September 21, 2017

Stuttgart Now Worthy of Europe

I’ll admit, I root for VfB Stuttgart. I also root for many other Bundesliga teams, because as an American, I’m not regionally or traditionally tied to any one team. If being a Bundesliga fan living outside of Germany can be frustrating at times, it can also contain the blessing of freedom to choose which club one “adopts”, to root for one than one club (which could include the luxury of being a fan of both Dortmund AND Schalke) or even liking a company or village team without much tradition.

Stuttgart, though, is the sister city of my hometown, and my ancestral roots are in Baden-Wurtemburg.  I grew up near a section of St. Louis called Baden.  I have figured out a Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation relationship to Christian Gentner, and my fate as a Stuttgart supporter was sealed when I found a knockoff VfB shirt at the mall (try finding ANY non-FCB kit in a retail store in the U.S) AND the Swabians acquired Vedad Ibisevic, who played high school ball in my here. So although I enjoy and root for many Bundesliga teams and have a mancrush on BvB, fate delivered me Stuttgart.

For a long while, though, I wasn’t so sure that Bruno Labbadia’s team were holding up their end of the bargain. Despite a Hinrunde that was immensely more successful than those the last few dreadful seasons that always required a management change, Stuttgart could be quite a very frustrating team. Flirting with a Europa League spot for next season, (which would be a minor miracle considering their relegation status last winter), the club often seemed to lack the fortitude, mental toughness or whatever to grab the Europa brass ring.

Sitting in my red Stuttgart shirt watching the team host the Bundesliga’s poorest club on a Friday a month ago was a lesson in frustration. After two consecutive matches scoring a total of eight goals, the Swabians were unable to do more than gain a point against a Kaiserslautern team whose attack has had the deathrow look of a team bound for relegation. FCK goalkeeper Tobias Sippel had a very strong game, making nine saves and stifling golden opportunities by Martin Harnik in the first 45 minutes and Cacau in the latter half, yet he didn’t seem quite invincible. And Kaiserslautern again put out an organized defense, but there seems more to it.

Stuttgart had fashioned a respectable 9-6-10 record before coming into the FCK match that put them only two points behind Hannover and three behind Werder Bremen in the chase for a Europa League spot. Yet….Stuttgart had only one win against a club currently in the league’s top six spots since their opening day win over Schalke…and that was a September 10 home match where they dispatched Hannover 3-0. Their other seven wins at the time had been against the league’s weaker clubs.

Thus it was doubly disappointing on that Friday matchday that Stuttgart failed to make a statement by taking all three points from Kaiserslautern, especially at home. The talent difference between the two clubs is decidedly in favor of the Swabians, yet when they the opportunity to move solidly into Europa League contention was there, Stuttgart fell flat. Not a terrible effort, certainly, in a match where they outshot the Red Devils 22-7 with 9 shots on frame to only one for FCK and had 63% of possession. But in a bottom-line industry, a failure.

Bad luck. Well, yes… you can’t put nine shots on goal in 90 minutes, not score, and be deemed lucky. But good teams make their own luck. On paper, Stuttgart are a good team, arguably as talented as any team in the league outside of Dortmund and Bavaria. Harnik, Bouhlarouz, Ulreich, Tasci, Hajnal, Kvist, Okazaki — all good players. And their bench Friday included Cacau, Maza, Gentner, Gebhart, Julian Schieber — a pretty strong group by any standard. The team made good winter moves, acquiring a veteran scorer in Ibisevic and a young talent in Gotoku Sakai, and ridding themselves of striker Pogrebnyak, who desperately looked in need of a change of venue. No problems in the transfer window.

But despite the talent, and a seemingly decent coaching performance by Labbadia, Stuttgart seemed to always fall short when they needed to stand tall. Good teams win important games, especially against lesser opponents … and Stuttgart appeared to lack the instinct that would make them worthy of European play next fall.

But something changed.

Midfielder Tamas Hajnal attributed Stuttgart’s turnaround to an event that took place several weeks earlier — the Swabians elimination from the DFB Pokal by Bayern Munich, 2-0.  “A big wake-up call was getting knocked out of the DFB Pokal against Bayern,” said Hajnal in an interview with bundesliga.de. ” In that game we were far too passive and put up very little resistance, which is exactly what the head coach expects us not to do. After that there was a big reaction in the squad. Since then we have been consistent in pursuing our own path as we look to dictate proceedings in matches as much as we can. We want to defend from the front and force our opponents to make mistakes. This allows us to call upon our footballing qualities. I think we’re on a really positive path.”

And in fact, their path has been positive.  Looking back in hindsight, the frustration of a fan following Stuttgart’s scoreless draw to Kaiserslautern has to be taken into perspective.  The club stepped up since losing in the Pokal to put together a record of eight wins, one loss and two draws —  the match with the Red Devils and the spectacular 4-4 match with Borussia Dortmund in which Stuttgart came back from a 2-0 and 4-3 deficit to get a last second goal from  Gentner and earn a point before 80,000 stunned Dortmund fans in what has to be the Bundesliga match of the season.

A team that once seemed lacking in ‘guts’ now have willed themselves into a likely Europa League spot next season.  Coach Labbadia, who failed to earn plaudits when coaching Bayer Leverkusen and Hamburg, has proven himself as a motivator.   He seems to have kept peace on a squad where many players should seem to be starting XI talent.  Not only that, but he began starting winter transfer defender Gotoku Sakai, a youngster unproven outside of Japan,  in a leap of faith some supporters doubted Labbadia would make.   Vedad Ibisevic has also helped change Stuttgart’s fortunes for the better — the former Hoffenheim striker started slowly in his new home but Labbadia kept trotting him out in the starting lineup and now the Bosnian has returned the favor by scoring eight goals (with four assists) in his twelve league games at Stuttgart.

After downing Werder Bremen Friday 4-1, Stuttgart have a solid hold on fifth place in the table and while not a complete lock to capture a Europa League berth, it looks likely that they will, especially given their current form.  But whatever happens, the performance of Labbadia’s club after their early February Pokal elimination has shown Bundesliga fans a gritty, determined character absent for too long from Stuttgart.

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Gerry Wittmann

Gerry is the founder of the Bundesliga Fanatic. Besides loving German football, he also enjoys the NBA, collecting jerseys and LPs, his pets and wishes he had more time for fishing, bicycling and learning the bass guitar.

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