On the face of it, Stuttgart were set for a fantastic 2018/19 campaign.
Since the introduction of Tahyfun Korkut as boss in January after a tough start to the 17/18 Bundesliga season, Stuttgart well and truly turned their fortunes around. With a record of 9 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss – 30 points from 13 games – they finished the season on better form than any other side bar, of course, the mighty Bayern. That late run was enough to take them to 7th place, unthinkable at the Winterpause.
That would have seen them into Europe had it not been for Frankfurt’s unlikely DFB-Pokal success, and meant that for once, the feeling around the Mercedes-Benz Arena was one of optimism, with a genuine belief that the fun times were back at last.
The good vibes were only enhanced over the summer. Not only did young French defender Benjamin Pavard stay at Stuttgart, he went off to Russia to win the World Cup with France as a key part of the starting lineup – scoring the tournament’s best goal in the process, too (for the record, his only Bundesliga goal last season was an uninteresting header at Freiburg).
The squad was also bolstered with some highly rated additions. Promising youngsters such as Borna Sosa, Nicolás González and Pablo Maffeo joined the Swabians, while proven Bundesliga players Marc-Oliver Kempf, Gonzalo Castro and the returning Daniel Didavi also agreed to move to Baden-Württemberg. And the unlikely saviour Korkut was rewarded with a new contract to hold him down until 2020.
Somehow, it has since gone drastically wrong. The alarm bells first started ringing when a full-strength side were knocked out of the DFB-Pokal by 3. Liga side Hansa Rostock. That was followed up by a 1-0 defeat to Mainz and a 3-0 loss to Bayern, leaving Stuttgart as one of just 4 teams to have lost both of their opening games – but also leaving them as the only professional team in the country not to have scored a competitive goal in 2018/19 so far. Usually a defeat to Bayern is a fairly acceptable result, but the memory of the 4-1 final day victory at the Allianz Arena in which Stuttgart countered with great speed and style meant that the drab performance went down very badly indeed.
They broke their duck after the international break, putting 3 goals past SC Freiburg, who had also lost their first 2 matches. However, Freiburg also scored 3 goals of their own, despite going down to 10 men, and so while both sides had their first point, neither came away particularly happy.
That was followed up this weekend by another point, but once again, it wasn’t a result Stuttgart’s supporters were happy with. Outplayed by a limited Fortuna Düsseldorf side, they didn’t really deserve the point, and had it not been for the fantastic Ron-Robert Zieler in goal, Fortuna certainly would have scored.
Fortuna Düsseldorf is a team that Stuttgart ought to be winning against, home or away. There were 3-ex Stuttgart players in the Düsseldorf side in Marcin Kaminski, Matthias Zimmermann and Jean Zimmer, none were ever regular or important players, and they all joined Stuttgart while the Swabians were in the 2. Liga. That serves to illustrate the gulf in the comparative quality of the squads. So why were Düsseldorf able to put in such a performance?
Korkut’s tactical blues
Stuttgart’s problems, infuriatingly, were of Korkut’s making. The choice of Andreas Beck over Pablo Maffeo at right back was puzzling, considering Beck had made the error which allowed Freiburg to score in the opening minute the previous week. In midfield, both Gonzalo Castro and Christian Gentner remained in the lineup. Castro was ineffective in his first few games and confusingly played out wide against Freiburg, and both struggled for creativity.
If that midfield wasn’t already cautious enough, Chadrac Akolo was preferred to Tasos Donis or Erik Thommy out wide. The decision to play Gentner and Akolo meant that Thommy and Donis were both on the bench, and Stuttgart clearly missed their pace and invention on the flanks. Akolo brought very little attacking threat – he was replaced by Thommy around the hour mark, and in the remainder of the game, Thommy managed to gather more touches of the ball than Akolo had managed.
The side was set up so very cautiously that you would be forgiven for thinking that Stuttgart were the visitors. The complete lack of any form of pressing meant that Düsseldorf were able to sit back, and the first half of the game was played at a very low intensity (a recurring theme so far this season). Meanwhile, when Stuttgart got the ball, too often they resorted to simply hitting the ball forward aimlessly and hoping Mario Gómez or Nicolás González could get hold of it.
That said, there were chances. Stuttgart managed 1.39 expected goals, more than Düsseldorf, and had some fantastic opportunities which Gómez and González should have converted. The biggest waste came from Gómez shortly before half time, who sliced an effort from inside the six-yard box, but González also had a glorious chance which he headed wide. Through the course of the 90 minutes, the hosts only had 1 shot on target. A side with Stuttgart’s quality should be threatening more than that, regardless of how well-drilled Friedhelm Funkel’s side may have been.
No chance against Leipzig
Things did not look much better in the mid week fixture against Leipzig, where Ralf Rangnick was content to cede possession to Stuttgart, who predictably could do little with the ball. Even Zieler made an uncharacteristic error on a Kevin Kampl shot, gifting Willi Orban the first goal. Zieler would make up for it with several strong saves and were it not for Stuttgart born and raised Timo Werner seemingly being cursed against his old club, this could have been four or five nothing.
Korkut’s men have, after 5 matchdays, a serious problem. Their failure to create major chances could well be solved should Donis and Thommy re-enter the team, but for now Korkut seems reluctant to put them in for fear of exposing the defence, a reasonable concern considering that Düsseldorf’s best chances all came after Thommy had replaced Akolo. They also need to be more clinical in front of goal. Gómez showed against Freiburg what he can do, but he has been on goal droughts before and may do again. González gets into decent positions and has shown promise, but having not yet scored, Stuttgart cannot rely on him for goals either. There isn’t a massive amount of other options up front, with Daniel Ginczek having departed, unless Korkut wants to try Donis in a more advanced position.
There are reasons for optimism that remain. Pavard has not been perfect but still shows his quality, while Argentine duo Santiago Ascacíbar (recently called up to the national setup for the first time) and Emiliano Insúa have been excellent. Meanwhile, Daniel Didavi and Borna Sosa (who played Wednesday against Leipzig and had the most touches on the field) are coming back to the side.
The difficulty is that Korkut hasn’t really shown any kind of tactical flexibility. He did briefly experiment with a back five in the latter stages at Freiburg to try to hold their lead, but Freiburg levelled almost instantly, and in any case, that would mean starting Holger Badstuber who has so far looked woefully out of his depth. Currently, most of the fans in the Canstatter Kurve would probably like a bit of evolution from the Turkish boss. If he can’t shake things up and sort things out, it can’t be long before he’s thrown out on his ear.
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