The Young and the Wild – Felix Magath’s Stuttgart 2001 – 2004

When Felix Magath took over from Ralf Ragnick in February 2001 Stuttgart had seen its fair share of problems. On the pitch the club had failed to deliver results and off the pitch increasing club debt led to the resignation of long time club president Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder. Stuttgart escaped relegation by three points that year. As a result, Magath had to make due with limited resources and a heavy reliance on youth. But what at first seemed like a limitation was soon turned into an advantage by Magath’s adept player management and tactical acumen.  The result was one of Germany’s most exciting sides at the time and the precursor to the exuberant and young attacking football so prevalent in the Bundesliga today.

The Groundwork

In his first full season in charge Magath took the team to an 8th place finish, six points off a European spot, forging a mix of youth and experience along the way. It was a notable achievement considering the restrictions he faced and the circumstances the club found itself in just a year earlier. In the 2002/2003 season he would take Stuttgart to a runner up spot, the best finish since Stuttgart’s last league title back in 1992. Magath again used a fairly young squad whose adventurous style garnered them the nickname, “the young and wild”, possessing an attack surpassed only by champions Bayern. The following season saw Stuttgart compete in the Champions League where they reached the knockout stages by playing a notable high-energy brand of attacking football that saw off an accomplished Manchester United in the group stages.  In his short stint at the club, Magath rejuvenated the club and made them competitive again.

The team that Magath put together was by no means a team of world-beaters though and that is where his impressive management came into play. The team was hand crafted and molded in the purest football sense, by a coach whose convictions were matched by his dedication to the game and its players. Nowadays youth is often the proverbial silver bullet when teams stagnate and things become stale on the pitch but that was not always the case, certainly not in Germany.

Over the last couple of years German football and the Bundesliga have gradually built a reputation and rebranded itself as a hot spot for young energetic talent but this reality was far removed at the beginning of the decade. Many pundits, experts and professionals in the field considered investing in youth and relying on them a big risk. German football as a whole was aging towards the late 90’s and early 2000’s, evident when Germany fielded the oldest team at the ’98 World Cup, and the same was the case at many Bundesliga clubs. Many teams in the league relied on seasoned players and few were willing to put much stock in untested youngsters.

Philipp Lahm (l) and Kevin Kuranyi (r) were two of the new faces Magath brought to Stuttgart.

Magath inherited a team that included players like Zvonimir Soldo, Krasimir Balakov, and Silvio Meißner who were all approaching the twilight of their careers. Without the resources and attraction of the likes of Bayern, Schalke and Dortmund, Magath had to be frugal and instead accommodated his personnel in a way that suited each player’s strength all while staying competitive and ensuring that Stuttgart progressed as a club. It was the only way around their financial restrictions.  This was no easy task though considering they barely avoided relegation when he took over early in 2001 and struggled to keep a clean sheet. Magath set out to create a team that balanced experience with exuberant youth and began incorporating and promoting several young and uproven players like Andreas Hinkel, Christian Tiffert, Alexander Hleb, Kevin Kuranyi and an on loan Philip Lahm.

To remedy the defensive problem, Magath also brought in Portugese defender Fernando Meira from Benfica who would help solidify the defense alongside Marcelo Bordon.  A 19 year old Kevin Kuranyi was called up from Stuttgart’s youth ranks in Magath’s first year to add some vigor and fire power up front and several other young players would later be brought to the first team including a 22 year old Cacau in 2003 from Nürnberg and the following year a tall striker named Mario Gomez was promoted from the reserves. There seemed to be a lot of loose parts initially and little to work with in terms on talent, at least on paper, but Magath forged a team that reached their highest league ranking in over a decade and turned heads in the Champions League.

The Tactics

More important than just introducing new faces though was how each player served as a piece of a larger puzzle.  Magath targeted players who were both comfortable on the ball and able to execute the quick paced style he was attempting to implement. In January 2003, Magath, to everyone’s surprise, went after the 32 year old Horst Heldt, who was then playing in Austria for Sturm Graz. Considered well past his prime, many people questioned Magath’s logic but Heldt was to play an important part in Stuttgart’s success.

Magath tested several formations initially before eventually settling on his trademark 4-4-2 variation in 2003/04, including trying a three-man backline, a 4-3-3 and even a version of the 4-2-3-1 that has become so commonplace nowadays.  Tactical flexibility might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you first think of Magath but his willingness to alter formations and experiment was a common feature of his time at Stuttgart. In his first two seasons, Magath often used what very closely resembles the modern 4-2-3-1, the primary reason being to add defensive stability to a team that had been prone to leaking goals regularly.

One of Magath's early experiments resembled the popular 4-2-3-1, used in his first two seasons.

It is noteworthy to mention that many clubs in the league at the time played with only one holding midfielder, making Magath’s decision to use two rather unprecedented.  The players he assigned those roles to were Soldo, Balakov, Meißner and later Heldt.  Using two holding midfielders made his midfield more compact and narrow, a trend that would catch on over the years and is now widely used across the league. Soldo and Heldt were veterans of the game and became the anchors of the team. Neither had much pace but both knew how to play the ball into space for quicker players like Hleb.  That calculated intelligence is what made Stuttgart tick under Magath and laid the foundation for their quick attacking game.

What became the most functional formation though was one that Magath would use later with other clubs, namely the 4-4-2.  Some listed it as a midfield diamond while others think it maintained the dual holding midfielders.  The reality is somewhere in the middle and that’s what produced both functionality and flexibility.  No doubt spurred by Balakov’s retirement after the 2002/03 season, Magath needed to replace the playmaker but rather than naming one successor outright he opted for a system that spread those responsibilities throughout the team.  While Hleb filled those shoes more than any other player due to his technical proficiency and creativity, players like Heldt, Tiffert, Vranjes, Meißner and Szabics also played their part.

Magath's flexible 4-4-2 used to great success in Europe.

Therefore, while Stuttgart’s formation looked very straightforward on paper, on the field it was anything but. Magath preferred his midfielders to be very likeminded. All midfielders listed in the above formation were natural central midfielders, either attacking or defensive. The objective here was to have a solid all around midfield that could adequately cover for the defense as well as provide an effective base for their attack. It was a flexible system that he would also replicate later in his career at Wolfsburg.

Hleb became Magath and Stuttgart's primary playmaker.

Hleb was given most license to go forward, create, and support the strikers, often playing in the hole or as the playmaker of the team.  The Belorussian often came inside from wide areas and linked up well with the fullbacks.  It is probably accurate to say that he had the freest role of all midfielders due to his playmaking skills.  Along with the two center backs behind them Soldo and Heldt formed a formidable defensive core that covered and kept the team defensively disciplined. With aging players like Soldo and Heldt Magath needed to create a more compact team that wouldn’t be so readily exposed by counter attacks and quick players. By using Hleb, Vranjes (who was brought in for free from Leverkusen) and Meißner in more advanced positions, it gave Heldt and Soldo adequate cover as well as time to retain and distribute. In other words, he created a platform where Soldo and Heldt were able to dictate the tempo of games. As a result, creative players like Hleb excelled without compromising the shape of the team.  Up front, Ganea and later Kuranyi and Szabics (who was also brought in for free from Austria) played interchangeable roles.  While Kuranyi was the more advanced striker and Szabics the player allowed to drop down, neither were glued to their positions and encouraged to move freely in and around the box.  Their partnership was a glimpse of what Magath would later try to recreate and eventually perfect with Grafite and Dzeko at Wolfsburg.

The width was provided mainly by the fullbacks in all formations. Both Hinkel and Lahm were very energetic and attack minded fullbacks who were equally adept at running down the wing as they were overlapping and linking up with players in the center. Both were big revelations that season. Lahm, played as a defensive midfielder, right back and right midfielder in his junior days and was initially brought in as a back up for right back Andreas Hinkel but Magath played him on the opposite side to take advantage of his pace and ability to cut inside. At 1.70 meters Lahm’s center of gravity was very low and it was rather easy for him to turn inside, something that became a trademark throughout his career. It did not take Lahm long to displace first choice Heiko Gerber, a then German international. Hinkel and Lahm were two of the best-rated fullbacks in the Bundesliga that season and their performances earned them a place at the 2004 Euros. Magath was also able to transform goalkeeper Hildebrand and striker Kuranyi into two of the league’s most consistent performers, both young relative unknowns who quickly made names for themselves and earned call-ups from National Team manager Rudi Völler.

A young Mario Gomez got his Bundesliga and Champions League debut under Magath, here against Chelsea in the KO stages of the Champions League.

As far as Stuttgart’s on field approach went, the most accurate description of their style would be to call them a premeditated counter attacking team, using quick bursts of pace down the flanks and an interchangeable attack.  They were not heavy on retention but had a solid defensive core that rarely swayed and held on to the ball until an opportunity to spring their attacks presented itself.  The results were impressive and Stuttgart became one of the most free scoring sides in the league.  In Magath’s second season Stuttgart scored in all but four of their 34 league matches and the following year they went on a 15 match unbeaten run in the league, beating Dortmund, Bayern and that season’s champions, Bremen.

The crowning moment of Magath’s Stuttgart came against Manchester United in the Champions League group stage in the 2003/04 season.  United had won their first match 5-0 against Greek champions Panathinaikos while Stuttgart lost their first 2-1 in Scotland against Glasgow Rangers.  Few expected Stuttgart to trouble one of Europe’s finest sides and even fewer would have predicted the course of the match.  Seven of Stuttgart’s eleven starters were under the age of 24 and without any European experience and now they were thrown into the ring with the likes of Ryan Gigg,s Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy.  Despite the gap in talent and experience, Stuttgart came out swinging and pressed United early on, never allowing them to settle and using Lahm, Hinkel and Hleb’s pace and energy to disrupt any moment United tried to build.  After a competitive first half Stuttgart began to display their trademark lightning quick attacks as they grew in confidence.  In a matter of two minutes, Stuttgart broke United and scored two successive goals.  In fact, the second goal came so quickly the cameras nearly missed it replaying the first.  United did not know what hit them.

Here are Stuttgart’s goals against United:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCiIrNL9QdM

Magath’s team could not repeat the domestic success of 02/03 and finished only fourth the following year, still impressive considering the team was competing on three fronts. Stuttgart were also edged out in the knockout stages of the Champions League by Chelsea but put up a valiant fight and were eliminated only due to an own goal.  Because of his great work, Magath received an offer from Bayern and left Stuttgart in the summer. His time at the club had not only resurrected the club though but had undoubtedly laid the foundations for their title-winning season two years later.  Meira captained Stuttgart to a league title in 2007.  Magath’s other young players also went on to have flourishing careers. Kuranyi turned into a full-fledged German international. Lahm returned to Bayern and established himself as one of the elite fullbacks in world football and both Cacau and Gomez became two of the most prolific goalscorers in recent Bundesliga history.

Perhaps even more important than that though and keeping  grand scheme of German football in mind was the proof that a club’s trust in youth was a viable strategy.  Magath’s Stuttgart played its part in opening the doors to a young brand of attacking football in Germany and aided its escape from the stone age that the nation had been stuck in in previous years.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

8 Comments

  1. Life with Magath, like playing Russian roulette with five duds and a Salad Bowl. Predictability is for other leagues. 🙂

  2. Yea I agree. He’s an isolating figure, from a supporter and club’s member’s perspective. I didn’t think he’d replicate what he did with Bayern either, let alone Wolfsburg but he did. He may be past it though. And I even get the sense that he wants out of football after such a long time attached to it but he’s never beyond surprising anyone just because he knows the game so well. Time will tell. Things with Magath are just impossible to predict but that’s the fun of it, right? 😀

  3. Oh dear, I haven’t been following Wolfsburg nearly closely enough to give an informed opinion. Don’t envy Magath the job he’s taken on, and mid table finish should be taken as a positive sign. But I’m a bit wary of the turmoil he’s already wreaked. He’s not exactly a KIND coach to begin with, from all I hear, but the cracks are showing with alarming frequency.

    I’m not holding my breath for Magath to produce a side like Stuttgart’s early 2000’s but because it is Magath I also wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to give the top 6 a scare next year. Just wonder if the coach himself is expecting too much and alienating his players to the point of no return while he searches for that perfect formula. He’s a master tactician but players aren’t chess pieces and time isn’t free. That’s the part of his philosophy I’m most skeptical about.

  4. Thanks Mimsie! I appreciate your kind words.

    Well I’m not beyond criticizing Magath despite my admiration for him as a coach and there has been plenty to criticize over the last year or two. That said, he has to rebuild Wolfsburg entirely and that won’t happen overnight so I think we’ll see a lot of experimentation (yes, even more than we’ve seen already) until he finds the right players to work with as well as a system that suits them.

    If people’s expectations this season are more than a mid table finish they might be disappointed.

    What do you think?

  5. Yea I’ll never forget that game. I watched it live and too expected United to roll right over them. The elimination to Chelsea is still one of the most bitter moments considering how well they played, they truly deserved to advance there.

  6. Fantastic read as always, Cris. As an extremely green Stuttgart fan I’ve been dying to read more about Magath’s tenure at the club. Thoroughly enjoyed the tactical analysis and the video was just the cherry on top. 🙂

    I’m curious to hear what you think of Magath at Wolfsburg this season. I know you’ve warned us all to doubt him at our own peril, but so far it’s seemed more disaster than danger.

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