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FEATURE | The resurgence of VfB Stuttgart

In a Bundesliga season where heavyweights Schalke are hopelessly destined for relegation and fellow big names Werder Bremen and FC Köln stutter along unimpressively, it is genuinely refreshing to see a Traditionsverein such as VfB Stuttgart make waves on the pitch. Granted, for a club that enjoyed title success as recently as 2007, the current ninth position may not seem like much to celebrate.

The free-flowing, attacking manner of Stuttgart’s performances has caught the eye under Pellegrino Matarazzo. They are, after all, a newly-promoted side having finished runners-up to Arminia Bielefeld in 2. Bundesliga last season.

Coming into 2020-21, expectations were modest. Stuttgart were returning to the top-flight after an unconvincing spell in the second tier during which they lost 10 matches. The squad was also inexperienced in the top-flight, thought to be to the side’s detriment. The team is in fact the youngest in the Bundesliga, with an average age of 23.9 for the players used so far.

However, it has been the bright young talents in Stuttgart’s side that have been most impressive so far this season. 21-year-old Silas Wamangituka and 23-year-old Sasa Kalajdzic, for example, have netted 11 and 12 league goals respectively.

Compare this to the side that were relegated in 2019. By contrast, it was the fifth-oldest squad of that Bundesliga season; full of established players that ultimately failed to deliver under the previous stewardship of sporting director Michael Reschke.

Mislintat’s squad overhaul

Looking back, the process of refreshing the VfB squad was actually kick-started during that season. Sven Mislintat was installed as sporting director in April 2019, well-known for his time as scout for Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal. It was at BVB that Mislintat garnered a reputation for seeking out young talents, and the plan was for him to do similar in Baden-Württemberg.

In the following two years, out have gone the likes of Christian Gentner, Mario Gomez and Holger Badstuber to be replaced by the more youthful Wamangituka, Kalajdzic and Tanguy Coulibaly among others. Stuttgart did retain some necessary experience, and Gonzalo Castro and Daniel Didavi have been re-energised as part of this squad.

Faith was kept with younger underachievers from the relegation campaign as well. Now in their third season and well-adapted to German football, Nicolas Gonzalez and Borna Sosa are key components of the Stuttgart weaponry. Even the much-heralded Wamangituka was inconsistent in his initial 2. Bundesliga displays, but again patience was afforded.

Mislintat’s plan has come together just at the right time this season. The youngest members of the squad have now fully settled, and they have kept just enough experience to create the perfect blend.

Ivy League graduate turned Bundesliga coach

For all Mislintat’s triumphs in the transfer market though, the role of Pellegrino Matarazzo in the Swabian side’s success should not be neglected.

Former Holstein Kiel boss Tim Walter had been installed prior to last season. However, he was sacked in December 2019 due to unsatisfactory results. When Matarazzo was instated, things did not dramatically improve.

For a man with such an unorthodox path into coaching, it was natural that the New Jersey-born Matarazzo was met with a hint of scepticism. A Columbia University graduate in applied mathematics, the American decided to abandon that field to follow his footballing dreams and up sticks to Europe. Matarazzo found himself playing in Germany’s regional leagues, and took his first steps into coaching as assistant of FC Nürnberg II.

Notably, whilst in the process of obtaining coaching badges, Matarazzo roomed with and befriended Julian Nagelsmann. This was to become a pivotal step on his path to the Bundesliga. Shortly after Nagelsmann’s appointment as Hoffenheim head coach, Matarazzo became Hoffenheim’s U-17 manager and then assistant to Nagelsmann only months later.

Working under the stewardship of a young Julian Nagelsmann did Matarazzo’s CV no harm, and was a big factor in his Stuttgart appointment.

Credit must go to Sven Mislintat and CEO Thomas Hitzlsperger for firstly hiring Matarazzo, and then sticking by him when promotion to the Bundesliga was by no means a certainty. In fact, the Stuttgart hierarchy were so impressed with the American that they decided to extend his contract during a rocky spell last season.

This decision has been more than vindicated, as Pellegrino Matarazzo has been one of the top-performing coaches this season. Implementing an attractive, fast-paced counter-attacking style has maximised the utility of Stuttgart’s youngsters.

“It’s an example of a promoted team that is thoroughly watchable,” noted ESPN broadcaster Derek Rae. “Most neutral fans would look at Stuttgart as a team that they would enjoy watching. And a lot of that is down to Pellegrino Matarazzo.”

What next?

Matarazzo’s exploits will surely be attracting the attention of other clubs. There comes perhaps a concern. If Stuttgart continue to impress then it is inevitable that Matarazzo will be linked with jobs higher up the table, if not elsewhere in Europe.

It is just as well that the club recently managed to tie him down to another contract extension, this time until 2024. This at least gives the club some security that they can continue to plan for a future with the American.

VfB’s young starlets as well will no doubt be attracting interest. If Stuttgart manage to retain the core of this squad, then they will only improve and push towards European qualification which for a club of this size should be the aim.

However, this will be difficult. Stars like Nicolas Gonzalez and Silas Wamangituka could well move on soon should they continue performing at their current level. Whatever happens, the club will trust Sven Mislintat’s eye in the transfer market to replace these players should that be necessary.

With Mislintat’s nous, Matarazzo’s tactical expertise and a squad of exciting young talent taking the Bundesliga by storm, the future looks bright at least for now in Bad Cannstatt.

By Colin Moore

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