Only seven clubs have won more domestic trophies in Germany than VfB Stuttgart’s nine.
In fact since the Bundesliga’s formation in 1963, Die Roten have spent only three seasons outside the top flight. These honours paint the picture of a pillar of German football. There or thereabouts, ever presents in Bundesliga proceedings.
That two of those three campaigns in the second tier have come since 2016/17 show a club that has lacked the recent pedigree to sustain that heritage.
Having been promoted back to the top table for the 2020/21 season however, the club are in search of new chapters. They have lit up the league in a way few envisaged, and are among Europe’s fastest and most exciting watches. First Time Finish spoke to German football writer Constantin Eckner to dig deeper into their rejuvenation.
VfB had won the Bundesliga as recently as 2006/07. That team featured iconic club names such as Thomas Hitzlsperger, Sami Khedira, Cacau and Mario Gomez. Yet following that spectacular high (also finishing second in the DFB Pokal), VfB would finish no higher than sixth across the next decade(07/08, 09/10 and 11/12).
The sixth placed finish in 2011/12 would begin an interminable slide, that would see them relegated four years later. Die Roten were swiftly promoted the following season, and in April 2017 received major investment from car manufacturers Daimler.
Yet still, structure was severely lacking. Jürgen Kramny, coach at the time of that first relegation, would be the first of ten managers between 2015 and 2019. Two seasons later, and they had been relegated again.
The desperation of relegation in 2018/19 was palpable. The relegation play-off determines whether the Bundesliga 2 third place is promoted, or the sixteenth placed Bundesliga side are relegated. Only six second tier sides had managed to win promotion in the competition’s history via these means.
VfB became the seventh Bundesliga side to lose this fixture. Five further coaches had gone since Kramny, and the club were having to rebound again.
Yet beyond changes on the touchline, changes were afoot in the boardroom. With VfB staring down the barrel at relegation in early 2019, they sacked sporting CEO Michael Reschke. His replacement was former player Thomas Hitzlsperger, member of that Bundesliga winning team of 2007.
Two months later, Sven Mislintat was hired as sporting director. Mislintat has a record of shrewd recruitment, in youthful and experienced markets. His previous jobs at Dortmund and Arsenal show the acclaim he is held in within the game.
If VfB were to come back, they were to do it properly and sustainably.
2019/20: Promotion, but more
Whilst sinking back into the second tier was a blow to VfB’s status, the hiring of Hitzlsperger and Mislintat showed newfound long sightedness from the club’s board.
Tim Walter had been appointed as coach ahead of the season, establishing a possession based system. The division contained unprecedented quality, with VfB, Hannover 96 and Hamburg SV all competing for promotion.
With Die Roten sitting third at Christmas, the club relieved Walter. The stakes were too high for a second consecutive year out of the top tier. Thirty one points from eighteen games simply did not reflect the dominance expected.
Once again it seemed that the club’s aspirations were beholden to inconsistencies in personnel.
‘Stuttgart have suffered from the effects of frequent personnel changes, be it in the board room, at the management level or in the locker room.’ says Constantin Eckner, writer for The Times, BBC and ESPN amongst many.
Pellegrino Matarzzo was the incumbent coach. The American had served as assistant to Julien Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim, and similarly looked to deploy a high pressing vertical system. VfB would secure promotion, albeit with just fifty eight points. The vision was far further than just that season however.
‘What we have seen in the past few years is a club that had to accept the fact that they didn’t have huge resources and thus had to come up with a smart transfer strategy.’
Moving forward under Mislintat
‘Sven Mislintat was the right man to find affordable talents and also some underappreciated players within the Bundesliga and Bundesliga II.’
The German sporting director had left Arsenal in 2019. After a promising start to life in North London, disagreements within the club forced his exit. He had used his German connections to recruit Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bernd Leno and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. He had also sat on the panel that hired Unai Emery as manager.
VfB Stuttgart marked an altogether different challenge. Sliding towards impending relegation, his importance would be prescient to not only taking them back up, but keeping them there.
His arrival has seen an overhaul of the team’s transfer policy. Young and promising talents from within the German system, as well as the French lower divisions would be the new criteria.
Silas Wamangituka arrived from Paris FC. Tanguy Coulibaly was signed from the PSG academy that same year. Konstantinos Mavropanos, signed by Mislintat whilst at Arsenal, joined on loan. Wataru Endo, loaned initially for 2019/20, joined permanently the next year. Saša Kalajdžić, promising 6’6 Austrian striker, another 2019 recruit.
Shrewd acquisitions mixing raw talent and experience, signed at a point that many of Europe’s giants might not have taken notice. Like the club themselves, these recruits are desperate to make a mark. The project of reinstating VfB Stuttgart to the top flight’s higher reaches represented the ideal opportunity.
VfB: Back in the Bundesliga
Smart recruitment, at least on paper, held the team in good stead ahead of their season back in the Bundesliga.
Despite an opening defeat to Freiburg, VfB have lost only two further league fixtures to date. They sit impressively in seventh, and casting an eye over their results summarises their philosophy and intent.
A 2-3 defeat to Freiburg. 1-4 win at Mainz. 2-2 draw against Eintracht Frankfurt. 3-3 draw against Hoffenheim. 1-5 win away at Borussia Dortmund. 2-2 draw against Union Berlin.
Only Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Union Berlin have scored more this season. This is not a side scrapping and hustling to survival. Die Roten are bullying themselves to the top table.
‘It certainly helps that Pellegrino Matarazzo doesn’t put chains on his team. He is different than many other coaches at that level in German football.’
‘We have seen quite a number of coaches with much more conservative approaches trying to prevent relegation from the Bundesliga.’ says Eckner.
The Dortmund result was seismic. A dysfunctional and naïve Dortmund that sacked their manager hours after, yes. However to travel to the Signal Iduna Park and humiliate a club of their size was shocking.
Even in their defeat to Bayern weeks before, VfB arguably deserved more. Time and time again, their wide, direct wing-backs bulldozed through the champions. With more clinical finishing, they could have been two or three nil ahead at half-time.
VfB’s difference makers
‘What helps Matarazzo is that he has players who accept the roles he puts them in. Gonzalo Castro, Silas Wamangituka or Nicolás González don’t complain when they have to adapt to a slightly different role than they are used to. Tactical versatility has been a key to Stuttgart’s recent success.’
Of all the success stories in the side, Silas Wamangituka is the headline grabber. Ten goal involvements is a fantastic return, let alone that he is starting from a right wing back position. That after nine games he was also completing nearly four defensive actions per game, putting him amongst the league’s most dynamic players.
Coulibaly is a lethal mercurial. Electric and unpredictable on the ball, he is beginning to add composed finishing to his game. Then there is Nicolás González. The Argentinian has four goals and one assist, despite starting just four games in the league.
In the side’s 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 he can play as either the left or right winger, receiving deeper from the striker and lashing shots at goal. Like may in this side, he possesses instinctive brilliance, catered to by the manager’s loose attacking philosophy.
‘Nicolás González will probably be the player that will be sold for the most money. He is a difference-maker.’
Only four teams have taken more than VfB’s 186 shots this season. Yet away from the attacking headlines are three central midfielders, integral to the functioning of the team.
‘If Wataru Endo was a few years younger, than I would say he would be the player with the highest potential. But at 27, we might currently see him in his prime.’
‘Orel Mangala has certainly the physical attributes to become a household name in the Bundesliga. Dortmund didn’t keep him a few years ago because he didn’t necessarily show the kind of poise they expected. As he matures he becomes more versatile in his style.’
Endo leads the league for tackles, successful pressures, and progressive passes. Mangala, released by Dortmund as a youth player, is yet another cab of the Belgian talent ranks. With Endo harrying and challenging opposition attackers, Mangala is the more progressive of the pair. His thirty three dribbles are a squad high, showing a press resistance similar to that of Renato Sanches and even fellow countryman Mousa Dembélé.
The VfB Stuttgart way
As well as their huge shot volume, their tally of 26 goals has yielded an xG of 23.9. These goals and shots are well constructed, high quality attempts, and are therefore likely to be reproducible across the season.
The wingers and full backs drive forward on the break, squaring for a central runner. What is evident each time is the composure of the pass, targeted to split the retreating centre backs ahead of the forwards.
In the defensive and midfield thirds, VfB are among the league’s lowest pressers. Yet the attacking third sees only two sides press more. This trident, with wing backs over and underlapping, always leaves central players within the width of the box. This results in high quality goal scoring chances.
‘They particularly explore the half-spaces very well. Matarazzo has managed to make the build-up pretty fluid and take risks where needed.’
‘The defenders drift wide a lot and thus open up space in front of them. They are able to bypass high presses quite easily.’
Engaging in this high-octane game plan, where the wide players and forwards are chasing every pass, is one that can expose the split centre backs.
The second Union Berlin goal in their last away fixture saw this scenario unfold. A wide cross found a central striker to head home, isolated with the central centre back. Wamangituka was out of position, allowing the cross to be played, and the centre backs were split, allowing the forward to find space.
Two league defeats show that teams are yet to truly expose this. It reflects the attacking risk and reward dynamic deployed by Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta. The side’s possession based shape orients their whole attack, yet relies on individual brilliance (such as that of Endo) to protect against conceding. It makes for high value entertainment football.
More than just here to stay
Promotion allows many clubs to adjust their outlook on their own status. The likes of Union Berlin and Arminia Bielefeld can now look to ensure their near future thanks to TV revenue money obtained from Bundesliga status.
VfB Stuttgart operate in a different way. This is the opportunity for them to regain their country’s respect. Yet for a club of their size, to merely survive is inadequate. To thrive is the goal, and Pellegrino Materazzo and Sven Mislintat have captured that need perfectly.
The key to this was harnessing the energy of young recruits, and flexing their regional muscles.
‘Stuttgart have a distinctively good youth academy, being the biggest club in the region and attracting many talents, but they didn’t have a long-term vision at that point.’
‘It is not that surprising that Stuttgart looks across the border [to France] as the city and region have been quite Francophile. When you look at clubs from Baden-Wuerttemberg, you would also find a lot of Swiss players that have come and went over the years.’
This team, and philosophy, is about more than just the current crop of VfB Stuttgart personnel. It is about instating a vision for what the club wants to be. Clever recruiters of young players and managers, to develop said players and managers, and play attractive high energy football.
These are the philosophies any fan would dream of supporting. From the desperation of the last five years, VfB Stuttgart are now on a new path. It is one of sustainable growth, and one that is a joy to behold.