There may well come a time in the not too distant future when Markus Weinzierl comes to regret his choice of words when speaking to the media on Thursday ahead of his relegation-threatened Stuttgart team’s match against RB Leipzig.
He was thinking ahead to the danger of a second spell in four seasons in the 2. Bundesliga next season for the club, where they may face trips once more to places like Bochum, Darmstadt and St. Pauli. “You also theoretically have to go to Sandhausen next year – nobody wants that,” said Weinzierl, scoffing at the idea of visiting the little town just south of Heidelberg, who have had a team in the second tier for seven years now.
Given how bad things have been at the Mercedes-Benz Arena under the former Augsburg and Schalke coach, there’s every chance that Stuttgart and Sandhausen will meet, and if they do they will not forget those words. Weinzerl would surely not still be coach in those circumstances, but with his Bundesliga credentials ebbing away he may find himself with one less option of where to rebuild his reputation. Not that he is singularly responsible for Stuttgart’s disastrous campaign so far.
The precarious state they are in was laid out bar on ZDF’s Sportsstudioon Saturday night. Their return of 15 points from 22 games makes this their worst-ever Bundesliga campaign, barely more than half than when they last went down in 2016. They have lost 11 of Weinzierl’s 15 games in charge and have only picked up one point since the winter break. The fact they’re as high as 16thstill is because Hannover 96 and Nürnberg have been even worse.
It’s the sort of form that makes heads roll. In the same week that rock-bottom Nürnberg cut loose both coach Michael Köllner and sporting director Andreas Bornemann, Stuttgart had to act. Weinzierl survived as it was the man above him, Michael Reschke, who got the axe, paying the price for a muddled transfer policy. One of his last acts was to join the board in “unanimously” backing Weinzierl as coach.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, part of the Bundesliga-winning side of 2007, was the ready-made replacement having worked a number of backroom roles with the club in the last couple of years. It will be hoped that he can bring back a level of sanity back to the club but with board room wrangling above him, and troublesome influences in the dressing room below him – Holger Badstuber and Pablo Maffeo amongst others named by Bild– he faces a hard task.
He too though is backing the 44-year-old coach. After the 3-1 defeat to Leipzig he insisted Weinzierl would remain. “We will work together as closely in the coming week as in the past, I will support him.” Whether he remains in charge of the team beyond the trip to Werder Bremen on Friday night appears to remain open, however.
In fairness there was little disgrace in losing to Champions League-chasing Leipzig. In fact, after Steven Zuber’s penalty cancelled out Yussuf Poulsen’s opening goal, Stuttgart could even have gone on to win. Ozan Kabak was denied on the line by Marcel Sabitzer just before the break, whilst Santiago Ascacibar forced a top save out of Péter Gulácsi after it. “We played well from the fifth minute to the 68th minute,” said Weinzierl after the match, praising the “great reaction” to going behind early.
As goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler admitted though, “the second goal was the turning point of the game.” In that 68thminute, Sabitzer’s free-kick sailed in past Zieler to restore Leipzig’s advantage. Poulsen then scored his second and Leipzig’s third soon after, set up by the ever-impressive Tyler Adams, to settle the argument and the destination of the three points.
Weinzierl remains bullish about the continuing speculation over his future but the questions remain. The fans meanwhile have set their sights on club president Wolfgang Dietrich. “How many pawn sacrifices it takes until the Sun King finally goes?” said one banner on the man whose responsibility it has been to hire and fire at the club.
He has overseen the club’s return to the Bundesliga, the departures of Hannes Wolf and Tayfun Korkut, that of Reschke and his predecessor Jan Schindelmeiser too. Nearly €80 million worth of spending on players, many of which have just diluted the youthful vigour of Wolf’s promotion side or are well past their best. Ultimately, if the club do go down after just two years.
In the end, Weinzierl cannon be blamed about the mess that Stuttgart have ended up in. And, as he himself has said, if they play like they did against Leipzig for the rest of the season, they will stay up. If not, it will be interesting to see who is still around for the rendezvous with Sandhausen next season.
1 | The 2. Bundesliga isn’t as bad as Weinzierl makes it out. So much so that the giants of Köln and Hamburg are doing their best to extend their current stays. There were emotional scenes as Anthony Modeste returned for the Billy Goats with a goal minutes after coming on as FIFA finally approved his registrations after a months-long dispute with his former club Tianjin Quanjian (which still continues). Yet, there was an almighty comeback from hosts Paderborn, who came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 in the final ten minutes, with two goal-of-the-season contenders from Kai Pröger and Marlon Ritter. Köln, now third behind in-form Union Berlin, have lost three in four. Leaders Hamburg meanwhile had to come from behind twice to take a point away from Heidenheim. Both clubs are still expected to return to the top flight next season though, despite any current difficulties.
2 | Jürgen Klopp will have surely been watching when Bayern Munich staggered their way to a 3-2 win over Augsburg on Friday night, and if he was paying attention he would have seen a way to beat them inside the opening 15 seconds. Philipp Max confirmed after the game that Augsburg’s immediate surge forward was planned, taking advantage of video analysis that showed their full-backs always push high early on. The ball was played to Max behind Joshua Kimmich, and his cross led to the quickest own goal in Bundesliga history, scored by Leon Goretzka. Bayern might have won to put the pressure on Borussia Dortmund, but the Schwarzgelben’s former coach must be licking his lips.
3 | And make no mistake, the pressure is on Dortmund now. So far in February they had drawn with Eintracht Frankfurt and bottled a 3-0 lead against Hoffenheim, whilst Werder Bremen had knocked them out of the DFB-Pokal and they’d lost 3-0 at Wembley to Tottenham Hotspur. And in Nuremburg they came up against fan protests with blackened tennis balls, a doggedly determined home side (managed, for the time being, by Boris Schommers), a goalkeeper in Christian Mathenia who was not going to let anything pass and refereeing decisions that seemed to go against them. That was just the first half. The second didn’t go any better, with a Paco Alcácer goal correctly ruled out for offside, and Bayern are now just three points away.
4 | From the moment Claudio Pizzaro signs for Bremen for a fourth time, it’s been building to this moment. At the age of 40 years and 136 days old, he surpassed Mirko Votava to become the Bundesliga’s oldest goal scorer. There was more than an element of luck about it, as his low, driven free-kick in the final moments of the game in Berlin took a couple of deflections on its way in, earning Bremen a point. “I’m very proud that I scored the goal,” said the Peruvian, who has also now scored Bundesliga goals in 21 consecutive calendar years.
By James Rees.