s worked, although no one can expect a streak of one goal shutout wins to continue for long. He’s rode the same 12 players to his success — it’s doubtful that injuries or fatigue won’t interfere with his static lineup. He’s gambled that winning will keep the players not participating at all reasonably happy, including those who got a fair amount of minutes before his arrival. Winning keeps potential clubhouse dissidents quiet.
Korkut has furthered the work done by Wolf in making the Mercedes-Benz Arena a fortress, and he’s picking up road points, the crucial difference to what his predecessor was able to do in the Hinrunde. I think Korkut, a Stuttgart native, has also appealed to the pride of the many players who were either born in Baden-Württemberg or played for VfB earlier in their careers — a group that includes such integral players as Gomez, Gentner, Baumgartl, Beck, Badstuber, Thommy, Aogo and Berkay Özcan. They remember Stuttgart’s last championship (Gomez was part of it) and know that the traditional club belongs in the top flight.
What will be interesting in the next ten matches is how the club reacts to injuries to the starting XI or a string of poor results. That will be the true test of Korkut’s leadership. But already he’s given Stuttgart a very sound chance of remaining in the top flight after things looked dire just a month ago, and that alone gives the club a better chance of holding onto the young talents such as Pavard (who should be in high demand), Baumgartl and Akolo, among others. Whatever transpires in the nest few months though, Korkut has already had a very positive impact on his hometown club.