These are good times at VfB Stuttgart. Finally. Let the good times roll….
In the years since the Baden-Württemberg club won the 2007 Bundesliga Championship, the Swabians have been a rudderless ship, constantly changing coaches and sporting directors with little success both on the pitch in terms of results and the display of entertaining football. After flirting with, and finally suffering, relegation following the 2015/2016 season, the club’s fortunes have changed dramatically. For the first time in a decade, Stuttgart fans can realistically head into a new Bundesliga season with a sense of optimism.
And the reasons for optimism are many. Stuttgart were one of the best clubs in German football in the last 14 matches last season under surprise hire Tayfun Korkut, winning nine times and only losing once (four draws). That stretch of Swabian success included a final matchday pasting of champions Bayern Munich, a win over eventual Pokal champion Eintracht Frankfurt and late season wins over European sides TSG Hoffenheim and Bayer 04 Leverkusen that pushed Stuttgart itself to the brink of European play (they lost their play-in spot in the EL tournament when Eintracht Frankfurt upset Bayern in the Pokal). Stuttgart, following the disappointment of relegation, won over their fans and finished fourth in Bundesliga attendance last year.
Since the end of the season, Korkut’s unexpected streak of results as coach led to a two-year contract extension. Furthermore, the club brought back a former fan favorite, Daniel Didavi, from Wolfsburg. Didavi was a disappointment with the Wolves, but he returns on a free transfer, essentially traded for forward Daniel Ginczek, who was a positive VfB contributor but netted the Swabians a 10 million euro transfer fee for inking a deal with the Wolves.
More good times — despite Didavi coming in on a freebie, Stuttgart are laying out the cash so far in the summer transfer window, and are investing in promising, young players, spending over 23 million euros on three 20 year-olds. Those players — Spanish right back Pablo Maffeo, center forward Nicolas Gonzalez from Argentina and Croatian left back Borna Sosa — represent a huge investment in the future of the club. All three have senior side experience, with Sosa having six assists for Dinamo Zagreb last year, Gonzalez scoring seven goals in 24 matches for Argentinos Juniors and Maffeo earning 32 La Liga starts while on loan at FC Girona last year. Maffeo, a Manchester City player, was pursued by many EPL clubs, but signed with Stuttgart at the urging of City coach Pep Guardiola.
And that’s not all so far this summer. Good times roll as Stuttgart signed Marc-Oliver Kempf, 23, a central defender who has played nearly 70 league matches under Christian Streich at SC Freiburg. Veteran midfielder Gonzalo Castro is now a Swabian, bringing the experience of almost 500 first-team matches with Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen despite being only 31 years old. Moreover, Stuttgart have brought in two more teenagers, 17 year-old Roberto Massimo from Arminia Bielefeld (loaned back to Bielefeld for the upcoming season) and Borussia Dortmund academy player David Kopacz, 19,an attacking midfielder.
Want to keep the good times rolling, Stuttgart fans? The club has re-signed defender/central midfielder Holger Badstuber, who early in June was reported to be adamant about leaving to play Champions League football. Badstuber got his game back last season with the Cannstatt boys after so many seasons lost to injury. The former Bayern champion and German international was a rock for VfB, usually leading a poor passing side in passing success game after game, whether stationed in the central midfield or in his more familiar central defense position. Meanwhile, reports are that French World Champion Benjamin Pavard, who joined Stuttgart for their 2nd division campaign and seamlessly fit into first division play last season, looks like he may remain with the club this season, despite all the interest in his signature from big clubs across Europe (and, naturally, the French defender has been linked to a Bayern Munich move).
All the good news in 2018, though, comes after more than ten mostly bad seasons that Swabian fans have had to suffer through.
The Decade in the Desert
Armin Veh’s Bundesliga champions featured a young Mario Gomez and Brazilian-turned-German international Cacau up front, giving them the second-best attack in the 2006/2007 Bundesliga campaign, as the Swabians won the title with a 21-7-6 record, barely edging 2nd place FC Schalke 04 (by two points) and offensive powerhouse Werder Bremen (by four points). With Timo Hildebrand in goal, the club trailed only Schalke and 1.FC Nurnberg in the least goals allowed, and almost made the double, losing to Der Club in the Berlin final in AET, 3-2. The next years, however, Stuttgart couldn’t maintain their momentum and finished sixth, third and sixth again in the table. Veh was gone in November, 2008, beginning a Swabian coaching carousel that began with former VfB backliner Markus Babbel and continued with to last January with 13 more changes in the Stuttgart coaching box. Before finally being relegated in May, 2016. the club finished in the second half of the table in four of the previous five seasons, barely escaping relegation several times. Gomez, Germany’s 2007 Footballer of the Year and VfB’s biggest star, was gone to Bayern Munich by the summer of 2008, and except for a few decent Pokal runs, there’s been little to cheer Stuttgart fans since the day the club raised the salad plate.
Hannes Wolf begins the turnaround, Korkut brings the good times
Relegation ironically turned around the club’s fortunes. Veteran Bundesliga coach Jos Luhukay was chosen to guide Stuttgart in its first season in Germany’s second division in over 40 years, but he lasted only five games, as he left in September, 2016 following a dispute with club chairman Jan Schindelmeise. The club immediately hired Hannes Wolf, then 35 years old, long associated with Borussia Dortmund as a youth coach who had never led a senior side.
The gamble taken by the Stuttgart board paid off, as Wolf built on Luhukay’s undefeated start to lead the Swabians to the Bundesliga 2 title and an immediate bounceback to the first division. It wasn’t a big surprise, as Stuttgart was thought by many well capable of winning immediate promotion, but given their early season coaching crises, Wolf did well, and earned the job of leading the club for their 2017/2018 season. Importantly, Wolf helped develop Pavard and other Cannstatt youngsters — VfB’s failure to grow their own players into quality Bundesliga stars was one reason for the club’s decline.
The return to first division play wasn’t easy. Stuttgart’s record during last season’s Hinrunde was easy to define — great at home, terrible on the road. A slow start to the Ruckrunde saw Wolf, who confessed that he may have lost the locker room, sacked, and surprise replacement Korkut hired at the end of January. A 44 year-old once considered a future coaching star, Korkut instead had losing records in all three of his previous head coaching jobs, at Hannover, Kaiserslautern and Leverkusen, and thus his hiring seemed puzzling at best. But the Stuttgart-born coach earned a draw in his first match, and then led the Swabians to a 9-3-1 record through the season’s final stretch, He did it with a singular formula — surrender possession to concentrate on defense, employ two big strikers (Gomez and Ginczek) to gain possession of long balls hoofed upfield, and employ a very static, veteran XI week in and week out — until the last week or so, Korkut employed the same 12-14 players in every match, and only changed things a bit when right back Andreas Beck was injured and then when Mario Gomez missed the season finale.
Finally, VfB’s turnaround may be at some level the result of the composition of the Swabians’ roster. Stuttgart’s squad included three of their former 2007 champions (Gomez, Beck and captain Christian Gentner) and a significant number of other players who either were with the club as youth players or grew up in the region. Being a Stuttgart native, Korkut may have had the special ability to address the pride of those players long-identified with VfB in restoring Stuttgart to respectability. And captain Gentner, playing each match with a mask protecting his face after suffering a fractured nose, eye socket and jaw after a collision with Koen Casteels in the Hinrunde, had to be an inspiring reminder of the commitment a champion makes to his club, as was Badstuber with his unflinching dedication to make the difficult journey back from continual injuries.
It will be interesting to see if Korkut can re-ignite the focus and pride of his squad in 2018/2019. On paper, thus far, the club looks improved, but will need to mix in his newly acquired young players and young holdovers such as the exciting Chadrac Akolo and Anastasios Donis into a lineup that leaned heavily on veterans last season and was fortunate to avoid injuries. Nobody expects the Swabians to contend for the title — a spot in Europe would be tremendous but that may be a stretch, and Korkut’s reliance on one style of play may be easily found out this season. But, the great thing is, for a traditional club and their long-suffering fans, there is reason to believe that the good times will keep on rolling.