Cast your mind back to May last year, when Tim Walter was appointed head coach of VfB Stuttgart.
Stuttgart were actually still a Bundesliga side at the time; the fateful relegation playoff defeat to Union Berlin had yet to come, although it was Nico Willig rather than Walter who presided over those two matches. Thomas Hitzlsperger, Sven Mislintat, and the other figures behind the scenes in Bad Canstatt chose Walter, who had just coached Holstein Kiel to an impressive 6th place finish despite losing a number of first-team players.
Now, after half a season of second division football, Walter is gone, as Stuttgart parted ways with yet another coach.
In Walter, Stuttgart saw a young coach who had a clear footballing philosophy, with the midfield usually in a diamond shape and players encouraged to keep hold of the ball, building play from the back. Not since Ralf Rangnick was appointed has there been a Stuttgart coach with such a well-defined idea of how to play football. That was one of the reasons he was such an attractive candidate for Stuttgart. It didn’t always help, however.
There was always the suggestion that some of the senior players might not be fully convinced by his style, although whether there is any truth in that is unclear. As Walter actually was appointed before the relegation playoff loss to Union Berlin, some observers felt that VfB may have chosen him expecting to be in the top flight this season, where his style might work better.
Walter’s commitment to his system caused him other problems, too. Walter wanted his deepest midfielder to help start the slick passing moves that his Holstein Kiel team had become known for. Most of the time, he used Atakan Karazor, who came with him from Kiel, at the base of the midfield. This meant that Argentine international Santiago Ascacibar (who has now joined Hertha BSC), was often forced to play further forward and wider than he would have liked.
The other problems, though, were largely out of Walter’s control. Ideally, Marc-Oliver Kempf and Marcin Kaminski would be the first-choice centre-back pairing, but Kaminski suffered a serious injury on Matchday 1 and will miss most of the season, meaning Holger Badstuber has played more than Walter would probably have liked. Both Badstuber and Kempf have had moments of immensely poor discipline that have earned suspensions (Kempf was sent off for a needless tackle when already 2-0 up against Karlsruhe, while Badstuber was suspended for calling the officials names.) which is less than ideal as both backup players Nathaniel Phillips and Maxime Awoudja have struggled.
At the other end, none of the high-profile attackers in the squad have been able to consistently deliver. Nico Gonzalez, Hamadi Al-Ghaddioui and Silas Wamangituka (who, like HSV’s Bakery Jatta, has had to deal with questions about his identity) are all tied as VfB’s top scorers with just five goals each – there are 25 other players in the league who have scored more.
And there were times where Stuttgart were just plain unlucky – like in Sandhausen, where Mario Gómez had three goals ruled out for very close offside calls.
Why Walter Went
Stuttgart are only three points off top spot, but expectations are higher than that. On paper, a team with the quality of Stuttgart should be able to top the division comfortably. Looking at the bigger picture, Stuttgart are still in the hunt for the title, with leaders Arminia Bielefeld well within reach. Despite that, it has felt for a while that Walter could be sent packing at any minute.
VfB’s performances at the very beginning of the season were not overly impressive, but they remained unbeaten until October and went into that month as league leaders.In October, however, they lost all three of the league matches they played, each loss more embarrassing than the last. First of all was a disastrous 2-1 loss to Wehen Wiesbaden, who were rock bottom of the league at the time. Then came a 1-0 defeat at home to Walter’s old club Holstein Kiel, followed by a 6-2 loss to Dieter Hecking’s HSV. Not long afterwards, they lost to newly promoted Osnabrück and lost again a few weeks later in Sandhausen.
At a club the size of Stuttgart, each and every one of those defeats is treated as a crisis, which is not entirely unfair, given the financial advantage the Swabians have over the likes Wiesbaden, Osnabrück and Sandhausen. But it also means that a bad 90 minutes can derail the club completely. The added pressure makes things more difficult for Stuttgart than they are for most 2. Liga sides.
That’s why it is so different to the job that is asked of a coach at Kiel, as both Markus Anfang at Köln and now Walter have found out. It is not enough to play good football, not enough to be in the top 3; it is not even enough to win the league.
The New Coach
Pellegrino Matarazzo is the man Thomas Hitzlsperger has chosen as Walter’s replacement. Born in the state of New Jersey of the United States, Matarazzo has worked behind the scenes at 1. FC Nürnberg and TSG Hoffenheim, serving as the assistant to both Julian Nagelsmann and current TSG coach Alfred Schreuder, but this is the first time he has been put in charge of the first team at any club.
Last time Stuttgart were in the 2. Bundesliga, it was Hannes Wolf who took them up, in his first-ever job in charge of a senior squad. He is not available this time, now managing KRC Genk, although his record with HSV last year suggests he would not be the ideal candidate anyway. In many ways, Matarazzo is a similar appointment, coming from a lesser position at a Bundesliga side. He is also an unknown quantity. No doubt that Stuttgart fans will be hoping he has learned a few tricks from Nagelsmann.
Appointing a young coach for their first senior job is generally seen as a move made by teams looking at their long-term future. Not necessarily so at Stuttgart. Although he won’t take charge of any competitive games until the end of this month, Matarazzo was technically the club’s fourth head coach of the calendar year (or fifth, if you include caretaker Nico Willig).
Perhaps Tim Walter was not the right man for the job. Had the club stuck with him they would at least have some stability, which has been sorely lacking at the Mercedes-Benz Arena throughout the last decade. The last time Stuttgart went through a whole season without changing managers was 2012-13, when Bruno Labbadia was in charge (he was then sacked 3 matches into the next season). It is no coincidence that the worst years Stuttgart have had in recent memory have come during this period of frequent coaching changes.
Hamburg have had a similar experience. HSV’s disastrous Rückrunde last season is the example to Stuttgart fans of where poor coaching decisions can take you. They will be praying that the club has considered and studied HSV’s plight to avoid making the same mistakes.
New decade, new VfB? Hopefully. Let’s see if Matarazzo can last the season first.
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