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FEATURE | Where it all went wrong for VfB Stuttgart

“Nie mehr 2. Liga” was the rallying cry from supporters after VfB Stuttgart returned to the top flight at the first time of asking in 2017. The preceding relegation to the 2. Bundesliga was a mere blip in the eyes of fans, and lessons learnt would hold the club in good stead for their resurgence back to the upper echelons of German football.  As five-time Bundesliga champions- most recently in 2007- they are one of the traditional heavyweights on a national level, and arguably only Bayern Munich hold greater esteem in the South. The 7thplace finish which followed in 2017/18 was quite the statement by Stuttgart on their return to the Bundesliga, and hopes were high that they would maintain this progress and challenge at the top end of the league once again. Defender Benjamin Pavard’s exploits for France during the summer provided even more cause for optimism, as Stuttgart now had a World Cup winner in their ranks.

Yet, fast-forward a year, and a despondent Thomas Hitzlsperger stands in the away dugout at Union Berlin with his palms covering his face in disbelief. The Stuttgart Head of Sport had just watched his club fail to score in the capital, stuttering to a 0-0 draw and thus losing on away goals in the relegation playoff. The Swabians were to return to the second division once more after a season which started with great hopes ended in abject failure. A mere 28 points were earned from 34 matches. In contrast, Stuttgart’s remarkable Rückrunde in the previous season brought 34 points from 17 games.

In truth, Stuttgart’s stellar second half performance in 2017/18 only served to paper over the cracks. Tayfun Korkut replaced Hannes Wölf as coach in January and installed a back-to-basics approach which paid dividends over this period. He stuck mainly to a 4-4-2 formation which played to the strengths of January signing Mario Gomez, who returned to the club after nine years away. Gomez was employed as a target man and contributed an impressive 8 goals in 16 matches. However, the success of these tactics could not be sustained. By the following season, other Bundesliga sides had become wise to the approach utilised by Korkut, as an over-reliance on Gomez for goals became apparent. The Turkish coach was dismissed after 7 league matches in which only 5 points were amassed.

Markus Weinzierl was appointed as a replacement, yet poor performances continued. While the Stuttgart squad initially benefitted from the consistency and simplicity of Korkut’s tactics, Weinzierl seemed indecisive in his approach. He changed formation with regularity, which only brought confusion to players and failed to rectify early season issues. Throughout the course of the campaign, Stuttgart’s defence remained leaky and their attack toothless. 70 goals were conceded and a paltry 32 scored. World Cup winner Pavard failed to reproduce his international form alongside much poorer club teammates in defence. Mario Gomez was top scorer, yet even he failed to reproduce his prior form and only managed 7 goals, often resembling a passenger in the side when lacking quality service. Anastosios Donis provided a pacey alternative in attack, but he seemed mistrusted as a consistent starter. By the time of Nico Willig’s arrival as interim coach, many of these problems were irreversible as Stuttgart seemed destined for the relegation playoff.

Tactical explanations only go so far in the diagnosis of Stuttgart’s problems. A sizeable portion of blame must lie at former Sporting Director Michael Reschke’s door for his recruitment of players in the last two seasons. Much was expected of Reschke when he was appointed in the summer of 2017 after previous roles with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern München, and there was an immediate shift in transfer policy. The club had invested mainly in younger foreign talent during their prior promotion season, notably Benjamin Pavard. Whilst Reschke continued this trend, he also sought to add experience to the squad. Two of his first signings were Dennis Aogo and Andreas Beck, both full backs who would add a wealth of Bundesliga experience to the squad. These early purchases would come to define Reschke’s transfer policy throughout his tenure. Aogo and Beck would add substantial pedigree to the side, but at 30-years-old were perhaps not the players to sign for building a strong Bundesliga side in the long term.

Reschke must be given some credit for the 7thplace finish in 2017/18, it must be conceded. Much of the success could be attributed to the January signing of Gomez, but the striker fit a similar profile to the likes of Aogo and Beck. Being in his 30s, Gomez was unlikely to be able to sustain his form, and during the 2018/19 relegation season his lack of mobility was certainly evident. The top-half finish seemed to validate Reschke’s signing policy, and he continued in a similar stead. Ready-made Bundesliga talents such as Gonzalo Castro and Daniel Didavi were purchased and expected to help take Stuttgart to the next step. Yet neither they nor the older players retained from the previous season were able to make the desired impact during 2018/19. In hindsight, it seems that Reschke opted for these names on reputation rather than any long-term plan for success.

The transfer policy brought attention from media circles, and former German international Lothar Matthäus in particular was a strong critic. On these experienced names, he told Sky: “These are all players who might have had their career peak three or four years ago.” In his opinion, the hefty wages earned by the likes of Holger Badstuber would have been better spent on hungry, ambitious young talent.

This is not to say that Reschke solely focused on acquiring experience, as there was an attempt to continue the previous policy of importing young prospects from abroad. This also seemed to backfire, with a mishmash of Bundesliga veterans along with untried and untested foreigners creating an unhealthy balance in the squad. All in all, Stuttgart spent €47 million on transfer fees over the course of the season, largely on younger talents whom flattered to deceive. For instance, €9 million was spent on Spanish full back Pablo Maffeo from Manchester City, but only 8 league appearances represented terrible value for money. Markus Weinzierl was to question the 21-year-old’s work ethic, so much so that he informed SWR Sport of his decision to exclude Maffeo from first team training. Nicolas Gonzalez was similarly expensive at €8.5 million, and could be deemed a failure all the same as the striker only found the net twice. The Argentine at least featured heavily with 30 league appearances, but his season may be best remembered for the ill-discipline which led to his red card away at Fortuna Düsseldorf. Perhaps more extensive research into the characters of players such as Maffeo and Gonzalez could have determined a poor fit with the club ethos.

January represented an opportunity for Reschke to rectify the mistakes of the summer window. Alexander Esswein was loaned from Hertha BSC, where he had become an outcast and had only made sporadic appearances for the second team during the Hinrunde. Esswein predictably made minimal impact at Stuttgart, failing to register a goal or assist during his loan spell. In fairness, record signing Ozan Kabak and loanee Steven Zuber impressed upon their signing in January, but it was not to be enough for Michael Reschke. The 61-year old was dismissed in February, with the aforementioned Hitzlsperger his replacement. “Due to the negative sporting development in recent months, I understand the decision of the supervisory board, even if I would have liked to continue working for VfB Stuttgart. I still believe in the potential of the team. But the fact is that the sum of my decisions has not let to the desired and expected result,” stated Reschke in his leaving statement.

After relegation, Stuttgart must live with the financial consequences of Reschke’s decisions. Der Spiegel report that the club spent around €60 million on wages last season, with the expectation that this gamble would lead to a European challenge. The subsequent relegation would shrink Stuttgart’s salary budget to around €40 million, with revenue streams greatly reduced in the 2. Bundesliga. For instance, in the top flight VfB earned around €48 million from television and international marketing. Der Spiegel estimate that this figure would be almost halved in the second division.

As a result, it seems crucial that VfB Stuttgart make an immediate return to the Bundesliga, not only for financial reasons but also to meet the expectations of their still loyal fanbase. Support in the second tier should remain strong as it did during the 2016/17 season, however patience will run thin should Stuttgart not repeat this promotion success. The Swabian club should look no further than the example of Hamburger SV to remind themselves that an immediate top flight return will not occur by default.

There is cause for quiet optimism, however. In spite of the financial implications of their relegation, VfB Stuttgart will still enjoy the largest budget in the 2. Bundesliga. Sven Mislintat- who earned recognition for his time as scout at Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal- has taken on the role of Sporting Director, and should provide much-needed nous in the transfer market. Additionally, in Tim Walter, they now have a coach with a coherent strategy, as he earned plaudits for the expansive football played during his reign at Holstein Kiel. According to Head of Sport Thomas Hitzlsperger: “It became pretty apparent in our talks that Tim Walter’s approach and idea of attacking football fit really well with VfB.” Stuttgart should benefit from an all-encompassing philosophy, and in turn be able to pinpoint transfer targets that fit this attacking principle.

The shakeup among club management, along with measures such as the release of club captain and legend Christian Gentner, represent a clear attempt from VfB Stuttgart to break from the past and establish a new beginning after relegation. The club face a tough second tier next season, with fellow relegated sides Hannover 96 and FC Nürnberg along with Hamburg expected to challenge VfB for promotion. If tactics and signings remain consistent with the new attacking ethos at Stuttgart, there is hope that the side can return to the Bundesliga and re-establish themselves as European challengers. However, if overspending and on-pitch failure are to continue, there could be disastrous consequences for this proud club.

By Colin Moore.

 

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