August 23, 2017

Sebastian Rudy’s long road from Stuttgart to quiet superstardom in Hoffenheim

Prologue

Sebastian Rudy, not to be confused with one Sebastian Rode, who apparently is still a Bundesliga player, has been one of the outstanding players in the Bundesliga. That sounds like it’s hard to believe, because Rudy looks like an average guy by all accounts. He is already 27, but has never had a Transfermarkt value over 8 million. Rudy has scored just 14 goals and assisted 27 times in over 16000 Bundesliga minutes. Sure Jogi Löw has recently used him, but a deeper look at his 18 caps reveals that it has happened mostly in friendlies or qualifiers.

Even his Instagram account is pretty mild: there are pictures with his wife Elena, some with a cute dog and a couple of beach photos. Even the WAG football site describes them as “anonymous”. So what is the big deal with Bayern signing him for free after his contract runs out this summer?

Well all of the above is superficially true, but let’s dig a little deeper and reveal the Bundesliga’s quiet superstar.

(Throughball data is notoriously miscounted in Germany and by sites like Whoscored and should be ignored.)

Those two radars reveal a player with very few flaws: he is at least a solid B+ in all aspects of the game. Rudy can pass with both feet and turn several ways to elude pressure (see low dispossession numbers), which is a huge bonus for someone playing the single pivot in a 3-1-4-2 for Hoffenheim. He could be a little better at dribbling, but due to his average athleticism and TSG’s reliance on other excellent dribblers (Amiri, Demirbay, Kramaric) he knows his limitations and prefers to make the extra pass to get out of trouble. He is a gifted passer, both short (his preference) and long (which often lead to great counter-attacks by TSG, who attempt the fourth highest short passes in the Bundesliga). He is a master at set pieces and averages nearly two key passes per match. Defensively, he is an interception machine averaging 3 per game, but he is also very difficult to get by: he wins nearly 3 of 4 tackles (2.9 of 4.2) that he attempts and he has attempted the third most (134) in the league! It’s thus no surprise that Rudy is ranked as having the 9th highest rating by Whoscored.com,  the seventh best midfielder by Kicker and finished no. 8 on Squawka among midfielders. (Rudy fans would be right to point out that guys like Kimmich, Vogt or Ribery should be discounted due to position and\or minutes).

Having written all of that, it’s worth looking back at his career in order to figure out where he came from and how he came to be one of the Bundesliga’s elite midfielders.

Background

The unassuming 27-year-old who was born and raised in Baden Württemberg (in the town of Villingen-Schwenningen, located on the 81 Autobahn about an hour west of Freiburg) went north to Stuttgart in 2003 (about 115 kms north) where he progressed through the ranks of the famous VfB academy. Seriously, look at this list!

He would go on to sign a contract with the first time prior to the 2008\09 season at just 18 years of age, but would only play 24 minutes in two substitute appearances in September and October, though he did start all 16 games in the 3.Liga for VfB’s second team. Much of that is I suspect due to having broken his navicular bone in November and missing close to 4 months, but Armin Veh’s Schwaben were an excellent team, having come off winning the title in the 06\07 season and playing Champions League football the year after. Though Veh was replaced by Markus Babbel in November after another poor start to the season, the Swabians would end the season third (with a 2-1 MD 34 loss to runners up Bayern to boot!) thanks to winning 14 of their last 20 Bundesliga matches in the 08\09 season. Babbel would later give Rudy (by then a U21 international) his Champions League debut in the following year, in a 2-0 win over Rangers. (The Ronaldinho-Rudy comparisons must have been inspired by his long hair…)The 08\09 squad was definitely Champions League worthy, with young Sven Ulreich challenging Jens Lehmann (twice his age) for the GK spot, while the defense included academy products like Serdar Tasci and Georg Niedermeier fighting for a spot with veterans like Mathieu Delpierre and Khalid Boulahrouz. And those were just the central defenders, because Ludovic Magnin, Ricardo Osorio and Arthur Boka were fighting off Roberto Hilbert (then 23), Christian Trasch (then 20) for first team minutes. In central midfield, Rudy was understandably behind the likes of Pavel Pardo, Thomas Hitzlsperger (then 26) and the up and coming 21-year-old all rounder Sami Khedira and that’s just in the CDM role. Up top, VfB also had 22-year-old Mario Gomez who netted 24 times, Brazilian (later Germany international) Cacau who would amass 80 goals for VfB in 263 games and then 22-year-old Ciprian Marica who would reach double digits the following year!

Our protagonist would go on to enjoy limited success in the Bundesliga (587 minutes to 532 3. Liga minutes) making 13 appearances altogether, though the same could not be said of this team. Stuttgart regained Alexander Hleb from a loan spell at Barcelona that both sides have agreed to wipe from their memory, but lost Gomez to Bayern before the season, and Markus Babbel didn’t make it through the year either. Sitting in the 16th spot after the Hinrunde and losing to Fürth in the cup meant that Christian Gross had to take over and even managed to astonishingly finish sixth (!!) after gaining 39 points in the Rückrunde!

Since he played just 53 minutes in the spring under Gross, the highlight for Rudy was arguably getting six minutes in a UCL elimination game vs Barcelona that ended 1-1. I vaguely recall a return leg where some Argentine youngster did some things, while Rudy looked on from the bench. After steering Stuttgart to the bottom of the Bundesliga by losing six of the first seven matches, Gross would go on to be replaced by Jens Keller on the interim, until the club turned to former legend Bruno Labbadia in January to begin the first of his many rescue missions. Stuttgart finished 12th, but Rudy was not around by then, for he had switched to TSG Hoffenheim (who would finish one point and one spot ahead of Stuttgart in the 10\11 season) after the opening Bundesliga match for a fee of 4 million Euros! From the reports at the time, it did not seem as if Fredi Bobic and co. were all that reluctant to let the 20-year-old leave. Then Hoffenheim manager Ralf Rangnick, who had spent some time at Stuttgart, was ecstatic about the signing and cited Rudy’s massive potential at the time. With the likes of former Stuttgart players Andreas Beck and Marvin Compper (now a stalwart at RB Leipzig – as weird as that sounds!) already on the books, Rudy was entering an excellent situation to be a part of. TSG were a young squad on the rise:

https://twitter.com/BundesPL/status/861663464741363712

In addition, there was Kevin Volland at 18, 21-year-old Dominik Kaiser (now RBL), Luiz Gustavo (22, left in the winter to Bayern for 17 million, along with Carlos Eduardo who joined Rubin Kazan for 20 million) not to mention their three main attacking options still only 25 years old: Vedad Ibisevic, Chinedu Obasi and Demba Ba who had combined to score 24 goals a year before. Rudy quickly became a mainstay in the starting XI, starting 29 matches and racking up 2460 minutes, which was his career-high until 16\17! Rudy also finished second on the team to Sejad Salihovic in assist with six, and the Bosnian was no stranger to assisting his teammates having done so 36 times in 176 Bundesliga matches. While his other offensive numbers such as key passes (1 per game), shots (1 per game, though 0.8 are outside the box) and dribbles (1.5) were already showing lots of potential, it was his defensive rate and efficiency that showed quite early on: Rudy was making 3 successful tackles per match compared to getting dribbled past just 1.3 times on average while also adding 1.7 interceptions as well. While some of those numbers took place in an era where the number of defensive actions were inflated (hello there Jürgen Klopp with your heavy metal football and back to back titles at Dortmund!) – Sven Bender was leading the league with over 7 attempted tackles per game, compared to Julian Baumgartlinger’s 5.9 and Douglas Santos’ 5.3 in the last two seasons respectively – Rudy was still firmly in the top 20 in most of those categories. Interestingly for Rudy, the sale of Luiz Gustavo to Bayern at the beginning of the 2011 year also meant the final straw and eventual departure of Ralf Rangnick (it would be the first of NINE coaching changes in his seven year spell in Sinsheim), but after a brief Holger Stanislawski spell in came a familiar face: Markus Babbel! The new arrivals – Koen Casteels, Michael Gregoritsch, Fabian Johnson and Sven Schipplock were all under 22 at the time and a couple of youth team promotions (Kaiser, Vestergaard) were cheap (5 million total) and always unlikely to really make a difference. When you factor in that TSG also lost Ibisevic, Obasi and Sigurdsson, it was becoming obvious that this was no longer the Hoffenheim that scored 63 goals and went on to be Herbsmeister in 08\09, as TSG scored just 41 times with nobody reaching double digits. The team that had a +14 goal difference in 08\09 would top out at +2 and sink as low as  -25 (42 and 67) by the end of the 12\13 season. While the earlier squads relied on a number of good to solid Bundesliga veterans,

by the end of the 12\13 season the starting XI was more like an U23 side:

Thus the aforementioned Stuttgart reunion party would be short and bitter with Babbel losing his job to Frank Kramer, who would be replaced by Marco Kurz in January. He lasted until April, when the club hired Markus Gisdol (now at HSV) to save them from surefire relegation, which they managed by the skin of their teeth with a 2-1 win on MD 34 over runners up Dortmund (for whom the game was rather meaningless, being 25 points behind Bayern). 

Rudy’s foot surgery in December that would lead to missing 11 games was one contributing factor, but going through three goalkeepers – Casteels, Tim Wiese and Heurelho Gomes all played over 750 minutes! and 33 players (special shoutouts to 20 year old Vincenzo Grifo and 17-year-old Niklas Süle) must not have been ideal either. Those 33 are five more than in any other season, with Nagelsmann’s current team using just 23 players so far. The emergence of Roberto Firmino, Kevin Volland and Fabian Johnson (the partnership of the David Abraham – Marvin Compper – Jannik Vestergaard CB trio can be best described as submergence!) was a nice development though unintentional: the club spent a combined 11 million on Joselu and Eren Derdiyok, Spanish and Turkish internationals, 22 and 23 respectively who combined for six goals, which was one more than the immortal Sven Schipplock (just a 22-year-old entering his “prime”) who came from Stuttgart II for free a year before!

Joselu and Derdiyok both left on loan deals (along with Gregoritsch, Grifo) in the following season, and TSG didn’t exactly miss them, as die Kreichgauer exploded for 72 goals – the third most behind BVB and Bayern. A Frenchman who had already failed at Blackburn and struggled for playing time at Bordeaux came in and scored 12 goals. His name was Anthony Modeste, but he was one of four TSG players to reach double digits, with Firmino leading the team on 16 goals! There was a lot of depth to the team, as evidenced by this picture:

though their most used XI was pretty consistent: a 4-2-3-1 where Casteels was in goal, with a foursome of veteran RB Andreas Beck and the David Abraham, Jannik Vestergaard duo at CB with Fabian Johnson often playing at LB. Rudy and Eugen Polanski (or sometimes Tobias Strobl) would play in the double pivot, with Volland and Firmino as the two wide players. Tarik Elyounoussi and Sejad Salihovic split the CAM minutes and one of Anthony Modeste and Sven Schipplock was the target man.The squad was boosted by 18 yo wonderkid Niklas Süle (1887 minutes after just 87 the year before) and 19 yo Jeremy Toljan who did not exactly shore up an already suspect defense, as they conceded a whopping 70 (!!!) goals, the second most behind HSV’s 75! One thing you could count on was entertainment when you watched a TSG match, as their games featured FIVE OR MORE GOALS 14 TIMES in that seasonPoor old Sebastian was getting dribbled past 3 times per match, so things were not looking so fun for him as a defensive player I’d imagine….

Joselu and Derdiyok left the club, but losing Koen Casteels, Jannik Vestergaard and Fabian Johnson were arguably more painful. Yet, with homegrown replacements at those positions available in Süle and Toljan and the 5.5 million paid for Freiburg’s GK Oliver Baumann (same as the fee they got for selling Joselu to Hannover) mean that TSG could add a few more pieces. Ádám Szalai added another hulking target man with some good Bundesliga pedigree (Mainz, Schalke) while another veteran, Pirmin Schwegler came from Frankfurt. Janik Haberer, Ermin Bicakcic and academy talent Nadiem Amiri added even more depth. Markus Gisdol was confident in building upon a fun season, and things went quite well in the Hinrunde, with the team gathering 27 points to finish in a three way tie with Gladbach and Schalke for fifth, dropping to seventh only on goal difference.

The bad news came in December when starlet Niklas Süle tore his ACL in the first ten minutes of a match against Frankfurt, effectively ending his season. Having accumulated 20 points in fourteen games, were just three points off the UCL spot (Leverkusen). In the remaining 20 games, TSG would grab just 24 points – the eleventh best in the league – and miss out on Europe by finishing eighth. It was

The offseason was turbulent, as Firmino’s record 41 million transfer left TSG bereft of its best player, and with Modeste, Szalai and Schipplock departing, many wondered where the goals were going come from. Eduardo Vargas’ 6 million move alongside smaller transfers like Joelinton, Mark Uth and Antonio Mirko Colak were supposed to be the answer. But it would not be so!

The 15\16 season was an outright disaster: Flirting with relegation and off to their worst ever Bundesliga start, TSG went with choosing a retread (Huub Stevens) over the young talent (Nagelsmann) who was not allowed to take over due to licensing issues and many questioned whether Dietmar Hopp’s club has lost its identity. Finishing dead last after the first 17 games with just 13 points and 17 goals scored was probably the nadir.

The rest, as they say is history : on February 11, 28-year-old Julian Nagelsmann was appointed and Hoffenheim went 7\2\5 and despite losing three of their last four matches had finished 15th!

The rest as they say is history: Nagelsmann and Jogi Löw recognized the importance of Rudy, who has enjoyed his finest season in his career earning him a move to Bayern. Sure he will have to battle with the likes of Corentin Tolisso and Joshua Kimmich (not to mention Vidal and Thiago), but would you count him out given his history?

Additional Sources used:

interviews

http://www.faz.net/aktuell/sport/fussball/bundesliga/sebastian-rudy-von-tsg-1899-hoffenheim-im-imterview-14994006.html

https://www.achtzehn99.de/news/overview/niklas-suele-and-sebastian-rudy-on-gratitude/

http://www.bundesliga.com/en/news/Bundesliga/blmd22n-hoffenheim-captain-sebastian-rudy-on-his-hopes-for-rest-of-season-and-upcoming-move-to-bayern-munich-435100.jsp

https://www.instagram.com/rudy_sebastian6/?hl=en

 

 

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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at www.bundespremierleague.com. Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL

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